For Tesuque Pueblo member Louie Hena, water is the source of life, and the Rio Grande Gorge is where he worships.
“This is my church,” he says, as we float a placid stretch of the Rio Grande, the artery coursing the gorge’s steep cliffs. To the north, lies the altar — where “Earth Mom,” as Hena calls her, ruptures near the Colorado/New Mexico state line carving the Taos Volcanic Plateau 82 miles south to Española. Although the crevasse is relatively narrow, Hena describes the plateau’s full expanse — unfolding west to the Jemez Mountains and east to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains — as the boundaries of his church. The river pours into Pueblo communities along its sinuous route, including Hena’s native Tesuque, as well as Taos, Picuris, and Pojoaque, all nearby. But the gorge is also Hena’s office.
As a guide of Los Rios River Runners’ Native Feast and Float tour, he’s among dozens of outfitters traversing this outdoor playground. Hot-air balloons glide over its chief landmark, the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, the second highest bridge in the U.S. highway system when it was erected in 1965, outside Taos. Mountain bikers cruise the gorge’s rim, and rock climbers stretch for finger holds in its sheer-sided basalt. Its depths are congenial and appealing in their variety, from the class-three rapids of the Taos Box, a 17-mile stretch of white water south of Taos, to the gentle springs and soaking pools burbling along the river’s edge. The canyon calls me year after year, to hike, trek with llamas, raft, and stand in awe as the sagebrush mesa trips into the gorge’s 800-foot-depths.
Two years ago, I descended the Big Arsenic Trail, the same route outfitter Stuart Wilde, of Wild Earth Llama Adventures, follows with his sure-footed camelids. His gentle pack llamas carry the gear, from water bottles and rain jackets, to a near-gourmet spread that Wilde lays at the mid-point of the Take a Llama to Lunch day hike. Set within the Wild Rivers Recreation Area north of Questa, the trail slopes into a topsy-turvy world. From rim to river, the route defies ecological expectations. Here, juniper scrubland inclines, rather than climbs, to 500-year-old ponderosas on the riverbank. Siphoned between these trees and a narrow-boulder rimmed canyon, the river crashes and tumbles, harmonizing with the llamas’ hums as they patiently wait while the humans catch up on basic llama husbandry.
Wilde talks about the landscape with the gentleness you’d lend a friend. It was born millions of years ago when the North American and Pacific tectonic plates got in a spat and formed a rift in the earth’s crust. The gorge is just a lanky adolescent — far newer than Arizona’s Grand Canyon — but certainly New Mexico’s grandest canyon. The majesty of its great, black fissure is enough to startle the breath from my throat every time I encounter it. Today, the gorge is part of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, which uniquely protects traditional uses like firewood collection and piñon gathering from the scraggly trees that edge its many trekking paths. Thousands of archeological sites lie within the monument’s boundaries.
On another bright summer day this year, Hena points out petroglyphs ancient people etched into riverside boulders. Hena guides us to look for spirals — the symbol of life — not only in petroglyphs, but also in pooling water eddies and the thumb-side of our own closed fists. In this southern gorge section, near Pilar, the water runs at a slower cadence; however, running the highest it has in eight years, the waters banks onto cottonwood trunks planted along the banks to grasp the riparian habitat back from insidious Russian olives and tamarisk. Trout, bass, and carp frequent these waters, so do fly fishermen casting their translucent lines. River otters, once hunted to oblivion, are here somewhere among the willow sprouts. Taos Pueblo reintroduced these furry surfers along with Bighorn sheep, which now gambol the cliffs above. On this day, otter and sheep remain elusive, but Hena says we spot Avanyu (water serpent). The Pueblo people say this powerful deity and water guardian shows its curved spine in the cresting rapids as it carries Earth Mom’s bounty downriver. We land at one of the riverside campgrounds here for our lunch of customary feast day fare — calabacitas (corn, zucchini and green chile), red-chile bison stew, and oven bread and plum pies fresh from the horno. Above a bald eagle glides canyon uplifts, as though soaring on Earth Mom’s exhalation.