Above: Yes, there are rivers in New Mexico—and some move really fast. Photograph by Ryan Heffernan.

CALL IT "RIVER TIME"—that hypnotic space where the real world falls away and you float, just float. Push off into the current of the Río Grande, the Chama, the Gila, the San Juan, or half a dozen other waterways and enter a zone where all your senses feel slightly off-kilter. The boat rises and falls, sometimes gently, or in a splashy froth, or spinning slowly from bow to stern.  

The clouds above move faster as the banks slide silently past. The birdcalls seem louder. You glimpse something through a slot between the trees, but then you’re past it, and before you can process your thought—What was that?—something else grabs your attention. Things happen quickly and slowly and all at once.   

As often as not in New Mexico, the sun is out and warm, forcing tangy-sweet aromas from the junipers and pines. The air at water level—your level—is cooler, but still you dip your bandanna into the water and wrap it around your neck. The stinging cold makes you gasp, and, just as suddenly, it’s the perfect temp.  

Hear that? A low rumble slowly edging past your reverie. Then it registers: roaring rapids. Focus dead ahead. The river “horizon” drops out of sight. Little whitewater geysers burst into the air. Your guide searches for the best route through the jumble of rocks and churning water, then hollers, “Hold on!” The bow drops, the stern bucks like a rodeo bull. You rock, roll, rise in your seat, and fall, holding on for dear life and laughing as a surge of icy water bursts over the bow, slamming into your arms, your face, your lap.  

Then, suddenly, it’s quiet but for your racing heart and the chatter of your boatmates. You notice the banks, the trees, the sky, and realize you’ve been lost in the excitement, holding not a single thought about that other, “real” world. Hypnotized. 

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Commercial outfitters operate primarily on the Río Grande and the Río Chama. When you become your own captain, the options for seeing New Mexico from an otter’s point of view expand greatly. Some float trips are gentle and soothing, others guarantee thrills. Trip lengths can range from a morning’s float from Corrales to Albuquerque to white-knuckle days in the Gila Wilderness. For new boaters, a starting point is the Adobe Whitewater Club of New Mexico