Return to the river

Close calls and canyon floats on a pair of the Southwest's wild and scenic stretches

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Vail resident Jordan Kurt-Mason, in blue jacket, in front boat, guides family members and friends during a recent rafting trip down the Classs III, 14-mile Taos Box section on New Mexico's Rio Grande.

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Seth Kurt-Mason, left, and Jess McGowan peer down onto the Piedra's "Eye of the Needle" rapid two weeks ago, scouting the main rock that recently has shifted significantly downstream, making it runnable in a raft.

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Vail resident Jordan Kurt-Mason (blue jacket), guides family members during a recent rafting trip down the 14-mile section on New Mexico's Taos Box. The 650-foot steel arch Rio Grande Gorge Bridge is in the distance.

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Dave Shively, in back of raft, guides a boat with Dave Gentempo, middle, and Tobi Rohwer, in green helmet and yellow jacket, into the rock at the end of the Piedra River's First Mudslide Rapid, otherwise known as "Eye of the Needle," in spring 2004.

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Dave Shively, in back of raft, guides a boat with Dave Gentempo, middle, and Tobi Rohwer, in green helmet and yellow jacket, into the rock at the end of the Piedra River's First Mudslide Rapid, otherwise known as "Eye of the Needle," in spring 2004.

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Dave Shively, in back of raft, guides a boat with Dave Gentempo, middle, and Tobi Rohwer, in green helmet and yellow jacket, into the rock at the end of the Piedra River's First Mudslide Rapid, otherwise known as "Eye of the Needle," in spring 2004.

The age-old maxim that you cannot put your foot in the same river twice rang true this week on the Piedra River. This remote gem of a tributary comes screaming for a short runoff season out of the southern San Juan Mountains and into a tight and steep box canyon just west of Pagosa Springs. The 12-mile lower canyon stretch, which constricts into a series of Class IV and V drops, has long been a favorite of southwest Colorado paddlers. For the Durango-based outfitter I guided for more than six seasons, the Piedra was a proving ground.

The guides who wanted to move from the dregs of Durango's mellow town section and onto the bigger water upstream had to handle the Piedra first.

One rock stands in the way. The canyon section of the run ends with "Eye of the Needle," where the entirety of the Piedra crashes into a shuttle bus-sized rock. To the left lies a mangled sieve of terminal rocks and logs, and to the right is a boulder-riddled final drop that, depending on who you ask, is called either Second Mudslide, Meat Grinder, Lucifer's or even Death by Mayonnaise.

Regardless, you don't want to hit that rock. At anything above modest flows, this section is not run commercially. But on a private trip, you can't be the one the boat to say 'no.'

On my own 2004 Class V "check-out" trip, I hit the rock. Fortunately, my guide crew was quick enough to jump to the upstream side of the raft (see pictures above) and prevent the flip that has put my friends' arms in slings for the rest of the summer.

The chance for redemption and a clean line through the "Eye" presented itself with some interesting information and geologic timing - this rock at the bottom of the mudslide-created rapid had moved downstream and possibly broken in half.

So when I met up with Dave Gentempo and Jordan Kurt-Mason, two of my former rafting counterparts, for another crack at, there were no second thoughts about running the "Eye."

But with a more-than-healthy flow of 1,300 cubic feet per second Thursday, we had to get there first. We thought we could grease the non-commercial, "high-adventure" lines while outfitted with the Porsche of rafts - a super-light Wing Inflatables' 14-footer.

Maybe it was too light. An attempted squeeze through the top of First Box Falls ended with Kurt-Mason and I swimming a violent rapid, only to hop back in for a series of retentive surfs in the holes of Son of Mud. Then it was a botched line that sent us right back into the same rock in Eye of the Needle, despite the new 10 feet of leeway. Fortunately, a couple of quick jumps to the front of the boat again prevented the flip.

"Now that's boating," Gentempo said as we hit the eddy beneath the rapid, catching our breaths and reveling in our fortune of exiting the canyon unscathed.

Dave Unterreiner, running a safety cataraft of his own, had one thought after a clean run on his second trip to the Piedra: "This is the perfect run - intense drops in the box and then a mellow run-out with enough whitewater to keep you interested."

The wilderness feel sunk in on the float out through towering, ancient ponderosa pines - or, as Doug Wheat puts it in the classic guidebook "The Floater's Guide to Colorado," "you will feel a sense of solitude drifting on a clear, quiet stream through deep green forests."

I found this same solitude in a much different Southwestern locale two days prior and two hours south. I was invited on a pre-wedding, three-boat Kurt-Mason family float down the Taos Box. The Piedra's ponderosa pines were replaced with a 700-foot canyon gorge that drops from the desert plains west of Taos down the warm waters of the Rio Grande.

It took us nearly six hours to boat the 14-mile, Class III stretch from the Dunn Bridge to the Taos Junction Bridge.

Flowing through Bureau of Land Management recreation areas, this section of river was the first of eight rivers that Congress designated into the National Wild and Scenic River System in 1968.

With only six significant rapids worth mention, it was easy to be lulled into relaxation, looking up the sun-soaked walls and picking out the camouflaged families of desert bighorns scurrying among the rocks.

The rapids, which build in concentration together toward the final third of the run, catch you off guard. Their pool-drop nature removes overt consequence, but the giant volcanic rocks that litter the drops require necessary moves. Suddenly our fivesome of former raft guides found itself parked on a rock in the middle of Powerline Rapid. It didn't take long for the group to jump to the front section of the raft and lodge it free - a perfect reminder of the quick-think protocol I'd need on my return to a pair of the ever-changing and challenging resources that flow through the West for a few weeks every year.

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