“Chama Wall,” a geographical feature
on the Chama River in northern New Mexico
More tales from the Rio Chama
The BLM ranger checked our permit and required equipment:
life jackets, extra paddles, first aid kit, and toilet bucket. “Looks
like you’ve got everything,” she said.
Yeah, everything but water. She assured us that El
Vado Dam would soon release enough water to float us from the put-in
here at Cooper’s Ranch all the way through the wild and scenic
river corridor of the Rio Chama to the take-out at Big Eddy thirty
Launching onto anything requires a commitment to
whatever lies downstream, downhill, or downtown. We set out on the
sparkling shallow river dodging and bouncing off rocks and gravel
bars—a process complicated by the deep gash I had just carved
on my thumb while trying to free my new emergency knife stuck in
its “quick release” scabbard. (Try paddling with just
one thumb.) Still, I was happy for the opportunity to once again
be afloat on a favorite weekend adventure, compliments of a tunnel
carrying water to the Chama across the pass from the San Juan Mountains
It’s an adventure in jeopardy, however. The
BLM mission regarding the weekend release program, started in 1979,
is in flux. The city of Albuquerque has been drifting towards discontinuing
the program while they fill Abiqui Lake for their new drinking water
project. The Bureau of Reclamation controls the floodgates and they
have other concerns with water delivery downstream to Texas. A requirement
to maintain an arbitrary level in Elephant Butte adds to a bewildering
set of bureaucratic contingencies that dwarf my petty recreational
Local boaters and environmentalists are trying to
convince the powers that be to use the reservoirs in a way that
would imitate natural flows of a river, help repair streamside damage,
help stabilize fish and wildlife populations, and allow for recreational
Enough bitching. I’ve had more than my share
of trips down the Rio Chama over the past twenty years. Artificially
high water or low, every trip has been a lot of fun and always challenging
in an open boat, as testified to by the pieces of canoes abandoned
on the river each summer.
The first night we camped near a hot spring—three
couples in tandem canoes, no kids. The river had actually dropped
a couple of inches by the next morning, adding more obstacles and
the occasional need to get out and push. After lunch, at the formerly-dreaded
Aragon Rapid, skies began to darken and rumble. I used my prerogative
as permit holder to push past some good camps as strong headwinds
began to pelt us with rain in Dark Canyon. Nostalgia was driving
me to a camp somewhere just around a few more bends, toward a place
where a golden eagle had talked to me once and a powerful storm
had flown my inflatable kayak like a kite.
Our shivering party rounded the bend in a hailstorm
only to find my favorite camp inhabited by a large group of rafters
huddled under a tarp with Budweisers and a boom box playing Bob
Seger oldies. We barged in and left when the hail quit. Looking
for any shelter in the storm, we settled in a large camp across
from Chama Wall—a landmark rock face that signals the end
of the narrow, forested upper canyon of the wild and scenic journey.
The popular camp was the only one expressly forbidden to a small
group like ours, but luckily nobody else came along to claim it.
(I hope the ranger doesn’t read this.)
The last day of the trip offers a series of tricky
rapids as the canyon opens into the wide colorful vistas that inspired
Georgia O’Keefe. (Follow the sign at the first left past Ghost
Ranch and see for yourself.) The usually daunting rapid at Skull
Bridge offered little challenge, but the lower part of the rapid
where the river is split by a gravel island was more difficult than
usual. One canoe took on water in a rocky wave train, and then capsized
in the eddy line of the confluence below the island. A well-thrown
rescue rope saved the lucky couple from a rocky swim through the
rest of the rapid.
Just around the next bend, the same couple again flirted
with disaster at Gauging Station Rapid. The lead canoes cussed and
banged their ways through the boulder field, past the wall at the
gauging station, and pulled over to bail. Several minutes passed
before our friends in the third canoe floated into the rapid upright,
but with their boat under water. They had wrapped and released on
a boulder upstream, breaking a wooden thwart and a seat.
With just a half mile to go, Barb and I swamped at
“Bank Shot” (AKA “Screaming Left-hand Turn”)
rapid on some exposed rocks next to a cliff that usually presents
the major obstacle at higher river levels. No harm done.
So, here’s another tale of the Rio Chama. It
probably won’t be the last.
NM State Parks on track to furthering
On June 2, New Mexico State Parks announced several
upcoming trails initiatives and progress that has been made toward
achieving the goal set in 2005 to create one hundred additional
miles of trail by 2010.
In the next two years, State Parks plans to add more
mountain biking trails at both Santa Rosa Lake and Sumner Lake State
Parks. Santa Rosa’s 2.5-mile “Rocky Point Trail”
and Sumner Lake’s 1.5-mile “Fox Run Trail” could
each be extended by three to six miles, creating scenic and diverse
trail systems for hikers and mountain bikers alike. Trail extensions
will include informational and possibly interpretive signage along
with trail access points and maps.
Heron Lake State Park will soon begin Phase 2 of a
four-phase trail construction project which began last year. That
phase will connect the new three-mile “East Meadow”
trail at Willow Creek, Blanco, and Brushy Point campgrounds to the
Visitor Center. Phases 1 and 2 were funded through the federal Recreational
Trails Program (RTP). The park has applied for a third RTP grant
this year to fund Phase 3 of the project. Eventually, hikers and
mountain bikers will be able to travel around the entire Heron Lake
via the new trail.
