Monday, September 19, 2011

Canoeing the Rio Grande

       The sun is setting and a bruise is quickly rising where the river rocks introduced themselves to my shin—I flipped my canoe in the Rio Grande River while failing to execute a series of small rapids.  Fellow paddlers Gary, Libby and Jim suggest that we make camp on a 100 ft. wide stretch of sandy terrain on the Texas side of the river.  To the south, rocks rise straight from river’s edge and into the Mexican sky; we won’t have to worry about any illegal border crossings here.

Running the rapids—successfully this time.
       We spread our belongings on the beach to dry and erect our tents.  Gary lights his small camp stove; in a few minutes sloppy joe mix is bubbling in the pot.  After dinner we wash our dishes in the muddy Rio Grande as an inky darkness paints the sky.  At this moment, with the still night air surrounding us, it seems we’re the only four people on earth.  As we prepare to turn in at 11:30 p.m. the full moon peeks over the eastern cliffs and shines a spotlight into our canyon.

Making camp in the setting sun.
       I settle into my tent but can’t sleep in this remote and unfamiliar desert.  The heat is suffocating and my throat is parched; I crawl from my tent to find Gary sitting on a rock.  We reach into the cooler for ice chips and sit in silence—observing fine details on the rock face in the moonlight; listening to the river tumbling over the rocks; knowing that there is no way in or out of here than by that same river.  It’s magical, haunting, and a little bit frightening too.
The next morning we discover Gary’s stove is out of gas.  As eggs and bacon fry over a fire of twigs gathered from the beach we marvel at the splendor of this breakfast site.
Today’s journey is a peaceful float over a calm stretch of river and we all take advantage of the gentle current to enjoy tubing and swimming. 
Cooling off in the Rio Grande.
       We exit the river in the small town of Lajitas, then drive into Big Bend National Park and make camp in Cottonwood campground.  It’s another sleepless night for me.  Hot air envelopes the tent and a harsh wind sways the tops of the giant cottonwoods.  At 3:00 a.m. I hear voices.  A group of men from the campground are getting ready for an early morning fishing trip; I listen to the rattling of dishes, the telling of fish tales.  The noisy group leaves and stillness returns.  Several minutes later rival packs of coyotes howl from opposite sides of the campground.  A haunting, eerie chorus.  I’m mesmerized by this impromptu serenade and could listen all night long.  The coyote symphony ends and I finally drift off to sleep.
Breakfast the following morning is eaten under the watchful eyes of dozens of turkey vultures perched in the cottonwood trees overhead.  They’re waiting for scraps of food, or perhaps for our demise under the scorching sun.
We pack up, take a swim in Santa Elena Canyon, then leave Big Bend for the long drive to Houston, ending our adventure on the edge of America.

Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend N.P.

Rio Grande panorama.

Big Bend National Park is one of the least visited national parks in the United States.  Have you been there?
For more information on Big Bend N.P. have a look at these websites:
If you would like to book a river trip on the Rio Grande you can find information here:

Canoeing a placid stretch of river.

1 comment:

  1. As you say, this trips sounds magical - a feast for the senses. And your writing is so lyrical (plus the gorgeous photography) that I felt like I was right there.

    I haven't had the pleasure of visiting this park, but my stepfather has some amazing photos from the '60s of his fishing trips there!

    Thanks for a nice mini-break!