A couple of years ago, I accompanied Louis Aulbach, his kids, Robert and Lolita Stricker and their four grandchildren, and several other folks to the Big Bend to paddle Boquillas Canyon. We hauled a total of eleven boats out there plus all our other paddling equipment. A couple of days before we were scheduled to put on the river it started raining … and it rained … and it rained. The morning of our trip, the river at Rio Grande Village was at 16 feet and moving like a freight train. Needless to say, considering all the kids and novice paddlers (myself included) on the trip, we decided to forgo paddling. But we hiked and camped and played endless games of Scrabble; Louis and Lolita fixed some unbelievably scrumptious Dutch oven meals … and a great time was had by all. In fact, it turned out to be one of our best trips out to the Big Bend ever!
This fall we had a similar, but very different, experience. Louis and I had scheduled a trip to paddle the Great Unknown of the Rio Grande from Santa Elena Canyon to Boquillas Canyon the week after Rendezvous 2001 to finish up the research we have been doing for our upcoming book on paddling that section of the river. Donna Grimes, Marilyn Peery, Dana Enos and Louis’s sister came along. Unlike our previous experience however, it didn’t rain…for months…and months … and months. And when we got to the Big Bend, every outfitter discouraged us from even attempting the trip. They said the river was way too low…that we’d be dragging our boats a good portion of the way. We heeded their warnings and dropped back to Plan B.
And what a great Plan B it was. We met Dana at Comstock and after spending the night at Seminole Canyon we had a once in a lifetime experience. The Rio Grande and Lake Amistad are so low right now that you can actually walk to Panther Cave. Jack Richardson, who is guiding tours out there on the Pecos, the Devils and the Lake, showed us the way…through the park, over the dried riverbed, up the canyon, across an escarpment…to this cave with unbelievable pictographs that normally is only reachable by boat.
That night Dana, Louis and I camped at the primitive site at Dog Canyon, on a dirt road off to the left after you enter the Big Bend from the Marathon road. What an incredible experience. It was so quiet, so remote, so clear, so starry with a huge full moon. Magical…especially when the coyotes started their song.
We had planned to meet the rest of the group at Cottonwood Campground the following day and, sure enough, we all gathered and snagged three perfect campsites at the far end of the deserted campground. Lots of trees, water at our front door and even some new pit toilets across the way! Luxury! Not only that, we had wildlife. A family of eleven javalinas and two wild turkeys greeted us cheerfully as we set up our tents and made camp. And Donna and I are sure we saw a mountain lion in the camp on our second night there … despite what the rest of our crew has to say!
Because all of us brought our boats just in case we got a surge in the river, Louis planned a one-day trip upriver into Santa Elena Canyon. We did that on Sunday and if anything convinced us that we had made the right decision not to paddle for a week, that did it. Between walking the boats over the gravel bars and mud flats, plodding through sticky mud, poling, paddling against the current, and struggling with the unseasonable 95 degree temperatures for just a mile or so…we stopped for lunch on a canyon ledge and voted to paddle back to the takeout.
Back to Plan B.
Since all of us like to hike almost as much as we like to paddle, we laid out our topo maps on the picnic table and decided where to go first. Since Donna and Marilyn were going to be with us for just three days, we decided to do the best day hikes the Big Bend has to offer while they were with us…Cattail Falls, Mule Ears and The Chimneys. We never cease to be amazed at the variety of terrain the Big Bend offers and these three hikes run the gamut…secret, hidden pools and waterfalls, long stretches of desert, dry creek beds, and even canyons with panels of incredible pictographs and petroglyphs…rare to find in this area of the Big Bend. Donna even saw her first live tarantula … up close and personal!
After we said goodbye to Donna and Marilyn Dana, Louis and I spent the new few days going where few men (or women) have gone before. Again, using our topo maps and the extensive research we had already done, we hiked far into the desert and found the ruins of several vanished and completely lost to history Mexican villages - complete with haunting cemeteries and crumbling adobe huts. We found the ruins of the officers’ quarters, the enlisted barracks, the blacksmith shop and the corrals at Camp Neville Springs, an 1880’s Army outpost that had been manned by the Seminole Indian Scouts. We drove the River Road in both directions and discovered amazing places like the ruins of Johnson’s Ranch, which had been quite an active U.S. Army airfield from the 1920’s right through the second World War, protecting the border and offering cocky pilots, their white scarves blowing in the wind, a place to take off for their daring flights THROUGH Santa Elena Canyon!
Our best discovery, however, was right off the main road between Castolon and Santa Elena Canyon. You’ve probably passed it a dozen times in your travels to the put in or take out for Santa Elena. Up on the right, on a high bluff, are the ruins of an adobe house, the Dorgan house. It is actually part of a larger complex that was called the Dorgan-Sublett Complex.
The Dorgan-Sublett Complex included several substantial houses and farmland that stretched along the Rio Grande floodplain from Santa Elena Canyon to beyond Castolon. It’s worth a stop. Park your car along the road (there is a pull off) and hike up to the first level which is the Sublett store. Read the historical signs. Go up to the next level. There you’ll find the ruins of a three room rock house. But go up a little higher and you’ll find the real prize…the melting adobe walls of the Dorgan house, built in the early 1900s and one of the true gems of the Big Bend. The center fireplace of the house is still standing and we thought at first glance it was made of huge slabs of petrified wood, polished over time. Later, we learned that the fireplace is made from volcanic rock found in the vicinity of Castolon. It is a magnificent fireplace in a magnificent house …surely a mark of the status that Albert Dorgan enjoyed during his time in the Big Bend.
So, put together a Plan B for yourself the next time you travel to the Big Bend. There are plenty of other great experiences waiting for you if you can’t paddle the Rio Grande!
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Copyright by Louis F. Aulbach, 2001