5 Trips Down Memory Lane: The Price of Freedom

Learning to raft—at a steep cost—in New Mexico’s finest canyon

May 14, 2013
Outside Magazine

Vespers at Christ in the Desert Monastery outside Abiquiu, NM.    Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo

The Rio Chama in northern New Mexico—at least the ten-mile stretch that starts near a monastery where the monks brew beer—is not particularly wild. The biggest wave is a Class III roller, and the float ends above a dam that creates the jet-ski haven of Abiquiu Lake. Also, the water often resembles Yoo-Hoo, so the fishing is usually very bad.

Still, the Chama is one of my favorite places on earth for a simple reason: I learned to raft here. I first tried it a few years ago and broke a fly rod or two failing to evade an oncoming cottonwood. But piloting a raft is like skiing or learning an instrument: you do it, and do it, and it makes no sense until, eventually, it does. Eventually happened to me last summer. A friend and I were on a boat with two dogs. This buddy, who used to be a professional kayaker, enjoys offering loud instructions whenever he’s in the vicinity of water. But once we pushed off, I started shifting the oars without thinking, and I heard only minimal advice. I was on autopilot, which is exactly where you want to be on a river as quietly stunning as the Chama. The water may not be pristine, but the surroundings sure are: a series of big, wild sandstone walls, all manner of red and tan. This trip was not entirely successful—another friend drove his pickup over my violin at one of the campsites. (“What was that bump?” “I don’t know, back up!”) I bear no grudge, though. Call it a sacrifice to the monks. Those guys can pick their spots.

Access: Arrange a guided trip through New Mexico River Adventures ($105).