In 2005, Governor Richardson funded $4 million to
extend the existing bosque bike trail north to Bernalillo and south
to Belen, build/improve state park trails, and lead and participate
in trail projects statewide. Since then, State Parks has embarked
on a number of projects to strive towards its goal of constructing
one hundred miles of new trails by 2010.
• Rio Grande Trail (RGT)—The State Legislature
passed Senate Joint Memorial 44 (SJM 44) and House Joint Memorial
49 (HJM 49) in 2007, which endorses the completion of the proposed
Rio Grande Trail in New Mexico. Completing a multi-use trail along
the Rio Grande would give New Mexico one of the longest and most
dramatic multi-use trails in the United States, and has the potential
to replicate successful long-distance trails in other states. State
Parks is currently working with the Mid-Region Council of Governments
(MRCOG) on a forty-mile segment between Bernalillo and Belen.
State Parks is taking the lead on the segment from
Belen to Sunland Park and expects to begin more detailed route planning
and public discussions this summer.
Recently, the Youth Conservation Corps awarded Elephant
Butte Lake State Park $150,000 to help construct the Rio Grande
Trail there. Twelve miles of trail will be built within the park
between South Monticello and Hot Springs Cove. Work on the project
will begin in September 2007.
• Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDT)—During
the 2007 legislative session, the House of Representatives unanimously
approved House Memorial 39, urging completion of the CDT that traverses
New Mexico. Additionally, in April 2007, State Parks entered into
a Memorandum of Understanding with state and federal agencies and
the Continental Divide Trail Alliance to cooperatively work towards
completing the trail.
• Recreational Trails Program (RTP)—The
RTP, a Federal Highway Administration program, has provided over
$8 million since its inception in 1992 and has resulted in 104 trail
projects statewide. In 2007, more than $1 million of RTP funds are
available for distribution for eligible entities to develop and
improve recreational trails in the state. The governor also signed
Senate Bill 486 into law in 2007, giving irrigation and conservancy
districts liability protection if a district authorizes portions
of their property to be used as part of a trail within a state park,
the state trail system, or a trail established and managed by a
local public body (such as a city, county, or other municipality).
The law would improve public access to informal trails along the
Rio Grande, the bosque, and ditch banks.
The National Survey on Recreation and the Environment
identifies trail/street/road activities as the most popular recreational
pursuit nationwide. Trails boost economic development, and provide
a place for social interaction and the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle.
For more information, contact the
State Parks Division toll-free at 1-888- NMPARKS or www.nmparks.com.
Sabinoso Wilderness Act introduced
Last month, U.S. Representative Tom Udall, D-N.M.
introduced in the House legislation to designate as wilderness the
Sabinoso BLM land unit. Under Udall’s proposal, approximately
twenty thousand acres of land situated in San Miguel County, forty
miles east of Las Vegas and twenty-five miles northwest of Conchas
Dam State Park, would assume official wilderness status. The proposed
wilderness area will permanently protect lands in and around what
is now known as the Sabinoso Wilderness Study Area.
“Last spring, I took the opportunity to explore
the Sabinoso area on horseback,” Udall said. “Traveling
through the area, which has exceptional scenery and deep canyons
abundant with wildlife, it became evident that the unique area deserves
to be protected so that it can be explored and enjoyed by everyone
for many generations.”
While roaming the canyons, Udall said he was struck
by the ecological, scenic, and recreational values in the Sabinoso
area, “In addition to providing sustainable economic opportunities
for the local community and ensuring traditional grazing and hunting
uses, protecting the natural resources in Sabinoso will offer outstanding
opportunities to hike, horseback ride, take photographs, and simply
experience the unspoiled lands.”
The area’s scenic and densely vegetated landscape
is home to a rich diversity of wildlife, including red-tailed hawks,
mountain chickadees, American kestrels, western scrub-jays, broad-tailed
hummingbirds, mule deer, bobcats, and gray foxes. Canyon vistas
overlay thick sections of multicolored sedimentary rocks, typical
of desert rock formations found throughout the West.
Udall’s bill is supported by the New Mexico
state legislature. Last session, led by State Representative Thomas
Garcia, the legislature unanimously passed Memorial 53, which calls
on the New Mexico Congressional delegation to support the establishment
of the Sabinoso Wilderness Area.
New Mexico State Parks announces
plans for new Cerrillos Hills/Galisteo Basin State Park
On June 16, New Mexico State Parks, along with Energy,
Minerals, and Natural Resources announced plans for the development
of the new Cerrillos Hills/Galisteo Basin State Park. When established,
the park will become New Mexico’s thirty-sixth state park.
The twelve-hundred-acre Cerrillos Hills property is
currently owned and managed by Santa Fe County as part of the county’s
open space system, and is known as the Cerrillos Hills Historic
House Joint Memorial 8, which the legislature passed
in 2005, authorizes State Parks to establish a state park in the
area following the preparation of a feasibility study and requisite
agreements with Santa Fe County. State Parks completed a draft feasibility
study and held public meetings on the project in 2006. The legislature
provided funds in 2005, 2006, and 2007 for the project.