Big Bend National Park, page 2

Page 1: Chisos Mountains
Page 2: Rio Grande canoe trip
Page 3: Santa Elena Canyon

Monday, March 18, 2013

We have a lot to learn about river trips. I couldn't help but feel that I didn't know what I was doing as we packed up camp and figured out what to bring with us on the canoe. Everything we didn't bring went into the large bearproof cabinet at our campsite. It took four trips on my bicycle to get all our gear over to the boat ramp a half-mile away, and then it was another long process to get everything packed into the canoe. As we prepared to launch at 1 o'clock, we thought, "Is this thing going to float?" It was heavy, but it did float.

It wasn't long before we got stuck on some rocks. Water levels are so low on the Rio Grande right now that river guide companies can't use inflatable rafts for float trips - only canoes or kayaks. Apparently even canoes have trouble when heavily loaded. Many times today Kathy and I had to climb out of the boat to lighten it and guide it through rocks or across a sandbar. Sometimes even the kids had to get out, which they loved doing. The water was warm on our feet, and a breeze kept us cool, so it was a fun day but slow traveling. While going down a fast chute near the Mexican riverbank we crashed into tall African grass growing over the water and spilled lots of water into the boat, so we pulled out on the American side to unload the boat and dump water out. At other times I dropped paddles and a boot in the river, but we recovered them each time.

Loading the canoe at the start of our river trip.

Floating the shallow Rio Grande. Daniel blew soap bubbles for much of the afternoon.

Two of the several horses and anhinga.

Helping our canoe through rapids.

At around 6 p.m. we came to the deep entrance of Boquillas Canyon and saw a great place to camp. It's a flat, grassy area well above the river. While we were pitching camp a Mexican horseman rode up to Kathy and offered to sell trinkets. He didn't speak much English, but he did say, "You going to La Linda? Long way." He also said that bighorn sheep like to graze on the grass where we've camped. I entertained the kids for a while by beating a couple life preservers against each other, creating thunderous echoes off the canyon walls.

It was a beautiful spot to eat dinner and watch the stars come out, especially with the warm weather and complete lack of bugs. I stayed out long after dark to enjoy it. Just after I got into the tent, a loud howling/bugling sound erupted just a couple hundred yards away, at the most. I'm glad the kids were already asleep or they would have been very frightened. Maybe some bighorn sheep were unhappy that we camped on their pasture. Whatever they were, they walked down to the river for a drink, wandered around our tent for a while, and then moved on.

If there's any problem with this campsite, it's that it's too close to our starting point. My GPS indicates that we traveled only about 5 miles today, which means we have more than 25 miles to go. We assumed that this trip would take two or three days to finish, and we packed enough food and water for three days. If the next couple of days are like this one, then we might get hungry and thirsty in the wilderness. I'll be paddling hard tomorrow.

Approaching Boquillas Canyon at the end of the day.

Pitching camp on a grassy spot.

Kathy speaks with a Mexican visitor while Daniel and Maggie pet his horse.

Cooking dinner.

Camping under the stars.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

We spent much of today paddling between the tall walls of Boquillas Canyon, which reach as high as 1200 feet above the river. Daniel and Maggie had plenty of time to play at the water's edge while Kathy and I made breakfast and broke camp, and we started paddling around 10 o'clock. The river was much kinder to us today than yesterday, and we paddled for much longer stretches before needing to climb out and help the boat through shallow spots. We're a little bit better at finding the deepest channels to paddle through.

Morning on the river.

We weren't completely alone today, since we passed a group of National Park Service workers that were planting willow trees along the river. They were traveling in a fleet of seven canoes, and in the afternoon they passed us while we were resting at a bend in the river. One canoe navigated the turn expertly, but all the others either got stuck on rocks or swept into giant African grass at the river's edge, or both. After watching all those paddlers flail and panic one after another, we felt a little better about our own paddling skills. Just before dinnertime we passed the campsite of some college students traveling in five canoes, and recognized them as a group that started their trip yesterday just a couple hours before us. So our pace is not unusually slow.

We saw lots of turtles, ducks, anhinga, horses, goats and donkeys. The donkeys have been hee-hawing all evening. We camped on a gravelly sandbar right by the river, hopefully high enough to avoid flood waters. The kids spent about an hour "mining" the sand and rocks, and left behind some large holes.

A glance at our GPS shows that we are unlikely to finish our trip tomorrow, but will likely finish the next day. Tomorrow we'll eat conservatively so that we can at least have a snack on Thursday. We have plenty of water.

Eating lunch on the riverbank.

Daniel plays with his food, and molds a canoe from a Power Bar.

Park Service employees extricate themselves from the African grass.

Maggie lets water trickle off her pants and sandals before climbing back into the boat.

Setting up camp.

Maggie and Daniel "mine" at our campsite. Daniel thought we could mine the sand and sell it.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A strong wind picked up last night, blowing our tent so hard that it often flattened down onto our faces and woke us up. By morning our poor tent was lopsided from the bending, and the wind was still blowing. We worried that the headwind would slow us down tremendously, but it didn't. We paddled harder, and the wind slowly weakened throughout the day. Instead of taking a lunch break, Kathy made our lunch on the canoe while I kept paddling.

The park service employees passed our campsite early in the morning, before we were even out of bed, but the college students passed later and we encountered them several times during the day. They liked waving and talking to our children. Whenever we came to a shallow spot in the river we saw bright green and red marks on the rocks - green marks from the green canoes of the park employees, and red marks from the red canoes of the college students.

Another day in Boquillas Canyon.

Michael paddles hard because our food supplies are running low; vultures wait along the river.

Before starting this river trip I had worried that the kids would get terribly bored or be uncomfortable from sitting in the middle of the canoe all day. Instead they spent so much time singing and splashing and spotting turtles that they were never bored, and they climbed out of the canoe so frequently in shallow spots that they didn't get uncomfortable.

Around 4 o'clock we realized that we had only about 5 miles left to the La Linda take-out, and Kathy thought we might be able to finish today. I didn't think it was possible, but we paddled on later than the last two evenings. At some point we all got to visit Mexico for the first time when we climbed out onto the right-hand riverbank. Standing on the Mexican riverbank is considered an illegal crossing unless you do it for emergency or safety reasons (i.e. guiding your boat through a dangerous rapid.) Our emergency was that all of us needed to use the potty, and the American side of the river was a steep cliff while the Mexican side was flat. Daniel was especially happy to visit Mexico.

At 6 o'clock I saw that we had just 1.5 miles left to the take-out point, so we went for it. The canyon stayed interesting all the way to the end, when we saw the La Linda bridge crossing over the river. Fred, the owner of Heath Ranch, wasn't home when we first arrived, so I wasted some time trying to find the right take-out point on my own. By the time Fred arrived and unlocked a gate so that I could drive our car down to the beach it was dark, so I paddled our canoe in the moonlight to bring it to the car. Kathy cooked dinner while I loaded the car, and then the kids fell asleep during our nearly 2-hour drive back to Rio Grande Village. It was almost midnight by the time we were all comfortable in our tent, tired but satisfied.

Maggie helps our canoe through shallow water.

Turtles warming in the sun.

Maggie and Kathy smile because the La Linda bridge, marking the end our river trip, is in sight.

Finishing our trip at sundown.


Page 1: Chisos Mountains
Page 2: Rio Grande canoe trip
Page 3: Santa Elena Canyon