Well, Louis, I am back from yet another misadventure in the Lower Canyons.
You would think that after all of the trips I've made from La Linda to Langtry
that I would be getting better rather than worse at avoiding problems. However,
the reverse seems to be true. If I can foreshadow what I am going to recount
over the next few pages, I can tell you that my first stop here after arriving
back in Laredo was at the emergency room of our finest hospital where a team
of nurses and doctors all asked the same question: "Why didn't you seek medical
I left for La Linda Thursday morning June 26th full of enthusiasm because I had noted that the river had risen to 2800 CFS the day before at Presidio, and I timed my trip to arrive at Heath Canyon just as the water was arriving. I hoped to ride that wave as far as I could, perhaps getting a two or three day push toward Langtry.
By the time I passed Maravillas Creek where it runs beneath Hwy. 385 about 35 miles south of Marathon on its course to the Rio Grande, I knew for sure I would likely have much more than 2800 CFS when I launched the following morning at the Gerstacker Bridge. Maravillas was running high, and in fact, there was a nice Class III drop on the west side of the highway. And then the road down past Stillwell's was barely passable in many places. One side creek (which fortunately flows BELOW FM 2627) was navigable as it pushed toward its confluence with Maravillas. When I stopped in at Stillwell's to get the river permit and visit with W. T. Potter, I asked him if he thought the road to Heath Canyon would be passable, and he remarked straight faced, "well, if it ain't, you won't make it."
As always, a highlight of the trip was my visit with Andy Kurie. Andy noted that an inch of rain had fallen that day already and that inch follow almost an inch the day before. He too knew about the rise heading down river from the park and he remarked with a smile, "you're going to have a beautiful trip with all this water."
And then he insisted I stay in the bunkhouse for free so that I would stay dry. I tried to talk him out of his generosity but the rain continued and I didn't want to insult him. However, once he had gone to the main house, the rain quit and I drove up to the top of the runway to set up camp. I am sure glad that I did. Moments later a double rainbow appeared, the clearer of the two arcs seeming to rise directly out of the old church on the vega east of La Linda, a magnificent sight.
In the morning I dropped my gear at the beach, checking the bridge gauge on the way down and seeing that the river was flowing at 8 feet. In the 15 minutes it took me to unload, the river rose another six inches. And after I had coffee at the ranch with Andy and his current resident Fred, who graciously insisted on pumping up my raft with his air compressor, Andy drove me and the boat back down to the beach. We did not check the gauge at the bridge but Andy exclaimed the moment we arrived at the beach that the river was running "well over 9 feet." I was happy, though a bit on edge, when I shoved off a few minutes later.
It wasn't until I passed Maravillas Creek that I settled into the river. The hydraulics were formidable in places, even at that tame end of the trip, and those riffles at the end of Heath Canyon had waves close to three feet high. The river was a torrent as it flowed around and through the island at Maravillas. The catclaw tree on the Mexican side below the first drop where many people get to shore to camp was halfway submerged in the river, and it was nearly halfway into the main channel. I did not hike up to a good vantage point to see how Maravillas Creek itself was running, but I certainly didn't need any more inflow. Nearly all of the places I normally camp at that end of the river were already underwater and the main current was choked with debris. I learned right away that when the river was choked into boiling hydraulics that I would do best to follow the debris through.
I made it to Hot Springs that first day, a full 40 miles despite very little forward paddling and a consistent headwind. I arrived well before sunset, probably a full two hours. I noted that the inflows from San Rocendo had once again decimated the lesser of the springs pools and the main flow from the river had trashed two of the three main pools. I set up my tent in the sand above the main pool and spent a very peaceful night listening to the river rage below.
When I awoke at first light the next morning, I saw that the river had risen considerably. Five foot waves surged in mid-river for the length of the rapid, and that large boulder which sits where the steep part of the rapid used to end was entirely submerged by the river. And the river continued to rise!
By mid-afternoon, the flow peaked at a level which brought it up to within one foot of the base of the main pool at Hot Springs, and when I saw that it was no longer rising, I packed up the boat and shoved off, deciding to take it one river turn at a time.
