Eight Days On The Rio Grande

Kiss that canoe goodbye, I think as I swing my own boat into an eddy and gaze back up the rock-strewn rapid. Plastered broadside against a desk-sized boulder is a preposterously over-laden 16-foot Old Town Discovery. Perched atop the same flattop boulder is the foundering Discovery’s flummoxed skipper, the usually smiling, happy-go-lucky Walter. However, right now, with river water gushing over his ankles, Walter doesn’t look happy, or lucky.

This isn’t our first mishap. Sprinkled with boulder gardens and a few serious drops, these seldom-paddled Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande are even more remote than Big Bend National Park just upstream, forming a nearly impenetrable 84-mile boundary between the United States and Mexico. This is no place for the inexperienced or careless. Hot Springs Rapid, where Walter is now ensnared, has shown us that.

While a half-dozen of my companions position themselves on the Mexican side, tugging and heaving on throw ropes to dislodge the broached boat, I scurry up a sloping rock slab on the American side to photograph the drama.
It’s while peering through the telephoto lens that I see them. Partly concealed by a narrow green belt of tamarisk and mesquite, about 50 yards behind my preoccupied canoe mates, are several shadowy figures. I zoom in to maximum magnification. There are three men, obviously not boaters, observing the proceedings.

A few days earlier, a veteran Big Bend ranger had told me that more illegal aliens are crossing through the park every year. “It’s possible to bump into them anywhere around here, anytime,” he’d said. And it’s not just those seeking a better life in America. “Drug smugglers have a number of routes that pass through the park,” he said. “They’re often armed and they’re dangerous.” I asked if I should be nervous paddling the Lower Canyons. The reply seemed blas at the time, but would prove to be prophetic: “The Rio Grande is a river that divides two nations. And just like everywhere, there’s hoods and good people on either side.”

Which were these?

I had been invited on this trip by my friend, Marc, a born-and-bred, John Wayne-sized Dallas native. And before even a single canoe enters the pea-green water, I quickly discovered that this crew of eight men and two women, members of the Alamo City Rivermen and Dallas Downriver Club, approach river tripping—and life in general—rather differently than I’m used to up north.

As Molly Ivins, the late, great Texan newspaper columnist, once wrote of her fellow statesmen and women: “For one thing, we are obnoxious to be around when we are having fun. We talk loud, laugh loud, get drunk, and bang our beer bottles on tables, we whoopee and hoorah and are generally a pain in the hmmm-hmmm. We yell when we are having a good time. We do not yell when we get mad. We tend to get real quiet just before we stomp someone or shoot someone. Foreigners consider this peculiar.”

As we sorted through mounds of gear at a deserted, sun-baked put-in near the eastern edge of Big Bend National Park, my new friends gave me a basic geography lesson, Texas style. Gibb, the captain of a 20-foot tandem canoe proudly flying a Lone Star flag, declared, “Did you know the Colorado mountains where you’re from are called the ‘Dallas Alps?’ And that we Texans consider Colorado to be our largest state park?”

“So I’ve heard,” I replied with a crooked smile. I concluded Molly Ivins was right: Texans, like anchovies, are an acquired taste.

Here I am gared in a white helmet, ninja- looking wetsuti, and lifejacket with a dagger strapped to my chest.

Meanwhile, we turned our attention to a more pressing issue: How to cram four pickup truck loads of paraphernalia—more supplies than a flotilla of Grand Canyon-style rafts could safely take aboard—into seven solo and two tandem canoes. I was discovering that everything does, indeed, take on bigger proportions here in Texas (like gallon coffee mugs and Taj Mahal-sized tents). When I mentioned how I’m a believer in the “go light” doctrine, 10 sets of eyes stared me down like I was General Santa Anna at the gates of the Alamo.
With our canoes loaded to the gunwales and far above with multiple ice chests, bags of charcoal and Presto logs, water jugs and lanterns, spare paddles, roll-up tables and folding chairs, heavy Dutch ovens and large skillets, firepans and grates, a porta-potty and toilet tent, plus our voluminous personal gear, getting down this section of the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River with our barges open-side-up was foremost on everyone’s mind. Once we were flushed into the first of many canyons to come, there would be no turning back, no roads to walk out on, no one to help in case of accident.

Which makes our predicament at Hot Springs Rapid all the more urgent as the mid-November sun dips toward a cactus-covered ridge to the south.
Though Walter is a proud American citizen who immigrated to Dallas from Puerto Rico at age 23, at the moment he is more accurately a shivering, soaked-to-the-skin man without a country. About a 30-yard rope toss away on river left are mesas and cliffs rising more than 1,500 feet from the riverbed, beyond which is the “boot-heel” region of extreme southwest Texas, a vast expanse of parched arroyos and scrubby hillsides where rattlesnakes easily outnumber human beings. The nearest dirt road in Texas is a devilish 20-mile bushwhack away. To Walter’s right—where the remainder of our party is hastily discussing rescue options—is the state of Coahuila in Old Mexico, where the closest hacienda is a 12-mile march across bleak, sun-blasted Chihuahuan Desert badlands and bone-dry mountains.

Which makes the presence of the three hombres lurking behind my tripmates all the more amazing. They are clad in tattered street clothes, with no vehicles or horses in sight. But suddenly, a round of loud whoops turns my focus back to the stage show mid-river. After half an hour of futile rescue attempts, Walter’s prized Old Town, bent nearly in half, shudders loose and bounces upside-down through the rest of the rapid.

With daylight quickly fading, trip leader Marc commands us to get moving. Just around the bend, atop a broad white sandbar on the Mexican side, is our campsite for the next two nights—a prime spot next to a natural riverside hot spring. Technically it’s no longer legal for American boaters to cross into Mexico for any reason, but no one gives it a second thought when we decide to pitch our tents in a foreign land.

While some in our group set camp, and others strip off grimy clothes and ease into the hot springs—the 90-degree water a welcome contrast to the 45-degree air—I wander off to meet our neighbors. The trio has drifted down the shoreline to watch us unload our canoes. From a respectful distance, I watch them gaping in wonder as we schlep enough stuff up the steep, mesquite-lined bank to fill a Wal-Mart semi.

I greet the men, who look at me suspiciously and reply reticently. I can’t say I blame them. Here I am garbed in a white helmet, Ninja-looking wetsuit, and lifejacket with a dagger strapped to my chest; a strange norteamericano with unknown intentions.

However I may look to them, these men are clearly no threat to me. They are chilled, exhausted, and famished. They tell me they haven’t eaten in three days, and in my rudimentary Spanish I tell them to wait. Hurrying back to my canoe, I dig out a big Zip-loc full of trail mix and deliver it to the men, who smile and nod in appreciation. Soon my limited vocabulary is maxed out, so I go to fetch Walter. Scanning the now-darkened encampment with my headlamp, I finally uncover him standing beside a pile of sopping wet gear. He readily agrees to be our interpreter, and, along with Gary, a kindly canoeist from San Antonio, we amble back to the waiting Mexicans. We find them sitting cross-legged on the bare, rocky ground, huddled around a small twig fire for the modest warmth it provides.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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