The last time I canoed the Rio Grande through Boquillas Canyon was in 1979. After 40 years, it became time for me to remind myself of some of the lessons that 33 mile stretch of river taught me way back then. And so, I floated it.
Through the course of my adult years, I’ve learned and then passed along a variety of useful outdoor living tidbits. Things, such as the importance of packing plenty of both TP and coffee when going into the backcountry. And the value of having the biggest spoon in your eating group. But that list also includes broader concepts about the whole adventure experience that I discovered and later confirmed time and again. My list of those broader concepts is extensive. It includes things such as the fact that all great journeys begin with one small step. I also learned to expect the dividends that perseverance unfailingly pays and the myriad rewards often found when venturing into the wilds.
The items on that latter list include things that have significantly shaped the way my life has unfolded. And after a recent backpacking trip with old friends into the Wind River Range, I realized the beckoning call of the wild was something I didn’t want to go silent.
Fresh off the Sheep’s Bridge Trail in the Winds, I took the next step in doing just that. In my mind, Big Bend’s Boquillas Canyon is the most spectacular place in Texas and one of the most compelling wild places I’d ever gone. And, given my health situation, it was also somewhere I could still get to and experience the way I wanted. So, I put things in motion for a return trip for 2020.
My first thought was to wing it and do it on my own. After all, I reasoned, I’d done it three times back in the ’70s. And it was the destination for the first backcountry trip I ever led, so how hard could it be? My initial thoughts were soon overwhelmed with the realities of late 2019. I had no canoe, no canoeing equipment, the shuttle was complicated, and no one except for my wife, Lori, to accompany me. Then, to refresh my memory, I read and thought about things such as camping locations, first-aid kits, and dealing with other potential emergencies. And I quickly concluded it prudent to bring in help.
Right off the bat, I thought of my old friend, Jeff Renfrow, who has lived and worked in the area for years. I picked up the telephone, called him, and things quickly began to fall in place. He was a longtime river guide. He’d left that industry a few years previous, but had recently gotten back into outfitting river trips and in addition to science work, was currently the part-owner of a Terlingua company, Wild Adventure Outfitters. He explained that he was drawn back into the river guiding business because the company and its owner, Matthew Grisham, had reinserted wild into the outdoor adventure equation. I was excited to hear that, as it was something I’d been hoping someone would do for years. He told me they could supply the boats and other river equipment, deal with the logistics, and would send along an experienced guide who would know the nuances of the area. We would supply the camping gear, food, and a level of expertise and experience. It was just what I wanted.
At that point, Lori and I began talking with other people about joining us. Eventually, a group came together that, besides for the two of us, included longtime friends Quentin Keith, Chris Haaland, and Ann/John George. Then, Chris brought along a new friend, Chuck Heywood and Jeff paired us up with a longtime river guide, Jack Lowery, which made the group size total 8.
Other than Jack, we all met-up at the Gage Hotel in Marathon on the evening before the put-in. Chris flew from Colorado with Chuck in his private plane while the George’s flew commercially from Denver into Austin. Quentin and the George’s then drove to Marathon, while Lori and I did so as well. The Colorado contingent was anxious to get out of the cold winter weather of the mountains, but arrival day was by no means balmy. A cold front moved through the area during that day, which created blustery and chilly conditions. The first night, spent in a hotel-owned house thankfully, was frigid and the temperature the following morning in the high teens.
But, while that first early morning was chilly, by the time we put-in at Rio Grande Village down in the Park, it was sunny, calm, and relatively warm. It turns out that the front cleared out the atmosphere, and we had four days of spectacularly pleasant weather while on the river. Our camping night temps ranged from the low ’30s to the high ’40s. Daytime highs were mostly in the ’70s, and the only winds we experienced were an occasional gentle breeze. The water temperature was pleasant, and the skies ranged from clear to partly cloudy. Ultimately, the weather was about as good as it gets. It was never overly hot or cold, there was never a severe head-wind, and it didn’t rain or snow. And I was cognizant, after previous outdoor trips there and elsewhere, that good weather is something to be cherished.
Matthew met us at Rio Grande Village on launch day, and along with Jack, helped us load our gear into the canoes. Between the equipment he supplied and the things we brought, we were well equipped. By mid-morning, we were packed and pushed off into the current. From the outset, I was curious about what I would remember about that section of the river from 40 years before. And the first few miles were pretty much as I remembered.
