The Great Unknown

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About a week after our last trip to Mexico, we’re back again. This time it’s a quick trip across the border into Ojinaga, Chihuahua and an easy walk over the bridge and into town for a big food buy in preparation for some days of canoeing on the Rio Grande. From our last border crossing back into Laredo, Texas it was a night of sleep near Lake Amistad, then the drive west over to Terlingua, where we generally spend several months each winter guiding trips on the river, and doing lots of hiking, backpacking, canoeing, and running when work gets slow. While here, we usually make the journey to ‘OJ’ every few weeks or so in order to stock up on fresh produce and other items not generally available in the ‘nearby’ towns of Presidio and Alpine (both 80 miles away). Most times we try to combine a trail run and night of camping in the Big Bend Ranch State Park and make a day or two of it rather than drive there and back in the same day.

An afternoon in ‘OJ’ usually starts with a big lunch at Lobbys, a popular local restaurant, followed by a serious bout of shopping at the Al Super, the biggest supermarket in town. Depending on whether or not we drive or walk, which mostly depends on if I’m feeling like it’s worth it to get hassled/searched for driving a van filled with random boxes packed with camping supplies and river gear, we might also make a few stops at the fruit market, the tortilla factory, and maybe even sit around in the shade of an ice cream shop for a frozen fruit bar before coming back over. On this particular day, we walk across with empty backpacks, enjoy our lunch, and then go straight for the groceries, loading up with a couple of weeks’ worth of food for the river trip, which we’ll start the next day, though this already feels like part of the adventure, hence the inclusion here. The walk back to and through customs takes a half-hour or so, and then it’s back in the van and heading out of Presidio. That evening we stay in the state park, as per usual, get up and run some trails the next morning, and then head over to Lajitas and the put-in, where I drop off Erin and the gear before heading off for the necessary tedium of the long shuttle that awaits.

Each year I come down to the Big Bend, I usually have several trips/missions in mind that I want to do before leaving again in the spring. Sometimes those trips entail checking out something totally new, while others are repeats of trips worth revisiting. This trip happens to be one of the latter, in a way, though with a couple of changes to the start/end locations and canyons floated from some years earlier. It’s a trip on the Rio Grande along the border of Big Bend National Park, which also happens to be the international border, right bank Mexico, left bank Texas if one is oriented downstream. The majority of boaters who come down to float the river are generally most interested in paddling through one or more of the several deep canyons found along the 118 miles of river forming the park boundary, which are awesome and certainly worthy of attention. Most trips through the canyons generally start and end near the entrance and exit of the canyons, which clearly makes sense if that’s what you’re down here to see and only have a few days to a week or so to see them in. As such, there is a lesser frequented section of the river, a section that winds slowly along the through the open desert, which receives far fewer visitors each year than the canyons. Due to this relative unpopularity, most folks refer to the section as the Great Unknown. And it is the Great Unknown, with the addition of a couple of those awesome canyons, which we are planning on paddling.

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We’ve allotted nine days to travel about 95 miles total on the river. Sounds easy enough in writing, a measly 10 miles a day, but making miles on the Rio Grande can be a tiresome process depending on how low the water might be, and how fiercely the upstream wind blows. Even on the best of days, paddling more than a couple of miles in an hour can be a chore, and on the worst of days, going even one mile downstream in a canoe can be literally impossible. And down here, it’s best not to ever plan for the best of days.

The crew consists of myself, Erin, and my pops, Glendon, who’s driving down from the Texas panhandle to join us. I love my dad. He’s one of the smartest and most content human beings I’ve ever met. He’s constantly reading something interesting, and always cultivating curious new hobbies such as making and utilizing atlatls and bows, fashioning native flutes and other instruments, studying native grasses, etc. The list fluctuates continually, and I have endless respect for his dedication to lifelong learning. He’s also a lot more of an outdoorsman than he admits, as capable and enduring of a hiker/backpacker/camper as you could ask for, and he never complains about anything – though you wouldn’t know either one were true if you ever read his pre-trip correspondence, which always expresses great concern as to potential weather and his unfounded fear of somehow physically encumbering whatever plans we’re trying to coordinate. To date, I’ve never outwalked him, though we might not always travel at the same pace, and I certainly tend to grumble about the wind, rain, and cold way more than he ever has, especially since that’s never that I’ve heard. We’ve done a lot of great trips in the outdoors together over the course of my life, and over the past couple of decades he’s met me in a lot of different locations, from Colorado, to Alaska, to Costa Rica for a range of different adventures. He’s also been down to the Big Bend several times, including my first time down here when I was a kid, but this will be our first real river trip in this part of the country.

