It was to be our first day paddling the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park in Texas. Loading gear in our canoes for a trip of several days in Santa Elena Canyon, we knew we were in for it.
On the river a wind howled, so powerful it created foot-high waves with whitecaps, as if to let us know right off that the river is boss.
Ten of us – two couples, a group of three women, myself and two guides – pushed off from our launch site at the downriver terminus of the canyon, headed upstream.
It was an October day last fall. October is supposed to be a good month for rafting or canoeing in Big Bend. Not too cold. Not 120 degrees like it often is in June. Usually not too wet, often not too dry.
The river was low, so paddling upstream against the current was an option even if it involved a bit more effort. Moreover, the wind would be at our backs, which ordinarily helps a paddler. But not with this wind. Instead, for the first hour or so, until the wind dropped down a tad, we were virtually blasted upriver. It took real effort to keep boats tracking properly, especially where the river took a turn.
Minutes after launching, a couple from Texas, struggling with the wind, suddenly found themselves sideways, their boat loaded with gear and exposed broadside to the full force of the wind. Over they went.
Fortunately, the water was only waist deep. Nonetheless, we easily spent a half hour regrouping. Yet spirits remained high. This was a scheduled trip, a planned adventure. You commit to days paddling and camping on a remote river and you take what comes. You know that going in. It is part of the romance of a river trip. Rain. Wind. High water. Low water, Hot. Cold. Flipping over. You get memories, stories to share. Later.
We spent the day working our way upriver, dragging the canoes through shallow water at times. No complaints. The guides, Doug, the lead, and Anna Cole, worked hard, helping pull every boat through one scratchy riffle after another.
What was important was that we were on the Rio Grande, one of the longest rivers in the U. S., 1,758 miles, even if, more than a thousand miles from its source in Colorado, it really wasn’t very big. Here it was an intimate river, a most comfortable size, sometimes only 30 feet across, literally showcased by craggy, steep canyon walls rising some 1,500 feet above the shore. Vultures soared on air currents above. Black phoebes flitted about the riverbank below.
This was the desert southwest. Dry. Rivers are few. They are not as big as you might expect either, especially a river like the Rio Grande, relentlessly tapped virtually everywhere upriver for irrigation and drinking water.
For 1,255 miles the river is the international border between Mexico and the United States. So all day we were back and forth in Mexico and the U. S. Left bank Mexico, right bank the U. S.
Late in the afternoon we looked for a campsite. A good site on the U. S. side of the border was already taken by another canoe party. Canoe camping etiquette discourages crowding a campsite. First come, first served. Across the river was a decent-if-not-as-good campsite. Tired, we grabbed it. We would camp in Mexico. Nobody seemed to care.
On a slightly elevated terrace was tall grass and room for our tents. The river bank was rocky at river’s edge, then gave way to deep mud, then, just a dozen steps above, the terrace. We sank ankle deep in the mud unloading the boats.
Tents went up in minutes. The guides prepared dinner. We sat in folding camp chairs at the edge of the terrace with a grand view up and down the river. A massive canyon wall rose just feet behind us. Across the river the other canyon wall was the backdrop to our river view. Wine was poured, the river flowed. Several of us agreed to a sunrise yoga session.
The Rio Grande for hundreds of miles is a turbid light brown, or, as Paul Horgan nicely put it in his masterful work “Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History,” it is, as it passes through a desert landscape of sparse shrubs, “ever after the color of the earth that it drags so heavily in its shallow flow.”
Horgan’s book, first published in 1954 and updated through four editions into the 1980s, won the Pulitzer Prize and remains one of the greatest literary and scholarly studies of any river in the western hemisphere, ever.
We paddlers sat and talked, bonding with the river. The coronavirus pandemic was still a couple of months away.
President Trump, of course, vowed upon taking office to build a wall between the U. S. and Mexico to keep illegal immigrants out of the states.
Illegal immigration in the Big Bend area happens, from what I understand, though it is not the problem it is in some other places along the border. But the idea of a wall through Big Bend’s canyons is ridiculous. To build a wall on American soil in this canyon – 30-feet-high seems to be the specification – would mean sealing off the river and any view of it – from the American side. You have to assume even Trump knows better, however risky that assumption.
Indeed. “I worry that the Trump administration might start building the wall in Big Bend simply because the federal government already owns the land,” wrote Lawrence Wright in “God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State.”
Hiking in Santa Elena Canyon with his wife, Wright “tried to envision a wall down the center of the river. It seemed like a prison for nature.”
Even without a wall, it is not as if illegal immigrants can just wade across the river and disappear into American society. I ran into U. S. Border Patrol agents – and had to show identification – twice while driving in the general area of Big Bend.
Wright noted that the increased police presence made parts of the area less vulnerable to illegal immigration or smuggling, “proving there are ways of policing the border without defacing one of the most beautiful parts of the state.” Drones? Maybe.
It was time for dinner: grilled salmon, asparagus and rice pilaf, followed by cheesecake. Poof, it was all gone. It wasn’t long before we unzipped tent flies and disappeared for the night. Once camp was quiet, the only sound was tumbling, gurgling water from the little rapid in front of our camp. This, of course, was one of the reasons you do this kind of trip.
While the Big Bend area was known and inhabited by aboriginal people who lived along the river for centuries before the first Europeans arrived, it was, almost incredibly, little explored by Europeans or Americans until the very end of the 19th century. Santa Elena, Boquillas and Mariscal canyons were simply too out-of-the-way, too forbidding.
A U. S. Geological Survey expedition was the first documented exploration of Big Bend’s canyons – in 1899. Rowing downriver and coming upon Santa Elena Canyon, “almost in the twinkling of an eye we passed out of the desert glare into the dark and silent depths of its gigantic canyon walls, which rise vertically from the water’s edge to a narrow ribbon of sky above,” the survey leader related more than a century ago.
Unlike so many other strikingly beautiful natural features, the canyons even today remain remarkably unspoiled. In fact, the national park is so remote that El Paso and Midland, the cities you are most likely to fly into to reach Big Bend – each are at least a four-hour drive away. A 196-mile section of the Rio Grande is a designated national Wild and Scenic River, including part of the river through the national park.
We had so-so weather the rest of our trip. The wind died down the second day, with a mixture of sun and clouds above, which helped keep the temperature comfortable.
On our third day, we had off-and-on sprinkles of rain in the morning – of course we did, this being a multi-day canoe trip, why wouldn’t it rain, even in the desert? But the paddling was pleasant, even in places where there was no shoreline whatsoever, only canyon wall. The trick in places where the river turned sharply was to keep the canoe from crashing into the canyon walls. All went well, even if a couple of the boats nicked unyielding rock a couple of times.
Real sunshine and heat did not arrive until we were finishing our trip. We dragged the boats up a muddy bank and made lunch at mid-day. Seeing a footpath nearby, I ambled off to wet the willows. Suddenly I heard a rattle in the brush beside the trail. Close. That could be a rattlesnake, I thought. I froze. Seconds later, it rattled again. Slowly, I retreated and, once I was perhaps 15 feet away from the snake, hustled back to the group. “I think there is a rattlesnake next to the path,” I told everybody.
“That definitely was a rattlesnake,” one of the guides said. “I heard it.”
The romance of the river. Rain. Wind. Low water, Hot. Cool. Flipping over. A gurgling rapid in the still of night. Steep canyon walls. Canyon wrens. Desert wildflowers. Hearty meals. Good company. Rattlesnakes.
You get memories, stories to share.