What’s that in the distance? Is it a bearded pirate on his ship made of…. inner tubes, boards, and water bottles? No, it can’t be!
At this point you might think the heat of summer is finally catching up and a bizarre mirage is approaching from our stretch of the Rio Grande. Don’t be alarmed, you aren’t suffering from heat delusions and our shores are safe from pirate attack. You’ve just seen one of the many crews testing their “seaworthy” vessels for the annual Raft the Rio event. The annual event kicks off at La Llorona Park, under the Picacho Avenue Bridge, and takes rafters down to Old Mesilla. Raft the Rio is hosted by the Southwest Environmental Center (SWEC) to promote recycling. Participants build their own rafts either mostly or entirely from recycled materials. The event might not directly restore the ecosystem, but it serves to reconnect people with the river and promotes a positive attitude about recycling. “Raft the Rio is a fun event with a serious purpose and that is to call attention to the Rio Grande—the need to care for it and restore it. The river has supported humans and wildlife for thousands of years. This event serves to remind people of how lucky we are to have this river in our community,” says the SWEC executive director, Kevin Bixby. SWEC hosted the first Raft the Rio event in 1997, to bring awareness to the largest river in the Chihuahuan desert.
Every year since then, the event has drawn a larger crowd and has brought more awareness to cleaning and protecting the river’s ecosystem. The event showcases limitless raft creativity. Many wild and downright extreme rafts are built, and many crews are outfitted in costumes to match. Most notable entries include pirate ships, sea monsters, giant catfishes, dragons, sharks, and many more floating works of art all created from recycled materials and secondhand treasures. Every year a huge crowd of spectators including friends, family, and pets of the sailors arrives to watch the vessels set sail. A few spectators have even been known to dive in the water and hop on a raft last minute to join in the fun. At a recent Raft the Rio, second-year participants from High Desert Brewery were eager to get down the river and claim a prize. Their raft, known as ChupaHoppra, was comprised of empty beer kegs from the restaurant. The captain, Than Williams, was accompanied by shipmates Manny Crespin, Marc Paalvast, Coy Lowthry, Amanda Beal, Frank Saggerson, Matteo Lowthry, and Rocky, their three-legged dog. This crew was also provisioned with two small full kegs for the trip. It was said that the brewery’s raft “would not be complete” without their beer.
The cost for sailing a recycled creation down the river is $20 per vessel until race day, when the price is raised to $25. Crew fees are only $5 for each person 13 or older. SWEC wants this event to stay fun and safe, so all crew members must be 13 or older to sail down the river and all must wear a flotation device. Feel inspired to join in the fun? The event typically occurs in June to coincide with the release of irrigation water from the Caballo Reservoir. The 2014 event is tentatively planned for the 14th; however, since the reservoir release is never set on the same day each year, make sure to verify the date with SWEC. As an event that our area looks forward to each year, Raft the Rio is a truly unique with a double positive: it teaches people that recycling can have a powerful impact on the environment, and it is fun! So grab your recently loved treasures, draw out your plan, and get to building your raft. The next Raft the Rio is coming, Ahoy!
Southwest Environmental Center
Article by Elena Valdez
Photos Courtesy Ken Stinnett and