In order to run our own shuttle, my dad and I arrange to meet at the take-out, Rio Grande Village in the national park. He drives down from the panhandle the day before, staying the night in Ft. Stockton, and we both arrive at RGV around 11 a.m., leaving one vehicle and getting right back in the other one for the lengthy drive back to Lajitas. We make it to the put-in around 2 p.m., where Erin has done almost all of the boat rigging and even has lunch waiting for us. It’s a beautiful day. Blue skies, no breeze, maybe 75 degrees out. A true gem of a day, in fact, and over the next nine days we are to be blessed with day after day of amazing weather. Probably the nicest continuous stretch of atmospheric pleasantness I’ve ever experienced down here. There is one chilly morning, one slightly breezy afternoon, one evening of rain, but other than that, nothing but sunshine and no wind – which, if you’ve ever spent much time on desert rivers, is almost unheard of. I’ll credit Papa for the good karma.

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River flows are typically low this time of year, and this trip is no exception, though there is sufficient volume to cover most of the rocks and even a bit of current now and again. That afternoon we paddle about five miles downstream. Erin paddles her own boat, while Glendon and I go tandem in the second canoe. Both of the boats are second-hand beaters Erin and I purchased from the river company we work for, and not designed for anything even close to expedition boating or even smaller rapids, but they float and carry gear and are basically good enough for just about any stretch on the Rio Grande. Having said that, however, Glendon and I come as close to flipping as we will the entire trip about an hour or so into the first day while navigating our way down a skinny channel in a shallow rock garden. The boat low sides through a slot, we lean hard to the right, but still fill up with a significant amount of water and barely make it to shore before tipping over. Funny, but not necessarily the way to inspire confidence at the beginning of a long journey. The next morning our wonky load has us tilting sideways for miles before we finally pull over and reconfigure all the gear in the boat, which sets us up right for the rest of the trip.

That night we make camp on river right, in Mexico, that is, getting everything set up in time to cook dinner and wash dishes just before dusk. One of the more controversial aspects of paddling on the Rio Grande is the fact that it serves as the international border, though, for now, in our potentially pre-wall era, there isn’t anything glaringly different about any one side. This is surprisingly surprising to many of the tourists who visit, and I’ve never been able to figure out what they imagined they would witness when gazing across into Mexico. I suppose the severity of their conceptions could be directly correlated with the amount of corporate media consumed on a regular basis. The same animals live on both sides of the river, the same birds fly back and forth. The same vegetation lines both banks, canyon walls rise on either side or the desert extends in all directions. Sometimes there are great campsites on the left, other times on the right, and there can be long miles between those campsites. It’s a river. And it’s pretty much impossible to only paddle on the left side of a river, which means you’re constantly crossing the border, officially the deepest channel of the river, all day long.

On paper, on your permit, you are forbidden to step into Mexico other than to scout a rapid or portage. In practice, it’s never really worked quite like that. Even on commercial trips, we’re often eating lunch in Mexico, or hiking a side canyon, or even spending the night on the right bank. Guidebooks highlight features on both sides of the river without discrepancy. For decades, river runners have traveled the river as any other, exploring sites of interest on either bank, lunching wherever there’s shade, camping on grassy flats or sandy beaches regardless of nationalistic labels, following the same wilderness ethic without distinction between governing entities or geographical specifics. Recently, however, due to so much vitriolic attention directed towards our southern neighbors, it seems inevitable that consideration must be given to the prudence of this practice, and those thoughts are on my mind that first night, and throughout the trip, a lot more than I want them to be. I’ll leave it at that. We still camp in Mexico that night, and a couple of other nights throughout the trip, just like I always have, just like common sense would dictate one would do while floating down 100 miles of river, but without quite the same serenity as before, perhaps the one downer of the entire experience.

