By Bob Huber: PNT columnist
One memorable Father’s Day my son Glen and I conquered the rapids of the Rio Grande from Otowi Bridge to Cochiti Dam in a four-man rubber life raft. Even now, after all these years, I sometimes wake in the middle of the night shouting, “Hard a-port! No, starboard! EEAAIIIIII! Happy Father’s Day!”
It began when Glen offered to take me on the Rio Grande excursion to see how the new Cochiti Dam had altered the splendor of the Rio Grande. He said his Father’s Day gift would be celebrated by riding the last boat down the river before the dam calmed the waters.
I was warmed by the gift, but warned about the river. One friend said, “Be careful below Frijoles Canyon. I hear there are bad rapids down there. One is called The Vise.”
“Rapids?” I said. “Ha ha. What’s a little rapid?”
So on this warm Saturday in June, Glen and I stepped onto our craft and I tightened my May West life jacket and took a firm grip on my paddle, ever the stalwart adventurer. I thought what a grand gift Glen is giving me for Father’s Day.
Glen, who was 15 at the time, kneeled in the bow of our rubber craft while I reluctantly accepted the lonely responsibility of ship’s captain and huddled in the stern. We had 30 miles to go from Otowi Bridge to Cochiti, and I was excited. After all, I was an experienced outdoorsman having fished a couple of mountain streams and once spotted a deer in the headlights of my car.
I should state here that a great deal of preparation went into our expedition. We’d heard about crazies who tried to raft the Rio Grande without adequate provisions, and we didn’t want to join that club. So to say our plans and supplies were more than adequate was to say Columbus had a Cleveland street map tucked in his hip pocket.
Our provisions included a dozen oranges, four sandwiches, a six-pack of Cokes, a box of candy bars, and five cigars. We were prepared for any eventuality.
Shortly after embarking we traversed our first rapid, a mile run of bumpy two-foot waves. Once through them we pulled ashore and discussed how skillful we were and how oranges tasted good after running rapids. Our hearts were light and gay as we traveled on.
Shortly we heard thunder. The gorge, meanwhile, had narrowed, pinching the river between 500-foot cliffs. I remember saying, “I hope it doesn’t rain.”
“I don’t think that’s thunder,” Glen said as we rounded a gentle bend in the river and got our first glimpse of a genuine, sure enough, obscene, nasty old Rio Grande rapid.
A massive boulder the size of a courthouse split the river flow in two. On the left was a 20-foot waterfall, boiling and bubbling, while on the right rose a 10-foot wall of water, filling the air in a mushroom spray like an atomic blast. Just past these obstacles the cliffs pinched into a skinny slit meant only for flotsam. It had to be — THE VISE!
“Eeaaiiii! Hang On!” I shouted. “Eeaaiiii!”
“Eeaaiiii! No kidding!” Glen shouted back.
As we swept around the courthouse and over the falls at a speed of 500 knots, the screams of 1,000 hyenas and the bawling of a herd of water buffalo was in our ears, plus the blaring drum of unmufflered Peterbilt tractors and fog warnings from the Queen Mary. (I’m exaggerating here, because I really don’t recall hearing the Queen Mary.)
It’s difficult to recount exactly what happened next. Sometimes we rode upside down in the curls of massive waves. Sometimes we paddled vertically in a spiral only to be squashed down backwards into a 10-G crunch of millions of gallons of water.
Finally we shot out of The Vice’s grip like a skipped rock, entering placid water dotted with floating oranges, sandwiches, candy bars, straw hats, and cigars. Glen said, “Dad, this might be a good time to give up smoking.”
Later we faced more rapids, each one worse that its forerunner. On one of them I was swept overboard and would have seen my life flash before my eyes if there had been anything worth remembering. We stopped before each of the remaining rapids, checking wind velocity and noting the temperature of the water, before we portaged around them.
But say, don’t get the notion that I was defeated by the river. I just vowed henceforth on Father’s Day to always carry spare cigars and matches in waterproof containers safety-pinned to my underwear, just in case I run another dammed river.
Bob Huber is a retired journalist living in Portales. He can be contacted at 356-3674.