I recently spent 48 hours backpacking and floating during a Friday-Sunday period in the Chama River Canyon Wilderness of Northern New Mexico. So I guess this is a packrafting trip report; sorry if the title was a little bait/switch for our non-packrafters at BPL;) I backpacked twice up the canyon from Big Eddy take-out to Chavez Canyon following the 8 mile dirt road, then floated about 12 miles of the Rio Chama back down river. I camped Friday and Saturday nights along the river in legal dispersed camping areas, despite this being the permit-less ‘day-run’ section of the river. Gray area, I know.
Technically, I was surrounded by wilderness, but FR 151 running parallel to the river up through the canyon to the Christ of the Desert Monastery carves out an exempted zone through the wilderness. The lower half of this road is also on the CDT where thru-hikers come down Ojitio Canyon, cross Skull Bridge and follow the road towards Ghost Ranch.
FR 151 cutting through the Chama River Canyon Wilderness
I carried 2-days’ worth of food and gear (7.5 lb baseweight) and the full whitewater kit for my Yukon Yak packraft (16 lbs). The boat kit included required equipment like a type III PFD, rescue throw-bag, and groover. I also opted to bring an Alpacka dry-suit and the full spray-deck under the consideration that because I was alone and had not run the upper-half of this section, I would error on the side of safety in the event of an extended swim. In hindsight, an experienced pack-rafter could safely negotiate all the rapids, including a swim in warm weather without any of the additional WW gear, thus saving considerable weight.
Gear Sprawl to invite the rain
I arrived at the take-out late Friday afternoon, and quickly headed up canyon. I initially fit everything (including packraft) inside my HMG Windrider 2400 with the PFD, helmet, and paddle on the exterior. This kept the weight centered close to my back and was really comfortable carrying the 27 lbs load. As I passed by and photographed the several named rapids visible from the road in the first few miles I had a pleasant surprise encounter; meeting CDT thru-hiker, Softwalker. He appeared ahead of me and his smooth gait, dirt patina, and svelte pack gave away his trip plans long before we were in speaking range. I asked him if I could offer him anything. “A beer.” “No beer, but I’ve got some whiskey to share.” We had a quick conversation over the libations before I feared I was holding him up on his way to Ghost Ranch. Regarding Balls and Sunshine (I couldn’t help it), he politely smiled and said, “you gotta hide caches.”
First morning view from the bag
I continued up the road another few miles to Skull Bridge where the CDT heads south up Ojito Canyon. 4 miles further up the road brought me to the turn-off to the now deserted put-in at Chavez Canyon. I quickly blew-up and floated a mile or so down to the first legal camping area. I had barely enough time to dump the contents of the pack for a picture, before rain began falling. I slept soundly as it rained through half of the night.
Turbidity and a shiny container created tasty alien water
In the morning I woke and packed everything to hike back up to put-in, in an attempt to keep my floating a legal day trip starting at the designated put-in (This time the raft went on the outside and PFD on inside for ease of packing). The FS had no launch-register to sign-in on, so they wouldn’t really know what day you launched on if they tried to question my trip details. I blew-up again at Chavez Canyon and launched for a second time just as the day-trip crowds started to arrive around 9:30.
Windrider Packed with PFD on the inside
12 miles of river passed quickly (3.5 hours) and the whitewater pimped (I’ve added thigh straps) packraft was a blast as I sought out each play wave I could in the 11 or so rapids on the run. The river was flowing at 850 cfs. I arrived at the now full parking area at Big Eddy take-out, took a nap, and then headed back up the road for lap number 2.
Flat water in the beautiful Chama River Canyon
Passing by the trail kiosk where the CDT heads south I saw the fresh imprint of a z-rest directly under the information board. Some thru-hiker must have slept through the previous night’s rain under that 3x5’ little roof!? The kit on my back seemed overly luxurious as I pieced together what I was looking at. After 2.5 hours of hiking I was once again back at Chavez Canyon put-in, and just in time for rain. I blew-up and launched as the weather turned cooler and I was glad to be wearing the fool-proof protection of the drysuit, with my baselayer of an Ibex Indie and Patagonia windpants still dry.
Looking upstream from the CDT crossing Skull Bridge
I floated several miles including Undercut and Big Meander rapids, much to the agitation of the countless beavers out on the river in the evening, before pulling over to set-up camp. The cool overcast weather kept me in the dry-suit while I cooked and I eventually decided to sleep in it with my down hoody over the top. I slept warm and not a bit clammy.
The second morning camp
Morning dawned and I realized that the clearing skies during the night had let the temperature drop below freezing as the packraft and tarp where covered in a decent layer of ice. I packed and ran the river just like the day before. I was tempted to try for a third lap, but the thought of the four hour drive home helped me decide against it. Instead, when I reached the take-out where the car was parked, I grabbed a warm beer from the car and floated an additional 2 miles beyond Big Eddy towards Abiquiu Reservoir. This section is rarely run because there is no vehicle access to haul out boats unless you paddle or motor 8 miles across the reservoir. That is unless you have a packraft. This part also included two bonus rapids that were amongst the most memorable of the day, before the river slowed and I saw the tell-tale signs of the reservoir; drowned trees and extensive sandbars. I shed the dry suit for the first time in nearly 24 hours, packed, and then bushwhacked over the riverside sandstone bluffs and through open mesa country for about an hour back to the car.
My final take-out as the river entered Abiquiu Reservoir
If river flows on this portion of the Rio Chama hold up over the next few weeks, I’ll be back to attempt a 10-day or so packraft traverse of the Jemez Mountains (following the CDT from San Pedro Parks to the Chama) including floating 70 miles of the Rio Chama and Rio Grande from Skull Bridge down to Bandelier national monument where I’ll then follow Scott Morris’s (Northern NM loop) route back to my starting point at La Cueva in the heart of the Jemez. Will include a 2-3 day (180 mile) bike approach/return from my home in Gallup if I’m confident that the river flows are stable enough to extend the start of the trip.
First of the two bonus rapids just below Big Eddy take-out
The left-channel wave at the bottom of skull rapid
Full 24 photos here: https://picasaweb.google.com/111066265621737571717/RioChamaPackraftingLapsOnTheDailyRun?authuser=0&feat=directlink