Local rivers offer rapids for all skill levels

Hannah Grover
Festival goers ride a raft down the Animas River on May 23, 2015, during the Riverfest celebration in Farmington.

Editor’s note: This is part of a series that highlights popular outdoor activities that anyone — from a novice to an expert — can try out. Stories will publish on the last Thursday of each month this year.

FARMINGTON — The Four Corners has plenty of rafting options for people of all skill levels, according to Nathan Henkenius, director of the Outdoor Leadership, Education and Recreation program at San Juan College.

Henkenius said residents only have to drive one hour to find rapids of any class. Rapids receive classifications based on the International Scale of River Difficulty, which gives sections of rivers numerical ratings based on how difficult they are to raft.

A class 1 section of a river is flat and easy to raft while a class 6 is the most challenging and can often be unpredictable or dangerous.

Henkenius started rafting three years ago when he took a class at San Juan College. That got him hooked, and he soon became a licensed rafting instructor.

When he leads classes, Henkenius tends to stick with class 2 and class 3 rapids. He said those are not too dangerous but are "still enough rapid to be a ton of fun."

"The water can be a really scary thing for a lot of people," he said.

Visitors to Riverfest head down the Animas River on May near Berg Park.

As a raft goes through rapids, people aboard are thrown from side to side until the raft leaves the whitewater. During the break between rapids, rafters have a chance to think about the dynamics of rafting, Henkenius said.

Will Berger, a guide at Four Corners Whitewater in Durango, Colo., said he grew up rafting. But he added that there are many resources online to teach people how to raft. He recommended watching YouTube videos and starting off rafting when the water level is low, such as in the late summer. Lower water levels makes the river more mellow for beginner rafters, he said.

"Just get out on the water," he said.

One major difference between the rivers of the Four Corners and the rest of the United States is the mountainous terrain the rivers cut through, according to Scott Burchfield, director of San Juan College's Outdoor Equipment Rental Center.

He said mountain rivers tend to have large changes in elevation, as well as points of constriction within the channel. This leads to faster rivers that are more "in your face."

"It's more of what you think of in terms of whitewater rafting," Burchfield said.

He said the Animas River in Farmington, as well as the San Juan River, tend to be calmer rafting than Durango, Colo. But he added that all of the local rivers are fun to raft.

Rafting is a popular way to escape the heat of summer, and Burchfield said it offers an "adrenaline rush for some and a different way of seeing things for others."

Hannah Grover covers Aztec and Bloomfield, as well as general news, for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.


Rafting instructor Nathan Henkenius said there are two types of rafts — oar rafts and paddle rafts. Oar rafts have a single oar on the back of the raft and one person steers. Paddle rafts have paddles for each person in the raft. Henkenius said he prefers to take classes out in paddle rafts because it allows everyone to be involved.

"It gives the whole group something to do," he said.

People interested in rafting with a paddle raft should gather about half a dozen friends, as well as life jackets and sunscreen, Henkenius said.

While the peak rafting season in the area is March through mid-July, Henkenius said people can continue to float the river using hard-shelled kayaks, canoes and paddleboards.

Equipment can be rented at San Juan College Outdoor Equipment Rental Center, 4601 College Blvd. inside the Human Health and Performance Center.

Tips for beginners

"You just got to get out there and start doing it." — Will Berger, raft guide

"Stay within your comfort zone unless you're going with someone who is experienced." — Nathan Henkenius, rafting instructor

"Take a class. ... Nearly all of the injuries and fatalities that have taken place in the rivers can be traced back to lack of education." — Scott Burchfield, San Juan College Outdoor Equipment Rental Center

"The most important thing is always wear a life jacket." — Berger

Three nearby places to raft

Animas River in Durango, Colo.: There are several places to launch rafts on the Animas River in Durango, Colo. The section of river includes class two and class three rapids.

Animas River White Water Park: Farmington features eight river access points for rafts to enter the Animas River. The first access point is at Penny Lane in east Farmington. The river includes sections of class 1 and class 2 rapids, including a whitewater feature in Berg Park. People can take out of the river at the Miller Street bridge or continue farther downstream to the Kirtland Lion's Park landing. Lion's Park can be accessed off of County Road 6255. For more information, call the Farmington Convention and Visitors Bureau at 505-326-7602.

San Juan River in Farmington: The Farmington run of the San Juan River starts at the McGee Park Landing and continues downstream to Westland Park below the confluence with the Animas River. The McGee Park landing can be accessed off of County Road 5500 and County Road 5468. People wanting a longer run can put their raft in at the Verde del Rio San Juan Park in Bloomfield. The Bloomfield access is the first river access after Navajo Dam.