Rio Grande River, Big Bend Park
I was part of an eight-person group that had a great trip through Boquillas Canyon on November 24th-28th, 2003. I'm still in a "canyon state of mind", but I'll try to get myself together enough to write a trip report.
On the trip were:
Jeff Pine, the Great Trip Leader, from Austin
Lloyd Pine (Jeff's father), from Louisiana
Mark Boyden, from Austin
John Marler, from Austin
Scot Varnau, from Houston
Richard Morin, from Montreal (that's in Canada, y'all)
Jeff Martin, from Austin
Glenn Hart, from Austin
John and Scott were paddling solo in smaller (16 foot?) tandem canoes, which I thought was quite a feat, given the amount of gear we carried collectively as a group. Jeff and Lloyd Pine, Mark Boyden and Richard Morin, and Jeff Martin and I paddled tandem canoes.
The evening of November 23rd (Sunday), we arrived at Big Bend and camped at Rio Grande Village campground. We got our river permit from the park office. The young ranger must have been more used to raft trips, because she was more interested in whether we had an air pump than anything else. We also picked up our shuttle drivers, unloaded gear and boats, and saw them ride off. We had our first encounter with wildlife, a couple of javelinas that made a leisurely stroll though camp. We made sure our food was in our river buckets, and placed the buckets in a canoe on top of two picnic tables. The park people had told us that the javelinas had not yet learned how to climb picnic tables. That's a good thing. Here we had the only bad weather of the trip. The wind was blowing really hard, probably gusting to about 40 miles per hour, and it was a real nuisance. We tried to sleep, and hoped that no tree limbs would break off and come crashing down. Then in the middle of the night, the wind stopped just like it had been turned off.
The next morning, we became mules and hauled all our gear about 200 yards down the path to the river. And I mean lots of gear. Most of the group had done several trips like this together, and they have a real good system. They believe in being comfortable, so they do carry lots of creature comforts. Like roll-a-cots, full camp chairs, collapsing kitchen tables, double propane stoves, the required waste system, and of course lots of beer! And lots of real food, too. No freeze-dried foo-foo food for these guys! No pasta-in-a-pouch! More about the great menu later. It's a good thing we had five boats and eight paddlers, so we could carry all this weight down the river.
We finally got all the boats on the water, and here I learned about a group tradition. At the start of the expedition, and at other significant events (like seeing a nice rock formation, for example), you get all the boats together and have a sip of Captain Morgan. This is called "saluting the captain". An excellent idea. I also paid my customary respect to the river gods, by pouring a little of my first beer into the river, affirming the power of the river gods, and repeating the most famous river movie phrase "You don't beat the river."
We saw pretty soon that the river level was better than we had hoped. If I remember correctly, the level at Lajitas was 2.4 feet, which is considered pretty much a minimum for Boquillas Canyon. We found that we seldom came to a stop when we encountered a riffle, and if so, we could get out and easily float the canoe for a few feet until it became deeper. There were numerous deep spots along the way. We decided that the water level we had was a minimum, but enjoyable level. I was surprised to see that the water was fairly clear and green. When I had paddled the Lower Canyons in 1984, the water was high (3.6 feet on the Rio Grande Village gauge) and muddy.
A mile into the trip (mile 809 on the National Park Service map), we heard a loud flow of water from the Mexican side. We stopped to see a large hot spring coming up from two sources. One spot came directly out of the limestone and formed a person-sized rounded hole which was perfect for sitting. Even though the air temperature was fairly cool, I had to try it out, and it was nice and hot! There were several round holes in the limestone where obviously the native people had ground grains of some kind. You could feel the history of this place!
After another four miles (at 805.2), we came to the trail on the park side leading to the sand slide and cave. We hiked up the sand, which I had not done since I was in my twenties. For some reason, the climb has gotten a little harder over the years! We ran down the steep incline, John doing moguls on the way down. Leaving the sand slide, we came to a distinct entrance to a beautiful narrow canyon, prompting another salute to the captain. From this point, we continued in a long, narrow, continuous canyon until our first camp, which was at mile marker 802.1, eight miles from our starting point. The canyon was much more than I had expected!
