High Bridge or Bust
Seven Days in the Pecos River Canyon
By Randy Hohlaus
Three months of planning, meetings and long distance phone calls finally came together as we rolled in with our gear and boats to Seminole Canyon State Park, our base camp for the adventure that lay ahead. It was closing time at the park HQ, the park rangers were closing up, pretty short on conversation and bent on getting out of there. We had to figure our own campsites out, sweating whether David was going to make it in from Midland.
We aborted this trip two years ago when the river was only piddling at about 100cfs, kind of standard flow the last ten years or so. Been there, done that, did not want to do again.
But when I saw last year the lake once more reclaiming the Pecos canyon under the High Bridge, it was time to start talking this trip up again. Fortune smiled this year and the river cranked. The USGS internet gauge (now mysteriously gone) read 375 cfs at Pandale, 750 at the weir, way beyond what any of us had experienced on this river. The IBWC gauge read exactly half that however, 175 and 350, closer to what we have had on the best of conditions. The TPWD guide to river conditions lists 500 cfs as "ideal for floating," and 900 cfs as "approaching hazardous conditions." Which gauge to believe, we would soon find out.
We nestled into the Owl’s Nest in Comstock for a great meal of enchiladas and juke box music. Friendly folks shooting pool turned out to be our park rangers, all related to Nick the manager, and it seemed now we were friends of the "family." Nick set us up well for this outpost on the edge of the desert. I asked Nick if he had any cigars to sell, he said no. But then he gleamed and pulled two small cigars out from a drawer behind the counter. "Take these." "What do I owe?" "Nothing, my friend, have a great trip." And so to keep the river gods happy I accepted the gift……..
The next morning, last showers, and we were slow to leave. We picked up Paul Atkinson, our shuttle outfitter, and our shuttle drivers at the trailer park, got a last candy bar and coffee at the Comstock store, and off on the gravel road to Pandale crossing, an hour and a half away.
Paul gave us a final lecture on the river as we were about to depart Pandale, retired NPS Ranger that he was. A fine thing, especially the part about the river leeches. More on that later. I later heard him remarking to one of his shuttle drivers how much he wanted to do this trip but probably would never do it due to his health and age. And right then I realized just how lucky I was.
Our goal was Goat Canyon, 18 miles downriver. Our boat was loaded like a pig, and more our fault for the overloading, it paddled like blunt instrument trauma. But by the end of the trip, we came to appreciate it highly for everything it carried, its capacity and toughness. And we learned a lesson too, if you are taking your share of food, never volunteer for the meals at the end of trip. Volunteer for the first ones, and get that load out of the boat. In addition, we carried the beer and lunch bags, so we were saddled down top heavy the whole trip through. We never were in want (or thirst) however.
On this day I approached with trepidation the greatest of the rock escarpments. Here, on our last trip, sat a trophy home compound built right on the crown of the cliff 500 feet above. Dominating the wild view for miles up and downriver, it ruined the remote wilderness experience for a good part of the day for us river runners. However, time helps heal. The bright red roof and fresh red cedar siding of ten years ago have now dulled and weathered grey, as nature worked its inexorable processes, blending the structures somewhat into the stone face. Frank Lloyd had it "wright," when he said "No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other."
The day went great, the weather superb, the crystal clear water moving on, lots of fun easy rapids with a minimum of scouting. However, due to our late start, we made our first night at Ledge Camp, at only mile 8. What a bust. The next day will be a real push to makeup the mileage. Ledge camp was a long narrow flat rock shelf barely above the water, the side away from the water bound by a 400 foot vertical cliff face. This was the first of many of what I would call our "million dollar campsites," for the views and settings we camped in were spectacular and priceless. This rock shelf camp was peppered with basketball sized stones, rockfall from the cliff face above. If one of these babies fell on you, it could ruin your entire day. Lured by the beauty of the site, everyone took the risk in stride, and checking to make sure I still had the release forms, I proceeded to help Chris unload. The evening was definitely enhanced by the first of our daily rotating "beverage program," scientifically designed to combat scurvy among the crew through the selective administration of limes in conjunction with hops, malts and agave extracts.
