If you plan to float the Lower Canyons in order to experience
the solitude of this remote corner of our continent, you likely do not want
to go during Spring Break, typically the third week of March. During
this week, your experience on the river is almost certain to more closely
resemble a summer weekend on the Guadalupe than it is to resemble floating
the Lower Canyons any other week of the year.
On the first weekend of Spring Break, the normally lonely outposts of Stillwell's Store, on FM 2627 leading to the river, and Heath Canyon Ranch, at the put-in, become hubs of activity for a hundred or more river runners, all launching from below the Gerstacker Bridge within a 24-hour period.
For the next seven days on the river, you're far more likely to see canoeists engaged in water fights than you are to see the exotic wildlife the Lower Canyons offer at other times. And you're more likely to hear the shrill voices of college students than you are to hear peregrine falcons calling as they fly at the canyon rim.
If you go to the Lower Canyons to "get away from it all," be forewarned that you're going to have to share the river with many like-minded boaters, many of whom may appear woefully unprepared for the rigors the journey will require. The old adage "there's safety in numbers" takes an ironic twist in the Lower Canyons at Spring Break.
Under the best of conditions, the atmosphere can be circus-like at the put-in, at Hot Springs, at Upper and Lower Madison Falls, and at the Dryden take-out. For whatever reason, all parties seem to be on the same schedule, each trying to occupy the same camp, each taking a layover day or two at Hot Springs. By Tuesday of Spring Break week, if you were to move the tent city of boaters camping at the rapid from the Mexican side to the American, that group would constitute the third largest town in Brewster County.
So this March when I decided to make my first solo canoe trip through the Lower Canyons, I knew it would be more accurate to call my trip a "single canoe trip" rather than a solo.
I hadn't even planned to do the Lower Canyons this March, but only because water levels were prohibitively low until the very day most people put-in. I was in fact on my way to the Pecos on Sunday when I phoned Andy Kurie at Heath Canyon and learned the river was experiencing a large rise, a volume of water normally not seen in the Lower Canyons at any time except the rainy season. I immediately cancelled my shuttle for the Pecos and arrived at Andy's place Monday morning, ready to launch my canoe.
During my Lower Canyons trip at Christmas, I had abandoned a lot of gear at Hot Springs after I tore up my raft by dragging it through the shallows and had to catch a ride out with four canoeists from Quebec, Canada. I was eager to return to Hot Springs because I thought I might still be able to retrieve the gear I left. I had hidden it pretty well under the black brush between the two drops in the rapid, far enough up from the springs themselves that I didn't think any Mexican Nationals would find it. In addition to wanting to face the challenges of canoeing alone through the Lower Canyons, I was eager to reclaim my gear.
When I arrived at Heath Canyon, however, the river was running above 6 feet on the bridge gauge there, or approximately 1500 CFS. Considering I had never before paddled a canoe by myself, I was nervous about beginning with so much water. Plus, there was another rise coming, and it would arrive during the night. Despite my eagerness to get going, I prudently decided to camp that night at Heath Canyon. Besides, it's always a pleasure to be able to spend time with Andy Kurie.
I camped up above next to Fred Keller's trailer. Fred sits atop the knoll above the river with an impressive array of surveillance equipment watching the action -or the lack of it- on FM 2627 and the river beach. He even has high-powered night vision binoculars. Two things for sure if you drive down to the river on FM 2627: one, Fred is going to be convinced, until you prove otherwise, that you're up to something; two, Fred is going to watch every move you make coming and going, though you may never see him.
As Fred and I caught up on things that afternoon, I learned that since Saturday morning Texas Tech had launched 10 canoeists, UT 14, a party from Indiana 12, San Antonio 20, and a party of very young boy scouts "with more than I could keep track of." Fred added, "you ain't going to be alone on this trip."
While we talked, a young Mexican man passed furtively below us in the arroyo between the road and the river, and when he reached the low water crossing at La Linda, he stripped down to his under shorts and attempted to walk the river back to Mexico. He didn't make ten paces before the force of the river swept him off his feet and he scurried back to the Texas shore. Then he sprinted up the beach to the bridge and scaled the barricade to get across to La Linda.
