Monday, May 23, 2011

Rio Chama - May 2011

Note: Left click on any photo to enlarge.

Late afternoon sun on Chama Wall.

For the third year in a row, we were lucky enough to get a weekend permit for the Rio Chama. Instead of the middle of August, this time we landed a spring season date in the permit lottery. Our launch date was Friday, May 20.

Our merry band consisted of nine people and their trusty boats: Kathy and Henry Amen (14' DRE cataraft), Amy Arisco (new Nova Craft Supernova Solo canoe), Jon Carlson (Mad River Outrage X solo canoe), Scott Dooley (14.5' Wilderness Systems Tsunami kayak), Donald James and Mike Scudday (Dagger Dimension tandem canoe), Zoltan Mraz (Old Town Penobscot 16 tandem canoe), and Gary Tupa (SOAR 16 inflatable tandem canoe).

Kathy and I drove on Wednesday to Albuquerque, where we spent the night with our good friends Steve and Kathy Altobelli. Don flew into Albuquerque on Thursday morning. The three of us then made the (mostly) scenic drive to Cooper's El Vado Ranch, stopping along the way in Espanola (not so scenic, except for the cool lowriders) to meet Mike for lunch. We arrived at the campground around mid-afternoon and were greeted by Zoltan, who had arrived the evening before to wisely claim our favorite camping area for the group.

Shortly after arriving on Thursday, I started the process of assembling the cataraft. The first step was inflating the tubes. The little electric hand pump didn't help much, so we resorted to the foot and barrel pumps. Then the frame was attached with various straps, following the list we had prepared at home. Finally, the seat was bolted onto the frame. Kathy and I admire our handiwork in the photo by Donald below.

We were greeted at the campground on Thursday with occasional rain, sleet, and even snow. Luckily, I had decided to rent one of the rustic cabins, and its covered porch gave us a good staging area for all of the group gear. It also provided a place for Mike to pitch his mattress and sleeping bag for the night, while Don shared the cabin with Kathy and me. The others set up their tents at the campsite, but did join us for frozen margaritas in the cabin. And the shower was quite popular both Thursday evening and Friday morning, as was the kitchen for coffee in the morning.

My main reason for having the cabin was to shorten the time that would be needed on Friday morning to pack all of our gear and load it securely on the cataraft. Although I'm not sure why, I have a reputation for being less than swift when it comes to getting everything ready to go. So I made good use of the two (plus) hours required for others to shuttle our vehicles early Friday morning, and was almost ready to launch by the time they returned in our minivan and finished loading their boats. We hired a shuttle service to deliver that vehicle to the take-out on Saturday. If I remember correctly, we were heading down the river slightly before noon. A new record!

Hundreds of violet green swallows, like the one captured by Donald in this photo, entertained us with their flying acrobatics for the first several miles. Were they gathering insects for little ones waiting eagerly in their mud nests clinging to the rock overhangs?

Before long, we were also ready for lunch. A little less than four miles down the river, we pulled over at the Ward Ranch historic site to eat and soak in the sun, which had now started to break through the overcast sky.

Zoltan working on his tan (photo by Donald).

Our destination for the day was 7.5-mile camp. I'll let you figure out how far downstream that is from the put-in. This was a very nice campsite that Mike, Gary, and I had spent our first night at on our first Rio Chama trip, back in August of 2009. When we arrived, we were pleased to find it unoccupied, and quickly set up camp.

Kathy and I were responsible for Friday night's dinner. Note the ten pounds of beef tenderloin steak on Gary's nifty grill. And Mike's dutch oven is being warmed in preparation for his wonderful dessert of homemade peach cobbler. A nice photo by Amy.

Like last year, my cataraft rowing duties largely prevented me from taking any photos while on the river, except on our final day. So my photos are mostly of our campsites and the hikes we took from them.

The morning after our first night on the river, the moon peaks over the ridge behind our camp.

Moon setting over the groover.

At 8:00 in the morning, the temperature was still a little nippy, and we gathered around the campfire with our coffee and hot chocolate. Later, we enjoyed Mike's wonderful "Mountain Man" breakfast.

Donald, Kathy, Jon, and Scott kept a watchful eye on the clouds as we pondered our hike for the day. We decided to duplicate my journey from two years earlier up the mesa behind us -- but this time without getting caught on top at sunset.

There was no established trail, and frequent rest stops were necessary. Kathy joined us for the first part of the hike/climb up the mesa.

Mike examines the canyon across the river from us.