Fortified by the last night’s T-bones, we set off on day 2. As you go down the Pecos, there is a real great sense of passage. The canyon starts wide open, the curves bound by great cliffs, with more gentle sloping terrain on the opposite shore. Here the looming cliffs are their most imposing and highest. But as you progress, the canyon walls funnel tighter and tighter, until you are floating down a narrow slot of limestone interrupted only by the slender side canyons, bound by ribbons of blue sky above and salt cedar and water below.
The dreaded "Flutes" loomed ahead of us. We knew ahead of us lay miles of walking/dragging/pushing boats down narrow boat wide ribbons of stone bound water, grunting the massively heavy boats across the gritted weathered ridges to the next fluid channel as each narrow slot of water narrowed down to nothingness….but surprise, where was it? We got to Goat Canyon and looked back and asked each other "Were those the Flutes??" They were gone, or almost, for we had only to get out of the boat a few times to walk the boats. None of us, and no one that we knew had ever run this river without the ordeal of the Flutes. Now we began to think that the high USGS flow numbers were the right ones, and we would be facing some serious whitewater downriver in the days ahead.
We pulled into Harkell Canyon at the end of our 18 mile makeup day, somewhat whipped. Light was fading, and we were crushed to see several fishermen with square ended motor canoes camped on the grassy bank. Four trips on the river and this is the first time to ever see another party. They were nice enough fellows willing to share their site, but with all of us it would be a little cramped. And they said the campsite further up the canyon was already taken by some canoeists from Houston.
We split up to find something else as there was no more time to go downriver, some to scout across the river. Zoltan, being from Houston, paddled up the canyon out of sight. "Houston canoers, I know these people," he said coming back out. They would share their site, too.
Inside the curving canyon mouth hidden from the main river canyon was an incredible amphitheater of stone, the sculpted inlet ending in a maze of convoluted limestone worn smooth from untold floods. The floor of the canyon was a vast stone floor, pockmarked with large eroded bowls. I have been on three trips past this canyon and never knew this spectacular campsite lay just inside its mouth. Amazing place. Certainly a good place to weather Armageddon, like that old 50’s movie where the survivors huddled in the canyon as the mutants wandered the highlands. We camped on other side of the inlet from the Houston group.
We were surprised to learn that Bob Foote, the nationally known canoe racer, designer and instructor, was also there with them. Then a curious thing happened. As we stirred up the night’s beverage program (Claire’s margaritas) at eight o’clock and lit our fires for the night’s menu of Indian lamb stew and pita bread, evening meal, their lights went out and they went to bed. As brothers and sisters of the great river fraternity we figured we’d all be trading river lies that evening, and would get a chance to hear Bob’s exploits. Guess not. Let’s just say there were two vastly different tribal cultures learning to coexist that night.
I awoke day three in my tent, pretty stiff, to the sounds of a loud, very loud raised voices around the campfire, Scott, Gib, and someone I couldn’t recognize. Figuring out what was going on, and knowing I was enough out of earshot to miss out on the particulars, as trip leader I promptly went back to sleep.
When I finally straggled up, our Houston compadres were gone, at least out in their whitewater boats somewhere, probably playing in Harkell Canyon whitewater just downstream. Just as well. This place was just as incredible this morning as last evening, with golden morning light dancing washing the cliffs almost 360 degrees around us. We did a morning hike up the canyon looking for a rumored red shaman figure. Never found it, as time kept us from exploring the multitude of high rock shelters on the walls above us.
