Glenn Hart's description of his trip to the Devil's River over Thanksgiving has inspired me!
Although I paddled the Pecos River twice last year and have done a few trips on the Brazos and Colorado, all in the bow of a tandem canoe, I consider myself a rank novice paddler. At the risk of getting "spammed" by some of you more avid and experienced paddlers out there, I'd like to submit my first report. In fact, I'd like to read more reports from novices to see that I'm not the only weenie paddler who has spent as much time in the water as in the boat ...and still had a heck of a good time!
Over Thanksgiving, I had the great good fortune to accompany Louis Aulbach on a trip through Colorado Canyon on the Rio Grande. As many of you know, Louis is the author of the guidebooks on paddling the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande and the Lower Pecos River. He planned this Thanksgiving trip to check out the section of the Rio Grande from Presidio through Colorado Canyon and on down through Santa Elena Canyon in final preparation for a forthcoming guidebook on this section of the River. He allowed me to go along with the hope of adding a fresh perspective from a new paddler (little did he know what he had in store!!!) and to take a few pictures for his new book. He also insisted that I take my own canoe and learn to paddle it correctly!
We planned several stops along the way to the Rio Grande to learn more about that part of the country and to add a bit of local history to the upcoming book. We left Houston on Sunday, November 22 and camped the first night in Comstock where we toured the terrific museum at Seminole Canyon State Historical Park on Monday morning. Getting to know a little about the prehistory of the area and learning about the pictographs and petroglyphs that turn up on cliffs and canyons along the Pecos and Rio Grande will give you a good primer on what to expect during your trip.
We drove over the Pecos River High Bridge and on to Langtry to visit the newly-renovated Judge Roy Bean Visitors Center and Lilly Langtry Saloon (a must see for those who have not taken the time previously) where Bean dispensed his famous "Law West of the Pecos". West of Langtry we started seeing acres and acres of the creosote bush - low green plants with tiny yellow flowers that are the "indicator" plant for the Chihuahuan desert through which you'll be traveling for a good portion of your trip to the Rio Grande.
Heading toward Fort Davis, we stopped en route at Marathon to visit with Ted Thayer, an eccentric and lovable former river guide who is renovating Marathon's 1800's vintage train station behind his jack-of-all trades store where he refinishes furniture, sells antiques, renovates old musical instruments, dispenses all sorts of local lore, and -- oh, by the way - runs the shuttle for the the Lower Canyons. Again, this is a must-stop if only to chat with Ted about his old days guiding trips down the Rio Grande and other rivers in Texas and to catch a shuttle for your own river trip.
A little further up the road, we toured Fort Davis, a U. S. Army outpost during the Indian Wars. The fort has been painstakingly restored and has quite a good museum highlighting the military way of life in the 1850's - 1890's. Camp that night was in the Davis Mountains State Park at about 5500 feet in a splendid campground in which we awoke to a pre-dawn temperature of 28 degrees. Brrr.
The next day we took the leisurely drive down Highway 67 through Marfa to Presidio in order to pick up El Camino del Rio (the River Road, FM 170). On the way, we detoured to Shafter, a ghost town with city blocks of eerie ruins which had been a thriving mining community from the late 1800's to the 1940s. There we had the good fortune to meet Judy Brooks, a 90-year old resident who had been born and raised in the town and remembered it in its heyday. I recommend this as a side trip for anyone with kids or kid-like fantasies about ghost towns - it is remarkable!
The next stop was Fort Leaton, another "must see" for anyone seeking to know the history of the Big Bend area. Ben Leaton was "un mal hombre" (a really bad guy) according to all of the local sources and the fortress he built outside the town of Presidio gives visitors an idea of how an "empressario" lived on the banks of the Rio Grande and profited from all sorts of trade - both legal and illegal!
At Fort Leaton we also learned that the new reguations for permits on the Colorado Canyon are in effect. You can get the permit at Fort Leaton in Presidio or Barton Warnock Center in Lajitas.
Camping is now permitted at three access points for the Colorado Canyon: Colorado Canyon access (formerly the Rancherias entrance), the Madera Canyon access, and the Grassy Banks access. That night we camped at the put-in at Rancherias where there is a new outhouse but no other facilities. Be sure to bring your water with you to this point becasue there is no place to fill up here.
We arranged a freelance shuttle with an off-duty guide from Far Flung Adventures in Terlingua. A word of warning - if you need a shuttle at Thanksgiving or Christmas - plan it early. Although we had procrastinated in arranging the shuttle, we were extremely lucky to get one -- all the shuttle services were overbooked when we called them on Wednesday.