Boquillas Canyon has very tame rapids, most of them being narrow turns against a river bank that more appropriately can be called riffles instead of rapids. Sometimes the river is only about 20 feet wide, which seems pretty strange when you realize that Mexico is right there on your right. The only hazard is the overhanging river cane, which is more of a nuisance than anything else. In some places, most of the flow goes against the bank and under the cane, which in some places touches the water. In some of these areas, we got down low in our boats and pushed our way through. Sometimes we decided that it was better to just step out and line our boats around the obstruction. When we tried to power our way against the cross-current, it was difficult because with the shallow water, we could seldom get much of our paddle into the water. One time when Richard and Mark got swept into one of these strainers, Mark pulled a cool move to avoid getting dumped, by simply jumping out of the stern into the thigh deep water. Richard, continuing on without him, remarked that "that wasn't so bad", unaware that he was paddling solo from the bow!
We paddled through one little rapid that had a good swimming hole at the end, so we stopped and swam, since by then it was nice and warm. Not bad for late November! Man, it's good to live in Texas! We couldn't have asked for better weather on the trip. It was clear except for an hour or so one morning, and the temperatures reached the seventies after chilly nights typically in the high 30's.
We arrived at our first camp fairly early in the afternoon, about 4:00. Since the trip was planned as five days on the river for the 33 miles, we had allocated two nights at each of the two planned campsites. In other words, we had a layover day at each campsite. Jeff Pine had said that "layover days are cherished", and he was definitely right. Since we camped at locations next to side canyons, we were able to go on a couple of great hikes during our layover days. Our first camp was in a beautiful canyon on the Mexican side (mile 802.1), with tall mountains all around. Here the canyon was so narrow that we could only see about one-third of the sky -- and the stars were awesome! You really haven't seen the stars until you've seen them far removed from the city lights. Luckily, we had a new moon, which added to the clarity of the stars. That first night on the river was special. We made a nice fire to ward off the chilly night, and had fun after a great meal, sharing stories and lots of different beverages, such as beer, tequila shots, and Wild Turkey bourbon. Ahh, life was good!
The next morning, we woke up to a crystal clear day, as the sun slowly hit the canyon walls long before reaching our campsite. Richard, the Canadian, gave us what became his customary greeting -- "Guys, have I told you yet that I feel really good this morning?!!!". Richard is quite a trip. He became sort of the group mascot. How can I describe the crazy Canadian? It was like having an excitable little kid on the trip, bouncing around being amazed at the sights and sounds, reacting with sheer delight at seeing anything like a new type of bug. Richard added enjoyment to the trip by making us laugh and helping us appreciate everything more.
The reason Richard was on the trip was because he had looked for a Rio Grande trip on Canoetx. He showed a lot of gumption to decide to paddle five days, sight-unseen with a bunch of Texans, especially after some of the stereotypes about which he had heard.
Note for a future trip: We camped upstream from the side canyon, but there was a larger, flatter campsite just downstream, on the same side.
Late that morning, we took an excellent hike up the narrow side canyon. Cliffs and rocks rose several hundred feet around us as we hiked up a dry creek bed. The Boquillas Canyon area is more eroded than the other canyons in Big Bend, so the rocks formations are really interesting and colorful. We walked over lots of limestone that was worn smooth from centuries of erosion. In a couple of places, there were areas where quartzite had intruded into cracks in the rock. There were several caves partway up the canyon walls, and always lots to see. We hiked probably 3.5 miles before turning around. We kept thinking that we would come to the end of the canyon and come out on top of the mesa, but each time we went around a bend, we saw that it kept on going. The joke became that there would be a cantina and hotel on top with cheap beer and other accoutrements. Just before we turned back, I saw what looked like hairballs from a large cat, and we saw some very good tracks in the dust along the cliff from either a bobcat or mountain lion. The total hike took about four hours.
