The Rio Grande Gorge

by Wayne Heinze

“Such a beautiful, untouched lonely feeling place, such a fine part of what I call the ‘Faraway’ It is a place I have painted before … even now I must do it again.” Georgia O’Keefe

The first time I saw the Rio Grande Gorge, and the Rio Grande River that flows eight hundred or so feet below it’s rim, I felt something of what the artist Georgia O’Keefe expressed in the quote above. And also what she represented in many of her paintings of the Taos region, an area she dubbed the “Faraway” in several of her writings. I was hiking down a rocky trail on an early August evening to the Mamby Hot Springs below the Taos Plateau. As I heard the first of what was to be the nightly calls of the coyotes from out among the sagebrush badlands, I knew I had found the West. And not just the geographic West, but the West of my childhood. Halfway down the trail the sounds of rattlesnakes drew me further into my reverie, and further into the canyon. As the light began to fade from the riverbank, I removed my hiking boots and wool socks and sat quietly bathing my feet in the tepid spring, watching the legendary and mysterious Rio Grande glide by.

The Rio Grande Gorge runs for fifty miles or so, from near the Colorado border, to a point just downstream of Taos, where the river continues on its way, leaving the massive basalt walls and boulders of the canyon behind. As I started back up the trail, I thought of the prairie dog colony I had passed up on the plateau, and the ravens that had floated on the thermals that evening. Native Americans still inhabited the Taos Pueblo as they had for thousands of years. Kit Carson had fought a Civil War battle here. There was a cave with petroglyphs, and “gully washer” downpours late each afternoon. Yes, this was my West, a place that I had only hoped might still exist for me. And it did in the high desert of the Taos Plateau and the depths of the Rio Grande Gorge. As the late singer/songwriter John Denver once wrote of himself in “Rocky Mountain High,” this traveler was “Coming home to a place he’d never been before.” An all too rare instance of imaginings being realized, and expectations far exceeded.

New Mexico’s nearly seventy-seven million acres includes roughly forty percent public lands. More than a third of that is often unmarked Bureau of Land Management acreage, allowing for stretches of seemingly “open range” in many areas. To an Easterner, this was intoxicating, exciting, and perfect. I found great serenity and beauty amidst the sagebrush and grasses on the Plateau, Each evening I would wander out among the hillocks, inhaling the fragrant desert air and the virtually endless stretch of this landscape. But I was inevitably drawn down into the Gorge each day. Days I spent wandering amongst the riverside boulders (and rattlesnakes), probing the runs and pools of the Rio Grande River for trout. And my wanderings just as inevitably led me each day to the John Dunn Bridge. The bridge spanned the Rio Grande and continued as a gravel road up to the west rim of the Gorge, an even wilder and more desolate place than the east rim. I stayed in an Earthship dwelling (solar powered, made primarily of recycled materials, bottles, tires, etc) for which the area is noted. Dennis Weaver, Chester on Gunsmoke, or Detective McCloud in a later TV show, owned one nearby.

Above the Dunn Bridge was a large, slow moving pool, noted for the large catfish it yielded, as well as northern pike. The pike were “accidentally introduced,” as a whitewater guide put it, when a hatchery downstream was flooded, releasing brood stock into the Rio Grande some years ago. The pike thrived on a combined diet of small trout and abundant chubs. Proving again Dr. Malcolm’s assertion in the film Jurassic Park, that “life will find a way”. But just downstream of the Dunn Bridge, the character of the river changed, in a series of riffles and small rapids. Not the challenging white water that occurs a few miles further downstream, but swift enough water that proved to be perfectly suited to the fish we sought. Accessing this portion of the river along a gravelly beach, and wet wading in the summer heat, we sought trout in this classic western water. And when the heat became too intense, the spreading cottonwoods offered shade and a spot to relax, rehydrate and grab a snack, while watching the ravens, hawks or eagles overhead.

The setting was bucolic, and the fishing, though less than spectacular, was good enough on most days. Both rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) and brown trout (Salmo trutta) responded to swimming minnow jigs and spinners. They were fish made strong by their life in the fast water, and jumped beautifully in most instances, especially the rainbow trout. Although a fish with worldwide distribution due to artificial propagation and extensive stocking, the rainbow is originally a native trout of the west. A downstream rush and a leap silhouetted against the canyon walls was breath taking. Even the brown trout, often more of a bull-dogging sub-surface strategist, sometimes performed an arching leap or two in the fast water. Another interesting fish we caught along with the trout was the Rio Grande chub (Gila pandora) a smaller but spirited and interesting by catch. And in storybook fashion, my last cast on the last day enticed a huge, 30 inch class rainbow trout to chase my lure into the shallows. There it lunged and swirled but missed the lure, the brilliant reds, greens and silver of its massive flank gleaming in the morning sun as water droplets dotted my sunglasses, thrown up by the impossible fish at my feet.

As we made our way back up to the canyon rim, I could still hear the swoosh of the river as it tumbled and sped through the rapids that had provided our sport for the past few days. As I glanced back down to the river falling away beneath us, I saw a different river than the one I had seen that first night at the hot spring. It was no longer mysterious, although still magical and exciting, in the way the best of rivers can be. And I both reveled in what I had experienced, and in the anticipation of new sections to discover in the future. But for now, the river here had become mine, part of the realization of my vision of the West. This stretch just downstream of the John Dunn Bridge in the Rio Grande Gorge below the Taos Plateau.