The first part of the river moves lazily through rolling desert for several miles before entering the actual canyon. The Mexican town of Boquillas is a short distance above the river and a few miles downriver from the put-in, just like it has been for years. Years ago, crowds of tourists from the National Park, crossed the river via rowboat at an informal border crossing and were driven up to the town to shop for curios and eat tacos. Then, after 9-11, the crossing was closed. It only recently re-opened and is now a somewhat novel unmanned border crossing. And so, tourists are once again flowing into the town. We floated past the currently active crossing, but soon left the confusion of civilization behind as we entered the canyon.
Once in the canyon, the river is contained on both sides by ever steepening rock walls. Within a short distance, cliffs rose out of the water over 1000 feet and were almost perfectly vertical in places. The humongous walls of limestone that nature created make travel through the area other than via the river, challenging and in places virtually impossible. By early afternoon we came to a suitable camping spot on a sand/gravel bar and stopped and set up camp.
One of the nice things about canoeing is that a lot of gear can be carried. Among other things, we had five ice chests full of drinks and fresh food, 30 gallons of drinking water, a 2-burner propane stove, Dutch-ovens, a fire pan, and chairs. That first night out, we had a chicken stir-fry and, after some campfire time, were in the tents and ready to go to sleep by 9:00 pm.
The second river morning was initially cold. But with a good fire and hot coffee, things soon warmed up, and we broke camp, loaded the boats, and shoved off as the first rays of the sun began to fill that part of the canyon.
The water flows were decent. It was by no means high water, but the levels were sufficient to prevent boat dragging or getting out into the river (except for a time or two for Quentin when he took an alternative route). That whole section of the river is devoid of significant rapids or whitewater, although there were a few tricky spots. Jack led us on a couple of short hikes up side canyons during the day. And then, in the early afternoon, after negotiating a short technical section of river, we came to another good camping spot and stopped for the day.
Before setting up our camp, we watched as two kayakers, followed a short time later by an Outward Bound group, negotiated that same tricky section, and then went on past. After getting our things organized, we sat around where the fire would later be and visited. After hors-d’oeuvres, we had chili and Fritos (a novelty for some). And then, after clean-up and campfire time, we were once again in the tents by 9:00 pm.
The skies in the area are among the darkest in North America. That means that there are a lot of stars to see. It was noticeably warmer the second night, and there was almost no need for a coat when I got up and went outside for early morning coffee. Our big river event for the day was a relatively new rapid now described as a possible Class III. It occurs at what’s known as the Rockslide and has become more complicated to negotiate after some recent rockfall.
While there is undoubtedly an elevation drop in the area of the “rapid,” the section turned out to only be fast, but straight-forward and we all got through it without incident. We floated a bit further downstream from there and stopped at the entrance to a slot canyon for lunch and a hike. In one scrambly area, we were treated to Quentin, forcing himself up through a very small hole in the rocks. Thankfully, he didn’t get stuck, and by early that afternoon, we were back on the river headed downstream.
We stopped for our last night out about 8 miles short of our trip destination at Heath Canyon. At that point, Chris located an especially good campsite with plenty of tent spots and a tree for afternoon shade. That final night was a bit chillier than the night before, although not horribly cold. During the evening, a few clouds began filtering in. While they did block-out most of the stars, they also shielded us from the most intense rays of the sun the following day.
On the last day, our final few miles of paddling continued to be scenic, even though we had left the main canyon behind. There were two small Class II rapids, and rather than risk tumping at the end of the trip, some of us lined our canoes around the worst of them. By mid-afternoon, we floated under the bridge at La Linda, noted the remnants of the old Fluorspar mine on the Mexican side, and landed at the Heath Canyon take-out.
It was a good trip- the sort of experience I’ve always sought. But it was also four days of symbolism about my life up to this point. The fact that we were on a river is poignant. After all, life is a river as far as I’m concerned. While we all have an idea about where it ultimately goes, none of us are ever quite sure what any given section of it on any given day will be like. And I’ve come to realize that when I come to a tricky spot, wherever that might be, better preparation inevitably leads to better outcomes.
This trip significantly exemplified that latter point. We were a group of eight with a wide range of experience and were well-equipped. We headed right into the heart of wild magnificence, with no worries about whether or not it would work out, because we were well prepared. The lesson of the trip is not one that I haven’t learned before. But I was overjoyed to be able to remember that mystery still awaits and that I need to be ready for it.