We just finished participating (as “guides”) in the first commercial descent of the Rios Mulatos/Aros/Yaqui in northern Sonora, Mexico with Rocky Contos of Sierra Rios. It was an adventure to say the least! Unfortunately we ended up doing our trip during one of the worst droughts in the Sierra Madre Occidental in the past 100 years. Durango (Mexico) has had the least precipitation recorded in 80 years. The drought is incredibly severe throughout Durango, Zacatecas, Chihuahua, eastern Sonora (where we were), and into Coahuila and Texas. Basically we were boating at the very bottom of possible flows – in the 1st percentile of the historic record: ~19 cms (670 cfs) on the Aros during our initial days of toil. Just so you know, the 10th percentile is a seemingly hefty 78 cms (2600 cfs). The 50th percentile is ~240 cms (8000 cfs), and the 90th percentile is ~430 cms (15000 cfs). We got very unlucky. While we had an almost perfect 1500 cfs on the same trip last year, we ended up boating the Mulatos canyon on around 150 cfs this year. It was extremely difficult to get the larger boats (16 foot cat, 16 foot Avon raft, and 15’6″ Sotar raft) down the river. The smaller cats, inflatable kayaks, and kayaks had an easier (but by no means easy) time of it.
Here is a synopsis of the trip, largely put together by Rocky. I hope to post a trip report soon on our trip reports page, complete with pictures!
August 25 The van picks up most folks and gets to Douglas, meeting at Motel 6 with Neil and Lacey. We realize that we definitely need two vehicles for our group of 11 individuals. Our Mexican friends are stuck in Austin due to their truck breaking down. I suggest they plan to meet us at Natora a few days after we put in on the Mulatos.
August 26 We leave ~7:30 am from Douglas; Sonora is same time as Arizona (mountain time; no daylight savings). We cross the border and find out that one of our group cannot get a tourist visa due to expired passport; also, the trailer cannot be registered because it must be owned by the same individual as the vehicle that is pulling it. We decide to take a chance with the trailer and stay within Sonora – the customs guy says it will not be a problem. We still plan to do the Mulatos-Aros-Yaqui, but change the plan after that to do the Bavispe instead of Conchos. The customs area stuff takes ~2 hr. We do some shopping, get gas, change some money, and are off to Sahuaripa starting 12:45 pm. We arrive in Sahuaripa 5:45 pm, meet our shuttle driver, decide to eat there and stay the night in the Hotel Casa Grande.
August 27 We leave ~8 am to the put-in with two drivers, taking the Guamisopa route – a little longer than the Arivechi route but with a better-maintained road. Going up the grades we realize that the van pulling the heavy trailer and 8-9 people does not have enough power. Everyone has to get out to lighten the load so it can make it up certain grades. This occurs in several places along the road to the put-in, delaying us substantially. It takes almost 4.5 hr to get from Sahuaripa to Matarachi (normal time would be 2.5 hr), where we meet our geologist friend from the local mine and have a reheated lunch (his cooks had prepared some carne asada, salsas, and other items for us the previous evening when we were expected; the items were reheated for our lunch that day). He gives us a geology lesson and accompanies us in his 4WD pickup to the put-in. On the downgrade to Mulatos we all stop and realize the brakes of the van are smoking. Soon the breaks get so hot that they do not work at all. Our friend from the mine offers assistance by towing our trailer a few more kilometers to the El Victor put-in with his truck. We get everyone there about 1.5 hr before dusk (5 pm), unload, get rafts together, and eat some tamales. The river is extremely low – about 150 cfs by my estimate (when average this time of year is about 1800 cfs). The geologist remarks that in his 11 years working at the mine he has never seen the river so low this time of year. Pickups can drive across it, when most years they cannot cross until October or November. I realize the going will be extremely difficult, but given the difficulties of getting out over the road we just came on, decide it is best to move forward with the trip, hoping the river will pop up and make it easier, and if not, just camping out a few nights and then getting back to from the lower access point about 5 km downstream. There is lightning that night visible, but no rain on us. The shuttle drivers stay the night in Matarachi and drive back to Sahuaripa the next day.
August 28 (Day 1 on the river) The river is about the same level the next morning. We finish loading all the gear on the boats and take off around 10-11 am. I am surprised that the big rafts can make it over most of the shoals without much problem. However, we soon arrive at the first two class IIIs about a kilometer downstream and have a difficult time pushing the heavily loaded rafts over some narrow channels and rocks. Some start to doubt whether we should continue. I inform them that we can take out a few more kilometers down if need be. We continue. There are a couple of trucks parked at the other access point and I talk to a guy there. A stream with orangish-brown water (sulfuric acid from the mine) enters at that point. We decide to continue as the going got easier and remained so for many more kilometers – all the way down to the first big rapid, Amargosa, which we arrive at around 4pm. There is a small beach there. Since we will have to line/portage the rafts anyway, we decide to unload, camp, and reload the stuff in the morning after the rafts are lined without the weight. Most of the rafts are lined through a chute on RL that day. It is a clear night and no clouds or signs of thunderstorms. Kayaks run the small falls. In general the kayaks and IKs have no problems getting through everything easily, even with water this low. Neil was sick most of day. Some others have diarrhea. Pasta dinner. I get sick that evening. We covered 12 km today.
