A convoy of ratty vans and trucks peels off NM 68 and skids to a halt in a dusty parking lot alongside the Rio Grande. It is a warm Saturday morning, just south of the Orilla Verde Recreation Area near Pilar. Spectators, some wielding cameras and iPhones and others already popping open beer cans, pile out of the vehicles and crowd the small beach. With eyes trained upriver, they wait for the first racers to round a bend in the distance.
Anticipation mounts as a man holding a megaphone calls out that he has spotted the first kayaker, with another one fast approaching on his tail. People begin to shout and whistle from the beach as the lead kayaker makes his final, exhausted sprint for the finish line. When his boat finally slides to a halt, professional kayak guide for Taos’ Los Rios River Runners, Aren Rane, collapses over his paddle, gasping for breath with a big smile as he fans the dirty-blonde whiskers on his chin.
Strapped into his kayak helmet and sleek personal floatation device (PFD), he looks like a soldier decked out in tactical battle gear. “These young bucks! I’m 45,” Rane exclaims as he waves a finger toward one of his competitors, second-place finisher Cruise Quenelle. Rane continues, still catching his breath, “This is my fourth year in a row, so I tried really hard.”
Rane collides his hands together, demonstrating how he and his rival rammed into one another as they battled for first place during the race.
This is the day’s inaugural race at the recent Whitewater Festival—an annual weekend celebration where river rapid fanatics from across the region descend on Northern New Mexico to duke it out on a 4.8 mile stretch of some of the river’s more turbulent waters.
While New Mexico draws countless hordes of tourists to her stunning mountains and vast sweeping desert landscapes, not a lot of people associate the desert Southwest with water sports. Drawing from snow melt in Colorado, the Rio Grande offers plenty of dicey, roaring stretches of river for people to get their adrenaline kick. The late spring and early summer see the highest levels and a budding culture of river guides and sport paddlers has developed around the mighty desert río.
It’s still early and the day’s festivities are just getting underway. After race times and winners are blurted over the megaphone, people start moseying back to their cars. Competitors strap kayaks onto trailers and van roofs. Two friends prop a handheld music player against the megaphone and blast Bob Marley over the speakers. Everyone is heading toward the day’s second event, the slalom race.
The race is a timed event wherein competitors take turns swerving between gates made out of PVC pipe slung across a short rapid. Racers include kayakers and folks on SUP (Stand Up Paddle) boards—oversized surfboards that riders stand on and propel themselves using an extended canoe paddle. As they navigate the course, racers have to plot their way through the current, occasionally twisting around to battle upstream through certain gates. Before the race, a woman heads down to take some practice runs. She slides in the loose gravel as she schlepps her gigantic board down the steep, rocky path that leads to the slalom course.
“I grew up here and learned to paddle on the Rio, but I live in Colorado now,” Marjo Curgus tells SFR as she straps a helmet over her long, brown hair and watches the river like a kid watching the spinning turbine of a cotton-candy machine. Stand up paddle boarding, as Curgus explains, “started out with surfers; they used it as training when there were no waves.”
As she hops on her board in the fast current, she wobbles to hold her balance like a tightrope walker. “This is like an amusement park for grownups,” Curgus yells as she hits a wave.
“These are my people; this is my tribe,” the paddler remarks about the culture that surrounds whitewater sports. “It’s a community. I think that’s what makes you keep coming back to it.”
"This is like an amusement park for grownups. "
The competition gets underway with kayakers and SUPers heading out one at a time to navigate the course. After his first run, veteran Rane struggles to paddle upriver to the course’s starting point. “It’s fun. It’s super challenging,” he calls out in a surfer dude accent shared by most of his fellow river athletes.
A few minutes later, Curgus rounds the bend, keeping her balance on top of her board and battles the current to reach an upstream gate. A group of kayakers and spectators cheer as she reaches the final gate unscathed. “I am psyched I stayed on my board, like, the time doesn’t matter,” Curgus quips as she recounts her run. “I didn’t swim…so I’ll take that as a win.”
After the slalom race, fans and competitors take a hiatus. Some head into town to grab a burger; others are grilling. Several guides from Santa Fe’s Kokopelli Rafting Adventures lounge atop of one another inside an inflated raft, basking in the daylight, looking like college friends crashing on a community couch.
Later in the afternoon, the New Mexico sun casts its unmistakable golden glow over the water. Soon, people begin teasing one another, breaking the calm, trying to psyche each other out for the day’s final and most popular event, the downriver raft race.
Among the teams prepping for the race—strapping themselves into helmets and pumping air into their boats—are four local guides from Santa Fe Rafting Co. “We’ve been doing good every year,” pro rafting guide Jimmy Josh Wagner says as he crosses his arms over his PFD where a river knife hangs, ready to slash entangled ropes at a moments notice.
“We’ve gotten first, second, third and fourth, so this year we’re hoping to get first again,” he continues. “We don’t have the female Olympic paddle team out here, so there’s a good chance we might get first. They were out here last year, the Red Ladies…we were so close, but we got beat.”
“Let’s have a nice, clean race,” Kokopelli’s John Seiner announces over the megaphone. He jokes, reminding the contestants that while the prizes are awesome, everyone will end up with one, “so don’t hurt anybody.”
The teams now line the beach, facing their rafts, poised, ready to dash toward the river. “On your marks. Get set. Go!” Seiner yells, and the pack takes off.
As soon as the rafts splash into the river, the spectators begin their own race, turning on their heels and running back toward their cars. Tires kick up dust as people peel out of the parking lot and head downriver to catch the race’s different stages. Clusters of parked vehicles line the roadside. Car horns screech as overeager spectators distractedly barrel around the highway’s blind corners.
At the base of a steep cliff, about a mile north of the finish, the river roars over submerged rocks, creating a foam-spitting pitch of whitewater. As the team from Santa Fe Rafting Co. crashes into the wave, a wall of white froth shoots into the air and makes it seem as though, for an instant, the river swallowed the raft whole. When they emerge from the spray, team members haven’t skipped a beat. All are still paddling hard, eyes fixed forward, determined to catch the two boats ahead of them.
The first two teams to drag their boats onto the beach and across the finish line are from New Mexico River Adventures, a rafting company located just down the road in the town of Embudo. When the second team drops their boat, the two squads hurl themselves at one another. They bump chests, pat each other on the helmet or shoulders and howl in victory.
When the team from Santa Fe Rafting Co. emerges from the water, they are in third place of about a dozen and ecstatic. Everyone is cheering and congratulating each other. Ale cans crack open, spilling onto the sand as people dance in celebration. One Rafting Co. racer, William Van Herpe, “double fists it,” picking up and simultaneously drinking from both a beer and a water bottle.
“We went from last place to third, so we started as the very last people on the beach; from last to a podium finish. Not too bad, huh?” Van Herpe says between gulps, chronicling his team’s rise to the (almost) top.
“Good job, boys,” he says, congratulating his team as he takes off his wet shirt and shivers from the cold water. “Good job, men,” a young woman from the crowd jokingly corrects him. “Today you’re men,” she points out as the group erupts in laughter.