The Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande: On the Edge of America

The lower canyons of the Rio Grande are said to be one of the most remote places in the lower 48 states. Less than 1000 people a year visit there. When my friends first started talking about the seven day canoe trip they were embarking on, I thought, you guys are crazy. Then they asked me to go. Me? Ok. Given that the book they were reading before the trip was titled, Death in Big Bend, my “Yes,” surprised me. I didn’t take the time to overthink it, only responded with my gut. The rest would work itself out.

I was assured that it would be difficult at times, much like a marathon, but that it would be worth it. I was also assured that I would have enough clothes to keep me warm and an expert guide to keep me safe. We would float down the river, make camp, wake up and have breakfast, coffee, do some yoga, take it easy. Bring a book for down time, I was told. Little did any of us know exactly what awaited us. That’s the thing about the weather, the terrain, the water; the conditions can change at any time.

After a few days road trip, the time had come to put into the river. We unloaded the truck and began piling up our bags by the canoe. Dang. We have a lot of crap. I was already put on restriction for the amount of things I could bring. Now I could see why. There were four of us, and two canoes, loaded down, heavier than we should have been. But hey, we ate and drank well! So there was that.

Assuming my position at the front of the boat, I wondered what was a head of me. Would I be able to do this? My friends had confidence in me, but I was not so sure. We set sail only to have our partner canoe run into some trouble 100 ft down the way, sending its captain tumbling out. Oh lord, I thought. Here we go. Along the river are canes of some sort that jut out over the water. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem except that the rushing current flows right to them. 

I had always been intrigued by white water rafting and I knew going in that I had healthy fear of the rapids. This would be similar yet different. Truth is, as fearless as I try to be, I’m scared of danger, or at least the danger that my mind and body perceive. 

A trip like this is like getting on a roller coaster, no turning back. Once the ride begins, you must see it through. Only this time I can’t close my eyes if it gets scary. I had work to do.

That first day gave us blue skies, warm sun, cold canyons. The temperature change was drastic from moment to moment. Shirt on shirt off, jacket on, no jacket. I would soon find though that the homeostasis I crave was the least of my worries. I learned the white water rafting kneeling position on day one. Get on your knees and paddle hard! Fuck. It wouldn’t be long before I would find myself a victim of the current and the cane scrapers. Fortunately though, we paddled hard and put our oars up overhead to block them from grabbing us and pulling us out. The kneeling position, I was told, was to give better leverage. I knew it was also making it less likely I would pop out. 

We came upon several smaller rapids that were unexpected. They were unnamed and not on any map. They don’t classify. What? Shit. If these don’t classify, then what’s to come? I could feel a low level of anxiety creeping in. But you know what? We made it though each one. Expert guides don’t fear these situations, they just act. Me? I tried not to scream like a girl. I got to work and did as instructed. I faced my fears. Every day.

Making camp our first night, we pulled up into Mexico. It was a lovely open space with lots of green grass set in the mountains of sand and rock. I could hear my dad’s voice, watch out for those immigrants. I had no concern for that honestly, but I did wonder about the Federales. Would we be sent on our way, or arrested, if found? The nearest towns in either country were apparently 100 miles away; so really, there should be no trouble. But what if the roles were reversed, and a Mexican camped in Texas, doing no harm? Would there be understanding and leniency for a tired traveler. Somehow I think not. I took a little walk deeper into Mexico hating the fact that I or anyone needed to be afraid. Looking right to left, it all was the same. One country, one land, separated only by water. We as humans decided to make boundaries and declare, this is mine and that is yours. Well, it’s all God’s. That was my thought. Of course, what’s that saying? One person can mess it up for everyone? Something like that. I get it.

Day two started out better; but after lunch, as we rounded this nearly 360º bend, the wind kicked in hard. Estimated 30 mph gusts were challenging our lazy river day. My arms and shoulders were already sore from the first day, now they were being put to the test. After some time, we pulled over for a breather and some water. We knew we needed to push about another hour and make camp. From our “put-in” to our “take-out” was 82 miles, and we seemed to be falling behind. We needed to stay on track.

Almost immediately though, after taking off once again, the wind and current took our friends into the cane and scraped them out. We didn’t see the act, only heard the scream and the dumping of a boat. We pull around the corner to see first mate, Chris, holding the overturned canoe, drenched, searching for her partner, Eric. He finally emerged with blood running down his face and a dazed look. Holy shit. The pull of the river was threatening to take us too. “Get out!” my canoe partner, Brian, called. So I did and we pulled our boat to shore. Seeing that our friends were alive and above water, we went about rescuing their things. As luck would have it, or God as it were, we landed on a campsite. It was not ideal, rocky and incredibly windy, and a little too soon, but it was land, and dry. Because their gear was fully submerged, everything got wet. It was cold, and the wind relentless. They were not pulled under by some named rapid, just something along the way. Fear began to have a greater effect on me, and I wondered what was to come. We did not build a fire that night for it was not safe in the wind tunnel in which we landed. We made much needed hot toddies, ate simply and went to bed. We got up and out early the next morning to make up for the time we had lost. 