I finally identified the spectacular flaming magenta trees we kept seeing up in the side canyons as Mexican Buckeyes, not redbuds as some thought. Here they were enormous trees covered in blossoms swarming with bees, not punky bushes like we find along the creeksides at home. We did finally find a cool pouroff from the highland above, a smooth worn and sculpted rock slip and slide waterfall, now dry, above a large green pool. The only thing not so cool were the carcasses in the water, a raccoon and something else larger, victims of some recent flood.
"Boat Over!!" Harkell Canyon rapid claimed the first victim of the trip almost within eyesight of the canyon’s mouth as Scott rolled into the froth. In what was to be repeated a half dozen times more, the flotilla stopped and everyone pitched in to free the gear from the boat, unpin it from the rock, float the boat over to the bank, dump the water, refloat the boat and then repack all the gear and bags. Each capsize cost us at least 30 to 45 minutes, as the group had to stay together. This would not really hurt us until day 4. After stepping it out , we could see that Scott’s boat was badly bent, still floatable, but a little worrisome. A few miles later, "Boat over!" It was us this time, oh well.
It was along this stretch that we started to encounter rapids that required lining or walking our loaded boats. Water levels were such that scouting the rapids started to become a regular event. After one such rapid, lining and walking our boat thru in water up to our waist at times, Chris and I looked down and saw our legs covered with at least a hundred of little squirmy "leeches." These things apparently cling to the rocks in places by the thousands. Not needing any medicinal bleeding, and not wanting to find out if they would actually dig in, we brushed them off. They soon became our constant companions.
At Thirty Six Mile Camp, we just barely got our shelter up when the rain began. The weather now changed as a cold norther swept into the canyon. We awoke to the sounds of drumming. David the Tech King was swinging his rubber mallet, pounding out the dents and folds in Scott’s boat left over from the previous days boat wrap. It was touch and go as the wrinkles relaxed and the gunwale lines flattened back out, but the aluminum and royalex held without shearing open.
I also finally found the seam failures in my clothing dry duffel. It was really shot. I had to dry out my all clothes every single evening, a real pain, but now more serious that the weather had turned from sunny and warm to cloudy and cold. Joe offered me his spare of the biggest zip-lock baggie I had ever seen, the size of a small suitcase. Awesome preparedness. Using it to double bag the dry bag and copious amounts of duct tape now allowed me to keep my clothing dry. One problem solved, but a new one kept me chained to the dry-out routine. With constant portaging and lining in the deep water, and capsized boat rescues thrown in, I still faced wet clothing to dry out every night. At least I had dry changes in the bag.
Grey scudding clouds whipped across the sky above, prepping us for a day in which the thermometer never left the fifties. This day our immediate goal was the world class petroglyph site of Lewis Canyon, and our ultimate goal was reach Painted Canyon, to let us have a full layover at one of the most beautiful river camping spots anywhere. Little did we know that one goal would leave us exhilarated, the other humbled. We passed our old camping spot at Indian Cave Camp at mile 37, a stone ledge which was now overgrown with cane and brush. In fact, a lot of camp spots I had marked in my log from past trips were overgrown with salt cedar, cane and other growth, a legacy of years of drought and low water. And there was no evidence of the rancher’s miles long river burn we saw ten years ago (the one also mentioned in Albach’s river guide).
Lewis Canyon loomed to our left at mile 38. We disembarked, and got a chance to view the world class Pecos culture petroglyph site, acres of mysterious and often abstract symbols carved into the flat rock mesa high above the river. Especially exciting were the hundreds of new glyphs uncovered by recent excavations, graphically depicting deer and bear hunts by atlatl armed warriors from the dim ages before the bow and arrow. On this flat table rock where we walked, they walked thousands of years before, leaving their marks for us to ponder. It is good to see this fascinating place site in such good hands.
The rest of the day was rough and debilitating. River flow was visibly accelerated in speed and volume from all the side canyons. Lewis Canyon Rapid at mile 38 ½, Waterfall Rapid at mile 39, Shackelford Rapid at mile 39 ½, and Ledge Rapid all had to be scouted, runs set up, and at least four capsizes ground our pace to a crawl. These were all rapids that could often have been run in the lower water of years past, but the torrent this year made us pick a wiser choice, which forced long and often difficult portages with the laden boats.
