Gila Wilderness Trip, Spring Break, March 2010

Several of us from the Albuquerque Kayak Meetup group decided to head south to a warm, sunny, tropical environment for some Spring Break kayaking. We got as far as the Gila Wilderness. It was neither warm nor tropical....but sunny and every bit as beautiful.

There’s nothing like paddling a new river for the first time. The excitement, anticipation, curiosity and unknown challenge us to stay on our toes and make good decisions. It’s kinda like mountain biking a new trail for the first time, or skiing a new slope….but somehow different in a kayak.

Having lived in Albuquerque for almost 5 years, this was my first opportunity to paddle the Gila River. Assaf Rezoni suggested the idea to the group, and several seconded the motion. I have an old "New Mexico Whitewater" book which has some very vague details about the trip, and none of us had any prior experience on the Gila. We knew from the guide book that the section we wanted to paddle, from the Gila Visitor's Center down to the Grapevine Campground, was mostly class I and II. But....we also knew the Gila was famous for log jams and barbed wire fences across the river.  While class I-II is generally pretty beginner friendly, log jams and barbed wire fences are not!

Most of us arrived Friday. We met up with John, Liz & Sal from the Las Cruces Kayak Meetup group.  Friday's weather was not encouraging. Snowing and raining, and temps in the lower 40s. John, Liz & Sal had a great campfire built for us when we arrived, and the rapid next to our campsite sounded like a class IV in the dark!  The white-noise in the background really helped me get a good night's rest.

We woke up with frost covering our tents, boats, stoves and firewood, and the sun wouldn't enter the canyon until almost 11am. We had two choices; get an early start and try to squeeze two trips down the river...or soak in the hot springs while the day warmed up. We opted for the later.

The Gila Hot Springs Campground was pretty awesome. There were 3 pools ranging in temps from (I'm guessing) upper 80s to 105ish.  Each pool was large enough for 8-10 people.  We soaked, ate breakfast, scouted the rapid near our campsite, which in the daylight, was just a class II. But we had a few beginners on the trip and a young family, so we took all precautions.

As the day warmed up, we loaded our boats, and checked out the access points, and ran into a few Albuquerque boaters who were putting on for the 'Wilderness Run' (East Fork to Turkey Creek). It's a small world.

We got on the river a little before 1pm. By this time, the sun was shining, the clouds had burned off, and the day was looking awesome. We could tell at the put-in, there was wood everywhere, and we were certain there'd be more downstream. Wood, commonly called a strainer can make a class I or II river into a class IV, which typically involves a life threatening consequence.

In my whitewater classes, I stress the importance of breaking a complex rapid down into a series of easy moves; primarily - catching eddies, ferrying and peeling out. When you think about the moves needed to paddle class III - if you go with the flow all the time, you'll always be at the absolute edge of your comfort level; going wherever the river pushes you, around blind corners, always playing defense and with little or no control.  Kinda like the bully at school that pushes you around and takes your lunch money....it's just not fun, and sooner or later, you just get fed up with it!  When you're in control, you're much more confident, because you know what to do, how to do it, and when to do it...and things are generally a lot easier. 

Frankly, this removes a lot of the adventure and adrenalin from the equation and it becomes much more of a mental challenge.  Catching eddies, ferrying and peeling out allow us to paddle class III easily, in control, and give us enough time to pause, plot our next move, and precisely execute it.  Kinda like playing Chess. One-by-one, we eddy-hop down the rapid or river so we're always prepared for what's next...even getting out to scout or portage when necessary.

Football coaches, piano instructors and math teachers say the same thing; practice, Practice, PRACTICE! Continue to practice the fundamentals, over and over, until you get better and better.

Gila River strainerThe Gila was a place where those skills were going to come in handy. Class IIs generally have wide open channels from top to bottom. By definition, we can paddle class I and II without the need to maneuver around anything. Throw a fence and a few Cottonwood trees in the river, and the scenario changes....drastically.

We had heard that the fence had washed out in a flood in January. What did that really mean? Just because it's no longer where it used to be, doesn't mean it's not still out there; possibly in a new, unknown place.

The only way to truly enjoy kayaking is with the piece of mind that you can make good decisions. You can catch an eddy (to evaluate what's down stream, or get out if necessary), you can ferry to the other side (to get a better angle or better view), you can do a good peel out to position your boat precisely where you want it to engage the rapid, etc. In effect, to truly enjoy kayaking, you need to be able to boat-scout, and you can make the best decisions for you, without relying on a guidebook, or someone else to guide you.

There were two river-wide strainers, and a half-dozen in precarious places. Luckily, our group consisted of one relatively new beginner, and several intermediate whitewater paddlers. We were able to bounce down the river, from one eddy to the next, pausing to evaluate anything suspicious downstream, and continue on our way.  

Rivers change...often, from one week, or year to the next. Guidebooks become outdated. River levels rise and fall.  What may be easy today, may be a challenge at higher or lower flows. Guide books are helpful, but they only solve part of the equation.  Relying strictly on a guide book, or others to lead you don't the river, is a very defensive strategy.  Accurately assessing current conditions, current skills, strength of the group and our ability to decide in-the-moment what works best for us, is an offensive strategy, and much more effective.

We got off the river a little after 3pm. It took us a little over 2hrs to paddle 7 miles, scouting and portaging along the way.  Sal and crew stopped at the local homemade ice cream stand while completing the shuttle and we had an awesome homemade ice cream treat once we got off the river. Back at camp, we soaked in the hot springs for a few hours before cooking dinner. We decided on a pot-luck dinner and we ate like royalty.

Sunday was more of the same. Each of us needed to leave at different times. The Las Cruces crew decided to paddle from the campground down to the East Fork.  This is where most of the rapids were, and considering it had much less wood, was an easier run. Assaf and his family went to the Gila Cliff Dwellings and since Mike Hayes and Josh Gerstner joined us late Saturday afternoon, we decided to visit the cliff dwellings and run the full 7 miles.

I'm always amazed at the beauty of New Mexico, and the Gila was no exception. I think I'll keep Spring Break open next year and see if we can go back, possibly to paddle the Wilderness section. I can't stress the importance of boat scouting on this river. While the rapids were easy, the river is not a beginner friendly place. Practice boat scouting, catching large eddies and progressively smaller eddies. Practice setting targets on the river, and challenge yourself to hit the targets. Practice ferrying across mild current to a target on the other side of the river. As you get better, set more difficult targets. If you find you constantly miss your targets, you have a way to calibrate your skills and know where improvement is needed. By setting targets on the river, you over-prepare for the skills you may eventually need later on.

 

I hope you all get to enjoy the Gila at some point. And, I hope you have an enjoyable time on this river.

Paddlers:
Las Cruces Kayak Meetup:
John Richardson & wife
Liz Black
Sal

Albuquerque Kayak Meetup
Assaf Rezoni & Family
Kelly Gossett
Mike Hayes

Santa Fe Kayak Meetup
Josh Gerstner
Charie Evans

 


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