That night we build a small driftwood fire in the firepan and hang out talking for an hour or two before bed. This ends up as the standard for the trip, and is another reason I appreciate having my pops along. Spending so many days and nights of every year in the wilderness, I practically never bother to build a fire. It simply doesn’t occur to me to do so. I suppose I got out of the habit years ago, and no longer associate camping and campfires, as most folks who only spend a few nights outside each year might do. Once it gets dark, I quite enjoy sitting around and looking up at the night sky for a while, and then usually read in bed until it’s time to sleep. This can make for some long nights in the winter months, not to mention chilly evenings, so it’s great to have someone along that’s motivated to gather wood and get a blaze going each evening. We talk about nothing in particular, or nothing at all, simply stare at the fire and enjoy the quiet of the desert.

Relative quiet that is, for another factor to doing trips down here involves the ubiquitous livestock found along every mile of the river. While parts of the Mexican side enjoy a somewhat vague level of federal protection, most of the adjoining land is used for grazing, and, believe it or not, herd animals seem disinterested in recognizing the river as an international border. As such, horses, mules, and cows will be encountered frequently on either side, and are often nonplussed to find humans occupying their nighttime grazing areas and water holes. The beach we are on is no exception, and sometime in the middle of the night a troupe of galloping horses storms through the middle of camp, bringing quick awakenings and unwanted imaginings of bandidos riding upon us. A quick head thrust outside the tent reveals that it’s only frustrated mules looking to graze in their usual spot, however, and they reluctantly choose to move on to perhaps less green pastures rather than roam among the strange tents on their home turf. Several nights later we have a more intense encounter with a proudly prancing gelding intent on intimidation, and have to get out the pots and pans in order to scare it away for good.

In the morning, we wake up, laugh a bit about the horses, and pack up the boats. We float and paddle for several miles through open canyon country, spotting a roving fox on its morning patrol and various ducks, flycatchers, and other birds. We stop at a spot called ‘metates’ and spend a few minutes pondering holes worn deep into bedrock from the grinding of mesquite pods used in the production of flour by early inhabitants of the area. Up on the cliffs around us we spot a herd of about 30 aoudad, or Barbary sheep, a non-native species of mountain sheep that were introduced as game animals on Texas ranches back in the 50s. Aoudad (pronounced aw-dad), native to northern Africa, have since escaped the private ranches they were originally released on, and now thrive in the harsh desert environments of several southwestern states. All over the Big Bend they continue to proliferate, to the point that they are open-season animals for hunters here (though not in the park), and are slated to be targeted for significant numbers reduction by the National Park Service, which considers them a threat to the ecology of the area for multiple reasons. All the same, it’s pretty awesome to see them in what certainly seems like their natural habitat, to admire their climbing agility and determined adaptability. We watch their red bodies move gracefully upwards, almost entirely camouflaged against the desert rocks, until they simply disappear into the mountain.

We lunch at the entrance to Santa Elena Canyon, and hike up to an overlook for a quick peek into the shady depths we’re about to float through. The canyon is a narrow slot through two massive limestone mesas. Around seven miles long, its walls reaching heights of around 1500’, it’s one of the main attractions in the national park, and an inspiring sight from all vantages, through especially impressive from the river. As we enter the canyon in our canoes, the temperature drops significantly and the current picks up a bit, giving the experience a slightly ominous feel. We navigate a few easy riffles, and line the boats through a couple of others where the current surges into banks lined with overhanging river cane. About a mile into the canyon, we come upon Rock Slide, where an eponymous event centuries prior left monstrous house-sized boulders strewn across the river in a difficult maze. With a bit of lining, dragging, and paddling, we manage to get our boats through the confusion, and then spend the rest of the afternoon drifting slowly downstream, our necks craning upwards as we attempt to take everything in. Reluctant to float through the entire canyon in one day, we decide to camp a couple miles above the exit. Knowing we won’t have any sun the next morning to animate us seems a small price to pay for a sublime evening spent on a rock beach in the bottom of such a wondrous environment. That night, the near full moon illuminates the canyon walls, surrounding us in silvery blue light.