Waterfall Rapid was a boat eater. A torrent of water ripped over the edge funnel and convoluted into a massive rock dominating the center channel. To avoid this, we walked our boats single file on the shallow rock shelf on river left. One by one we pushed the boats over the edge of the eight foot drop into a tangle of more boulders than water. We narrowly avoided a serious injury when over 300 lbs of canoe and gear rolled on Scott’s ankle as it went over the edge.
We also faced a rough sweeper rapid into a cliff face, studded with a nasty boulder garden. Our only portage option was horrible, the rapid bound by dense solid stands of river cane. Narrow side channels of water spilled directly into the canebrake leading to the high rock ledge along the side of the drop. A few abortive attempts to line the boats into the rapid failed due to lack of dry riverbank from which to work the lining ropes. Our only choice was to bushwhack the boats directly into and over the cane. It was a brutal grunt of an effort, working knee deep with precarious footing in the channels barely wide enough for the boat, trying to keep our feet from being pinned while sledge-hammering the multi-hundred pound loaded boats directly into the mass of a couple a hundred feet of the cane to create a pushdown that the last boats could "slide" over.
We determined Ledge Rapid was runnable, except for two boats that went over. Chris and I got a bad angle going over the ledge, and hit too shallow water, hanging just the back six inches on the ledge. We just about got it free when the water began to pour over the back end of the boat, a trickle at first and then a torrent. The water grew, then sloshed, and then over it went. The trip maps and the mini-kegs went over and washed downstream. Major disaster! The beverage program was threatened with termination! After righting our boat, dumping water, collecting the floating drybags and then tying it back in, we searched the clear water of the downstream pool and found the kegs and the maps deep on the bottom. Both Chris and David dove in to retrieve them and saved the day, despite the cold.
Light was failing fast. Painted Canyon was still a few miles ahead. To keep on or not. DéjB vu, this was the same decision I had before Painted Canyon on the last trip ten years ago. When Scott’s boat went over again in a fairly innocuous rapid, that was it. He was now visibly shivering in his wet clothes, and we began to get concerned about hypothermia. We all were getting tired and making bad judgments, and there was now no guarantee we could make camp by dark. The rapids were too hazardous to attempt night paddling. The sun had now set. I called for everyone to scout the first available site, but dense cane and salt cedar choked whatever level strips of land could be found between the cliffs. Unlike ten years ago, there were was no flat rock to be seen. It was a little tense.
Around the curve at mile 41, we found a gnarly sloping boulder field of ground on river right which nonetheless had promise of small grassy, if not flat, areas for tents. I called for camp, and I think everyone was relieved. Dog tired, thoroughly wet, shivering in some cases, we pulled over practically in the dark. A full day of paddling, and only seven miles covered. The river had won this day. Scott immediately named it "Camp ________," a very apt description that cannot be repeated here. Thus I rechristened this patch of scraggly ground "Camp Humility." My thoughts were actually of another Scott; Scott’s doomed Artic expedition and his last icy camp just a few miles short of food, warmth and his base. And sure enough, this camp would be icy too. It froze that night after our quick dinner of vegetarian spaghetti, leaving the tents crusted with a morning rime of ice. Our wet clothes hung to dry out on the surrounding bushes were like frozen cardboard the next morning.
A short float and we finally reached our goal of Painted Canyon at mile 43. This day was to be as sunny and glorious as the last day was miserable. Our camp stretched out for a hundred yards as everyone found a special spot on the sun drenched multi-level rock face, or along its wonderfully sculpted pools and dry waterfalls. This grand stone balcony overlooked the long gnarly expanse of Painted Canyon Rapid, the largest on the Pecos and certainly not a place to risk running fully loaded boats.
