I was not a good example of grace under pressure. –
With six people in my waterlogged raft, which was pinned against a giant rock, it was more like driving a tank without steering. The roar of water was real. It was not a bad dream, where later you realize: It was not real and it was not my fault. No wonder I want to lounge in my hot tub and read Paul Bauer’s lively The Rio Grande: A River Guide to the Geology and Landscapes of Northern New Mexico.
It’s no wonder, either, that I flunked guide school a couple years back and am now wallowing in worthlessness. The real wonder is that I’m doing it again—Raft Guide School, that is. This particular morning, though, the water at the Junction Bridge gaging station registers about 260 cfs (cubic feet per second). This means my hot tub is deeper than much of the river. But the Rio Grande is colder and faster and full of obstacles. Maybe if I tossed in some big ugly rocks, a tray of ice cubes, turned on the whirlpool (just like rapids!) and stuck my head under, it could simulate that stressful experience. Because, really, who wants to be responsible for their own life—not to mention anyone else’s. But nature offers deeper truths, so I throw my gear in the truck and head for the river.
Actually, I long for my own personal Rio. Never mind that they’ve officially made it everyone’s–the Rio Grande National Monument. After all, you can’t really know who you are if you don’t know where you are. You must learn two elemental things: the lay of the land and the flow of the water. I’m more of a “when in doubt, go higher” girl, just a ski instructor, while many of other highly-paid recreational professionals migrate seasonally to lower elevations. I wish I were like that tough chick who rowed us down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, navigating Class V Lava Falls wearing a perfectly pressed white shirt. Now that’s grace under pressure.
Everyone, hard-core or not, has a personal relationship with the river. The river is a stern and beloved teacher whose main cliché is “Go with the Flow.” But just because I can define fluviomorphology doesn’t mean I can get you where you want to go. Truthfully, I’ve given more than lip service to the idea that water—rivers—are the lifeblood of our land, our lives. Everything shows up in water, from our deepest cultural beliefs to used Kleenex to parts per million of toxins in the same way a blood test ultimately reflects our physical and ultimately even our mental health. I know this from books and from life and from organizations like Amigos Bravos, which inspired me to write a doctoral dissertation on the Red River watershed, a tributary of the Rio Grande. Still, you might not want to be in my boat.
Amigos Bravos, now celebrating its 25th year, is a river protection group headed by executive director Brian Shields. He first spent l5 years as a raft guide. The new designation, The Rio Grande National Monument Area, is a fresh cognitive layer on the same old river. El Rio Grande has all-too-often made the list of the U. S. most endangered rivers, sometimes running out of water on its 2000-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. Its enormous, crazy, and exceedingly beautiful rift defines it—the bones of the land. It’s nobody’s fault—the land just split apart. The more we learn (and the more fun we have), the more we protect the places we love, and inspire others to do likewise.
Getting The Rio Grande del Norte Monument signed was akin to getting everyone paddling together and not getting hung up on obstacles. Success took organization, strategy, cooperation—and gumption. The story is a bit more complex than having beers at five and talking up the coolness factor on “Surf or Die” boulder. Don’t get me wrong, serious fun is seriously good. And when they say “This Bud’s for you” I hope they mean me. But still, I’ll take the deeper story.
By 10 am I am standing on Highway 68 with five young wannabe guides over-looking the river. We are drawing maps of the boulders in the Racecourse section below, including “Baby Huey,” a 360-ton boulder which crashed its way across the highway and into the river in 1991. Everyone laments the lack of water.
Ben, already a guide, is nuts about the river. He even took us stand up paddle boarding on his day off. That’s my latest perspective on the river—from an altitude of 5’8’’ above river level. In an old T-shirt and serious looking glasses, Ben is focused instead on scraping the side of a giant boulder. He returns with a handful of tiny, deep red garnets. Ben says earnestly like the overgrown kid he is, “It’s such an exciting river! I really like the low water! I like the rocks! I think they’re beautiful! I like how it changes! It wouldn’t be fun otherwise!” (He really talks like this!)
He means it wouldn’t be a river?
Yes, and its changeability is only part of its multifaceted and completely diverse charm. The Racecourse includes four and a half miles of mixed public and private land (shhhhh, quiet zones!). Young, millions of year-old rock butts heads with almost two billion year old ones—see that gorgeous wall of pink quartzite? The baker’s dozen of rapids range from A-S—Albert’s, named after Einstein, to Souse Hole, named after people who get soused, especially at high water, when boats routinely flip. The swim I took there last time was not my fault.