Zoltan enjoys the view while catching his breath.

Looking across the river as we near the top.

Reminder: Left click on any photo to enlarge.

Once we reached the top, this was our view to the west.

Snow capped peaks to the east provided a nice backdrop for Donald.

Scott with the canyon on the other side of the river behind him, and peaks to the east behind him.

Looking north to El Vado Lake, visible in places as a thin blue line.

We couldn't decide who was older.

Scott, Donald, Zoltan, Mike, and Jon, with Aragon Rapids and Canyon visible in the distance on the left. We would pass through the rapids on Sunday.

Mike used my camera so I could be included with the group.

An Indian paintbrush and a small blooming cactus.

Probably not a good idea to be up here on top during a lightning storm.

Looking back up to the top after making my way back down from the mesa.

We had another fantastic dinner on Saturday. Here is Amy's photo of Mike's dutch oven with a perfectly cooked southwest chicken casserole.

Mike enjoying his coffee and the rather spectacular sunset.

We all enjoyed the campfire.

After two nights at the campsite, and a tasty breakfast of vegetarian eggs florentine (supplemented nicely by leftover tenderloin) prepared by Gary, we were ready to head downstream on Sunday morning. Thanks to Mike for using my camera to take this photo of Kathy, Donald, Jon, me, Zoltan, Gary, Scott, and Amy.

We stopped for lunch at Cebolla Canyon, where Rio Cebolla (more of a creek than a river) joins the Rio Chama. Here Amy crosses the not-so-treacherous Rio Cebolla. No onions were found.

Our lunch spot. The shade was welcome, as it was getting quite warm in the sun. In fact, I decided to shed my wetsuit once we landed.

Navajo Peak is situated at the confluence of the two rivers. There is a trail to the top - maybe next time.

Jon, Scott, and I hiked a short distance up Cebolla Canyon.

Crossing the river was not a challenge.

Our cataraft was tied up at the mouth of the river. Here we get ready to head back down the Rio Chama.

Amy snapped this photo of Kathy and me as we pulled away from the smaller river back into the Rio Chama. Looks like I forgot to put on my pfd, which was draped over the back of my seat.

We made camp at the Chama Wall campground, which like the other campsites was unoccupied on Sunday. As you can see, we had a nice view from our tent.

After setting up camp, six of us headed up the slot canyon behind us. The going was somewhat challenging once we entered the narrow canyon. Zoltan uses The Force to prevent this large rock from tumbling down onto us.

With Kathy following right behind, I walked past a coiled rattlesnake. When Kathy grabbed me and said "snake," I reacted by almost backing up to where it blended into the background.

As I grabbed my camera, the snake finally noticed us and started to uncoil and slither away.

The three-foot rattler heads to the protection of a boulder.

After the excitement of meeting wildlife up close, three of the group decided to head back to camp. The climb up the canyon was becoming more difficult, but the snake may have had something to do with their decision. Donald, Jon, and I continued on, but not for very far. The sky was threatening rain. On the right above, Jon stands ready to assist us up one of the more difficult spots.

Donald's self portrait of the three of us before we headed back to camp.

A large downed tree near our tent.

The happy Hungarian.

Gary in his normal pose. Mike making biscuits in his smaller dutch oven.

A family of Canada Geese claimed the opposite riverbank as their own. After first entertaining us with a honking symphony, the parents returned later with their three goslings. Two are visible in the photo above. After the show, we enjoyed a nice chili dinner prepared by Jon, along with Mike's biscuits.

On Monday morning, after enjoying Scott's breakfast of pancakes and sausage, we packed our boats for the last time. It was time to head out of the Chama Canyon proper on our 14.5 mile paddle to the Big Eddy take-out. And it on this stretch where two of the three Class III rapids are located. We stopped at the Chavez Canyon put-in for lunch, then continued down the river.

Scott paddles through the beginning portion of Meandering Rapid (Class II), which is quite long and passes around a large island.

Gary and Amy skillfully maneuvering in the rapid.

Zoltan begins his run into Meandering Rapid, with the usual scenery as a backdrop.

Rendezvousing at the bottom of the lengthy rapid.

The next challenge was Skull Bridge Rapid, a fun Class II+.

Donald and Mike came through unscathed (this time).

Amy approaches Skull Bridge. Not visible are the couple who were standing on the bridge, and who photographed Kathy and I as we led the way through the rapid.

Amy and Gary in the wave train.

After pulling over just past the bridge, we continued through the remainder of this third-of-a-mile-long rapid. The biggest waves and holes were at the end of the rapid, as seen below.