I discovered our first rock art site quite by accident on a scramble to find a small patch of dirt, quite a ways from camp. Looking up, I glimpsed red vertical streaks in the hollowed rock shelter too uniform to be natural. Gathering everyone, we found almost the entire shelter marked by a great grid of mysterious red painted lines. On a traverse along the cliff face we found another shelter site with fading red shamans. In a pattern we were to see again, the left side of the shelter had blackened ceiling from what may have been the "kitchen" area, the right was decorated with pictographs. To respectfully enter these sites, with no footprints on their sandy floors, gave a great sense of discovery.
As everyone else crashed at the campsite like spent turtles to enjoy the fine mix of cool breeze and warm afternoon sun, the less intelligent of us took a hike up Painted Canyon in search of more rock art. A mile long scramble up the canyon floor became a real slow attack through a torturous puzzle of house sized boulders broken by still pools of water and thorny brush. We found no rock art, but did find some "metate" holes typical of the Pecos, ground approximately about 4 inches in diameter and 8 or more deep in the solid limestone floor, the product of untold years of grinding. Why these holes are so uniform in character, and what they were actually used for, is a mystery.
Then the white shirted rancher yelled at us from high up on the canyon wall. It took us awhile, but then we realized the rancher was actually Tom. He found some small figures painted in a shelter high up the canyon wall, but had to traverse the narrow ledges almost a quarter mile in each direction to get there. Hearing what it took to get up there, we yelled back, great, tell us about it in camp. That night we dined on King Ranch chicken to the music of the rushing rapid below us.
Due to the high fast water, lining was feasible as in years past, so we carried all the boats and gear around the rapid. Soon, we passed the old abandoned Triple R canoe lift frame at mile 44 ½. This is where we took out on our first trip, the lift of salvaged auto parts lifting the cable suspended canoes up almost 300 feet over a side canyon. It was a really cool third world type operation, now rusting slowly away.
At mile 45 ¼, you hit the weir dam where the lower Pecos gauging station is. Portaging over the weir, we scouted and ran the rather fun rapid immediately below. On the cliff above us, some new houses appeared where the old ranch unfortunately has been broken up for piecemeal speculation.
One more major rapid, and then the river finally gave way to the now rising lake water about mile 48, leaving about 12 miles of flat water paddling ahead. Our great fear was that the prevailing southeast wind would return, making progress exceedingly difficult. Fortunately for us, being on lake water, there was not a breadth of wind. The sky and cliffs to either side reflected perfectly on the mirror surface before us, as if we were traveling suspended on some invisible horizon.
From here we threaded through a slot of great canyon walls, the water studded with great bleached boulders the size of small houses. Imagine a field of desert icebergs, and you would not be far off. Their great bulk was visible through the clear water below. The white bass were running now, and great schools of fish could be seen darting below our boats. Although we had to keep paddling to stay on schedule, we caught a few along the way, to fortify the night’s supper.
A sundog appeared at day’s end through the high cirrus moving in from the west, as we pulled into our goal of Deadman Canyon at mile 53. The only campsite in the canyon was taken by fishermen. We elected to camp directly opposite the canyon’s mouth, in a site with good drift for fires and enough grassy spots between the cactus and acacia for the tents. I made my last artifact discovery of the trip, a good unfinished blank for a six inch spear point right in the middle of my now not to be finished cathole (artifact left in place, of course). Obviously this campsite was just as good for someone a thousand years ago as it was for us.
The last night we killed off the last of the mini-kegs that we had saved from the river’s clutches two days before. Maybe it was over fighting for the last clam in the chowder, or maybe something to do with Ben Franklin’s old proverb three days overdue, but our only serious campfire dispute erupted, spoiling the night’s good cheer. No sooner had the peacemakers prevailed in calming the waters, it would re-erupt like a case of bad heartburn. It eventually wound down of its own accord. Truce declared, we ended our last night in the Pecos.