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The next day we leave the canyon mid-morning with cold fingers and toes, happily paddling as we continue past the usual take-out, and officially enter the Great Unknown. Around the first corner we’re immediately rewarded with big views of the Chisos Mountains and Cerro Castellan. A few miles downstream, we stop for lunch at Cottonwood Campground, a popular birding destination in the park, temporarily closed for repairs, but easily accessible from the river allowing us to have the place to ourselves for long enough to sight several colorful species including vermillion flycatchers and golden-fronted woodpeckers. Back on the river we float past a great-horned owl as it snoozes in the sun. That night we camp on a low beach with a good view of the Chisos in the distance. A fiery sunset turns clouds and mountains brilliant pinks and reds.

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The next six days we paddle, hike, camp, repeat. We swim a bit, bask in the morning sun, seek shade in the middle of the afternoon, sit around a fire each night. On the river it’s mostly steep, cane lined banks, though there are occasional glimpses of ever-changing desert scenery as we slowly make our way downstream. There is wildlife in abundance. A short list of birds would include: great blue herons, blue and green winged teal, cinnamon teal, buffleheads, cormorants, multiple raptors, two species of vultures, ravens, Pyrrhuloxia and cardinals, Say’s and black phoebe, several species of wrens… We catch a quick glimpse of a bobcat early one morning, see another fox, spot several herds of aoudad…

The guidebook offers thoughtful histories about the early Anglo settlers of the area, and we often stop to poke around the foundations of old rock houses, remnants of lives left long ago. We try to imagine what life might have been like for those people, how different the landscape might have been before the taxing human endeavors of ranching and mining, said to have significantly altered the ecosystem. More grass and trees? Less desert? How hot?

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After several days of floating through the Great Unknown, we drift into Mariscal Canyon, every bit as spectacular as Santa Elena, though infrequently visited due to the challenge of getting there. We check out the crystal caves near the entrance, walk up a steep path to the abandoned dwelling of a hermit, said to have spent some time there while dodging the Vietnam draft, navigate ‘Tight Squeeze.’ We lunch at Cross Canyon, and speed hike up the steep trail there for a few miles, hoping to get on top of the canyon wall but not quite making it due to daylight constraints; there are rewarding views all the same. We spend a night in that canyon as well, on a high grassy knoll alongside silent waters below.

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One of our favorite campsites is a large barren island just upstream of the old Solis house, which we arrive at the next afternoon. Favorite for the views, and favorite because we decide to do a ‘lunch-over,’ in which the lunch spot also serves as the camp spot, one of my preferred ways to float rivers these days. The afternoon off provides a welcome respite from long days of paddling. We all do our own thing for several hours, reconvening around dinnertime. That night, the moon waning now and not appearing for several hours, the stars explode in the expanse of sky above us.

For half of the next day we paddle through the short but spectacular San Vicente Canyon, and then back into the open desert. A final river campsite, and out the next morning. The last day comes on as perfect as the first. We eat our last oatmeal breakfast, perform the standard camp breakdown, fasten everything securely into the boats, and push off the banks for a few sunlit miles down to Langford hot springs, where we soak in the springs and swim in the river for a couple of hours before paddling through Hot Springs Canyon on our way to the takeout.

We arrive at the boat ramp around noon, pack quickly and efficiently, and head back across the park, this time at 50 mph rather than 2. Back in Lajitas we say goodbye to Glendon, hoping for many more adventures in the years to come, but more than anything incredibly thankful for the opportunity to have lived this one.

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One thought on “The Great Unknown

  1. Pingback: Spring 18 | Like Water

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