Day 3 continued with relentless wind, even carving up choppy 1 to 2 foot seas, upstream. We were having to paddle just to get down a rapid! I kept reminding myself to take a look around and enjoy the beauty. I mean, that’s why we were there. I thank my guide for reminding me of that.

Down this one stretch of river, I looked up ahead and noticed something in the water. What is that? Oh wow, it’s a cow’s head! Crossing the river. As we floated closer, he made his way to a gravel bar, a bull. He paused to look back at us. Please don’t charge, I prayed. He didn’t. He watched us pass, then turned and continued his journey. This happened once again on this day. Cows and birds knowing no boundaries, living on the land in harmony. Do they get deported? Just wondering.

Up ahead I could hear a rapid coming pretty strongly. Chris and Eric took it first, and although they ended up backwards, they made it through. It looked tricky, but we followed suit. The current was strong and took us by surprise pulling us hard to the left. We slid past a large rock that we could not navigate and sent the nose right into the muddy bank of a tree root. Pinned. There was no way around and the canoe threatened to teeter-totter and flip.

A few seconds discussion and my guide knew he had to do something immediately. Brian jumped out onto the rock and pulled the boat backwards. His hope was that he would be able to jump back in, but there was no time. The current was too fast. He had no choice but to send me down the river, alone. Holy fucking shit. You better believe I screamed! What the fuck was I to do. So many options ahead of me: rocks, current, banks. “Get to the side!” is what I heard. Ok! I paddled hard over to the left bank and nosed into the mud once again between two boulders. I put my hands up to hold myself in place, but I could feel the strength of the river pulling me. “Get out of the boat and hold it!” I hear from behind me. Get out? Shit. Ok. I did, and I was safe, for the moment. Nowhere for me to go, I had to hold on until my partner could make it to me. Harrowing, but I was laughing. What a mess.

I looked back and there he was, sitting on this rock in the middle of the rapid. He’s going to have to swim. He instructed his friend to throw him a life vest. No we weren’t wearing any. Don’t tell Mom. If I get out of this trip alive, my parents are going to kill me. In my defense however, Eric was not wearing his when the cane scraped them. Had he been, he knew he would have been trapped and drowned. Better believe though that I started wearing it shortly thereafter, and it felt like a seatbelt. Secure. 

As Brian escaped the rock and floated down river, he caught the other canoe and they paddled him over to me. He made it to the bank and crawled up and over to the back of the boat. Midway, however, our friends yelled out something about yoga and balance. Brian lifted his leg into a sort of three-legged dog pose. Are you kidding me? Get your ass in the boat! I’m holding onto this rope here, hanging for dear life, and you’ve got jokes. Men. Part of being calm in the storm is having humor in the moment. We laughed about all of this for days. 

Adventure they say… let’s take a canoe trip they say… it’ll be fun they say. Shit. I’m just trying to stay alive. Why do I tag myself as #adventuregirl when I like to stay on the safe side of the street? This #fearlessjourney is looking more like #foolishjourney. I like the challenge, the fun, the lesson in the circumstance, but really, can I just go to the spa?

We took extra precaution for the rest of the trip, stopping to view anything that looked uncertain. We lined around about three times this day, meaning that we, ok the men, guided, and sometimes pulled, the boats around with rope attached to the front and the back. One, however, had to be portaged, an impassable class 4. We knew it might happen, and so it did. We had to unload the overloaded canoes and carry all our gear up and over the rocky banks. Fortunately, minimally trodden paths made themselves available to us. It was somewhere about this time that my thoughts turned to, we have four more days of this. Oh no. Get me off this river! I am trying to enjoy this trip, and I am. But I’m also scared. How do I rest in trust and love? I’ve been pulled under by water before at the beach. It can be terrifying. I was letting these thoughts and fears take me hostage.

Why do I insist on testing myself, my strength, my resolve. I don’t know. Maybe because I am a small girl. Maybe because I am regularly seen as weak or meek. Maybe because I need to know that I am stronger than I think. And maybe because I don’t want to spend my whole life being afraid of what’s ahead, afraid of the unknown. Adventure is fun! Right?