We awoke to the sound of the bass boats again, but after the early morning rush to get to the fishing holes, the lake quieted back down. The truce of the night before held fast, and once again a sort of cohesive unit broke camp and started down lake after a quick breakfast, to beat the headwinds that never really came. Most motor boaters maintained their courtesy by reducing speed in passing our flotilla.
The lower canyons here are actually one of the most intense areas of Pecos culture rock art. Several of us made a priority of side canyon explorations to find the ancient paintings. On river right, a side canyon beckoned with several cave shelters visible. Letting the rest of the group go on, five of us landed and began to scramble a couple of hundred feet up the steep brambly cliff scree, with no visible trace of path to follow. The cave above dropped out of sight due to the belly of the slope, and we had to fan out to find a path, many dead ending into boulder traps or thorn thickets. Finally David found a way through, and we emerged much scratched into one of the most incredible sights of the trip looming overhead. No sensible person would have made the climb we had just been through, without reason of provocation. A real sense of discovery overhung the experience, as no human tracks or pathways were visible anywhere.
The cave shelter was divided into two parts. The left arc was obviously a living area, with black soot streaks probably a thousand or more years old rising from what were probably the rock strewn kitchens. The cave floor was a large sandy shelf as we have been finding in the occupied sites. We all wondered at the effort to bring tons of sand up from the river bottom to make a soft comfortable place to live on, but hey, if you lived there, you would have done it too. But what was really incredible were the shredded remnants of the fiber mats of generations of occupation poking through the surface, strewn with the mussel shells of ancient dinners. These people could have left here a hundred years ago, much less thousands.
It was the right side of the cave that blew us away, a primitivist Sistine Chapel. Nearly a hundred fantastic layered and intertwined multicolored figures danced across the rock walls and ceiling. These were of the oldest Pecos style that is believed three to four millennia years old, from the Archaic age greatly predating the Anasazi of the four corners area. The central figure was a large rising beaked black and red snake figure, with a center hump as if it were swallowing a meal. Pointing from the head were atlatl spear symbols. Around these were floating and flying radiant shamans with outstretched hands, so called because of the fringes streaming away from their edges. All were overlain with steams of enigmatic squiggles. An amoeba like monster dominated one side, and on top of all a faint huge thirty foot red snake figure wound across the limestone ceiling. In our mind’s eye the chants of the old ones’ vision trances echoed off the curved walls around us through the moldering smoke of ancient fires.
Paddling on, we stopped and clambered up to several other rock art sites further down the river. These were mostly the later red polychrome style, not as ornate, and usually in shelters that did not have suitable floors for actual habitation. Still impressive, were the huge rock apse with red mosquito man and running man, and a couple of others with snakes and geometrics, one tremendously large, another with negative hand imprints obviously done with some sort of spray technique. One of them was a guy that had six fingers that must have had some powerful mojo. My guess is that the culture doing the later red monochrome rock art was probably more nomadic in that they didn’t actually live in their rock art sites, contending with a drier climate with less game, and without enough leisure time to develop a complex colored style like the more ancient ones.
As we pressed closer to our goal, the huge rock walls echoed more often with the calls of goats clambering on the shear faces. On one sheer cliff face a kid goat was bleating for its mother. It was tough to look at, and listen to, as I was expecting it at any moment to plummet several hundred feet off the rock to its destruction. It didn’t. It survived the laws of natural selection just as we were about to, too, having spied the High Bridge and our takeout in the far distance.
It was a great trip, often tough, rough and challenging, with the lure of the unseen remnants of the archaic Pecos culture creating a sense of mystery the whole way. Everyone in the expedition made fantastic companions who were always there without complaint to help each other’s boats through the tough portages, stand in freezing water to save a capsized boats gear and pitch in on the never ending camp duties. My only regret was not being able to make our goal of a full layover day at Painted Canyon. For that reason, the Pecos yet beckons again.