Drifting on the Rio Grande

By Paul cook - Las Cruses, New Mexico - USA

For Labor Day Weekend, I told my wife I would like to paddle our puddle duck for a short trip down the Rio Grande . I should point out that we are novices at this. I built the puddle duck over a year ago (Hull #240) and have only been for two short (3 mile) jaunts down the river in it for Raft The Rio (an event sponsored every year by the Southwest Environmental Center).

Muy Fragil before finished. My friends like this one because you can see the name.

This trip turned out to be much longer than I expected. I had talked to some friends who said something about kayaking from the Radium Springs area down to La Llorona Park in Las Cruces. When I asked them how long it took, they replied maybe about three hours or so. I didn’t bother to check the distance until after we made the trip. (I know, that was very foolish!) It turns out it’s over 15 miles (I don’t know the exact distance) and it took us 6 hours. Of course we weren’t paddling very hard until the last hour or so of the trip. We only started paddling hard at the end so we could get back to our truck before the park closed! We just drifted for a good deal of the time. After talking to my friends again, I discovered that I misunderstood where they had started and they only went about half the distance we did. No wonder it only took them about half the time!

Me and my daughter with the boat shortly before we put it in the water.

The Rio Grande moves very slow in this part of its course. People who love to do white water or who are adrenaline junkies wouldn’t find this trip very exciting. Despite the calm appearance of the river though, it seems like someone drowns every couple of years or so. The river can go from ankle deep to over a person’s head in just a few feet.

And there are some very strong currents in places that can pull someone under without any warning. Just a couple of weeks prior to our trip, a seven year old girl was pulled under and downed. A lot of places along the river are marked with no swimming signs.

No Swimming sign.

My daughter’s raft got caught in some kind of current that spun her around and trapped her next to the bank during the last Raft The Rio. She said it took her about fifteen minutes to get free of it. She finally managed to push against the bank with her paddle and get loose, but she was wishing she had a longer paddle or a pole while she was stuck there.

My daughter got more excited about seeing cows along the bank than she did by anything else on this trip. We decided she doesn't get out enough!

Had I known how long this trip was going to take, I might not have tried it, or at least not on the day we did. But my wife, daughter and I packed everything up and set off.

This is my wife. You notice she is actually smiling!
A picture of me in the boat
on the water

We started from a picnic/river day use area, Leasburg State Park. The park is located by Radium Springs. There was a five dollar fee for using the park. The park closes at 7:30 at night, so I was thinking we had plenty of time to get back and get our truck. It was extremely hot and we didn’t get on the water until about noon. My original plan was to get started early in the morning, which would have made the trip much more pleasant. Well, everyone knows what happens to plans. We went to a college football game the night before and didn’t get to bed until midnight. But the late start and heat aside, we were rewarded for our efforts with some incredible sights of Great Blue Herons taking off across the water and some beautiful views of mountains framed by the river as we drifted around bends.

Shot of a Great Blue Heron standing near the bank.
Here is a Great Blue Heron in flight, but it didn't come out very clear.

We saw families of ducks on the water and groups of swallows performing aerobatics across the river. There were stretches where the only sounds we heard were the sounds of the river. It was extremely peaceful and I’m glad we made the trip.

A shot of the river with the mountains far off in the distance.
This is a shot with the mountains getting a little closer.
The mountains appearing closer.

Naively thinking that we would be done in three or four hours, we didn’t eat lunch before we left. We did pack some bananas, granola bars and chips, along with bottles of water. After we had been out on the river for a couple of hours, I was wishing we had stopped to eat at the picnic area, or had brought something more substantial to eat on the boat. I told my wife we should have brought some chicken with us. She wanted to know where I had been three hours earlier when we were getting ready to leave! We had enough water for the trip, but if we had been on the water any longer we would have wanted more.

This is just a general picture of the river, but you can tell I live in the desert.

For a holiday weekend I expected a lot more people out on the river. Perhaps they were a lot smarter than we were and finished their activities in the morning hours. We only came across four or five groups of people picnicking, fishing and/or camping. Most of them seemed surprised to see us. We did come across one small group with a person skinny dipping in the river. Fortunately we were on the opposite bank of the river. The only part of the trip that worried me was when we passed by a group bird hunting just off the bank of the river. Initially we couldn’t see anyone, but we could hear a lot of gun shots. Eventually we even saw a couple of people standing close to the river, shooting. Lucky for us they were aiming the other direction and we soon passed by that area. We spoke to one person fishing on the river who said he had seen someone come by about an hour before us, but we never saw any other boats on the water during our trip.

The Picacho Bridge
Closeup on Picacho Peak.
Another view of the Picacho Bridge
This is a bridge we went under at the beginning of the trip. I was a little nervous when we first saw it because the supports seemed so close together.
Here is a view of the Picacho Bridge with water in the river, from Raft the Rio 2007.

Normally the flow of water on the river gets cut way back at Elephant Butte reservoir around this time of year, but it was still very full on this weekend. Once the flow is cut back it’s impossible to do any paddling. The river in our part of the state is a very muddy brown, not very pretty to look at. The banks on both sides are generally covered with a lot of vegetation. Unfortunately a lot of it is salt cedar, a non-native vegetation, that is very aggressive, hard to get rid of, and extremely thirsty in its water consumption. We did see some screw bean mesquite, cat tails, and wild iris as well. There were a few areas where we encountered a lot of insects. Fortunately we brought insect repellant and sunscreen along. The skies were a little overcast for the first part of our journey, but after a while the sun came out and at times the heat was almost unbearable. This is when I was wishing I had already followed David Routh’s advice and made a bimini top for our puddle duck. There is a road that parallels the river close by, so we were frequently reminded that civilization was not far away. Overall though the traffic noise wasn’t bad and wasn’t noticeable at all in a lot of places. There are a lot of sand bars in the Rio Grande and we forced our way over several of them, but we had to get out of the boat four different times and drag the boat to get across some areas. The water was only about an inch and a half deep in these places. The worst of these was about fifteen yards across and it seemed to take us forever to get over it before we could get back in the boat.

The Rio Grande with the water level way down.
This is a shot of the Organ mountains toward the end of our trip. Unfortunately we were so tired when we got to La Llorona park, we didn't take any pictures when we got there.
View of the Organ mountains with snow on them, from the park (looking East)

Ideally we would have preferred to finish our trip about three hours after we started. After the first three hours we started getting tired. Of course we didn’t make our daughter start paddling until almost at the end. We decided next time we’ll trade off paddling more, bring our son along, and either bring a second puddle duck (whenever I get around to getting it built) or bring our puddle goose (a 12 foot version of the puddle duck, puddle goose #3 on We would have brought the bigger boat for this trip, but I’m still in the process of sanding it down and resealing the outside. I was also wishing I had taken a better camera. And I would definitely bring some thicker cushions to sit on. Our backsides were sore by the time we finished!

These pictures are all taken from La Llorona Park, which is where we finished our trip and got out.

You may have noticed that I’m already talking about next time. As tired as we were when we got out of the boat at the end, we started talking right away about making the trip again and what we’ll do different next time. I know this is nothing compared to the Texas 200, but for a lazy afternoon of family entertainment it was a lot of fun.

This is the Muy Fragile being launched for Raft the Rio, from the same area in the park.

Paul Cook
Las Cruces, NM



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