The first of my jaw-dropping observations that day was seeing that the inflow from Cañon del Caballo Blanco had recently divided the beach there in half. A white sandbar on the upriver side was now isolated from the rest of the beach, at least what beach remained. Most of it was well under water. Both the rapid below the Fish Camp and the rapid at Las Palmas were entirely washed out and if I had been on the river for the first time, I would have had no idea that at lesser flows rapids existed in those two spots.
Rodeo Rapid, too, was washed out. It was wide and almost flat. I could see where the main channel was still causing some very small interference waves at the surface, but again it would have been difficult to tell there was much of a drop here at lesser flows.
So I pushed on to Upper Madison, still not quite sure whether I would attempt to run it that evening. I nervously tried to project what that amount of water would do to the drops there. I sensed that the flow was so fast and so pushy that it wouldn't be reasonable to expect I would be able to get to shore after the first drop, and I suspect that sandy beach where I often stop to scout would be completely underwater. As I paddled the turns below Rodeo, I waffled back and forth on what I would do—camp or push through the two Madisons with the river level likely well above 5000 CFS.
Ultimately, I decided to stay with the river and run Upper Madison blindly. I actually said to myself on the approach, 'I'm going to run this thing blind', not realizing that soon I would in fact be doing almost exactly that.
The long slow bend around to the base of Burro Bluff was anything but slow. I would estimate I did the mile and a half of what is normally nearly dead water before Upper Madison in 20 minutes, such was the current. Once I rounded the bend at the top of the rapid, I was relieved. Not a single rock in the falls was visible, and all I could see on the approach was a wide relatively calm lane from one side of the river to the others. In total, I counted only three boulders, two on the Texas side right at the main drop and one in among what I normally think of as the 'scout rocks.' Even the large boulder where the plaque commemorating Leonard used to be was entirely submerged.
'Oh good', I thought with more relief than I can convey here.
But my relief was short lived. I sailed through the first part of the drop and just as I was fast approaching the main drop, the river suddenly disappeared beneath me. I could see nothing but a wave bank down below where the third drop normally is. I quickly snapped a picture (I had strung a waterproof disposable camera from my life vest) and then prepared to get swallowed whole. And then just as quickly I saw that the river poured over that river wide ledge and formed a bank of very high waves at the bottom. Just as I was entering here, I saw out of the corner of my eye that the Mexican channel would have been much safer to run. I had never even considered that option, but in the instant before I dropped to the bottom of the wave bank, I saw two relatively tame channels leading through to the Mexican side. Too late.
I shot down into the base of the wave bank and then surged into the rise of the first large wave, an ascent which seemed to be twenty feet but was probably only six or seven. I crested that first wave, dipped precipitously, and then caught the second wave just a fraction of a second too late. I took it over my head, and it tossed debris into my face, and worse, into my right eye. I lost sight in that eye immediately (and wouldn't regain it completely for another two days) as I plunged through the top of the second wave, my raft now half-filled with river water. Within a moment I was entering the second wave bank where the third drop normally is and I scarcely had enough control of the boat to keep it straight as I surged into there.
I'm calling this an unqualified success despite the idea that I could barely see at that point. I was so charged with adrenalin that exactly what I did next is a bit unclear. I do know that I ran through the Son of Upper Madison a quarter mile later and it was running high enough that I could just stay on the Mexican side all the way down. After that, I must have stopped to drain the water I took on a Upper Madison but I have no recollection on that.
Lower Madison, to my surprise, was almost completely flat. I saw the pictures in your Lower Canyons book that someone had taken of Lower Madison at high water and the pictures show a large wave train on the Texas side. This is what I expected as I approached, and I wasn't especially worried about riding it down to the bottom. Instead, I found no waves. I found a flat river with only a little interference in the center. At that flow, I would say Lower Madison wouldn't even merit a Class I rating. The only thing I could think to complain about is that both the ledges below the rapid and the springs (from which I had planned to replenish my water supply) were well under water. I snapped a picture on my approach to Lower Madison and then looking back upriver from the bottom, but frankly, Louis, there's not much to see in either. Only the pointed tip of one rock in the entire rapid is above water!
