The Sandoval Signpost

An Independent Monthly Newsmagazine Serving the Community since 1989


A paddler fights to loosen the Chama River’s grip on his overturned canoe.

A paddler fights to loosen the Chama River’s grip on his overturned canoe.

Ode to a canoe

Barb and Ty Belknap

Nothing beats the desert blues like a river—especially when it runs through a drought and a heat wave like those we've been having.

The Chama River is a favorite Wild and Scenic Waterway. It's always scenic, but only wild when they turn on the water. Once again we had the silvery minnow to thank, since the courts had decided to open up the tunnels and borrow enough water from another river system to keep minnows alive and us afloat in August.

Some rowed inflatables, others crammed into kayaks. We were happy to be back in our old canoe. A canoe is more than the perfect means of river transportation; it merges with the water with grace and beauty. Ours carries two people and just enough gear for comfort, yet it's a precarious enough ride to still be a challenge.

When we bought our Old Town Camper canoe, we were ignorant of the demands that would be placed upon its fifty pounds of vinyl. We liked the way it was low-slung and swept up on the ends like an Indian birchbark. Besides, it was on sale and further discounted because of a scratch. We were somewhat concerned to see that it was the only model paddled by senior citizens in the Old Town brochure. Ten years later, it's covered with scrapes and gouges. We have since learned that the Camper is designed for lakes rather than white water. When loaded, there is only about eight inches of freeboard to keep out the river.

Nevertheless, we pushed off into the swift current below El Vado Dam, secure in the knowledge that, by some miracle, our boat had never yet capsized. A light rain was falling, adding to the sweet smell of the water. Adolescent goslings scrambled out of the lush vegetation and hawks soared overhead. We managed to control our bliss while negotiating some tricky sections in the first couple of miles before pulling into a familiar camp at a river bend marked by a giant ponderosa pine.

The canoeists cooked up a basic backpacking spaghetti while the rafters enjoyed their steak dinner. Ice cubes clanked in their gin-and-tonics while we pulled beers out of the drag bag. Stragglers paddled ashore at sunset to enjoy leftovers from both worlds.

Several miles into the next day's run, we found ourselves soaking in riverside hot springs. One of the children swam into the raft during his cold plunge, setting it adrift and clearing the pool. Some suspected that he was in a hurry to move on downstream. Good thing the adult raft rescuers had their pants on because it would have been felony to chase the boat downstream naked in front of children (See Nudists story, this Signpost), however funny to watch.

Another part of the entertainment on canoe trips is witnessing otherwise happy couples yell at each other while trying to stay afloat in the rapids. The amount of yelling seems to be directly proportional to the amount of water in the canoe. Over the last several years, new rapids have appeared in the form of nice new canoes wrapped around rocks. Someday our old Camper may meet the same pathetic fate. Then, assuming we survive, we'll buy a real white-water canoe with deep sides to keep the water out and a bit more rocker on the bottom for maneuverability. Meanwhile, we'll just keep bailing.

Waiting for the rest of our group along the riverbank on the third and final day of our trip, some people in matching animal-rescue T-shirts walked up and asked if we were experienced enough to paddle a cage across the river. "Don't put your hands near it because these raccoons are really mean," they warned. When the raccoons were introduced into the wild, however, they only whimpered, as if to say, Where’s the food tray? They didn't know how lucky they were to find a home in such a beautiful place.

Skull Bridge and the biggest rapids loomed ahead with a dramatic background of multicolored mesas, thunderheads, and lightning strikes. No matter how well we run a big rapid in the Camper, it is probably necessary to get to shore quickly to bail before the next one. It's hard to steer with a boat half full of water.

Two canoes in our intrepid flotilla followed the river's lead where it crashes into a cliff and takes a hard left at Bank Shot Rapid. One novice paddler was a little shaken up when she emerged from the darkness beneath her capsized boat. Soon after everyone was again afloat, they all collided at the final rapid in a confluence below a large island where our trusty Camper was resting in an eddy to witness the scene. The faces and amid pandemonium would have made a great photo to illustrate this story, but unfortunately (or fortunately), the camera was buried in a dry bag.

Private parties may submit applications in January for permits to run the entire Wild and Scenic part of the Chama. The (very few) permits are awarded by lottery. Commercial trips are also available, but the season is now over. For more information, contact the Taos office of the Bureau of Land Management at 505-758-8851 or visit


Bats, lava, and outdoor fun

In September UNM Recreational Services will offer lessons in scuba diving and tandem lake canoeing as part of their Getaway Adventures Program and Fitness Program. They will also be leading a National Monument trip to El Malpais and El Morro to explore lava flows, lava tubes, and bat caves and examine over one thousand inscriptions in stone left by Spanish soldiers, priests, and governors. For more information about these activities or to register, call 277-0178 or stop into Room 1102 at Johnson Center on the UNM campus.


White Sands offers splendid setting
for ballooning event

Beautiful! Amazing! These were the comments heard at sunrise twelve years ago at the White Sands National Monument as eighteen hot-air balloons rose in the sky to mark the start of an annual event that will host ninety balloons this year. The show takes place September 20 and 21 with launches at 7:00 a.m. both days and a balloon glow at dusk on September 20.

The event has become a must-attend event for balloonists in New Mexico as well many from the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

As a special treat, Fly the Rainbow, Inc., will donate its wheelchair-accessible hot-air balloon to the event. Persons with disabilities or who are otherwise unable to climb over the side of a balloon basket can enjoy a tethered flight and enjoy the view of the White Sands National Monument from the air.

For information about the balloon event, call the Alamogordo Chamber of Commerce toll-free at (800) 826-0294 or e-mail






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