So we were back at base camp within plenty of time to have another great meal and relax by the fire -- a great way to end a really good day. A note is in order here about the meals on the trip. Apparently long ago when many of the group started doing this kind of trip, they made a basic decision, which was that if they were on vacation, they might as well enjoy really good food, instead of skimping on boat weight. And man, we did have some great food. Jeff Pine, who masterfully organized the trip, cooked and froze the meals beforehand (one of which was cooked by his dad Lloyd). Some of the food was kept under a second bottom in the ice chest. Because of the short duration of the trip, no dry ice or regular ice was used. The menu was one that would make a San Antonio Riverman take notice <grin>. Meals like chicken fajitas, beef on rice, pork tenderloin, spaghetti and meatballs, and of course on Thanksgiving, turkey and dressing. Jeff and Lloyd cooked on regular kitchen gear and sometimes in Dutch ovens. Breakfast was either pancakes and bacon or breakfast tacos. Lunch consisted of jerky, cheese and crackers, trail mix, summer sausage, and even smoked oysters.
One oddity for me happened when we were getting ready to eat the first dinner. Most of the guys whipped out Frisbees, and I thought, "Man, if we play Frisbee now, our food's gonna get cold!". But it turns out that the Frisbees were the plate of choice because nothing could fall off the edges.
That night, we added wine to the beverage mix, and swapped carnage stories and bad jokes. Another good night hanging out with the guys.
The next morning, we broke camp for another paddling day. The narrow canyon continued for several miles, and the vistas were again beautiful, with lots of river cane adding to the scenery. There were more deep sections and a few rapids. We had another good day on the river. Jeff Martin had come up with a smart system for having cold beer, even though we had no ice after the first day. Early each (cold) morning, he would pack away a bunch of beer in a soft ice chest, and it would stay cold all day. Or, more accurately, I should say until we finished it. Needless to say, everyone heard about this system after a while and we became the "beer tenders". I taught Jeff a very important canoeing skill. I call this move "Pass the Beer on the Paddle".
The standard joke was that Scott, who was paddling solo, was never carrying enough weight. "Varnau, you're only carrying empty cans and light stuff!"... But he and John were in fact carrying heavy loads and were doing great, considering that they didn't have another person for paddle power. They turned their tandem boats around so they could paddle from what is normally the bow seat, which placed them closer to the center of the boat so they could have more leverage for turning. They paddled well, sometimes using a strong stern draw to make a turn. Sometimes they would change over to a double-bladed paddle in the slower water.
Each of the two days that we approached a planned camp, we gathered wood in our boats. There was plenty of wood at our first camp, but there was none to speak of at our second camp, because it had been used by previous groups.
Our camp for the next two nights was at mile 791, on the Mexican side just before the interesting rock formation called "Rabbit Ears", which looks like, well, rabbit ears. This was also a beautiful canyon, more open than the preceding one, but with more pronounced mountains. That night, Richard drank a bit of wine, and became even more animated, if that's possible. The wild and crazy Canadian was living up to his reputation. When it was time to call it a night, I turned off my headlamp and was amazed to notice that I could see the canyon walls well, even though the moon was far from coming up. I realized that it was from starlight alone that I could see. Cool.
Around three in the morning, I awoke to what seemed to be the sound of many hooves and snorts. I was sure that a pack of javelinas was rooting through the camp, but when I shined the light all around, there was no creature to be seen. I finally figured out that the sound of the hooves had been caused by my rain fly flapping against the tent in the wind; the javelina snorts were the snores of my fellow campers.
Every morning, the group got up in pretty much the same order. Jeff Martin would get up and get to work making coffee. I'd get up next with coffee on my mind. Then Jeff Pine would be there starting breakfast. Then usually, it would be Lloyd, John, and Scott, usually in that order. Sometime around then came Richard ("HAVE I TOLD YOU GUYS HOW HAPPY I AM TO BE ALIVE?!"). Then we would have to wake up Mark so he wouldn't miss out on coffee and breakfast.
