The Brazos Box Canyon – By Dave Farkas
When I first moved to Durango, CO in 97’ I started checking into the areas multi-day kayak scene and the Brazos Box in New Mexico popped up on my radar. Folks had talked about the run like it was a unicorn…an illusive trip through a wicked deep gorge with a tenuous approach, hard whitewater, epic scenery, and rugged terrain. Needless to say, this description captured my fancy.
Traveling to the Upper Taos Box, I had driven by the Brazos Box canyon many times and looked longing over to it. What was down there and how could I get in there? I must have asked myself those questions a hundred times.
For years I had wanted to get in there yet got shut down several times because of a farious factors:
- New Mexico has a variable paddling season much like Colorado so the window to catch this run is super short.
- One of the ways to approach the river includes trespassing and I had heard tales of ranchers escorting paddlers off their private property with guns.
- There’s an approach of approximately seven miles with a loaded overnight boat so it was difficult, yet not impossible to access.
- It was hard to find a solid crew willing to undertake this adventure.
- Finding a shuttle driver.
Timing is Key
This section of river has hardly been paddled since its first descent for all the reasons stated above and more, so getting in there and paddling this stretch was something I was really keen on.
Fast forward to the spring of 2020 and for unknown reasons, the stars aligned and the Brazos Box was on!!!! I had some of the usual suspects I roll with around Durango so the crew was solid and tight. We spent a few weeks figuring out our shuttle logistics and the approach (which is the crux of the run) using google maps, and then started gauge watching. We heard optimal flows were between 400-700 on the diurnal and it was sticking higher than that for a while. All of a sudden the flow gauge started dropping in…the rally cry was sounded and the game was afoot!
We loaded up in Durango after work on a Thursday afternoon and rallied out of town. One of our friends was driving down from Denver who was part of the shuttle so we met up with him in the dark at Tierra Amarilla NM, dropped his rig at our friend’s takeout house and drove towards the put in. Elk dodging became the norm as we approached our legal access road. Pulling off the highway and onto dirt everyone was hooting and hollering in disbelief, surprised that we were possibly going to make the Brazos Box happen!
The dirt road heading towards the put in is at 10,500ft and as the night drew on and we drove slowly into the unknown on a beater 2-track, it got colder and colder. We finally pulled over after three or so miles and hunkered down for the night in a sweet meadow surrounded by dark timber and snow drifts. It was a beautiful night, clear and cold, and everyone slept well knowing the next day needed a lot of effort to pull off.
In the morning we drove the vehicle out, ran back, packed our stuff and started the 4-mile hike to the put in. I am sooooo thankful that the trek to the put in had no major inclines or declines. Rather it was a gradual climb (no more than 400ft) and a relatively steep descent which made an 80+ lb kayak bearable on my shoulders. There were even snowfields that we could drag our boats across!!!!
Arriving at the put in everyone was elated. We finally did it … We were finally at the put in for the Brazos Box. For me it was especially sweet. I had been working on this for two decades and to finally be at the put in was amazing. We had two days and one night to get through the canyon safely…we figured that would be enough time.
The run starts off pretty mellow with fun long rapids in the grade III/IV range with bitter cold water. You’re also around 9500 ft so it’s a chilly start to a wicked adventure. After three miles or so you get to a significant section of whitewater and the first portage of the run. The guidebook states that it’s been attempted with varying degrees of success/failure and looking at it, it didn’t seem that appealing to give it a go. So we shouldered our boats, climbed way up high on an ever-moving scree slope and did the portage. This portage made the portage on the Black Canyon of the Gunnison feel like a cakewalk. Steep and loose with any slip/fall resulting in a catastrophic plummet down hill and into a major rapid. After the portage is one of the run’s most fun rapids. A long wave train to an 8ft boof! Time to get the lean on :)
The rest of your first day has you routing through complex grade IV/V whitewater with plenty of scouts and some grade V+. Being able to boat scout is critical in making good time. The river is relatively new with constantly changing rapids and new rocks. The rocks are sharp and dangerous to your boat so moving through these steep and boulder choked rapids and not destroying your boat is crucial.
This is probably a good time to discuss the canyon itself. As you paddle the Brazos Box the walls rise up 1800ft and you begin to realize that this is a granite gorge with little chance of escape should something go wrong. The terrain is so rugged and the cliffs so steep and high, that if there were an accident and rescue was needed it may not be available immediately. We only found one side canyon in which we could potentially escape if we needed to get help, though it also seemed pretty impossible. We discussed this and it became very evident that the only way out of the canyon was downstream. Swim and lose a boat…that would be epic because you’d have to hike out riverside and the canyon walls come down to the water in many places forcing you to swim. Get hurt and require extrication…phew that scenario is even worse. This canyon is so steep and walled in that even though we saw the sky, our SPOT devices would not send out messages. This is a truly committing grade V+ adventure.
At some point during the afternoon of our first day it became apparent that one of our boats was cracked. We happened to recognize this crack at one of the signature rapids “Bird’s Nest” which is a sweet double drop. This drop ends in a moving pool with wood blocking both exits so we set up life safety in an eddie ready to grab someone if they’re off line and upside down. Shortly after checking out the rapid and running it, another boat also cracked. It was time to pull over for the night and get into some plastic welding! I brought a thick roll of bituthene anticipating such destruction and we were all psyched to have it. We also brought a stove and fuel which really came in handy with the welds. Three hours later we had two makeshift welded boats that would hopefully get those two paddlers out of the canyon. In the end one weld held, the other didn’t yet at least we got out in one piece!
Day two saw more of the same style of paddling. Steep boulder-choked rapids with many scouts and routes, some log choked areas that needed navigating, a few portages and epic scenery. The Brazos Box truly rivals the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in relief and beauty. The further you go, the higher the canyon walls grow eventually culminating in a section of river that is truly epic. Here, deep in the gorge, you have a couple of significant rapids/portages stacked up before and after with amazing whitewater. The canyon narrows and you find yourself in a section where water meets the walls and you’re truly locked in there. If you’ve ever paddled the Black Canyon of the Gunnison and know the narrows section, this one rivals that if not more. After you’re through this section and on a wicked natural high, the canyon walls eventually begin to dissipate and you’re left with an enjoyable paddle out on grade IV relenting to grade II finally to a bridge and the take out.
All in all this is a wicked run and one that I had on my list of must do rivers for years. Looking back at how it all went, the amazing group I was with, the way we charged through the canyon…it couldn’t have gone much better. Yeah we broke a couple of boats, but we had the knowledge and material to persevere and fix them. We figured out our approach which is the crux and pulled it off. We charged downstream through unknown waters and had a great time figuring it out. We learned a lot about ourselves and each other and paddled through a section of whitewater and through a canyon that has seen hardly any descents.
Would I do it again? You bet. I just hope I’m fit enough to try one more time :)
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