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A Romp in the River

We were looking for somewhere new to hike recently and we chose a trail in Cliff, NM at the end of Box Canyon Rd.  The directions online said to drive to the end of Box Canyon Rd, park at the campground, cross the river and you’ll be in the Riparian Reserve Area.  Okay, we can do that.

After parking at the western end of the campground, we headed toward the river, investigating pretty rocks along the way.  Where we hit the river, the water was a gushing torrent.  Okay, no big deal.  We’ll just walk along downstream until it narrows and we can put a log across it or until it becomes shallow enough that it doesn’t seem like we’ll get swept away.  We walked for about a half mile and finally decided we weren’t getting anywhere in that direction.

Both dogs headed to the water when we first got out of the car. Trooper waded in only for a moment while Sydney went for a real swim.

We headed back upstream, past where we started and quickly dead-ended when the brush on the riverside became too thick to navigate through.  We loaded the dogs back up, headed to the other end of the campground and unloaded again.  When we told the dogs to get out, we found they had both settled into their ‘relaxed and ready for the long drive back poses’.  Sorry guys, get out!

We walked to the river again, this time encountering goat heads instead of nice rocks.  They’re nasty plants with thorny barb things that fall off them and then puncture your shoe or skin.  After observing the speed of the water and assessing the depth at various entry points, we found where we were going in, took off our shoes and socks, and started across.

Sydney loves the water and had already been in and out several times.  She noticed the direction of my body language and that I was entering the water.  As a result, she headed straight in and over to the island that I was heading for.  Trooper plodded along behind.  This first leg was shallow with slow moving water.  Once on the island, I went downstream a little bit to try and find the best part to cross the main section of rushing water.  No good downstream; turn around.

By the time I was walking by the area with our car, Brian was crossing the first section to join us on the center island.  We headed to the end of the island I had yet to investigate and could now see where the trail picked up on the other side.  If we headed right, we would have a shorter distance to cross but we’d hit a dirt wall that would be difficult to scale.  And it had thick brush growing right up to the water’s edge.

If we headed straight, we’d connect to another island and then have to cross another stream to the right to hit the trail.  The water rushing in front of us connected with the water coming down the right side, converging at the right-hand corner of our island into a roaring river.  Remember this zone; we’ll come back to it in a minute.

I was nervous about crossing because it looked a little deep and was definitely moving FAST.  I also hadn’t worked out how we’d get Trooper across.  While I was contemplating the laws of the universe, Brian took the initiative and started across.  I waited until he made it and then followed suit.

Me heading across the river and Sydney doing her best to follow.  Trooper has chosen to ignore the unfolding situation and is looking the other way.  He is on the first island and you can see the start of our ‘destination’ island in the bottom of the photo.

It required full focus to make sure my foot met sure ground before picking up the trailing leg.  Each time I was on one leg, the water intensity would seem to increase because I only had one limb in the water for balance.  While staring into the depths of the water and clenching my shoes for dear life, I heard Brian say –

“There goes Sydney.”

I started to turn around, ready to flush myself down the river to save her when Brian quickly shouted reassuring words so that I didn’t do anything rash.  Something like, “She’s okay, she’s going to make it, but she’s getting pushed downstream.”

Sydney losing the battle against the current. Trooper…unconcerned.

So while Brian and I had crossed straight ahead off the island, Sydney had tried to cross near the convergence zone and had been swept into the stronger area of combined water.  Being rather petite and not able to reach the ground, she was pushed about 200 feet downstream.  She eventually made it to the other bank but couldn’t climb out because it was steep and crumbling dirt.

Still trying…and still losing.  We weren’t too worried because the river was narrow.  She was going to end up on one bank or the other.

We managed to coax her up the stream.  She walked along the water’s edge until she found a break in the brush.  She wrestled her way up and then disappeared into the bushes.

Sydney walking along the river, trying to reach us.

Eventually, she was able to find a spot where she could haul herself over the crumbling wall of dirt.

Okay, at this point, we had both made it and Sydney was somewhere on the correct side of the river. Now, what to do with Trooper.

I called and called him, trying to get him to enter the water well ahead of the convergence zone.  My hope was that he would attempt to swim across, get swept along and end up on the correct side before the waters combined.  He walked to the edge of his island several times and attempted to enter the water once or twice.  But as soon as it was up to his elbows, he wouldn’t advance any further.

I went back across and worked out a system.  I would hold his collar so he wouldn’t get swept away and we would cross together.  His feet would be touching nearly the whole time, so all he had to do was walk-swim and trust that I’d save him from the current.

We tried that for about 20 seconds and then I let him go back to his side of the shore.  Upon entering, he had tried to ensure that his head was above water by flailing about and rearing back (think of children trying to freestyle but aren’t yet comfortable with their face being in the water).  Because I was holding his collar, this meant a lot of restriction on his neck.  Panic, anxiety and fear rolled off him as soon as he realized I wasn’t going to release his collar and he thought I was going to drown him.  Poor guy.

Trooper watching the Sydney chaos unfold. Watching her make it across somehow didn’t convince him to try it.

I went back to Brian’s side and he offered to go get him and carry him across.  Perfect!  Trooper enjoys being carried since I do it all the time.  As long as Brian keeps his footing, this’ll be a piece of cake!

Apparently, as soon as Brian got back to Trooper’s side of the river, he completely forgot about the carrying plan.  Once he reached Trooper, he grabbed his collar, started talking to him and headed back into the river.

Trooper did his same thrashing/flailing/panic routine but this time, anticipating it, Brian didn’t hesitate.  He plowed right over and Trooper got wet.  Good!  If he would just experience the water a little bit, he could start getting over his concern about it.  I called and spoke to him during the whole crossing and after he landed and shook off, he appeared completely unconcerned and carefree.  Seriously, he recovered within 5 seconds of landing on our island.

[In the future, I think we might bring our old dog harnesses to facilitate a smoother crossing.  Sydney can swim and flail, but be attached so as not to be swept downstream.  And Trooper can be ‘encouraged’ in a more supportive hold.]

Sydney came with a harness very much like this one. It feels pretty flimsy and doesn’t really fit her properly. Maybe it works best with smaller dogs.

I think I would much prefer a harness like this one – bigger fabric area on the back and stomach. Something that doesn’t pinch or press when you have to hold them by it.

So we were now on the second island and just had to cross the river to the right to reach our trail.  We headed off and both dogs followed without hesitation (go Trooper!).  Shortly thereafter, we found the trail marker and we entered the Riparian Reserve Area.

Great horned owl – the second one flew to the other side before we could get our camera out.

We saw two Great Horned Owls and a big Red-Tailed Hawk.  We hiked around until we started losing light and the headed back so we could cross the river before it was dark.  The dogs moved slowly and slept soundly for the next two days.  What an adventure!

Hiking the Riparian Reserve.


  1. Nice pictures; good composition, especially in first one, one with trooper closer up, looking to my left, and the one with the trees curving overhead. Not that I know anything about it, but they are interesting and pleasing to the eye. I think the first one should be blown up, put in a frame, and wrapped up for Christmas with a sticky note that says “Mom” :)

    I’m glad it was a successful trip; must be getting warm there. Sydney did a good job keeping calm, and you guys did not have to go for a swim!!

    • Thank you! Brian deserves the credit for the good photos. The dogs are getting much better at adventures and we’re all having fun. :)