My partner reminded me, the only way through was forward. No one was coming for us until the end. And so it was. I could see how this experience was much like the LA marathon I had participated in years before. By the halfway point, I didn’t know if I could go on. But I did. One step at a time. I knew the tide would turn to exhilaration, I just wasn’t sure when. 

This third night of our trip was the full moon. Our goal was to get to the hot springs by this night, and we did. It was on the Mexico side, which just so happened to have the best camps anyway. We were told that the area was a crossing point for those working in the ranches and not to camp too closely. As we drew closer, we could see the evidence of what that meant. 

Black garbage bags dotted the landscape on the Texas bank. We speculated about the contents, settling on some version of them containing dry clothes for those swimming across the border. We pulled into the chosen site for the night and unloaded our gear. The hot springs were not as hot as we hoped, but a reprieve nonetheless. Crawling into our tents that night, we knew we were a little closer than we should be. My only fear was that our things, even one bag, might get stolen. I laid awake with concern. Finally, I chose to give it over to trust. There was nothing I could do, and I believed us to be safe. So I rested and prayed, and turned it over to love, and fell fast asleep. There was some movement in the night, but come morning, we were all well, with all of our belongings in their place. 

That morning, I took my first truly quiet moment. I sat cross legged in the grass overlooking the river and prayed and chanted mantras. I cried, partly because I had been afraid, and partly in deep gratitude for the journey itself. We had four more days ahead of us, and I needed strength. I also did not want to spend anymore time in fear. I began to change my vocabulary from harrowing and afraid to exhilarating, adventure, fun, safe. “Keep us upright, lord. Please and thank you.” The yoga that I had intended to practice and the fancy photos I thought I might take became less about the poses and more about trust, meditation, mantra, and oneness with what was. The fear I was experiencing was for what was to come given what I had seen, a future moment. The practice of presence kept me grounded. I didn’t want to miss another moment by worrying. And so I didn’t. I gave it to God. 

We set out with the intention of another day with no flips. Coming down a class 2 or 3 rapid, we noticed a rock up ahead; then at the last second, a more hidden one in conjunction. We narrowly missed it and I prayed our friends behind us would see it too. No such luck. They wrapped the canoe immediately, it’s bottom pinned up against a larger rock with water rushing through, holding it in place. We pulled our canoe over and ran through the thorny brush and boulders to help. Brian jumped down the levels to throw them a line. Eric hung on the rock trying to dislodge the boat and its contents, but it would not budge. The current was strong and he worked hard. I could see him losing strength and energy, but he kept pushing. Chris rescued items that she could and held tight to the front rope. I stood at the top of this cliff staring in astonishment. What could I do to help? I couldn’t get down easily and felt I needed to stay in a position to run in any direction. All I could do was pray. I couldn’t believe it was happening. Not just again, but also in this way. This was a serious situation. “Every step of the way, lord,” became my mantra from here on out. Please be with each of us every step of the way. For the boys, this is just part of the adventure. For me, it’s holy shit! There was a possibility we would lose this canoe, with three more days until the take-out. But what if we lost a person? I prayed and held space for them to do what they do. Experience is paramount, and my friends had it. I was grateful to be with someone who knew what the fuck to do. I just tried not to panic. Rest in love and trust. I could feel the calm as I allowed it in. After about an hour, and a great deal of teamwork, the canoe finally let go and popped itself upright. Relief washed over us all.

Needless to say, a little PTSD set in for Chris, for all that she had been through so far; and a little for myself, for all that I had seen. Brian even experienced a reluctance to take anymore chances. He put on his super-safe guide hat and got us through. We chose to walk and line a few more spots than may have been necessary, but I was content. It was quicker than starting over each day from a flip. 

In the midst, however, we did have a lot of fun. Although Brian was known to say, it’s not Disneyland out here, we ran some fun splashy rapids that made me feel like I was on the Splash Mountain log ride. We laughed and hollered with joy each time we made it through a challenge. 

The 2000 ft canyons were incredible to be in. Each day’s bore its own personality and I looked forward to the view. My favorite moment was paddling through a deep gorge that was all shades of grey from top to bottom and a long line of cut out faces in the rock. We lifted our paddles for a few minutes and floated in complete silence. No birds, no rushing of water, no wind. That. That was a rare gift. I would say more than once how so much of the mountainside looked like ruins or artifacts one would find during an excavation. Sometimes they seemed to say, we are watching over you, protecting you along the way. Other times, when the headwinds were unbearable I wondered if we were uninvited guests. Either way, we plugged along in awe and gratitude of the beauty.