August 29 (Day 2) The river is about the same level as the previous evening – maybe 1 inch lower. We are on the water by 8 am and continue through Barranca Mulatos. The two rapids after Amargosa are tricky to line/push rafts through, but we make it. After that, nearly every rapid is a challenge – even many that would be class I-II. One of the IK paddlers comments that it is fun since every rapid is like a puzzle to figure out how to get the rafts through. However, when we need to lift rafts a bit, it is a pain, so we decide to get rid of a lot of weight that is not needed. Around 11 am, we stop at a beach on RL (Jettison Beach) and cache 2-3 day’s worth of food as well as 60 beers. The food left includes much produce, Tasty Bites + couscous, trail mix, energy bars, pasta + sauce, pesto + crackers, oatmeal, 12 cans of corn, hot sauce, salsa, and a box of wine among many other items. I leave the food in one of my coolers as well as two ammo cans – up along a wall that I hope nobody will find. We redistribute some of the heavier stuff into the smaller cats and IKs. After over 2 hours sorting through and leaving this gear, we continue with the lightened loads about 3 km more over the next 2-3 hours and camp early at probably the nicest spot in Barranca Mulatos (RR 17 km from put-in). It is clear again and no rain this night. Tortellini dinner. 5 km total today.
Aug 30 (Day 3) We continue through the rest of Barranca Mulatos, starting around 8 am. The biggest rapids are extremely challenging. The IKers are often in the lead and directing the best route, then helping push/lift rafts where needed. The kayakers are usually behind and make sure all the rafts get through each spot, then move up to places where there are difficulties. The three small catarafts generally do not have much problem. The three big rafts often get stuck – especially the 16′ Avon and my 16′ cataraft, but also sometimes the large Sotar. Saucito (a class IV) requires careful lining. Unscathed is one of the toughest rapids – the lead raft gets stuck in a narrow slot at the bottom. Others do not want to risk running their small cats down into it due to a swooshy right eddy in the wall that looks nasty. The pilot of the large cat hurt his foot earlier – he thinks possibly something broken. Unscathed ends up being one of the toughest rapids to get the rafts through. We line the smaller cats down to the main chute and get them through. The other two big boats are unloaded and coolers/boxes portaged to the end, while the rafts are lined/lifted through a narrow chute on RL. What an experience! After another kilometer we get to Dos Mas, which ends up requiring careful lining (which I do from a rock RR for all the rafts, but Lacey gets tangled in the rope a bit and I let go – it goes high up on its side and almost flips!). The second rapid of Dos Mas requires some lining but is not overly difficult. It is interesting to see the tougher rapids at the very low flows. We camp soon after Dos Mas on a nice beach RR. Salmon/rice/dolmas dinner. Clear again this night. 4 km total today.
August 31 (Day 4) We start around 8 am, and the rest of the class IIIs are mildly challenging down to San Francisco, just past the arroyo entering on RR. After that last class III, it is much easier going. We make many more km but it is still not enough to finish the Mulatos. I realize that we are not going to meet up with our Mexican friends, who we were supposed to meet yesterday at Natora. Turkey/gravy/mashed potatoes for dinner. 19 km today.
September 1 (Day 5) We start around 8:30 am and make it to Arroyo La Palmita (12 km downstream) by 11 am where we enjoy the clear warm water and have a long lunch. By about 2 pm we are another 4 km to the confluence with the Aros. My estimate is that the Mulatos had about 5 cms (about 150 cms) while it averages 70 cms (2400 cfs) this time. The Aros seems to have about 4X as much water. In actuality, we find out later that the Aros actually is flowing with 19 cms downstream (670 cfs), so here has only about 18 cms (630 cfs). There is no more dragging, pulling, lining, or portaging. All the rafts can get over the all shoals without any help. There is a nice little arroyo 2 km downstream that I explore and get some drinking water. We make it 7 km downstream of the confluence by 4:30pm and camp at a nice beach RR km 69. There is some thunderstorm activity visible but no rain on us. Spaghetti for dinner today. Total 23 km today.