I decided to camp at Panther Canyon because it was getting late, at least too late to continue the six miles on to San Francisco Canyon. Panther was running really well, especially on the Mexican side, but I would wait until the morning to run it. I pulled in above to camp and went to gather a little bit of fire wood to cook with.
As you are likely well aware, there is very little firewood at Panther Canyon, and I could see right away that in order to eat up supper and have coffee in the morning, I would have to break the NPS rule of collection only downed wood. Even then, there wasn't much to harvest, not that I needed more than a few sticks of blackbrush to cook with.
I gathered a small armful and was heading back to my tent when I saw a small blackbrush stump on a tree that someone had obviously already harvested. The stump was about two feet high and pointed at the top where the person had broken it. I figured I would simply kick it out at the base and supplement my armful of firewood with it. I kicked it once, then a second time, but it didn't budge.
And that's when I made the tactical error which had me in the hospital in Laredo five days later. I decided to kick the stump up at the top rather than at the bottom so that I would have more leverage to snap it right out of its mooring. Since I had been unsuccessful with the first two kicks, I really blasted it the third time!
Everything happened so quickly that I can't be sure exactly how it happened, but somehow my tennis shoe slipped right up the head of the blackbrush, breaking nothing as it went, and it came over the top and then the whole weight of my body fell as my leg went up into the air. The result was that my leg cleared the top of the blackbrush and then fell directly back onto it, and the blackbrush impaled my skin straight to the bone, a hole at least an inch and a half in diameter, a hole I wouldn't see until I peeled myself out from the painful grip of the nearby cactus. In horror, I looked directly at my bone and saw cartilage and muscle spill out much like when you're gutting a fish. Then with each heartbeat, fluids, more water than blood, gushed out the gaping hole and swept down to my tennis shoe. I will spare you further detail because although I'm not ordinarily the slightest bit squeamish, this sight still makes me uneasy nine days later.
I limped back across the canyon to camp, chewing myself out as only I can. My choice of verbal self-abuse far exceeded vitriol, and though I likely scared away every living creature within 600 yards, I was still stuck with myself.
I don't know how much first aid most boaters carry. On the longer trips, I carry some, but on the short trips I have only one bottle of hydrogen peroxide. I would use most of it that night. For a bandage, I used one of my two clean socks.
As you well know, you can't go out into the Lower Canyons by yourself without expecting the worst, but for me expecting the worst had always come in the form of expecting one day to lose my boat and having to walk out of there. In that event, I had memorized the way to walk out either into Mexico or Texas from every point on that river, La Linda to Langtry. I certainly had never prepared myself mentally for the idea that I would have to get out without being able to walk.
That night I was still in shock and I didn't feel much physical pain, though the psychological pain I heaped on myself was more than generous. Still I slept pretty well after several Tecates. And in the morning I found that I could limp around a little.
I also saw first thing that the river had dropped considerably, so I knew immediately that I would have to race toward Langtry by taking advantage of the high water for as long as it held. I would guess I had lost a couple thousand CFS over night, but the river still held enough water to create some very dangerous spots. I was especially nervous about the rapid at El Zacate Canyon, about six miles below Dryden, so I decided to shoot for a place right before there to make my camp and then run that rapid the following day when the river had dropped more. At levels between 2000 and 4000 CFS, El Zacate is far and away the most dangerous drop on the entire run, a veritable death trap.
I paddled steadily all day and did everything I could to keep the sock covering my wound dry. I found that San Francisco and Sanderson Canyons rapids were both very easy to cheat along the Mexican shore and Agua Verde was easy to cheat along the Texas shore so I never hit a wave all day that sent water into the boat. And I made the 29 miles down to my intended camp just before El Zacate well before dark, but then I faced a new problem. Due to the receding water, the bank there was a sinkhole of slimy muck, and I could not safely get out of the boat. As I tried, the fast current was trying to sweep my raft away and in a few short seconds I decided to forego camping there and pull in above El Zacate, which would mean I would have to portage around the rapid while I was camping, a prospect I found less than desirable due to the condition of my leg.
