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Parched cottonwood trees along the Rio Grande, a stark reminder of New Mexico's severe drought, now in its third year. (Photograph by Laura Bly)

Paddling the Rio Grande

Humorist Will Rogers, the story goes, once described the Rio Grande as “the only river I ever saw that needed irrigation.”

But on a recent afternoon a few miles from Albuquerque, the biggest city in what the U. S. Drought Monitor has dubbed the driest state in America, the waterway still evoked its name. With a gaggle of impassive cows as a send-off party and unobstructed vistas of the Sandia Mountains as a backdrop, our kayaks slithered into a languidly refreshing world that remains agua incognita for most residents and visitors.

“People are always telling me, ‘I didn’t know you could do that here,'” says Michael Hayes, a transplanted Michigander who arrived in New Mexico with a pop-up camper and two canoes in 2007 and founded Quiet Waters Paddling Adventures three years later.

Despite an extensive network of bicycle trails along the Rio Grande, if private boaters “want to get close to the river, it takes some effort,” explains Hayes, who offers both guided tours and rentals, including stand-up paddleboards. And from a highway bridge in downtown Albuquerque, where the river channel widens considerably, “at lower flows, all you see are sandbars and mudflats,” he adds.

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Michael Hayes, owner of Quiet Waters Paddling Adventures, paddling a canoe down the Rio Grande near Albuquerque. (Photograph by Laura Bly)

That’s particularly true this summer, the third year of a severe drought that has reduced the dam-controlled river to its lowest level in decades.

About 150 miles south of Albuquerque, the Rio Grande-fed Elephant Butte Reservoir is at only three percent of its capacity. When I joined Hayes just north of town for a five-mile, $54 tour from Algodones to Bernalillo in late June, the drought’s calling cards included parched old-growth cottonwoods, their bare branches beseeching the stubbornly blue New Mexican skies.

Since my visit, the river’s already sluggish pace has slowed to as little as 170 cubic feet per second in the Albuquerque area — less than a quarter of the normal flow this time of year.

Yet as our flotilla meandered downstream past private ranch land and the Native-American-owned Santa Ana Pueblo, paddles occasionally tickling the Rio Grande’s soft bottom, the passing parade was anything but desolate.

Snowy egrets and great blue herons minced along the willow-lined river banks, while a squadron of swallows wheeled close above the tea-green riffles of the gentle rapids. The birds are members of a varied avian community, nearly 300 species in all, that reaches its peak in the winter migration season.

Even on a day when Albuquerque thermometers were flirting with the 100 degree mark, a breeze and a few well-placed splashes kept us comfortable. And aside from the birds and couldn’t-care-less cattle, we were all alone — beneficiaries of what Hayes calls “some crazy misconceptions” about the river’s limitations and dangers.

Among those perceived dangers is a ghost called La Llorona. Infamous in Hispanic cultures, the “weeping woman” — so named because she cries inconsolably for the offspring drowned by her own hand — is said to haunt the river in search of unsuspecting young replacements.

There were no signs of La Llorona that afternoon on the Rio Grande — but plenty of magic, nonetheless.

This post was published with special thanks to Visit Albuquerque.

Veteran journalist Laura Bly has visited seven continents and more than 85 countries, but her favorite place is still a window seat, headed somewhere she’s never been. Follow her at, and on Twitter and Instagram at @laurably.