Tuesday morning I began my trip, and though the water was still high, the rise we had been expecting had passed during the night. I had about 1500 CFS when I began, and at this level -a level unseen in March since 1992- I could really fly in my canoe. I made it down to Mile 20 by mid-afternoon, and although I saw no boaters, the only time I stopped the entire 20 miles, three campers from Nacogdoches appeared within moments. From that point, I could see back up river to the nearby Black Gap camp shelters, and they too were occupied.
I set up camp on the rock ledge near Black Gap shelters 21 & 22 and spent the night listening to the most raucous scattering of coyotes I've ever heard on the Rio Grande.
Wednesday I had the river to myself again, and I began to grow hopeful that I might be far enough behind the other boaters that I could have Hot Springs to myself that evening. But that hope was quickly dashed when on my approach to Hot Springs, I could see two large tents assembled well upriver from where boaters stop to scout. Seeing tents set up that far from the springs themselves confirmed I was about to see Hot Springs at its most crowded.
I pulled in above the rapid. Although Hot Springs Rapid had been leveled in the summer of 99, it had reformed last October due to inflows from San Rosendo Canyon. Perhaps a far better canoeist than I am could run it at the right water level, but I knew my options were restricted to lining or portaging. I was hoping to line it, but I wanted help doing it, so I docked and walked down the beach toward the springs in search of an extra hand. En route I found two things of interest.
First, I saw a canoe lying in the bottom of the San Rosendo drainage, and this boat had been badly damaged and then repaired with more duct tape than some hardware stores stock. Secondly, I found the gear I had stashed over Christmas exactly as I left it.
Then I reached the springs themselves. If I had wanted to soak in the water, I likely would have had to put my name on a waiting list. Boaters occupied every micro pool from the source to the river, and the main pool above was crowded with a half a dozen more. Also, every available shade tree in sight of the springs had a body under it.
The first person I saw was Doug, who turned out to be the group leader of "Indiana", and he graciously agreed to help me line my canoe. Once we did that, I set up camp on the sandy beach above the second drop in the rapid, the site I had stayed for five days over Christmas while awaiting my French Canadian rescue party.
This trip I wouldn't have to wait five minutes to see people. Nearby campers walked directly through camp all afternoon and well into the night. Doug had told me that the crowds had thinned out, reporting that three groups had already left earlier in the day. I found it hard to believe that even more people had been camped in the area. Doug also had news on the smashed canoe. It belonged to "San Antonio", and it had been damaged when one of the novices in the group let it go before it was secured above the rapid. Fortunately, it was unmanned when it pinned in the rocky mess of the main drop of the rapid.
I broke camp the following morning before any of the other boaters had even dragged their canoes down to the river's edge. I was able to run the rapid below Fish Camp and Las Palmas a mile later without incident, but I knew I wouldn't be able to run Rodeo.
Although I had done pretty well with the canoe so far, I was discovering potential problems faster than I could find solutions. My first problem was that I was having difficulty getting in and out of the canoe due to a pair of factors: one, the water had been as high as 3500 CFS a few days before and the receding water level had left most of the banks a mucky and/or slippery mess. Plus, I was in the back of a 15 foot boat, and after taking on the extra gear at Hot Springs, I had a small hill to climb if I wanted to dock bow-first. Two, making the previous 25 Lower Canyons' trips piloting my 10 foot raft from the front, I found it disorienting at times to be paddling the longer and less stable canoe from the stern. While I had done fine to that point because none of the drops were the least bit technical, I worried how I would fare later when I would be required to make quick turns to find lanes or eddies.
A mile below Las Palmas I encountered the UT group for the first time, and this meeting is always the highlight of Spring Break human interaction for me. This group is led by Jill and Pat Goodson, two very accomplished Lower Canyons veterans who are not only excellent canoeists but very fine people as well. Before I caught up with Jill and Pat themselves, I heard more river gossip from one of their senior paddlers, Dick, who reported that on UT's first evening on the river, they had spent a harrying evening rescuing "young boy scouts who were separated from boats, gear, and leaders. It was not the way to begin a trip." His grim countenance and shaking head conveyed his disgust with the irresponsibility of the boy scout group leaders.
The entry wave at Rodeo was far larger than I've seen it in March for many years, and I was feeling blessed to have the support of Jill and Pat's group to line my boat through. They would form a line 'train' at each of the rapids and pass down the canoes, end by end. I never had to dock my boat. Dick waded out from the top of the rapid to catch my bow as I neared shore, and they passed the canoe from able hand to able hand as I hopped over the rocks to take my station near the end of the train.