This is where raft guides earn their bread and butter (plus tips). It may be the fun zone, but it’s nature too, and guides interpret the geology, biology, and other ologies, often filling in the blanks with pure lies. Who really burned down the hippie bridge? Did the nearby railbed go clear to Colorado? Is there gold in them hills? The Racecourse is a hugely popular rafting zone, where visitors often get their first exposure to river life—like the gaggle of middle schoolers at Quartzite today. While their guide reads safety instructions as if they were last rites the kids giggle and plan a splash attack. They can’t believe their good fortune—out of school and on the river?
The really Big Adrenaline is upstream on The Taos Box—when there’s water. It has suckered many of us (me included) to actually move here. Adrenaline junkies of all stripes make for good stories: one friend famously flew his plane under the Gorge Bridge. Another, Brian Shields, had a guide contract to remove, bit by bit, a different crashed plane from there, which took awhile in his leaky 10’ raft.
My friend Peggy, part of the “Taos Ski Valley-raft guide vortex” guided The Taos Box in big water in 2005. “I was so scared I couldn’t speak,” she says. “The beaches were all washed out so we couldn’t stop. One client complained because it was over at least two hours early. I thought, ‘Buddy, you just don’t know what we just did.’” Now she is finishing a degree in environmental science. “There are other aspects to the river besides tall tales and wild adventures,” Peggy says.
Today, however, we float the more peaceful six-mile section called Orilla Verde. We put in at the Taos Junction Bridge, where I feel at home. Nearby is the confluence of the Rio Pueblo, a major tributary, which starts high above Taos Pueblo in sacred Blue Lake. My University of New Mexico students are like the middle schoolers, happy when I take them hiking down the old landslide county road along Rio Pueblo Canyon to this bridge. It has a lively past. It was a major intersection long before the Rio Grande Bridge opened in 1965.
The six-mile section is usually tranquil, though I once paddled a two-person canoe there, into huge headwinds. The river offered me some clarity about that relationship. Not a bad way to test the waters.
My students love the nearby petroglyphs. And I’ve spotted otters! After a sixty-year absence, they were reintroduced here because this section is “unimpaired” (Clean Water Act language—it is also designated “Wild and Scenic.”) The river is calming, like a mother soothing her baby’s brow. I listen for the chirr of red winged blackbirds, or frogs, or a trout jumping. Artists love this place. I have a painting of this riverscape. I stare at it when life gets me down.
Today, at the absurdly idyllic village of Pilar, the scent of apple blossoms hangs in the air, and baby ducks follow mama. There are layers of history, not all of them idyllic. In 1854 the Jicarilla Apaches beat the U.S. Army, with great bloodshed. Almost a century and a half later, “Uncle Steve,” Far Flung Raft Company owner and C.E.O, moved his corporate headquarters along the river because he liked the neighborhood and the neighbors—badgers, mountain lions, cougars, porcupines, etc. Nowadays, he’s busy “figuring out where they keep the water.” He decided that fighting over water was non-productive (despite the old adage that drinking’s for whiskey and water’s for fighting). He now says, “What we need is more creative ways of navigating these arcane water rights systems for the benefit of the river.”
The Racecourse is downstream from Pilar; after that, it’s the Bosque. The river flattens, and we float until “Miller Beach”—the New Wave company compound at Embudo. Beat but cheerful, we drag the gear up to the barn-turned-boathouse. The place resembles M*A*S*H* headquarters, with several old school buses and guide campers strewn about, also chickens and Kathy Miller’s fledgling orchard. When she first met her husband Steve, he took her kayaking. She jokes that he created a monster. For 28 years, they dropped off raft clients and headed back home to Albuquerque. She felt “heartbroken…. My quest was to see if I could end up at the river.” The easygoing Kathy was amazed at her “own will and stubbornness.” So was Steve. But she got her way, and now he happily fishes each day after five. Kathy says: “The thing I couldn’t get enough of was the sight of water dancing, sparkling in front of me.”
The river is seductive, like a homing instinct for many of us. Whether anyone gets me as their guide begins not to matter. It’s the shining surface of green water, the gorgeous sculpted boulders, the way the river bends the willow, the scent of river water. I too am learning to read the water, but I will never navigate it perfectly. Maybe I don’t have to. The river offers perspective and teaches, in high water and in low, to accept nature’s lessons with a greater grace. We can all learn to do this. Even me.
Michele Potter holds a PhD in American Studies. She teaches classes in Environment and Culture at UNM/Taos.
This article appeared in HighCountry 2011.