Three hunters from San Antonio stood on the canyon wall above the river at Langtry, Texas, as I paddled below. By trading shouts, we had a brief conversation. After hearing that I had just spent 17 days floating alone from Big Bend National Park, one guy called down: "Don't you know you are CRAZY?"
Yes, Sir, I concluded that on the morning of Day 2 and had it reconfirmed so many times on the long trip that the question had long since graduated to the realm of rhetorical.
Some trace of sanity, however, remained as late as Day 13 when I wrote in my river journal: "NOTE TO SELF: DON'T EVER DO THIS ALONE AGAIN!"
From the moment a panther entered my camp the first morning on the river until I reached the boat dock at the Pecos River 19 days later, I lived the life of an animal, living not by intellect but by sensory experience: sight, smell, and hearing.
My den out in the vast tierra despoblada was the raft; whether that raft was roaring down the turbulent Upper Madison Falls or floating the many miles of calm water in the second half of the trip, the raft was the one, the only, place I felt secure.
On land I spent most of my waking hours turning nervously in all directions, looking smelling, listening.
Perhaps the entire experience would have been much different had that panther not come in camp that first morning I cooked breakfast, an animal large enough that at first glance I mistook it for a black bear, an animal threatening enough that in the short moment before adrenaline charged through my body, I felt a profound loneliness about this trip.
Maybe the trip would have been different, but I doubt it.
The third night nearby coyotes were so raucous that I was certain one had to be rabid.
On the fourth night, two bulls very near camp engaged in an all-out head-butting brawl.
Night five, I faced another bull which clearly wanted me to vacate my camp.
Two nights later when fear had reduced me to camping on islands in mid-river, I heard a smaller creature moving through the river cane immediately across the river channel. I hurled a rock in the direction of its noise and its immediate response filled the night air with an odor we all recognize. Skunk!
By that point in the trip, I started counting days and calculating what percentage of the trip I had safely traveled. At the same time I realized there were no fractions in this game. Either I made it or I didn't, all or nothing.
This, I learned long ago, was a land of tiny victories and huge defeats.
My best river partner, Hayesy, often noted on past trips that it takes four or five days to find the rhythm on the long winter excursions. I didn't find mine until Day 8 when I awoke to find the river had risen substantially during the night, extinguishing my fire and very nearly carrying away my raft.
I had two purposeful days pushing down river in the deepest part of the canyons, walls rising vertically 1500 feet above, and ran the major rapids with a focus I never experience in my life off the river.
During my previous trip in March down this section of the canyons, my friend Eric Clem and I spent considerable time and energy trying to remove the bit and bridal from a white horse which had apparently broken free from the ranch 12 miles up San Rocendo Canyon. Eric, who grew up around horses on a Nova Scotia farm, surmised the horse would starve to death because the bit prevented it from eating. The irony of the incident was that we found the horse -and its mate- very near where Cañon del Caballo Blanco enters from the Mexican side.
Eric and I were successful, and on the morning of Day 8, I found that same white horse grazing the green grass in White Horse Canyon.
The first of three cold fronts hit late on Day 9, bringing cold drizzle before the temperature dropped to freezing for a couple days. I moved only far enough on Day 10 to find firewood and then stayed in camp all day the next day, feeding the fire, and defining my territory by singing Jose Alfredo Jimenez songs.
Despite my many years playing and coaching baseball, I am not a superstitious guy, so after having a fine day moving down river on Day 12, I expected another on Day 13 as the sun broke through for the first time in nearly a week.
Instead, I experienced the punto negro of the trip as I faced off -within a space of 15 minutes- with the two highest links on the food chain of the Lower Canyons.
First, as I was returning to camp from a short walk along the river shore, I was startled by the sound of a large animal moving quickly through the brush in the direction of camp.
Seconds later I found myself directly in the path of a charging mountain lion!
I had always wondered about the difference between wild cats such as bobcats, cougars, pumas, panthers, and mountain lions. However, once I saw the size of this lion, I fully understood. This cat was much closer in size to the African lions I have seen on the Discovery Channel than to the bobcats I have seen in hunters' photographs.
I'm not very good at estimating the weight of wildlife, but this powerful feline didn't weigh much less than my 185 pounds.
