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Chama Wall, NM

“Chama Wall,” a geographical feature on the Chama River in northern New Mexico

More tales from the Rio Chama

—TY BELKNAP

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 miles downstream.

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 of Colorado.

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 concerns.

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 boating.

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 trails initiatives

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.

They include:

• 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 in House

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 Park.

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.

 

 

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