Sunday, November 30, 2008

Alone with the Wild Rio Grande

From San Antonio Express News Travel Section
BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK — What makes this place special is the opportunity to get away from everything — people, cars and all those annoying signs of civilization. The best way to do that is floating the Rio Grande, so we signed up for a two-day trip through Santa Elena Canyon.

From the moment we launched until our emergence the next day from the far end of the canyon, we had the world to ourselves.

Daily life is an assault on the senses: constant noise, bright lights around the clock, mingled scents of car exhaust and humanity, a never-ending, exhausting input. The wilderness, by contrast, has a subtle, delicate touch. In our evening campsite, the fading sun bathed a cliff backdrop with gold, then a full moon rising from behind rendered it satiny black. We listened to the murmuring chatter of water flowing over rock and an occasional rustle of grass in the wind. The air had a fresh scent, and the cold tingled on my cheeks.

Lying in my tent later, I watched a bright pinpoint of moon dimly visible through the nylon as it tracked across the sky, a kind of reassuring cosmic night light. No other lights were visible, from one horizon to the other. No artificial sounds intruded. The night was quiet, dark and peaceful. That is why I seek out this kind of place.

We started on Wednesday morning, putting in at a small park just outside Lajitas, where the bank is a gentle slope and the waterway wide. The river is too low for rafts, so we use canoes; our family of five gets three. I pair up with my youngest daughter, Bridget, while Holley and her brother Collin go together, and my husband, Corey, takes his own. We load the boats with dry bags holding our clothes and sleeping bags, two-man tents and chairs. The four guides each take individual canoes piled well over the gunwales with gear — tables, ice chests, containers of water, their personal stuff and who knows what else.
Bundled up against the cold of late November, we slip into the gentle current, listening to instructions from Jack, our fearless and experienced leader. The river carries us along at a pretty smart clip, and a little paddling adds to the speed. It's been more than three decades since I rode in a canoe, kayaks being my preference, and Bridget has never been in one, so we zig and zag quite a bit. But the sun is out in a blue sky, tall grasses undulate on the shore and mountains rise in the distance. One side of the river is Mexico, a fact that lends a touch of the exotic to the trip (as part of post-9/11 rules that have drastically changed life along both sides of this stretch of river, passports will be required for these outings starting in June 2009).

At the first series of rapids, which are fairly gentle and unthreatening, Jack leads and everyone follows. There are more daunting sets later on, but our skill improves and no one tips. The thick cane grass and salt cedar on the shores — both, unfortunately, invasive species — are alive with birds, and cliff overhangs are sometimes dotted with swallow's nests.

We pull up on a sandy Mexican beach for lunch, resting or wandering off into the brush to answer the call of nature while Erin, Jack and the other guides, Tim and Wayne, unload gear and set up tables. A snack table of fruit and cookies keeps us satisfied until lunch is ready: cold cuts, hearty bread, a wide assortment of condiments, pickles, sliced cucumber, lettuce and orange slices. We perch on rocks, canoes or sandy ridges on the shore to eat. A rock-skipping contest breaks out while lunch is packed away, then we return to our boats.

The mountains grow closer and larger over the course of the afternoon, the rapids a bit more challenging — more than one canoe ends up crashing through overhanging reeds on the outside curve of the current — until we reach the campsite at the mouth of Santa Elena. The late afternoon sun bathes its cliffs in a warm glow, and we clamber over rocks and around cactus to get a good look straight into the canyon. The narrow passage, high straight walls on either side, curves out of sight, but it is exciting to look in and anticipate going through the next day.

On previous visits to Big Bend, we've walked a short trail into the other end, but the river slashed through the limestone layers of a massive mesa uplift for some 10 miles, so we've barely had a glimpse of the canyon. We'll be in it an entire day tomorrow.

When the sun comes up and we emerge from our tents, coffee is ready and, shortly after that, breakfast tacos. We take down tents, stuff everything back in the dry bags and gather around to admire and photograph a large tarantula Erin spotted on the rocks. Today I pair up with Holley, Bridget goes with her dad, and, with a day of experience under his belt, Collin paddles solo.

We glide into the shadows of the 1,000-foot cliffs rising on each side. Canyon wrens dart through the ribbon of blue sky above. Today's rapids are more serious, and we line the boats through some of them, walking on the rocky shore and holding onto a rope tied to the front. Just before the famous Rock Slide Rapid, which can become a class IV at some water levels, everyone pulls up while Jack scouts out conditions. We line the boats to a rocky wash and are sent one by one through boulders the size of 18 wheelers. Holley and I end up going through backward, but at least we don't tip.

Here and there, caves yawn on the canyon walls, which come as close to each other as 30 feet in some places and top out at an impressive 1,500 feet. We stop for lunch beneath a cliff the color of wet sand, with four large cave openings tantalizingly just out of reach. Tim leads us up a slope to the entrance of Fern Canyon, where we must maneuver around a deep, opal-shaded pool and scramble over rocks. Water seeps from a wall covered in ferns. The kids follow a thin stream upward until the way is too narrow to continue. Tim and Jack have run this river probably hundreds of times and have seen its high waters rearrange rocks, gravel and shorelines, and Tim tells us the mouth of Fern Canyon looked very different the last time he was here.

All four guides have a wealth of experience leading different types of outings all over the country; they currently live in Terlingua in various arrangements from a tent to a refurbished miner's shack. A spartan living, I can see, is a small price to pay for the privilege of spending many of their days on the river. Back at the shore, tables are up and lunch waiting on a grassy area overlooking our canoes, and we dig in, appetites fueled by the cold and the paddling.

A few hours later, we see other people for the first time since yesterday morning, paddling, astonishingly, upstream (these “boomerang” trips allow paddlers to see some of the canyon without spending the night). The mouth of Santa Elena looms in the distance, then there are tiny people scrambling around on the left shore, and I recognize the trail in the national park. Everything looks different from this on-the-water perspective.

We emerge from the canyon, the left side of the river suddenly wide open as the river makes a sharp right to follow the cliff along the front of the mesa. About a mile farther is our take-out point. We've come 22 miles.

The trucks and crew are waiting and load us up in short order. Everyone is tired, my back feels a little sore; I have a crick in my neck from gawking at the canyon walls, and a blister on one finger. But I think instead of the giant snowball moon rising over the cliff, water swirling against a rock wall that has been growing taller for centuries. Up ahead are more canyons, including the 126-mile designated Wild and Scenic River area, so remote that you travel at least six or seven days before there is any place to take out.

Now that would be an adventure.

Austin writer Melissa Gaskill first visited Big Bend National Park at the age of 3. She frequently writes about nature and the outdoors and enjoys getting off the beaten path.

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