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Intrepid rafters challenge the Box at Sunset Rapid.

Intrepid rafters challenge the Box at Sunset Rapid.

A Box full of fun

Ty Belknap

Media coverage this year of river rafting in the Taos Box, a section of the Rio Grande Gorge, has been dominated by the deaths of a couple of unfortunate rafters. I’m going to try and fill in the part about how much fun is being had by the vast majority of river runners who survive.

My river friends waited until May 14 for the deep mountain snow to melt so the Rio Grande would be navigable through the Box. It’s not difficult to negotiate the first three hours of the trip, even though there are several spectacular drops, but at low water levels, the last hour of the trip is full of boulders and hydraulic features that require a lot of maneuvering. The water is cold.

Jim, our lead rafter, has run the Box many times and knew the best route for the other four rafts. Also in our party was a guy who, for an extra challenge, had discarded his rowing frame for the day and filled his raft with novice paddlers, just like the commercial boats (four or five paddlers on each side of the raft with a guide in the back to shout orders and rudder with his paddle). I thought for sure he’d flip, and figured we'd be busy in the sweep-boat position (usually reserved for the slowest or least popular oarsman, who doesn’t know the way but has less likelihood of flipping and a passenger with some experience at pulling people out of the water).

Since I was in the back, I missed the lead, found myself banging right down the middle of the famous boulder field, and nearly flipped in a hole, at which point the tractor seat broke off my rowing frame, landing me on my ass in the back of the raft just above a nasty sleeper rock known as Boat Reamer.

My party was stopped in an eddy just below, slinging the arm of a kayaker who had dislocated his shoulder. After I strapped the spare life jacket on my frame for a makeshift seat, they eased the kayaker into my raft because there was a relatively secure place where he could hold on with his good arm. Bouncing through the last half mile, our conversation consisted entirely of his painful shrieks and my apologies. He was shivering and looked pretty shocky when we reached the takeout. Most of our paddle rafters were ejected in the final rapid, but all came up smiling because they had so much fun.

After the two-hour vehicle shuttle, some of us cooked dinner under a tarp in a driving rain. The next morning, the sun was shining on our beautiful camp near a mountain stream. The sagebrush was wet and fragrant as we stacked three inflated rafts onto Jim’s trailer and prepared to run the Box again. My wife, Barb, arrived at eight a.m. with my other new passenger, along with the Coady-Ramsay family and their brand-new raft.

The river level had risen over night, so it was easier to row. We managed to follow the leader this time, and the Rock Garden was like a walk in the park. When everything goes right, there’s not much to talk about.

Did I mention that it was a lot of fun? So much fun that I was prepared to call it a successful season on the Rio Grande, but then Davito called on Memorial Day weekend. The runoff had peaked several days before, and the river was still flowing at over five thousand cubic feet per second—three times what it was two weeks earlier. There was more than enough water for Davito to bring his precious eleven-foot dory, which handles well in most conditions, but breaks when it hits the rocks, which were now covered by the deluge. He was like a big hit at the put-in, where the crowd flocked to pay homage to his classic boat.

Somehow I ended up with Eric as a passenger/guide in my raft. Even though we’ve been on a number of river trips together, we’re as much antagonists as friends. Even so, and even after his insistence on rigging a flip line (a rope used to pull yourself onto a capsized raft), I was glad to have him along since he knows the Box as well as anybody. “There are two kinds of rafters,” he warned, “Those who have flipped and those who are going to flip.”

At higher levels, some of the rapids are washed out, so it’s technically easier to row. The consequences of making a mistake, however, are greater because its harder to get out of water that is flowing like a runaway train. Our group was well protected by helmets, dry suits, and experience, but bad things happen. It’s part of the thrill, for some.

The big drops in the first part of the trip were colossal. The rocks in the Rock Garden were covered with a mind-boggling sea of waves and dangerous hydraulics. Eric guided me through with a constant harangue of “Go right, go left, straighten out, spin!” We were lucky to find an eddy stop to replace one of my oars when its blade was knocked sideways. The last rapid was punctuated by a huge rooster tail of a wave. What a ride!

For a hundred dollars or so, almost anybody can share a similarly unforgettable experience with an almost always competent commercial river guide. It’s a lot cheaper than Disneyland (people die on those rides, too). The raft companies say they plan to continue running the Box throughout July while the air and water get warmer every day. Several reputable companies can be found in the Yellow Pages or by Googling on the Internet.

 

 

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