Ten feet from my fire pan at the center of camp, the lion first noticed the fire, and then paused at four feet, lowering its head and surveying a scene it clearly did not expect to encounter on its way, apparently, to the river for a drink.
If I have ever been more afraid, I'm not confessing it here.
I moved back a step towards the river, for I could think of no other escape than to swim the river, despite the icy morning.
With my movement, the lion saw me for the first time, and we had one interminable moment staring at each other from a distance of 40 feet. For a guy who doesn't like to be the center of attention even when I'm by myself, this was especially overwhelming.
One of the many thoughts that raced through my mind was to let out a primal scream to try to scare the lion, but when I tried to do that I could get only enough air to utter a weak shout that wouldn't scare away a four year-old.
The lion, however, retreated, bounding back in the same direction from which it came. I saw it enter a cave perhaps 50 vertical feet above camp, but about 100 yards away.
Little did I know at that moment that I had escaped the second tier of the food chain only to be spared for the first.
In the next few minutes as I hastily broke camp, never turning my back from the cave the lion occupied, I heard strange noises up above on the canyon wall Mexican side, first a sound I thought to be coyotes, then the drone of what I thought to be a motor.
Neither sound made any sense since coyotes don't run in packs and I had never before heard a motor on land in nearly twenty trips down the river.
Still, I would shoot quick glances up there, more as the noises persisted, while maintaining my vigil for the mountain lion.
Then I saw from a distance, the image of two men moving along the canyon wall across the river, ostensibly, given their pace, standing in the back of a vehicle, though I could not see the vehicle from my angle a couple hundred feet below.
These were the first people I had seen since the shuttle driver left me at La Linda, 13 days back upriver.
I studied them from below. They seemed to be hunters who were looking through binoculars as they went, and then I connected the earlier sound of canines as their dogs.
This realization could have been a source of relief except that I, against the advice of every safety manual on the outdoors, was dressed in a mule deer gray fleece pullover and dark pants.
When I was a child and my father would get angry with me, his sternest comment used to be: "You may be smart in school but you sure are stupid when it comes to common sense!"
Dad, some things never change, unless it's the part about school.
Once I moved to wave at the hunters, they clearly believed I was game, for I could see them quickly set down their binoculars and pick up rifles, pointing the guns at me.
Just 15 minutes after staring down a mountain lion, I found myself staring helplessly at the top of the food chain: guys with guns! My least favorite of all predators.
In a panic, I began jumping furiously up and down, waving my arms, and shouting: "Buenos dias, Buenos dias," irony of all ironies! Good Day?!? My gringo butt!!!
The rifles came down, and they waved apologetically and repeatedly.
But I still had a week of rafting to reach the take-out at the Pecos River.
If you have ever watched a wild animal feeding when it senses an unknown presence, you have a good image of me for the next seven days. I couldn't tie my shoes without looking up in every direction at least four times.
I felt safe only in the boat, and the faster it moved the safer I felt. For the next two days, I camped on islands, and sawed my firewood from partially submerged trees mired in the river; such was my anxiety about setting foot ashore.
One last fear filled experience awaited me at my next to last camp at Catherine Grace's Island below Langtry.
On a raw, damp evening, as I was setting up camp, I thought I could see a small boat on the Mexican shore a couple hundred yards down river, but with the mist and advancing darkness, I wasn't sure if this were simply a figment of my paranoia.
And then suddenly, I heard three deafening rifle reports, tripled in intensity due to the closeness of the canyon walls, followed by four more, then two more sets of three each. A few moments later -now dusk- I watched two shadows paddle across river to the Texas side.
The following day, the coldest of the trip, I paddled hard into a sleet which blew horizontally upriver, icy pellets suckerpunching my face for much of the day. I endured long enough to reach a camp only seven miles from the Pecos River.
I was still so on edge the final morning that when my rubber boots slid off the pile of gear on which I had placed them, the surprise of the unexpected noise rattled me so much, I instinctively leapt in the air and did a flying 180 degree turn to face the source of the noise.
Oops!….time to get off the river.
At the end of past river trips, Hayesy would always ask me whether I would be willing to return directly to the beginning and do it all again. Always I had told him with conviction: "Absolutely, yes!"
When I lined my boat up the Pecos to the take-out my last day on the river, I asked myself that same question.
This time I didn't have an answer…though I did shoot many nervous glances
in all directions while thinking about it.
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