Staring at a killdeer skittering across a sandbar, I wonder why we don't see anyone else up or down the Rio Grande here in Albuquerque. "Most people," says my friend, a biologist (and an irrigator, too), "seem to think you come to the river to take water or to fish—or to drown." We think about that for a minute, then shove our way back through the salt cedar and Russian olive that separate the river from the system of trails through the bosque.

A few weeks earlier, a 5-year-old had shared with me his cousin's words of wisdom, via their grandfather: If you touch the river's water, you'll get a fever and die.

Sure, the Rio Grande's waters are mistreated and over-allocated. But most of all, the Middle Rio Grande, the stretch between Cochiti and Elephant Butte, is neglected and misunderstood.

As it flows through much of New Mexico, the Rio Grande is a living river—a feat made all the more remarkable by the presence of dams, diversions and cities. Take a peek between the banks of rivers running through Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson or even Santa Fe. Their channels are almost always sandy.

Of course, the Middle Rio Grande is far from perfect. Rafting, you'll likely hit sand, then have to disembark and drag the boat to deeper waters. While doing this, you'll sink into mud so deep and sticky that it pulls off your inadequately strapped Tevas. Jetty jacks and beaver-cut branches will jab you in the shin; you'll wonder what bacteria is squirming its way inside your fresh wound. Or maybe one day, you'll be wading in a dress when suddenly, two feet from the shore, the channel drops and dunks you into chest-deep water.

I've done all of these things and been just fine. More than fine, in fact. And when a family has smiled at me from the bank, I imagine the toddler—the one pointing and mouthing the word "boat!"—as an old man, recalling the memory of someone who loved the river, waving to him from a raft. I imagine his lifetime as one in which children grow fierce, not from fear of the Rio Grande's waters, but rather a desire to protect them.

Do I need to add disclaimers? Don't be careless or reckless. Keep an eye on your kids. Ditches are deadly; stay away from those things. But the river? Go and pay your respects to the river. You'll be glad you did.

The Rio Grande: A River Guide to the Geology and Landscapes of Northern New Mexico, by Paul W Bauer. This super cool waterproof river guide can be ordered online at

Want to get out on the Rio Grande,

but need a little help?

Santa Fe Rafting Co. (Santa Fe)

Kokopelli Rafting Adventures (Santa Fe)

New Mexico Kayak Instruction (Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos)

Quiet Waters Paddling Adventures (Bernalillo)

New Mexico River Adventures (Velarde)

Los Rios River Runners (Taos)

Far Flung Adventures (Taos)

Cottam’s Rio Grande Rafting (Taos)

Big River Raft Trips (Taos)

Lovin Stolen rivers cool plan deeper climb Bevy Whee Summer Print