The Survey team had come forty miles through Boquillas Canyon and the journey had taken its toll on the men, their supplies, and their courage. Nearly barefoot, Chandler and his men chose to walk across the Mexican desert to Eagle Pass, Texas rather than continue downstream through the Lower Canyons!
View of Upper Madison Falls from the top of Burro Bluff, about 1000 feet above the river. Canyon El Tule enters at the upper right. Campsite on rock slab in upper left. This view has never been published before. Few people have ever viewed the river from on top of the canyon wall.
The next spring, another survey team set out to complete the mapping of this void on the boundary maps. Lt. Nathaniel Michler had hoped to float the river from near Reagan Canyon to the mouth of the Pecos. He found the terrain so rugged and cut by deep canyons and cliffs that he chose to detour around the Lower Canyons, approaching the cliffs only so that he was able to look down upon the river. Near the present Dryden Crossing, a common Indian ford, he finally was able to put his boats in the water. He floated from there on down to Eagle Pass.
The Boundary Survey of the Rio Grande remained incomplete for four decades. The river had not been surveyed continuously from boats and the terrain was too rugged and inhospitable for an overland survey.
Toward the end of the 19th century, the mystery of the canyons of the Rio Grande had become a popular topic. Tales of bandits, 7000 foot deep canyons, and impassable rapids made the Lower Canyons the last great unexplored wilderness in the United States.
In early fall of 1899, Robert T. Hill of the United States Geological Survey set out to fully explore and describe the canyons of the Rio Grande from Presidio to Del Rio, Texas. On October 5, 1899, after five nights of rain, he and five others began the exploration of the Rio Grande. His report and photographs are the first published record of the canyons of the Rio Grande.
In March, 1992, Wilderness Furnishings helped sponsor a team of five experienced expedition canoeists to retrace Hill's survey of the Rio Grande. The 300 miles of the original survey were divided into five segments which could be canoed in one week trips of a period of five years. By partitioning the re-creation of the survey into one week trips, a detailed examination of the river and the surrounding landscape can be made to compare how it has changed and how it has remained the same over the passing of a century.
Civilization is quite evident in the upper sections of the Rio Grande, from Presidio through Lajitas and the Big Bend National Park to the bridge at La Linda. Only the most remote sections of the river corridor remain untouched. Below La Linda, however, the land and the river are still largely wild and untamed. A trip through the Lower Canyons is a trip back in time to rhythms of geologic time.
Although Hill's report is quite sketchy about the features of the Lower Canyons, he did make some note of the hot springs at San Rosendo Canyon. The clean, warm water was as much an oasis to his group as it is for modern boaters. They did just what most of us do today. They bathed in the refreshingly clear springs, washed clothes, and spent a couple layover days just relaxing from the strenuous nature of the trip.
Many of the geographical features of the area had no names, and Hill was able to name some of them. Temple Canyon was his name for the section of the river above Maravillas Creek. He identified Castle Butte in Las Vegas De Los Ladrones. Hill called the section of the canyons from Big Canyon to Burro Bluff "Reagan Canyon". Today, Reagan Canyon is a side canyon that joins the Rio Grande about a half mile downstream from Big Canyon. The section from Burro Bluff to San Francisco Canyon was called "Irwin Canyon". Below San Francisco Canyon to beyond Dryden Crossing the canyon was called "Nichol Canyon". Obviously, some of his designations stuck, and some did not.
After Hill's return, the publication of his findings about the canyons of the Rio Grande did not excite much enthusiasm. Most people preferred to believe in the legends of the 7000 foot canyons similar to those of the Colorado. For years it had been believed that the boundary surveys of the 1850's had made inaccurate measurements of the canyons. The reality that they were fairly accurate in recording canyons of less than 2000 feet was not news. Hill's account faded into obscurity, only to be revived thirty years later by R. M. Wagstaff, a state legislator who became interested in the Big Bend. Wagstaff's interest eventually led to the creation of the Texas Canyons State Park which eventually became the Big Bend National Park.
There is one last footnote to the early explorations of the canyons. Hill was the first Anglo-American to float the canyons and write about it. Hill was not, however, the first to accomplish the feat. Hill's guide in 1899 was a trapper named James MacMahon who had made at least three previous trips down the river setting traps for beaver.
Yet, even earlier, during the boundary surveys of the 1850's we know of some men who must have floated the Lower Canyons. When Chandler abandoned his expedition at Maravillas Creek and set out across the desert toward Eagle Pass, some of his men chose to stay with the river rather than the inhospitable desert. Chandler sent a letter to his commander with them to inform him of their desert route, and we must conclude that these men successfully navigated the Lower Canyons because the letter that was sent with them was received in Eagle Pass!
Back to Main Page | Lower Canyons | Contacts | Buffalo Bayou | The Upper Canyons | The Great Unknown | The Painted Canyons | The Devil's River | The Lower Pecos River