Just as Laredo’s RioFest is registering participants and making final preparations for their binational kayak and canoe river race to be held Oct. 16 and 17, the group known as Los Caminos del Rio, a non-profit group founded in 1991 to preserve and promote the environmental and cultural heritage of the lower Rio Grande Valley, is fighting to keep their organization afloat.

Los Caminos del Rio has generated national news regarding the Rio Grande for several years now, yet the downturn in the economy has caused their funding to be cut right and left, according to Eric Ellman, executive director of the organization.

“The status of our situation is dire,” Ellman said. “We’ve never been in a tighter economic bind. The only reason we are here now is I refuse to let this thing die.”

Emblematic of the non-profit dilemma, Ellman has had to change his entire operation. “Simply, we’re trying to make lemonade out of lemons,” Ellman said. “We’ve moved out of our office and are talking to a couple municipalities down by the river who say they have a place for us to park ourselves and call home. Now what we need are folks who will donate trailers or RVs. We’ll give them a tax write-off since we’re a non-profit.”

Los Caminos del Rio includes Executive Director Eric Ellman, Lead Guide Frank Nuñoz and an office manager. Also, volunteers, board members, teachers, students, businesses, families, neighbors, fishermen, musicians, hunters, farmers, kayakers, mountain bikers, naturalists and municipalities cooperatively work together to protect natural resources and provide close-to-home opportunities for families in the Lower Rio Grande area to enjoy the outdoors.

“People are coming down from all around the country to help us here, and we need a place to put them, a place for them to live,” Ellman said. “Even for people who have a home here and just want it looked after while they’re away, we can be their security for the next six months. Just give us a call. And we would like to get more of our Winter Texans involved with our programs. There is a lot they can do.”

Los Caminos del Rio’s mission of operation, according to Ellman, is finding and utilizing under-valued, under-appreciated and overlooked Valley resources. “There is much about the Valley that is unique,” Ellman said. “It’s taking cultural tourism and turning it into a tool for community development.”

The prime example of what’s unique in the Valley is the Rio Grande. “It is the whole reason that everyone is here, the reason we were founded,” Ellman said. “We’re living next to it, we’re drinking its water, yet nobody seems to know it or appreciate it.”

It comes as no surprise to the staff of Los Caminos del Rio when photos or videos of kayaking and canoeing on the river’s rapids are shown and viewers seem perplexed when they realize they are taken of the Rio Grande.

“A common response is, ‘where did you shoot the video?’” Ellman said. “People have no idea the river is safe to enjoy. What’s more is this is one of the best places to kayak in the United States because we can go on the river year-round.”

According to Ellman, when residents are questioned about why they don’t use the Rio Grande for recreation, most voice their concerns about the river’s safety and aren’t even sure if they can go near the river for fear of accidently getting into the “other country’s territory.”

“Most don’t know that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in February 1848 that ended the Mexican-American War, says that neither country shall do anything to abridge the rights of residents of either country from enjoying the entire river for recreation,” Ellman explained. “So that means Mexicans can come all the way to the U.S. shore and Americans can go all the way to Mexico’s shore. The islands in the middle of the river are for everybody to enjoy.”

Los Caminos del Rio promotes outdoor recreation on the river from Laredo and Nuevo Laredo to Brownsville and Matamoros. The area has an ecological legacy as distinctive as its culture and history and is the only subtropical region in the U.S. where more than 500 bird species — including 30 unique in the country — migrate, attract bird watchers and visitors from across the country.

“It is my opinion that the border wall would have never been built if the rest of the country had a different conception of this beautiful region and its river,” Ellman said. “Some of the most incredible fishing you’ll ever enjoy is right here on the Rio Grande.”

Los Caminos del Rio’s roots in historical preservation have developed a rich array of programs that complement traditional community development goals in economic growth, education and public health.

“It is all about having some fun and experiencing the beauty of our region,” Frank Nuñoz said. “One of my favorite parts of working with this organization is the fact we teach kids about our region. Whether it’s training teachers to take their students kayaking on the Rio Grande, bicycling along historic irrigation canals or using bird watching as a form of physical therapy, Los Caminos del Rio integrates outdoor adventure with cultural discovery to make the Valley a healthier and more interesting place to live.”

Registration for Laredo’s RioFest binational kayak and canoe river race is $35 per person. Registration and inquiries can be directed to www.LaredosRioFest.com.

“You don’t have to be an Olympic competitor to enjoy the river,” Nuñoz said. “We have different boats to accommodate beginners, as well as advanced kayakers. We can take people who don’t know how to swim, kids, disabled folks in wheelchairs. Everyone’s welcome to come.”

National press coverage of Eric Ellman and Los Caminos del Rio has appeared in such media as USA Today, The New York Times, the Laredo Sunday Morning Times, the San Antonio Express-News, National Public Radio and CBS News, to name a few. More can be read at www.loscaminos.org.

“Here’s all this national press on Los Caminos del Rio, yet people take us for granted,” Ellman stressed, “and we could be gone tomorrow. We need volunteers of the caliber we have now — great people who generally help out, people willing to lead trips or contribute things like trailers and RVs.”

Eric Ellman can be reached at 956-227-2372 and Frank Nunoz at 956-905-2905.