Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Drinking The Rio

Embarking on a Sunday’s adventure rafting on the Rio Grande gave us more thrills and chills than we anticipated. We underestimated the forthcoming rapids based on previous trips down the river. The Rio Grande is running at speeds and depths unheard of in many years. The end of our long drought cycle has resulted in record snow-melt, feeding the Rio with staggering amounts of water. The river banks are higher, areas that formally were beaches are under water, and the rapidity of the flow is amazing. On the drive through the Taos Gorge we saw many cars parked along the highway, the spectators standing on the cliff watching rafters below, a day’s entertainment for the local folks.

The trip began with paddling lessons, cinching us tightly into life vests, cautions from our two guides about how we would approach upcoming series of rapids, and assurances of an exciting trip. We had, they warned, a one-in-three chance of flipping or falling out on the final rapid, but they would instruct us further before we approached that one. We hit the first series of rapids whooping and hollering; we were fired up. We anticipated the next series of whitewater gleefully. The six of us were in sync, paddling efficiently, working as a team. The guides complimented us. We beamed and laughed and made merry.

Halfway through our trip we came upon a wooden bridge suspended over the river. Normally the clearance below the bridge is roomy enough to sail under; today because the water levels were so lofty, to pass under we had to paddle to the far left, a guide outside the raft pulling us through, as we leaned down and ducked below. With that obstacle past and our confidence bolstered in our teamwork, we proceeded down the river toward the last two sets of rapids, enjoying the vistas, the bright blue sky, and the sweet aroma of the Russian Olive trees.

We coursed through the rough so-called Sleeping Beauty rapids wet but elated. Our guide gave us more last-minute instructions on the upcoming and major final rapid, Souse Hole. A hole it was…a hell hole. As we approached around a bend our guide told us to cast our eyes forward and watch the raft ahead of us as it disappeared down what we river amateurs oh-so-mistakenly thought was a waterfall leading into a long set of rapids. We followed the instructions as they were screamed out to us: “Right back paddle, forward paddle, paddle, paddle, paddle!” We dropped into the mother of all rapids, into a gaping hole in the river. We were swallowed by the Rio Grande. And we all swallowed a lot of the Rio in turn.

In a moment scenes unfolded: the left side of the raft lifted off the surface. Diane tipped backwards off the raft. Cara flew across the raft head-first into the surging swells. Brian, Diane’s husband, plopped out. Water was overhead and crashing down upon us. My thoughts scattered and awareness of events unfolding registered all at once, like rapid-fire photographs in succession: oh my God, we’re going to flip over; crap, Diane fell out; holy cow, Cara sailed past me; an awareness of fear; water is pounding over top of me; who else is missing; I am the only one left on my side of the raft so I need to paddle for all I’m worth; the guide is climbing over me; I am hearing screaming; where is Diane…she’s over there and there is terror on her face; thank God, Bryan is still next to me. All these thoughts occurred in an instant. The raft was still rocking, surging, flowing quickly. There was, it seemed in that instant, carnage all around me, and the water kept swelling.

The final awareness settled on me and calmed me: we were all safe. Diane was pulled into another raft, the woman guide soothing her and yanking her up by her life vest, telling her that she was okay. Cara and Brian were on the rocks, gulping and gasping for air after the exertion and the huge quantities of water they had swallowed. Bryan, Eric and I, along with the second guide paddled and heaved up along the rocky shoreline to reach them. The first guide had jumped over me, jumped to the rocks and pulled us along. It was at once harrowing and exhilarating, frightening and thrilling.

It all unfolded in a matter of seconds, and then minutes. We were alright; we were all back on the raft. Diane was shaking and crying and hugging her husband and son. Cara was still sputtering mouthfuls of the Rio Grande. The guides encouraged and comforted us and then, when we were ready for it, laughed about the adventure. We hadn’t flipped over and that was an accomplishment.

We all swallowed more of the river than we desired. Diane, the moment she re-entered our raft said, “I need a drink!” Indeed! Margaritas would be sought out once we were dry. But first we drove to the overlook where we’d seen the spectators. Now that we knew what they were gawking at, we wanted to see the wrecking scene, to view from above what exactly we had gone through. The gaping hole and the force of the rapids astounded us. We watched rafts come through, the first overturned head to tail, all the occupants spilled and scattered in the water. We gasped, and then we were thankful that we had not flipped over completely.

Raft flipping
Originally uploaded by via Margutta.

Today we are sore, our varying degrees of battle wounds. We are recounting the details, over and over, comparing our mental notes and impressions, looking at the photos, reliving the scenes, continuously amazed by our experience, glad we had such a thrilling ride, glad we were okay. We drank from the Rio Grande and it tasted bitter-sweet. But it was intoxicating.

View Photos of the trip.

Article about Souse Hole

Definition/Description of a river souse hole

copyright 2005 Valerie Schneider


Dr. S said...

Holy Toledo! That sounds mentally and physically taxing for beginning whitewater thrillseekers, no?

Good pics!

kept on paddling said...

I still say Eric pushed his parents out of the raft.

Bobby Martinez said...

Valerie...I truly believe that you missed your calling..that of being a remouned writer! :)

I will never by another newspaper. I will, from now on, read only, Valerie's articles.

You are quite the entertainer, mt friend!!

Bobby Martinez said...

Oops! I went back and read my comments and found that I had mis-spelled a few words...oh well, you got the message, right?!?