Rios y Tacos, The story of Alex Vargas
The story of a canoeist, his tacos and his goal to run 100 rivers
By Sunny Montgomery (cover photo Caleb Roberts)
Before Alex Vargas was known among paddlers for his tacos, he was known for his hilariously disastrous canoe swap on the Gauley River.
Vargas had been open-boating for about three years in 2011 when he attended his first Gauley Fest.
“I was not a natural,” says Vargas, who had earned the nickname “the swimming Mexican” early in his whitewater career. That day on the Gauley, his first Class V river, he flipped halfway through Pillow Rock rapid, and landed on Volkswagen, a large beetle-shaped rock in the middle of the river. His canoe and paddle continued downstream.
There, he crouched helplessly while spectating boaters raucously cheered.
A minute later, another canoe flipped. The paddler swam and her boat washed up at his feet. He grabbed it, fished out its spare paddle, bowed to his audience and climbed in.
He promptly flipped again. The Youtube videos of that event have now collectively garnered more than 100,000 views.
“I go back every year since then to try to redeem myself,” says Vargas.
But even back in 2011, Vargas’ progressive, if unrefined, paddling style had already caught the attention of Jeremy Laucks, owner of Blackfly Canoes. A month after his first Gauley run, Vargas was invited to join the team.
He’s now spent the past eight years repping Blackfly at paddling festivals across the country, over time becoming known for his stylish lines rather than that canoe swap, and, of course, for his taco parties. From Tennessee’s Ain’t Louie Fest to Colorado Kanu Fest to New York’s Beaverfest, and beyond, he arrives to each with a fleet of canoes, a stack of tortillas and about 20 pounds of seasoned steak in tow.
“Making tacos is just something I’ve always done. When I was growing up, we’d put anything into a tortilla: cheese; rice; hotdogs,” says Vargas. “Cooking for hundreds of my friends just seemed like a fun thing to start doing.”
Born in California and now living in Tennessee, Vargas is a first generation American. His parents, aunts and uncles were all migrant workers, so traveling is as natural to him as Mexican dishes and big families.
The festival lifestyle suited him, and the tours helped expose him to diverse runs. Vargas excelled on the water.
“In 2017, I ran 70-something different rivers without really even trying,” he says. And 2018 began much the same way. By the start of festival season in early March, he’d already paddled more than 20 rivers.
“I decided to keep it rolling,” he says. “That’s when I started telling people I was gonna run 100 rivers in 2018.”
The logistics of such a goal, he quickly learned, were burdensome. He had soon checked off all his local runs – Ocoee, Tellico, Chattooga, and so on – and had to travel further and further each weekend. He had to keep vigilant watch on rain gauges, coordinate crews and follow creative leads for new runs.
Once while traveling through Virginia, he took a spontaneous detour to chase a creek which he had crossed on the interstate. That was Big Back, river No. 21. Another time, he followed a map drawn by an old man onto the back of a crinkled deposit slip to West Virginia’s Glade Creek. That was No. 43.
And then there was the time in California he spent hours cruising Trinity River until finally spotting boaters on the roadside to help him set shuttle, resulting in river No. 70.
“On multiple occasions random strangers would redirect to rally with me,” Vargas says. “I got to interact with paddling communities from all corners of the country. I have even more friends as a result, and I know about a lot more put-ins.”
But one of his favorite runs, he says, was the Blue River, No. 50.
He spent his summer in Colorado, chasing snow melt and working on sprinkler systems.
One day, after work, he says he was itching to paddle and just started driving towards the mountains. Eventually, he came across the Blue, a chill river below Green Mountain Canyon reservoir.
“I geared up and put on, paddled awhile then hiked back to my truck. It was just so random, and so typical of my year – to just start driving without knowing where I was going.”
Finally, in late November, Vargas put on the Colorado for a 21-day trip through the Grand Canyon, and the culmination of his goal: River No. 100.
2019, for Vargas, began with a renewed sense of direction.
“I knew I wanted to stay local. I knew I wanted to build something for myself,” says Vargas, who has worked as a builder for 15 years. “I just didn’t know it was going to be a taco truck.”
The opportunity presented itself in March when his friend Jordan Mikle helped open Ace Ocoee Adventures, a new rafting outpost in East Tennessee. For years, Vargas’ friends had encouraged him to open a restaurant, but now Mikle showed him the line.
Parked behind the outpost, Mikle had a 12-foot-long enclosed trailer, in which he’d spent years dirtbagging.
“It’s traveled the whole country and has good juju,” Mikle said. If Vargas wanted it, he could have it to convert into a taco trailer, in addition to space on the property out of which to operate.
Vargas began building at once. In lieu of chasing rain, he hammered and sawed. Rather than planning a summer festival tour, he applied for permits and scheduled inspections. With the help of his friends at Ace, he named it Tacoee.
On the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, Vargas held his grand opening.
“It was the biggest taco party of my life,” says Vargas, who fed more than 100 people in five hours. Throughout the afternoon, he passed around free slices of watermelon to appease his crowd’s long waits, and ultimately, sold out of everything, having to close an hour early.
He says he knows that his new business will affect his time on the river.
“It’ll take effort. There will be compromises,” he says.
But Vargas is not adverse to risk. He knows, after all, that when opportunity washes up at your feet, you grab it.