When we put in at Rancherias, the water level was 3.5 ft on the Presidio
gauge which is about 370 cfs. Water has been low for the past couple of
years, and although 3.5 ft is low, it is still a runnable level.
Rancherias Rapid is no more than 100 yards from the put in, a rocky first drop to a pool, followed by a right-turning set of standing waves. Bumpy in low water, but easily negotiated...except for this rookie who took her first swim in the Rio Grande after being underway no more than 2 minutes. Fortunately, the water temperature was about 70 and the air temperature was about 80 because I spent a good portion of the first day in the water!!!
Louis assured me that I did all the right things once I DID fall out of the boat (didn't swamp it, got on the correct side of the boat so I didn't get pinned up against the canyon wall, managed to get it to shore and bail it out ..... but I WILL be taking lessons soon on whitewater paddling!) He also said that he has led a few members of the Houston Canoe Club (who shall remain nameless but who are now excellent paddlers) down this same stretch of river for their first taste of Rio Grande whitewater, some having similar experiences as I.
Within the first mile there is a gravel bar rapid formed as the river spills over the a rocky gravel ledge, turns sharply to the left, and runs directly into the face of the canyon wall thereby creating a swift and narrow channel along the base of the wall. The low water conditions made this rapid more difficult than it normally is because the clear channels to run became too choked with boulders and the paths with deeper water were too squirrelly to risk a swim with gear. We lined the rapid over the gravel on river right. I think at this point Louis would do anything to keep me upright in my boat and dry!
A little further down is Closed Canyon. Closed Canyon rapid looks bad at this level. The main drop is narrower than normal although most of the water flows in and over the usual spot. Although we lined it this time, there was sufficient water flow over the drop to create a slight eddy on the left which one can enter and escape crashing into the enormous boulder that lies immediately below the drop on the right. A short hike up to the canyon gave us a chance to stretch our legs and measure how small we humans are against the magnificent grandeur of the canyons and mountains along the Rio Grande!
Quarter Mile Rapid follows within the next mile. It is a long boulder garden flowing fully the width of the river from the canyon wall on the left, curving to the right and flushing off the the wall there as well. Scout this run from the sandbar on river right. Pick your route through the 50 yards of boulders until you reach the last section of whitewater and standing waves. Watch out for that submerged rock in the middle! Bump! Then, drop off into the eddy on river left before you get sucked into the main flow and bounce off the right-side canyon wall. A little riffle follows immediately below with a strong eddy. Pull in here to rest or make camp on the sand bar if you wish.
We did not want to stop too early this day, so we continued on down river in hopes of finding another camp site. Unfortunately, the low water has left many sites quite muddy. It was late in the day and no good site was coming into view. We had planned to camp within the canyon, but it now seemed as if we would have to proceed on out to the sandbar beyond the end of Colorado Canyon.
We paddled in the stillness of the late afternoon, looking at every
possibility for a place to pitch our tents. I could tell Louis was getting
a little anxious - darkness was beginning to settle in and I'm sure he
was envisioning having to pull my cold, soggy self out of the water in
the dark if we didn't find a camping spot soon!
Just after exiting the section of the lava flows, often called "Black Rock Canyon" we found a set of ledges in the rusty red rocks on river right. Although space was limited for tent camping, the site lent itself well to cots, al a the Pecos River. There were excellent kitchen rocks and little balcony-style cot sites right above the river's edge where you could see the mirror image reflections of the canyon in the setting sunlight. No sooner had we pulled our canoes up than the first huge catfish jumped out of the water. Although we didn't catch any fresh fish for dinner, Louis fixed, hands down, the best dutch oven jambalaya I've ever tasted. Could it have been that I was cold, tired, sore and incredibly hungry after pulling myself and the canoe out of the water all day???? Whatever the reason, that hot, spicy meal really hit the spot!
After that delicious meal, we enjoyed a cool night under a billion stars in the narrow slit of the canyon panorama with huge moon shadows adding a special mystique to the place. The setting was made even more dramatic by the coyotes howling in the distance and bats fluttering down from their canyon crevices. All night long those huge catfish jumped out of the water, making enormous plops and teasing us to wake up and drop our lines in the river.
We rose early as the sun took its time coming in over the canyon walls to warm the chilly canoers. As we set out in a morning stillness, there was not a ripple on the water. I really tried to concentrate on all the lessons I had been taught the day before. I was determined to enjoy the River from the canoe and not from the murky chocolate-brown depths of the Rio Grande!