I don't know if I ever told you that my daughter had lost her leg to cancer before she died, and though this was the most difficult part of her illness for me, it was a great source of strength on this trip as I remembered her gamely plodding around on her remaining leg with only a cane to help her on her right side. Thinking of her, I limped through the portage at El Zacate; it isn't long, maybe 100 yards, but the path is filled with small boulders. On my last trip, I went for the raft but due to the condition of my leg, I didn't have enough leverage to lift the boat onto my shoulders as I would normally do.
So I dragged it by the front, leaving the two pontoons at the rear to drag across the rocks. As I was doing so, I heard the sound that every rafter dreads: the sound of hissing air escaping from the air chambers of the pontoons. I heard it only a half second and then it stopped and the right pontoon of the boat went limp. I had slit the rear of the pontoon on the rocks because it had worn from so many years of dragging the boat in and out of the water. I didn't even dare look at it that night because just as I brought it into camp, the wind kicked up and lightning crackled dangerously close. To keep the tent from blowing away, I loaded all the gear but the raft inside and I sat in there through a cool rainy evening, writing by candlelight.
I awoke on the morning of Day 4 and tried to make light of a deteriorating situation. My leg was beginning to swell and when I inspected the slash in the raft, I saw that I couldn't repair it properly, not out there at least, and even if I had some chance of doing so, I didn't have the time to sit to wait for the patching to set.
In case any of your friends who use inflatables ever get in a similar predicament, this is what worked for me. I filled the damaged pontoon with water and then rushed the damaged end into the water. With the cut underneath the water, I forced air into the pontoon. This worked just well enough to allow me to navigate the boat, though that side was horribly under-inflated and the raft was badly unbalanced for the rest of the trip.
Later that day I had the luxury of stopping off at one of the Dingler's cabins, this one at Mile 98 down from La Linda, where I showered and looked for any first aid supplies. I found no first aid but it was helpful to get clean water and soap on my wound. Due to the condition of the raft, I would have stopped two miles later and walked out the five miles to Larry Dingler's ranch, but of course that was out of the question with the condition of my leg.
Now I was out into open country and I scanned the banks for any sign of a rancher or a border patrolman who might offer me assistance, but I wouldn't see another human being on this trip.
That day, with the water dropping still further, I made a camp just below Lozier Canyon, about 21 miles out from Langtry. I was determined to make town the following night.
And I did, though limping up into town was not a hike I would care to repeat. Earlier in the day I had portaged around the Weir Dam. Before portaging, I had sent a log through and the competing currents at the bottom of the dam did not release it, so after my near death misadventure in that same undertow last August, I decided to limp all the gear and the boat around the dam and over the steep embankment on the Mexican side. Of course this meant emptying the pontoon of its water and then having to refill it in the precarious position where I re-entered the river, but anything was better than risking a run over that dam.
In Langtry, I was thrilled to find Clay and other friends at home, and perhaps even better, Clay's wife, who has nurse's training, was there to tend to my wound. They cooked me supper and in the morning Clay took his rock quarry crew down to carry all my gear up from the river.
Coincidentally, it was my birthday (and Clay's wife's as well) so even though I should have gone directly to the emergency room in Del Rio, I stayed that day in Langtry, at least once Clay had driven me back to Marathon to get my car (W. T. Potter shuttled it up there and left it with Andy's wife). It seemed that nearly everyone in the Langtry area took his or her turn at tending to the hole in my leg, and although, admittedly, I was grateful for the attention, I knew I was taking a big risk by further delaying seeking medical attention. I did stay that night as well, but the following morning I left before dawn and drove directly to the emergency room in Laredo.
Now five days later, the infection, despite the antibiotics, hasn't subsided enough for the doctor to be able to staple it closed. While I was on the river, the wound ran in two directions, one up my leg and the other sideways toward the back of my leg, so in addition to the original hole where the blackbrush entered, I have two large gaps to contend with. But the doctors seem to think I'll be o.k. in another couple of weeks, and maybe walking again by the end of the month. I guess this means I won't get out on the river again until August!
Keith in Laredo
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