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Lalo with two feet out toward a swim.

Looking upstream at Aragon Rapid
Photos credit: —Barb Belknap

Lalo and Barb go rafting

~Barb Belknap

What’s more fun than being smacked in the face with a wooden oar blade? That’s right—being hit with the oar while wrangling with a wet, one-hundred-pound Chesapeake Bay Retriever.

“Lalo” is getting old; he’s ten-and-a-half now, and so it was time to take him on his bucket-list ride down the “Wild and Scenic” whitewater of the Rio Chama.

The drive up through Cuba, Regina, and over the dam at El Vado Lake is always a treat with vistas of geological uplift and hoodoo silhouettes. The Adobe Whitewater Club of New Mexico had sent out emails in late August that the river was expected to flow at eight hundred cubic feet per second during the upcoming unpermitted river season. Eight hundred cfs is plenty to row a dog. How could we resist?

We arrived at Cooper’s Ranch just below the dam and readied the boats for launch on a 31-mile, two-night, self-supported river trip. Lalo was quickly encircled by a muscle-bound Pit Bull-cross, a pup of the same, and a greying Basset Hound who had a better angle on getting to know him. After their approval, and some lunch, we hoisted Lalo into the boat and set off.

Lalo is a water dog, bred for leaping into the icy waters of the Chesapeake Bay after fallen ducks, with a DNA closer to that of a Newfoundland than a Labrador. He would rather be swimming in the water or wading along shore than riding in our 12-foot inflatable raft. He sits there resigned, watching ducks and geese paddle by and the iridescent swallows swoop for mud to build their nests in eroded boulders. Lalo has his eyes on the water and crafts a persistent plan on how to get into it without us noticing. We usually keep him in the front of the boat by holding a leash clipped to his harness. When the leash tugs like a fishing line, we know he is one foot closer to a swim.

Our first stop on the river was the Chama hot springs, which are about a mile past the Rio Nutrias confluence on river-left in a grassy patch. They are mucky, but a nice soak after getting sprayed by cold water and warm enough to make a difference to an old dog’s bones.

That night was crisp and starlit. At 4:30 in the morning, I awoke to find Lalo standing by the side of our tent, looking at me with intent, and shivering. So I felt in the darkness for my jacket to cover him up and, zzzzzap, was stung on the hand by a scorpion or yellow jacket or something nasty that I flung out of the tent. Lalo consoled me with a caring glance as I clutched my hand in agony.

The next day, we were back on our float—three rafts, six people, one dog, one inflamed hand—hoping to steer clear of the sleeper rock in Sleeper Rapid; bound for the fun wave train at Aragon Rapid and looking forward to the maneuver around the house rocks in Dark Canyon. We planned to reach Chama Wall camp about nine miles further. Soon, we saw rocks we’d never seen before and realized why no one else was on the river: the water level was dropping.

This was the unpermitted time of year when there is no promise of an El Vado dam water release. We could easily be grounded by morning.

We decided to row out of the wilderness, past Christ of the Desert Monastery, to the public campgrounds that were accessible by road at mile 25 on the river. If the river became a creek by morning, we could hike the final six miles to our cars that had been shuttled down to the take-out at Big Eddy and drive back up to retrieve the rafts.

The water held to a rowable level. We had a few delays with boats getting stuck on rocks and retrievals of Lalo after his swims in the water. Holding him on the boat was a little more difficult now, since I had lost his leash by slipping on a mud bank and falling into the river a few stops back.

The two of us sat together in the front of the boat. I applied crushed aspirin pastes to my aching hand while Lalo intently watched the goslings. Each river bend revealed dazzling vistas, banded cliffs, and all the glory of northern New Mexico.

About ten minutes before the campground, our raft hit a submerged rock and lodged sideways in the river. We yelled to the boat following us: “Ram us off this rock!” I held Lalo tightly and braced for the impact, which pushed our raft free, but unfortunately it bounced the upstream oar squarely into my face. I tried to staunch the flow of blood from my nostrils with my husband’s dirty t-shirt. Lalo abandoned ship.

The next morning brought plenty of water downstream and an easing of my headache. By now, Lalo had learned to get into the boat by himself. And so we rode the whitewater down to the take-out at Big Eddy.

We’ll all go again another day as we please with lessons learned. After all, it’s a dog’s life.

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