3 Days on the Rio Chama

The 31 mile "Wild and Scenic" section of Rio Chama is a well-known gem among experienced boaters.  But because access is limited by the Bureau of Land Management (a conservation effort), anytime I get a chance to paddle through the Wild & Scenic section, I jump on it with great anticipation.  The fact this would be our first kayak-supported trip was an added bonus.  The river is far more "scenic" than it is "wild" and offers something for everyone, families and kids as well!

The Gila River documentary movie took a somewhat predictable turn.  The lack of snow in the Gila Wilderness made it necessary to look elsewhere to complete our training and film-making, and the Rio Chama was our back up plan.  We had set aside the weekend of April 7 - 10, and hoped spring snowmelt flows would raise the river enough for us to paddle.

The BLM requires a private party "permit" during the main season, from May 1st through Labor Day, but no permit is required before May 1st.  Our window of opportunity was shrinking fast, as there are only a few weekends open this summer, and after May 1st, there would be no guarantee we'd be able to get a private party permit from the BLM.

The weeks before looked pretty grim.  Hardly 100cfs on the gauge below El Vado. We needed 250, at a minimum.  Anyone in the Southwest knows the snowpack is well below average, and water rights in Colorado make it difficult, at best, to predict how much will flow down river, and when.   The Bureau of Reclamation informed us that any snowmelt flowing into Heron and El Vado reservoirs were discharged downstream to Abiquiu.  This was good news, but we still didn't have the minimum flows to launch on April 7th.

On April 1st, the gauge jumped from 100cfs to 150, and on April 4th, it reached 250cfs.  It was still anybody's call if it would trend upward or tapper off due to the colder temps in Colorado.  On April 6th, we had nearly 400 cfs, and things were starting to look pretty good. 

On April 7th, we met for a gear-check, or "duffel shuffle" as some call it, to make sure we had all the gear we needed, and nothing else.  Temps were looking warm and sunny Friday but cold and windy on Saturday and snowing on Sunday.  We needed plenty of warm dry clothes for the river as well as for camp, plenty of food and all other gear we may need. 

Space can be pretty limited in a kayak, so planning and consolidating in advance can really help a trip go more smoothly.  We had one backpacking stove for every 3 people, and 2 gas canisters per stove.  We shared 2-person tents when we could and packed food and other small containers in the small voids.  I carried the toilet-system (all human waste should be packed out, per BLM guidelines), and Eben carried the first-aid kit, pin kit and repair kit.  We both carried an extra break-down paddle, just in case.  In all, we were able to fit quite a bit of gear into our Liquid Logic Remix XP-9s and 10s.

We left Albuquerque early Friday morning and met up with Kirk and Jerry from Taos at the 'Big Eddy' takeout around 9:30, set our shuttle and left for Cooper's Ranch at El Vado reservoir.  We packed the remaining gear in our boats and launched by around 1pm.   I was really excited for our cast of beginner kayakers, as there's nothing like paddling a new river for the first time.  I knew that they were well prepared for the trip, and that they'd have an amazing time just enjoying the river and the camaraderie of the friendships that developed through this series of classes!

The day was clear and sunny when we launched, and our first campsite was at the 11-mile marker.  We paddled through some gentle class I-II rapids and enjoyed the beautiful yellow, orange, gray and white sandstone cliff surrounding the river, the same scenery that Georga O'Keefe is well known for.  We reached our campsite in just under 4 hours.  Along the way, we passed an old 1800's homestead and an awesome hot spring, where we stopped for a quick snack.

Our meals for this trip were pretty primitive, but great after a long day of paddling, none the less.  We stocked up on summer-sausage, cheeses, hummus and tortillas. These made a great snack while our water boiled for our freeze-dried meals.  We also had packages of tuna and salmon which goes great with Ramen noodles or a bagel for breakfast, and the waste is easy to pack out.  Breakfast consisted mostly of oatmeal with a package of hot cocoa for added flavor.  Gary and Kyle brought much more sophisticated freeze dried meals from Packit Gourmet, which looked great!

(A special thanks to our sponsors for food and other necessities; Whole Foods, REI - Albuquerque, Satellite Coffee and others)

Our first campsite overlooked one of the larger rapids on the 'Wild and Scenic' section, and easy class III.  After breakfast and repacking the boats, Eben and the crew scouted the rapid while Kirk and I discussed camera angles.  We went through a quick warm-up routine and ran the rapid one-by-one, and everyone ran the rapid in style.  We spent the remainder of Saturday paddling leisurely down the river, with a side hike to some dinosaur footprints.  After lunch, the temperature dropped quickly and winds picked up quite a bit.  The strong head-winds took its toll on each of us, and we had to make a group decision; to find a campsite earlier and ideally protected from the wind, or make a push through a 3 mile "no camping" stretch, putting us that much closer to our vehicles, should the weather continue to deteriorate.  The group decided to make the push, despite the wind increasing and falling temperatures. 

We reached our second campsite, in Chavez Canyon around 6pm.  It was starting to drizzle so we quickly set up our tents and got water boiling for our meals.  Linda found some firewood near by and built a nice campfire. 

Several of our crew members disassembled on Sunday.  We woke up with 1-2 inches of snow on the ground and temperatures hovering around freezing.  Having left the 'Wild and Scenic' section, the remaining 8 miles were all along side of the Monastery road, which provided outstanding shots for the film crew above the river and on the banks along side of the river.  Kirk and Linda filmed from the road while the rest of us paddled out to Big Eddy.  The temperature improved as the day went on, and we finished our 3-day adventure early Sunday afternoon.

The Chama is an awesome experience, especially if it's your first trip on the 'Wild and Scenic' section, your first multi-day trip, or first kayak-supported trip.  I wouldn't say it's a beginner friendly place to learn.  The rapids, while small, tend to be longer and requires some basic skill in reading the river.

This 3-day trip on the Chama concludes NMKI's involvement in the Gila River documentary movie project.  The producer still plans to kayak 4-6 days down the 43 mile wilderness section in the Spring of 2012 with the original cast.  They'll hike through the wilderness section this Summer and will continue to improve their kayaking skills for another season.  I think this adds an interesting element to the documentary project, as they'll be paddling 'unguided' in 2012.  As an instructor, it's very much my goal to get students to the point where they can approach any class III river - anywhere in the world - and have the skills and competence to have a safe and enjoyable time, without the need to be guided at every rapid along the way.  I'm still very excited for them, and a bit envious; they're gonna have an awesome time! :^)


See you on the river,


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