Gary and Amy, again.

Jon crashes through.

Donald and Mike working hard as they get some air time in the trusty Dagger Dimension. Note the look of determination on their faces.

Despite being in what is essentially a touring kayak, Scott handled the rapid with aplomb.

Sure looks like Zoltan was having fun.

Next up was Gaging Station Rapid, a Class III rapid that may be the most challenging on our 31-mile stretch of the Rio Chama. Kathy and I went first. After skirting the large rock at the entrance to the rapid, we got hung up on the next boulder on our left. I struggled to free us, digging into the swift current with one oar, then the other, then both.

After what seemed like forever, but was probably only half a minute, the cataraft slowly started to spin away from the rock. The boat turned so that we were now sideways to the current and could look upstream - just in time to see the carnage. Bearing down on us were an empty (of people) Dagger Dimension leaned over on its side, a paddle, and a swimming Donald. Donald wisely pushed himself to the side to avoid being trapped between our upstream pontoon and the canoe. Just then, the cataraft freed itself from the rock, to be replaced by the sideways canoe. It looked like it was going to be wrapped.

As the cataraft headed back downstream, we spotted Mike navigating the rock garden on river right. It sounded like he was speaking in tongues, but I don't think it was from religious inspiration. Looking back upstream, we saw that the canoe had somehow dislodged itself from the rock and was heading downstream. I decided that retrieving the canoe was a better idea than getting caught in the rocks trying to assist Mike and getting in his way as he maneuvered to the bank in the swift but shallow current.

We kept an eye on the paddle up ahead of us and the canoe behind us as we continued down the rocky rapid. I didn't want to get caught in the shallows, so we waited until there was some quiet water on river right. We moved into position in front of the canoe and Kathy grabbed the painter on one end. As we nudged the canoe over close to the bank, Kathy stepped off the front of the cataraft into the water, smashing her big toe on a rock. But she was able to hold the cataraft against the river bank as I grabbed the canoe's painter, waded to shore, and pulled the bow of the canoe up onto dry land. While we were busy doing this, Jon raced by in pursuit of the paddle, capturing it another forty yards downstream.

One problem is that our two refugees were now on opposite sides of the river, and the steep, rocky face on river left made that side impassible. Mike was able to walk along the bank to where we had his canoe. I recall that there may have been some more speaking in tongues, but I might be wrong. Anyway, we emptied the canoe of water and got it ready to go again. Gary walked back upstream with a couple of throw ropes to see about retrieving Donald, who was on the opposite bank. You can see them in Amy's photo below, with Gary in the foreground on the left and Donald in the distance above the river on the right.

Wisely not wanting to swim across the river, Donald climbed up to the road, which fortunately was close to the river at this point. After taking the road to where it curved away from the river, he worked his way down the somewhat steep and slippery bank to where Jon had pulled over on river left. Kathy and I ferried the cataraft over to that side and picked up Donald. We decided to have him ride with us for the remaining mile and a half to the take-out. Although I completely botched Screaming Left Rapid (Class III), we made it safely through, then past Overhang Rapid, and on to Big Eddy Take-Out.

Other than some bumps and bruises, and perhaps some bruised egos, the toll from this mishap was one lost paddle and one lost water bottle. Not to mention some wet cameras. Fortunately, all of the other gear in the canoe was securely tied down. The two groups who landed after us both said they had spotted the lost paddle in the rocks at the beginning of the rapid, but in each case too late to do anything about it. Of course, this was the first time on the river for this paddle and its companion since they had been extensively repaired, at no little expense. All in all, however, we all felt lucky that no major damage had been done.

It took a while to disassemble the cataraft, load the trailer, stuff everything else into the van, and head off to Albuquerque. Amy's photo shows Jon strapping his canoe to the trailer, while Mike and I look incredulously at the amount of gear that still needs to be packed in the van. The other fellow was from the group that landed right after us.

It had been a great trip. The water was flowing at about 620 cfs throughout our four days and three nights on the river. This made the rapids more technical, but was high enough to let us get the cataraft down the river without getting seriously stuck on the rocks. Having others share in carrying gear made that possible. I think all nine of us are looking forward to another journey on the Rio Chama.

Note: For an additional 106 photos from this adventure, click here to connect to my Flickr page, then click on "Slideshow."

Note: Here is a link to Kathy's blog posts about our Rio Chama trips. The top four posts cover this year's journey. And, of course, her prose is much more elegant than mine.