Whitewater Thrills on New Mexico's Rio Grande
by Ellen Clark
It was June and Santa Fe, New Mexico, was having a heatwave. Even the locals were talking about the 100 degree plus temperatures. I was heading to the ideal place to escape the sizzling weather: the Rio Grande River, for an overnight rafting trip.
The trip was part of a week-long course in adventure travel photography offered by Santa Fe Workshops and led by Nevada Wier, a travel photographer with several books to her credit. In her work, she has taken pictures from swamped sea kayaks, perilous mountain faces, swaying camels and moving dog sleds, as well as bucking river rafts. We were also joined by Marc Romanelli, a top photographer specializing in outdoor sports. The trip was open to people with all levels of photography experience.
Since we were aiming for firsthand experience in adventure travel photography, we were planning to shoot some film as well as shoot the rapids.
We'd be rafting an area of the Rio Grande near Santa Fe known as Whiterock Canyon, with plenty of opportunities for hiking, swimming, and viewing Native American ruins. Although this region is lovely, it is not heavily touristed: access beaches for launching rafts lie on land belonging to the Santa Clara Pueblo Indians, and only a few outfitters have permission for access.
After a bouncy drive down a graded road on tribal land, we arrived at our put-in beach. There, guides distributed waterproof bags to protect clothes and personal items, and watertight army-surplus ammunition boxes to stow camera equipment. For safety and easy access, the boxes were strapped to the rafts during the ride.
Before launching our brightly-colored inflatable rafts, we were briefed on river safety and outfitted with Personal Flotation Devices--a fancy name for lifejackets. These are a must on rafting trips, regardless of difficulty. Since it was so hot, we had no need for splash jackets, rainsuits or wetsuits. The intense heat and strong rays also required precautions against dehydration and heat stroke, so our guides advised us to slather on sunscreen, don hats, and fill up water bottles.
Weir also gave us some tips for photographing while bucking through white water. "Go for it--but keep your camera dry," she advised. For really dramatic shots, she suggested that people with waterproof cameras or housings lie on the bottom of the raft and shoot up at the guides as they maneuvered through the rapids.
We were off, the experienced guides steering the oar-paddled rafts down the swift river as we captured the surroundings. Oar-powered rafts are just one of many styles of crafts used on the Rio Grande. Depending on water levels and the rafter's experience, people can also travel in inflatable kayaks: either one-person "packcats" or two-person "duckies."
Spectacular scenery characterized the first part of the trip. We floated through wide stretches of river and past grassy banks dotted with graceful cottonwood trees, the rocky cliffs never far away. On fun, rollercoastery Class II and III sections, white water bounced around our rafts while spraying us with foam. Some of us attempted to take pictures as we plowed through the bubbling water, holding our cameras aloft during the biggest splashes.
Even on the river, it was hot, so when we stopped at Pajarito for lunch, we were delighted to hear there was a waterfall nearby. The cascade was idyllic, spilling into a natural pool where we took turns refreshing ourselves. After lunch, we hiked up to rock formations covered with petroglyphs believed to have been created by the Anasazi Indians, who lived in this area between A.D. 1100 and 1580.
Back aboard the rafts, we prepared for the most exciting and challenging section of the trip: Class III+ rapids with exposed boulders and swirling white water, climaxing with a vertiginous drop. Some brave souls photographed the rafts as they lurched through the rapids, cameras protected by waterproof casings. Others shot photos from the shore as the rafts bounced by.
As the day progressed, I got more confident with my photography, and no longer feared that my camera would fly off into the river. In calm water, I concentrated on detail shots, portraits and scenics. But when the waves were really tossing around the raft, it was impossible to compose a picture. Instead, I just pointed my lens in the direction of the action and hoped for the best. For this type of action shooting, an auto-focus camera using a shutter speed of 1/500 or more is definitely the way to go.
Wet and exhilarated, we pulled in the rafts for the night and camped in the shadow of volcanic canyon walls. After a hearty dinner of barbecued chicken burritos, black beans, and blueberry cobbler, we burrowed into sleeping bags. Although it was warm enough to sleep under the stars, some members of our group opted for the tents.
At sunrise, we were back out with our cameras, grabbing breakfast between shots. The early morning sun cast a golden glow over the landscape, creating ideal conditions for outdoor photography.
By 9:30 we were ready to get back on the river. A short raft ride took us to the mouth of Frijoles Canyon. From here, the rafts and three of the guides continued down river with our gear. The rest of us hiked 2? miles into Bandalier National Monument, which encompasses nearly 33,000 acres of scenic wilderness.
After hiking past streams and rich vegetation into the canyon, we began to climb. The narrow, rocky trail was bordered by cliffs and long drops. Breathtaking panoramas were visible from each stony pinnacle as we gained 700 feet in two miles.
In the main part of the park, Anasazi Indian ruins include an impressive circular ruin known as Tyuonyi ("meeting place") and cave ruins hewed out of the soft tuff rock. We spent the afternoon photographing the cave dwellings, which are reached by wooden ladders. The interiors were covered in petroglyphs.
Several other sections of the Rio Grande in New Mexico are popular for rafting trips. Well-suited to families and first-time rafters, Pilar Racecourse originates near the village of Pilar, about halfway between Taos and Santa Fe. This half-day trip is offered by several outfitters, using self-bailing rafts which everyone helps to paddle through the six-mile course.
For more advanced rafters, there's Taos Box Canyon--known as a "screamer" among boaters during May and June high water. This premier Class IV whitewater run is contained within the 1,000-foot black lava walls of the Rio Grande Gorge. The trip begins innocently enough with two miles of fairly gentle, Class I runs, then escalates to the harum-scarum thrills of Class IV-IV+ white water, where gnarly sections have names like Rockgarden, Boatreamer, Screaming Left-hand Turn and Enema.
Rafting season on the Rio Grande in New Mexico generally runs from mid-April to mid-October. The most exciting whitewater conditions (big, splashy waves) occur during May and June. Later in the season the river slows down, but there are still fun chutes and drops, as well as scenic swimming opportunities.
Whether it's a gentle half-day voyage or a thrilling three-day adventure through Class IV+ rapids, rafting the Rio Grande is a unique and exciting way to enjoy one of the nation's most beautiful rivers.
Adventure travel and other photography courses are offered by Santa Fe Workshops, P.O. Box 9916, Santa Fe, NM 87504. Phone: (505) 983-1400; Fax: (505) 989-8604. ::::