With Rodeo behind us, I now began to worry about how I would get through the upper part of Upper Madison Falls, and as we floated below Rodeo, I queried Pat about their approach to the rapid. He said they lined even the first drop of Upper Madison, and I was welcome to join their group to get through. Once we reached the top of that rapid, I stayed behind as one UT canoe after another went into the eddy at the point where El Tule canyon meets the river. As my turn came and I inched toward them, I saw that the eddy was now full of boats, and looking carefully at the top of the rapid, I made a split second decision that it would be easier for me to run the first drop than it would be to squeeze into the crowded eddy. I shouted to Jill that I was going to run it, and I executed a sharp turn into the main flow of the river.
Upon entering the rapid, I saw immediately that it was much pushier than I had anticipated, and though I entered fine, I instinctively made a stroke appropriate for running the rapid in the front of a raft, and this error turned my canoe sideways. I froze for a long moment, fighting the adrenaline surge I experienced, trying to think how to right the canoe before I pinned against the rapidly approaching set of rocks at the bottom of the drop. With just a couple feet to spare, I straightened out the canoe and successfully negotiated the last stretch into the calmer water at the base of the portage trail.
While waiting for UT to line their boats, I portaged all my gear down the trail. When UT arrived at the base of the portage trail, I helped them walk their gear down, and while they set up camp on the rock slab Mexican side, I set up camp on the island between the two channels of the falls. While I wouldn't ordinarily choose this site, I reasoned that it was the one place where I could be alone that night because it was inevitable that other parties would arrive behind us. "Indiana" arrived within the hour, and not far behind them, a splinter faction from "San Antonio" that had mutinied from the group leader at Hot Springs. This four person sub-group included one teenage boy who had no shoes and was already limping due to a river cane cut on one of his feet. One of the UT group walked to the top of the portage trail to instruct them on how to get their boats to the bottom of the falls.
Thanks to the roar of the falls, I could hear nothing, and once dusk descended, I caught a 4-pound catfish for supper. The younger members of the UT group had ascended to the top of Burro Bluff and I could see them descending with the aid of head lamps after dark.
The next day I tagged along with UT again for the first part of the day. Just as we were arriving at Lower Madison, "Indiana" came up behind us, and Pat and Doug agreed that the two groups would work together to line all the boats. They set up a line train consisting of all 26 boaters, while I was in charge of tying off all the boats at the bottom of the rapid. Again, I didn't have to dock. Dick caught my boat at the top of the rapid and mine was the first to be lined down.
Later we all ran Panther Canyon, and then it was time for me to separate myself from the groups. I paddled ahead, passing Texas Tech at Sanderson Canyon Rapids. In total, I made close to 25 miles that day before camping on an island below Sanderson Canyon.
Despite that I was up early the next morning and ready to break camp by 8:30 or 9:00, I was passed by Texas Tech, "Indiana" and the San Antonio faction, all within a space of 30 minutes. Due to the logjam I knew so many boaters would cause at John's Marina, I lingered in camp and then later hiked on one of the bluffs a mile before Dryden. These delays allowed Texas Tech and "Indiana" to load up and leave before I arrived.
Since I had four hours to wait until Ted Thayer arrived to pick me up, I talked at length with the woman, Nani, who led the San Antonio mutiny. She complained that the group leader ignored all warnings against bringing inexperienced boaters on the trip, and she commented several times that the group was badly disorganized as well as very lazy.
Just before she left, she said, "I don't want to sound sexist, but I've never known men as dependent on other people as some of the guys in our group. They had no business being out here."
I was happy as always to see Ted arrive in my car right on schedule, and after I loaded up, he read to me from a book about the Chicago fire of 1903 as we were making the long drive out to the highway.
On our way back to Marathon, we ran into Forrest Stumberg and his wife. They were pulling out of their ranch as we were approaching on Hwy. 90 so I flagged them to pull over to give them some beer out of gratitude for all they had done for me on my failed Christmas trip. It was a joyful reunion there on the highway. Forrest had been the Border Patrol's contact man when my satellite phone call from Hot Springs alerted Andy that I was going to walk out.
As Forrest and I were shaking hands to say goodbye, he gave me some advice worth passing on to those who destroy their boats while running the Lower Canyons:
"Don't EVER try to walk out of there. Even Mexicans who know the way get lost. You CAN'T walk out from the river unless you know this country VERY VERY well."
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