Thursday, we woke up to a clear and cold, beautiful Thanksgiving morning. We got together lunch stuff and headed up the side canyon. This one was even more impressive than the one by our first camp. It was really narrow, sometimes less than 30 feet from side to side. The first quarter mile had lots of smooth limestone with a couple of places that required some moderate climbing moves. There was one spot where the only way to ascend was to jam our boots in the narrow crack going up the fluted limestone. We also passed under two rocks that were jammed between the rock walls, leaving small passageways. As we traversed farther, the canyon widened, and the arroyo became more pronounced. I couldn't help but notice what a great creek run it would be after a big rain! You can take the paddler off the river, but ... When we got past a steep area, we saw signs of horses or donkeys. Apparently, the animals and riders only went to this point from above.
We were all really impressed with Jeff Pine's father, Lloyd. Lloyd is a very young man of seventy, and he was an inspiration with his energy level and dexterity. He climbed and paddled with at least as much vigor as the rest of the group. It probably helps that Lloyd is a former Marine. I think we all hope we can be doing as well as Lloyd when we reach that age.
When we got back to camp, we enjoyed the rest of the sunlight and prepared for a great Thanksgiving meal on the Rio Grande. We had turkey and dressing, cranberry sauce, and apple cobbler. We all gave thanks for being in such an awesome place on Thanksgiving.
It was amazing to see how well prepared the group was. This was a tribute to Jeff Pine's planning and organization. We had everything we needed on the trip. Even though we were fairly heavily-loaded, it was worth it because we were so comfortable. Everyone was well-equipped, and I enjoyed learning what type of equipment was useful on a trip of this nature. And you know what? It was okay to be a "Gear Head" on this trip. I especially enjoyed using a headlamp for the first time. Scott has a reputation for being the number one Gear Head. His personal gear bucket has carabiners everywhere, a leather separator pouch for personal effects, etc.
We shared this campsite with a pair of crows that nested on the cliff walls. Each morning, they would soar through the air over the camp, and then swoop down, announcing their presence with their loud calls. They would leave for hours each day, but they would always come back late in the afternoon.
Friday morning, we broke camp and headed out for our last day on the river, which covered 14 miles. The river came out of the canyon and the park, and passed through an area of mesas and small mountains. At one point, we passed a Mexican family that was crossing the river back over to the Mexican side on a saddled burro. There was one fairly good Class II rapid at mile 779.4. Arroyo del Veinte Rapid has a sharp turn to the right where most of the flow comes off a large flat rock, forming a good pillow. The difficulty is that the early part of the rapid was pretty shallow, and then you had to go into the turn a bit blindly because of the overhanging river cane. Then there are a couple of almost-submerged flat rocks that can mess you up. Everyone did well here. Jeff Martin and I tried to get some momentum going across the current. We brushed past the cane, and Jeff pulled the bow nicely around the turn. Now I had to pull the stern back to the inside of the turn (with a heavy-loaded boat) to avoid the big rock. I was just able to do so by pulling hard on a stern draw.
On one high sand bank by the river, we saw skid marks going down to the water. We finally figured out that this was a slide used by beavers. Beavers are known to live on the river.
When we saw the La Linda bridge, I think we were all a little disappointed that our trip was over. We got out just past the bridge and were again amazed at how much gear we still had to unload.
It had been a remarkable trip -- fantastic scenery, a great group, a nice relaxing pace, and excellent weather. John had said at one time that a trip like this creates bonds between people. We're already talking about other trips. And some of us plan to visit Richard and paddle with him in Canada. Wow. Texans paddling in Canada.
Now that I'm back, I'm having a few problems related to the trip. I'm still in a "canyon state of mind". It's a good way to feel, but it doesn't go very well with the fast-paced city life. And it doesn't do that much for my productivity at work. Also, I have the urge to ask people whether I've told them HOW REALLY GOOD I FEEL TODAY. I'm afraid they're really going to wonder what's wrong with me. The most disturbing thing is that I'm beginning to think I'm becoming a Gear Head. I was driving the other day, and inexplicably, I turned into REI. I don't know how it happened, but I sure hope I can control myself before I go broke.