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Rio Grande — the big river…

When TCJC canoe class graduate Bill Arnold called and asked if I would be interested in accompanying him and his family on a canoe trip through Boquillas Canyon, the answer came easily — "You betcha!" I’ve lusted after the remote and rugged allure of the Rio Grande’s canyons for years.

After rendezvousing with the Arnolds at their new home in Kerrville, the drive west to Marathon seemed remarkably low stress and visually entertaining. It’s been years since I’ve been out that way, and I’d quite forgotten how dramatic the west Texas landscape could be.

In Marathon we spent the night at the Gage Hotel. I got to stay in the historic section, in a tiny room musty with the smell of history, and a bathroom down the hall. If those walls could only talk… (I’d probably feel like I ought to get a tetanus shot!)

On Thursday, March 18th, after meeting with our shuttle driver and shifting our gear to his trailer, we made the two-hour drive down to Big Bend and Rio Grande Village. By the time we got our permit (Be advised — new regulations now require a bagless collection system for human waste), found the put-in, and got the boats launched and loaded, it was 12:30pm. Since the ranger had suggested a good campsite 12 miles downstream, and the water level was low, we got serious about stroking.

After passing Boquillas crossing, we approached and entered the mouth of the canyon. As those towering walls rose around us my heart rate increased. Stone the crows! Canoeing the canyon at last. It was utterly and absolutely magnificent. I crashed into rocks and ran aground repeatedly because I was paddling along with my eyes upward and my mouth agape. Higher brain functions off line — awash in awe.

With the evening shadows stretching long, we finally reached our recommended campsite, only to find a large party of Mexican horsemen camped across the river. I suspect that they were harmless "candlerros," struggling to eke out a living making candles from a waxy plant that grows along the riverbanks. However, to our anxious western minds, jaded by the incessant and strident cawing of a sensationalistic media, they appeared to be ruthless and bloodthirsty desperadoes. We looked at each other, at the rapidly sinking sun, and at our map, and agreed to press ahead toward a likely looking campsite about a mile downstream.

With darkness gathering, our search for a campsite became increasingly frantic. Poor Caroline, Bill’s 10-year-old daughter, was blinking back tears over the thought of complete darkness finding us still afloat. I was quietly begging the powers that are for a little assistance myself.

Finally, with our options rapidly running out, we stopped at a pitiful little beach, so low to the water as to ensure a sleepless night, especially with a chance of rain in the forecast. Happily however, stepping out of the boats and standing up enabled us to espy a delightful little campsite about 12 feet above the water, safe from a rising river and sheltered from the wind. It was a struggle hauling the gear up that steep embankment, but, 2 hours later, under a moonless sky stuffed with stars, and with several massive T-bone steaks sizzling on the grill, our earlier trials became inconsequential — life was good!

On the second day we encountered the infamous canyon headwinds. Regardless of which way the canyon twisted that wretched wind remained constant — dead on the bow. Our plan was to make 12 miles that day, so as to ease our burden (and our chances of reaching the take out on time) on the last day. Cor Blimey! We had our work cut out. We were seven hours in the boats that day, seven hours of steady paddling, every stroke a struggle. If we stopped paddling we went upstream. If I bent my head down to check the map for 10 seconds, by the time I looked up the bow would have blown off 90 degrees, and, between me and my 6-year-old bow partner, Julia, there was no arresting that swing. We could only let it go, gathering momentum, and make a complete 360 degree spin to get back on course. It was a very strenuous day! We earned our miles a foot at a time.

But it was a struggle ensconced in grandeur. The canyon made several really tight squeeezes that day, narrowing down to a few feet in width with vertical walls rising majestically right up out of the riverbanks. Amongst the many delightful rock formations we witnessed that day was the "Rabbit Ears," a monumental stone rabbit hundreds of feet tall perched on the left bank and patiently watching that river roll by. Jeez, it was all so wonderful!

Evening found us with a feeling of deja vue all over again. Our planned campsite proved to be choked with an impenetrable forest of cane. We were later told that the park service imported that cane to control erosion on the river banks and now it’s taking over. Quelle surprise! Once again, as the sun hurtled toward the horizon, we searched desperately for a campsite. Caroline’s anxiety reawakened and I reopened my negotiations with God. Our 12 miles became 13. "There’s bound to be something right around this next bend!…" 13 miles became 14 while the wind blew and the sun sank.

Finally, down around Stillwell’s Crossing, I spotted a little trail emerging from the cane forest where it appeared that burros came to the river to drink. It was the most hopeful sign I’d seen in ages so we drove our bow into the muck at river’s edge and trotted up the trail for a look. Gloriowsky! The trail opened up into a perfect little clearing and we had a nest site for the night!

After dinner, Carol and the kids dove into their sleeping bags like they’d earned a rest, while Bill and I enjoyed a sky bursting with stars, a snifter of kalhua, and the peaceful serenity of a snug camp, hard won with a long day of effort.

Our final day dawned clear and calm, and we had an easy float trip down to the take-out at La Linda. As the contour lines on the topo map drew further apart, and the canyon receded upstream, I must admit to a feeling of sadness. After the canyon’s close walled intensity, these open spaces seemed empty and uninspiring. With our arrival at La Linda however, that sadness was replaced by yet another emotion — desire! (Now, now, don’t let your imagination run away with you…)

La Linda doubles as the take-out for Boquillas and the put-in for the Lower Canyons. Watching three solo canoeists load their gear and push off for an eight-day expedition, I could hear it calling — The Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande, so remote and rugged as to make a Gila Monster apprehensive. Oh! I’ll be waiting for that phone call, Bill.

Actually, my most frightening experience of the entire trip occurred at the take-out. I took off my wet suit boots and observed my feet for the first time in daylight. Yikes! They were adorned with an alarming rash — no tlling what kind of inimical mutant organisms had been incubating in my boots for the past three days! That’s the last time I leave home without a bucketful of industrial strength foot powder!

That night we had long hot showers and clean sheets at the Gage Hotel before heading home on Sunday. I was really proud of Bill’s family -- wife Carol, son Aubrey (12 years), daughters Caroline (10 years) and Julia (6 years). (His oldest son, Will, had a debate tournament to attend in Austin and was unable to go with us.) Due to wind and water levels, it was a very strenuous trip, one fit to test the resolve and endurance of the most hardened paddler, yet they paddled, persevered, and pulled together with cheerful hearts and without complaint. The kids pitched in like pioneers to help with camp chores — I was surprised and well pleased. A fellow could not ask for finer shipmates.

Of course, a trip like this, a foray into the wilderness where life is reduced to its essentials and civilization’s strident clamor can no longer be heard, creates a serious and unavoidable side effect — it makes the city seem even more frenzied, fouled up, frantic, and frustrating than ever. Sheesh…

Ah, but while the city may suffer in contrast, a canoe trip through Boquillas shines like a beacon, illuminating that one great and glorious eternal truth — "There is nothing, absolutely nothing, half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats!"

May the wind be always at your back…

Uncle Ronnie

(a.k.a. Ronnie Ash)

(a.k.a. The Little Man in the Boat!)