The Rio Grande is a center of life for New Mexico’s deserts, mountains, and great plains. Throughout the year, its banks are covered with luscious vegetation, like cottonwoods in the North Valley, which, during fall, are yellow and orange and blanketed under misty morning fogs, which turn a golden purple ombre when the autumnal sun sets.
At present, the Rio from the New Mexican North Valley is slow moving and rather low, because it’s peak flow is from April to October, but at its source, which is situated at 12,000 ft in the breathtaking San Juan Mountains of gorgeous Colorado, it flows with speed over jutting river rocks, and bends and twists across 1,900 miles of American territory (from Colorado to Mexico).
This massive stretch makes it the world’s 20th longest river and the fifth longest in North America, and boy, has it seen some remarkable history.
I had the opportunity to experience 20 miles worth of the Rio story with two friends and from a unique perspective; from the thwart seat of a Tributary Tomcat Solo inflatable kayak that I rented from the Kirtland Air Force Base Outdoor Recreation Center for $15/day (and includes a lifevest, aluminum double-ended detachable afloat oars, and a pump).
We completed this route in 5.5 hours, without banking, and in that time, we kayaked through village, county, reservation and city life, which was an eye-opening means to see how people live and have lived alongside and directly off this enduring and extraordinary river for centuries.
From the Village of Algodones to the Alameda Open Space, my adventure companions and I made note of a handful of unmarked and marked stretches of historical areas. These include the following: In Bernalillo, about a ¼ mile north of the Highway 550 overpass, the banks of the Rio were the home of the ancient Puebloans called the Kuaua, who settled there in 1325 A.D. and prospered as farmers. This site today is called the Coronado Historic Site and is an incredible museum that displays, among other things, the best preserved pre-columbian mural ever found in North America and it’s truly astonishing. At this same site and 200 years later (1540), Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, with 500 soldiers and 2,000 Indian allies from New Spain, entered the Rio Grande Valley on his search for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold, but instead found a dozen villages inhabited by prosperous native farmers – the Kuaua. Unfortunately, within a century, the Kuaua would be removed from their riverbank pueblos by disease and danger. Today their ancestry makes up the Tiwa-speaking villagers of Taos, Picuris, Sandia, and Isleta.
At this same point in Bernalillo and all the way south to Corrales, is where the Rio Grande Raft Race would take place every June from 1980 to 1995. The event was sponsored by the Bernalillo County Recreation Department but tapered out when folks began drowning due to the loose drinking laws back then. Long before this event was officiated, however, it was a summer pastime of North Valley locals; one in which my parents participated in their youth and before they were my parents… yes, when I was still sitting on a log by Jesus. Oh and somewhere along this stretch, was a place where 1970’s locals would kick it and throw keggers – they called it “North Beach”.
As we entered Corrales, we were welcomed by a thick and pungent stench, that some would call, “evidence” of the Intel Corporation’s presence. Intel has operated in New Mexico since 1980, but in the early 2000’s, the villagers of Corrales fought tooth and nail against this urban and industrial giant for pumping the bosque aquifers at an alarming rate and then dumping 85% of it back into the Rio Grande with volatile organic compounds in the mix (chemicals used to make computer chips, network processors, and flash memory). The corporation got away with this by controlling local, regional, and state-federal laws and regulations, as well as lobbied to reduce standards so that profits could be maximized and toxic pollution could be emitted legally; all of this is researched and written about in the book Boiling Frogs: Intel vs. The Village. All things considered, Intel is now on its way out of New Mexico and due to the high profile media frenzy surrounding this story, it appears that water regulations are more cookie cutter than ever before, providing life and vegetation on the Corrales Rio to replenish itself.
At the Alameda Open Space, right at the cross street of Rio Grande Boulevard and Alameda is a beautiful statue of a Territorial Period woman and man, between them, a carrying pole, balanced between their shoulders, and which is distributing the weight of an iron bell. The story of this statue is one I learned from my uncle who grew up in the North Valley, long before Alameda became one of the main arteries of Albuquerque commute. He told me that in the 1800’s the Rio Grande looked very different than it does now, and even ran differently before flood control was implemented. The two people depicted in this statue, represent the real story of when the Alameda Church (which no longer exists), housed a bell in its bell tower which was used by the river communities as a warning system. The statue shows the man and woman saving this precious bell from the oncoming of a flood; it is unknown if the bell in this statue is the same bell of the 1800’s Alameda Church.
So, that was our route: from Algodones to Alameda, and we were lucky to experience it on such a warm fall day. We routed through overhanging bosque jungles, between rushing river eddies, under colossal city power lines, alongside Canadian Geese and Great Herons, and always under the beating sun.
Algodones put-in point
We used these coordinates to get to the dam: 35.37903400, -106.49958600
Driving North on Hwy 313 towards Algodones (21 miles north of Albuquerque), the location of the dirt road that will take you to the dam parking area is directly across the street from Mile Marker 13, which is immediately preceded by a very small bridge with guardrails.
Once you make this turn, proceed down the dirt road. There will be a fork in the road; the right fork is for local residential driveways, and the left fork is for public use. A little further up, this road dead-ends into a parking area. A white gate is used to barricade vehicle entry to the acequia and dam which runs North to South. The dam is located ¼ mile north of the parking area, which one has to walk to put-in on the river.
Do not put-in at the top of the dam. You can access the lower part of the dam’s small fall by taking one of a few beaten paths that navigate through the riverbank brush.
A huge resource used when preparing for this trip was Quiet Waters Paddling Adventures whose website lists everything from annual water conditions, rentals, safety, and routes.
Franchesca, Kyle and I used two cars and initially met at the Alameda Open Space where we left one car and carpooled to Algodones in the other. If you have Kirtland Air Force Base access or know someone who does, I recommend renting kayaks and supplies from its Outdoor Recreation Center. They offer the most competitive rental price in the city: $15/day.