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PADDLING THE TAOS BOX
If you’ve got the mettle, this raft trip on the Rio Grande is a real screamer!

Ever gone swimming in the washing machine when it was spewing out sudsy water? How about sitting in a boat through a car wash? That's the problem with trying to describe the froth and mayhem of paddling down whitewater rivers to someone who hasn't experienced the real thing. It's like trying to describe a river that is the real thing, a 16-mile stretch of the Rio Grande through what's known as the Taos Box near Taos, New Mexico.

It's called the box because of the steep walls that make the canyon nearly impassable without a raft. If you leave something at home or back at the motel, or even at the put-in, forget it.

Rapids
Photo: Gabe Hamilton
Rio Grande Canyon
Courtesy: Taos Chambe of
Commerce. Photo: Ray Lutz
The Rio Grande and its Taos Box

The geology that created the box, and the 1,800-mile long Rio Grande River, was a millions-of-years-ago rift, or crack, between the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the ranges to the west. Volcanic activity filled the crack with lava. About 3 million years ago, water draining from the San Juan Mountains of Colorado began carving the river that dissects New Mexico and, eventually, the west and southwest boundary of Texas and the Texas-Mexico border, before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.

But before that runoff settles down to a placid river, it rumbles through far northern New Mexico like a hormone-charged teenage boy driving a bumper car at the county fair, slamming and whamming into whatever comes next without restraint.

Those Last Four Miles!

In the Box, things get especially wild the last four miles, when the constantly evolving geology combines with a narrowing canyon to create a succession of wildly whipping Class 4 rapids. The stretch of river is remarkable enough that the Box and a neighboring section were the nation's first wild and scenic river.

"The last four miles are just screaming huge big stuff," said Cisco Guevara, who's been running the Box for 32 years and operates his own river rafting company, Los Rios River Runners, in Taos. That doesn't mean he's immune or satiated by the river. "Especially at the top of the Rock Garden," he admits in a voice that exudes equal amounts of fear, respect and excitement, "I still get butterflies."

According to Guevara, years-ago Taos kids used to try to float through the Box in inner tubes. During the World War II years, scientists stationed at Los Alamos to create nuclear weapons spent their "spare time goofing around in their boats." They enrolled the often pulverized kids in an Explorer scout group that specialized in whitewater boating. "They took us under their wing and taught us how to canoe, kayak and raft," told Guevara, who has seldom strayed far from the river.

"The last four miles are a real kick in the pants," echoed Pat Shanley, a Bureau of Land Management river ranger who spent five years as a commercial guide. He's been rafting or paddling the Box for eight years, which he said makes him "still a rookie in many boater's eyes."

Rapids
Photo: Gabe Hamilton

Box Virgins...But Not For Long

It was a group of Box virgins, me included, who were impressed and wide-eyed during a day-long trip on a combination of paddle and platform rafts. Even in comparison with classic American whitewater rivers like the "River of No Return" and the Middle Fork of the Salmon in Idaho, and the Upper Klamath River and the wild and scenic Rogue River in Oregon, the Box is both a butt-kicker and a visual beauty.

"I think it's the beauty of the canyon," explains Shanley. "There's not a road or a railroad track next to it. Once you're in you pretty much better be able to come out on your own."

Paddling teams
Paddlers get instructions before
heading down the Taos Box.

Photo: Gabe Hamilton

Lunch
The trip is broken by
a welcome lunch break.

Photo: Gabe Hamilton

Calm water
Rafters cruise a gentle stretch
of the Rio Grande.
Photo: Gabe Hamilton

Our remote but beautiful trip began rapidly. The Box begins gently with several miles of easy, get-ready rapids that are interspersed with some bashing Class 3 rapids that preview things to come. That's just right for commercial and private parties, who are regulated to prevent overcrowding. According to Shanley, an average of 7,000-plus people travel the Box in a season, usually between Memorial Day and early July, with by far the largest portion on commercially guided rafts. Shanley says the majority of problems are experienced by private rafters and kayakers, especially those getting their feet wet in the Box for the first time.

Keeping dry on the Box isn't an option, and that’s part of the attraction. The froth got serious about halfway into the trip with Class 3s like Ski Jump, Trash Falls and Yellow Banks, named for the less expensive yellow rafts that have been ripped to shreds. There are quirks within the rapids, including a cavern called Room of Doom and Tombstone Rock at Yellow Banks. Next up was the Playground, a series of 2s and 3s, and then still another creatively named rapids, Dead Car.

Suspension bridge
The river is far below the Rio
Grande Suspension Bridge.
Photo: Gabe Hamilton

Yep, Those Last Four Miles!

The adrenaline really began pumping at Powerline, where the river dips 13-feet in a single drop. Work crews used dynamite in the 1960s while building a power line that spans the canyon near the Rio Grande Gorge suspension bridge. Rocks shook loose by the blasts created the rapids, which was originally believed impassable.

The Rock Garden, where the river drops 90-feet in three-quarters of a mile was next. Broken into sections, the entrance features the Dead Texan Hole followed by the Sieve, infamous Trench and the Shark holes.

"Everytime, no matter how many times I've run the river, I'd better be awake when I get into the Rock Garden," quivered Shanley. About six years ago, a falling rock created Susan's Rock in the Screaming Left rapids. Susan, a guide for Los Rios, "was the first one."

There are more rapids and obstacles -- Boat Reamer, Enema, Miller Time, Kathy's Kleaver, Buzzsaw, Old Fogey, Corkscrew -- with the Box's finale, Sunset, just close enough to the takeout that boating and non-boating tourists can make a short walk from the parking lot to a see-everything viewpoint. For a variety of reasons, the most spills happen at Sunset.

"That's the one as a rafter you worry about all day," admitted Shanley. "It spoils your lunch."

"Sunset flips more boats than any other because everybody's real tired," agreed Guevara.

Rapids
Photo: Gabe Hamilton

Our mini-armada, which included rafts provided by four river companies that offer commercial trips, bounced down the 16 miles like corks in a flushing toilet bowl. Those of us in the paddle rafts stayed mostly drenched the last several miles as we soaked in the river's rapids. We were soaked, but not drained.

Click here for details to plan your own trip to beautiful Taos, New Mexico.

Lee Juillerat

Lee is a freelance writer-photographer who lives in Southern Oregon, where he is the regional editor for the Klamath Falls Herald and News. At publication, photographer Gabe Hamilton was a student at the University of Oregon, specializing  in photography, art, and physics.

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