We exited the canyon and came out to a small boulder garden and swift current. Ahead, the river turned a corner to the right and presented us dead ahead with the Panther Rapid complex, a rapid in three stages, ending in surging whitewater, boulders and standing waves,Class II - III at this level. I was told that this is the best run on the trip.
The upper boulder garden is about 30 yards long. Run center and prepare for faster water in stage two with more rocks. The river then turns sharply to the left and you must find your way past the large rocks that stand in a series in the center of the current. The best route is to use the small eddies billowing behind the submerged rocks and follow the course along the left side of the river, finally dropping into the swift channel along the left bank. While Louis ran this rapid, I put caution first and lined the boat along the left bank, an easy line even for beginners.
The Big Hill on FM 170 soon can be seen. There is a riffle above Big Hill Canyon made of one drop, yet with big standing waves, even Louis took on water in a side splash. Best route is on the right. Again, I lined my boat.
For anyone who has done this section of the River before or even traveled down the River Road, the famous Tee Pees Roadside Park coming into view at this point is still impressive! The Tee Pees indicate the approach to the Madera Canyon Access. Just below the Tee Pees is Madera Canyon Rapid, a small boulder garden with fast moving current. There is an easy channel on river left.
After turning the corner, to the right, you come to Ledgerock Rapids,
Class III. The river divides around a central rocky outcrop into two deep
and tricky channels that drop over two smooth rock ledges. The swirling
cross currents and curling keeper waves below the second ledge make this
rapid difficult at this level to run, either side. We easily lined the
boats along the right bank.
We pulled the canoes up on the bank and had lunch in the warm November sun on the large flat ledge rock exposed from the water. Louis took out his maps and was marking notes for his upcoming book. I reached for my camera to take a picture of his concentration, but by the time I got over to the bank and turned around he was sound asleep, his Panama hat pulled over his face to shield it from the hot midday sun. A reward for his hard work the day before! I think these veteran paddlers need a little more rest than most of us.
We pushed off in our canoes after lunch (and the nap). Within another mile downriver, the Rio Grande splits left and right around a fairly large island. Riffles and fast current could be seen along the right channel. The left channel went off into brush and dangers unknown. We chose the route we could see, less adventurous, but safe. Tricky currents and strong eddies at the point where the two channels recombined made for a little excitement.
One last riffle and the Grassy Banks Access came into view. Two days on the river and we saw not another person. I was disappointed to arrive at the take out because I'd finally gotten the hang of paddling through small rapids and riffles. Success to me was not so much learning to negotiate the River, but staying out of the water and comparatively dry the whole day!
The trip didn't end with our river adventure. We spent Thanksgiving night at the Lajitas Campground where we were incredibly lucky to get a spot for our tents. The campground is right on the banks of the Rio Grande and there was a lot of partying going on all night on the Mexican side!!! Lots of whooping and hollering and roosters crowing - we were beginning to think there were all night cock fights going on just a stone's throw from the tents.
The next morning we drove to the ghost town of Terlingua and chatted with a bunch of the river guides from Far Flung Adventures and Desert Sports. Jim Carrico, former superintendent at Big Bend National Park is a part owner of Desert Sports and it was interesting to hear him chat about how the drought this summer affected business. Fortunately for him and the other river outfitters, the rains this fall have brought renewed hope as Thanksgiving 1998 turned out to be their busiest season ever. Bookings for Christmas are already way ahead of schedule.
We spent two more days in the Big Bend, hiked to the Hot Springs and down to Boquillas Canyon where I was tempted to slide down the sand slide at the mouth of the canyon. We also took a great day hike up Lost Mine Trail where signs caution hikers about the re-emergence of the bear population in the park (currently about 23 bears have been counted inside the Big Bend). Each campground also has large signs warning of the aggressiveness of the javalinas and, in fact, we were welcomed to our camp site at Rio Grande Village by three of these large, gray, hairy guys rooting around at our campsite and those of our neighbors.
The contrast between the quiet serenity of the River and the bustle of Rio Grande Village was remarkable. It was like the United Nations - we met people from places as far flung as Japan and Czechoslovakia as well as from most of the 50 states. One night while taking an after-dinner walk, the haunting sounds of a bagpiper resounded through the campground. We traced the sound to one of the group campsites, and as we walked by in the darkness one of the campers asked the bagpiper if he knew the UT fight song (unbeknownst to us, UT had just beaten A & M in football that day). In a few short seconds, the mountains of the Big Bend were alive with the sounds of a lone bagpiper playing "The Eyes of Texas." A once in a lifetime experience to be sure.
All in all, it was the most memorable trip of my life! I hope it was the same for my guide.