September 2 (Day 6) The water is about the same level as the previous day (650 cfs). We get to Natora before 11 am and several of us go in and check out the town. We are 3 days late in meeting our friends, and learn they were here waiting for us 2 days and left the previous day. Natora has a small store, some beer available, and a phone. We discuss possibly ending the trip here for some. One of the rafters had a Cataract trip scheduled for Sep7 but cannot make it. He decides to stay with the group all the way through, ending on our anticipated date of Sep 8 or Sep 9. The hurt foot is still looking bad and he suggests we end the trip, but will stick with most of the group if everyone wants to continue. Some others may want to end the trip, but many want to keep going. We decide to all stick together and continue. We pick up more provisions for the longer time on the low water (6-7 more days). There are canned beans, some tuna, salsa, Maruchan, beans, and masa available that we buy. A group of military is in the town. After 2.5 hr here, we continue on. The rapids downstream of Natora are still pretty fun at the low flows: Stratified, Rancheria, Tunapa. There is some thunderstorm activity visible but no real rain on us. I realize some food is spoiling, including bread and tortillas, but we still have plenty for several more days. We camp RR at km 96, about 4 km before Arroyo El Aliso. Tortillas/beans/salsa/chips for dinner. Total 27 km today.
September 3 (Day 7) The water rises about 3-4 inches by morning and makes the going much easier (to ~30 cms or 1000 cfs). We are off by 8 am and at Arroyo El Aliso early. The pool is much shallower but it is still a great spot to stop, get water, swim, and explore. After lingering there 1.5 hr, we are off again and enjoying some of the rapids near El Aliso and then Lone Palm Gorge. It actually is still very fun. We camp at km 125.5 RR by 4 pm. More t-storm activity visible. Lacey does food today – couscous/harissa dinner great! Total 30 km today.
September 4 (Day 8) The water rises another 5-6 inches, by morning and makes going much nicer (to ~40 cms or 1300 cfs). We stop at Rio Bonito, then Arroyo Santa Rosa for lunch (19 km down). Roca Roja and other rapids are very easy. We stop at the Nacori Chico gauging station and I find out some of the actual flows for the previous days. Rodrigo there confirms that these have been record low flows for August (19 cms for several days before it started rising to ~30 cms the previous day, and even more today). We camp fairly early (~4 pm). It is a nice sandy camp but the kitchen is placed rather low. After eating I comment that the river came up a few more inches and the kitchen stuff should be moved higher. We start doing that but stop to have a meeting to discuss whether we should take more time on the rest of the trip. As we are discussing it, the water starts rising quickly to the kitchen area – probably nearly 1 m/ 3 ft total within an hour. Everyone is amazed by the rapid rise in water. Finally we have a decent flow, but still probably only 15th percentile. Lacey does food today again; falafel/rice/salad. Camp is RL around km 158. Total 32 km today.
September 5 (Day 9) The water is down from the high in the night be still 1-2 ft higher than when we landed. Estimate in the river now is ~80 cms/~2700 cfs. It is a fine flow. We stop at Arroyo Las Perdices early (10:30 am) and decide to have lunch there too. We continue downstream into Canon La Bocana and stop to scout and run Morita, which is still a challenging rapid at the lower flow. We stop to explore many side canyons that day and take our time going down, yet still make it easily to camp at km 179 RL. Pasta dinner. Total 21 km today.
September 6 (Day 10) River level is a little higher than when we landed. Our leisurely start still means we are off at 8:30 am. Soon we pass the Rio Bavispe confluence (~200 cfs) and are now on the Rio Yaqui. We stop and explore many side canyons today. An especially nice one is the second “Golden Hike” (km 195 RL) where a 1-2 km hike up leads to a palm oasis with a few sitting pools with fish. All arroyos are very low compared to other years. Some in the lower section don’t even have water. We end up settling some river water with alum and treating with bleach. It is actually very tasty good water. For dinner we prepare normal beans and make fresh corn tortillas and eat veggies, some eggs, and chicken mole. We camp at km 210 RL. Total 31 km today.
September 7 (Day 11) Breakfast with eggs, beans, tortillas, hash browns seems to be a hit. I paddle ahead of the group to try and get our shuttle arranged and vehicles to the take-out on the ranch of Jose Lopez Córdoba. As I miss him at his ranch, I have to paddle to the bridge, stash the kayak, and then run to Sahuaripa in the heat. The distance actually is 17 km (about 10 miles). I make it 12 km by the time a car comes by and gives me a ride the rest of the way. I arrive back with our shuttle driver and some cold beer and water for the group around 2:30 pm. We load up the trailer and van and go back to Sahuaripa for another night at the Hotel Casa Grande. Total 28 km today.
September 8 We depart Sahuaripa at 8:45 am and arrive at the border 1:45 pm. It takes ~1 hr to cancel the registration for the van and cross. We rendezvous at the Motel 6 and by 3 pm the van is off. Lacey and Rocky continue down into Mexico for more river trips.