Coming upon a rapid we needed to take a look at, we made our way to the side. However, the current was strong and I feared we’d be pulled down. My job in front was to step out with our tether and pull the boat in. As I did, the nose started turning toward the rapid. Oh hell no. I had to save us! Haha! I dove out of the boat and belly flopped spread eagle onto the rock. I hear Brian inhale deeply then start laughing. “I said Step out!” Well, it was probably a little more dramatic than necessary, but like I said, PTSD. I’m not going in that water. Fortunately, the rock was smooth and large enough and submerged gently in the river. I was unscathed. Thank god. We decided to line it. I’m not complaining.

My guide did say along the way, “You know we are probably going to dunk at some point.” Oh hell no we’re not! Don’t put that on us. That is not an experience I choose to have. Jesus. Every step of the way lord! I knew in some sense that flipping might be part of the fun that I was missing out on. But I didn’t want to know. 

Upper and Lower Madison were named rapids that we reached by the end of the fourth day. The hour was getting late, and since we had to line through due to the terrain, we had no choice but to camp on the hill between the two sections. This, however, turned out to be a blessing. The view was spectacular.

This would be our fourth and final camp in Mexico. The canyons were so tall and beautiful, and surrounded us like a glove. We could hear and see the rapids all around, and the stars shining brightly up above. The canyon walls created a perimeter in our vision so that the stretch of sky was a long rectangle with mountaintops in our peripheral. The Little Dipper and Orion gave me a watching point to witness the rotation of the earth as the stars seemingly danced their way across the sky. This second night of the full moon felt like a reward for all our hard work and perseverance. We celebrated and slept quite well.

Day five was a good day. Just as I had altered my internal monologue, Chris also changed her mantra to one of courage. We felt uplifted and hopeful, inspired and strong. I was learning a better feel for the river and my job as first mate. Brian was having to compensate a lot less for my naiveté, and that pleased me. I wanted to be helpful! I kept my new mantras at heart, knowing without a doubt that wisdom was with me, every step of the way. The PTSD subsided and we made quick decisions about the steps to take in each situation that arose. 

We made camp in Texas for the first time since being on the water, just above the San Francisco rapids. We could hear their rush throughout the night. We also saw something new on this trip: other people! A college school group that had been on the river for almost two weeks also made camp in this mountainside. They were leaving out early the next morning like us, and we were both curious and excited to see what route they would take.

On the morning of day six, we awoke early for our final push. We had been averaging about 13 miles a day previously, even with all the starts and stops. This last day we would need to do as close to 18 miles as possible to get us within range of our take-out point the next morning. In other words, we had to make time.

The San Fransisco rapid was one that came with a warning. Hit it wrong, and the stone ledge could pull you under and pin you. There were a lot rocks in this one that modeled a pinball machine. 

The school group had been practicing for two weeks on the river and decided to run this one. We were a little surprised and also intrigued. Given the way the trip had gone so far for us, we decided that we would line through, just to be safe. I was grateful for this decision. Something about that ledge terrified me. Looking out into the center of the rapid, we could see a particular rock with three large bolts coming out of the top. I was told that this would have been an anchor point for a rescue pulling a boat out of the water, or a body. 

We watched the first two canoes of college kids run the rapid with precision. We hurried down to our boats and crossed the first part to set up our line and wait for them to all finish to run. The third boat also did well. The forth, however, took a nasty tumble and washed down the rapid bumping into that dreadful ledge. The first guy seemed to skid by, but the second was not so lucky. He disappeared before our eyes, and we all held our breath. A few seconds later, which can seem quite a long time, he popped back out. His eyes were wide, but he was alive. Thank god! I would love to hear his personal experience in that moment, but it was not the time. We waited and made sure all of them were safe, and then we began our journey home. 

The topography made an obvious and interesting shift on this last day. The sides of the canyons began to decline, and the blue sky widened. It was the most warmth we’d had in days. The wind was low and the river flowed slow and easy. To our surprise and delight, we made excellent time. This, I was told, was the expectation for the whole trip. Not the abundance of rapids, gravel bars, relentless winds, boulders and cane-scrapers. Before we knew it, we were at the final rapid before the take-out. We got out and took a look and decided unanimously that Yes, we were going to run it, a class three. We were excited and ready. I assumed the white-water position in front for the last time, wearing a tinge of anxiousness and a big smile. We had a blast and all came through with no trouble. Just around the corner we spot our exit. Really? We made it? I was so happy. It was early too. Plenty of time to explore a little and enjoy some extra time in camp.

We took a hike up the ridge and stood on the edge. The edge of America, as Brian so coined it. I reflected on all we had been through and how the week felt like one big arch of a day. It was over. In the morning we would pack up and head out with our scheduled driver. We had done it. Chris and I faced our fears, and our captains led us through. I was so incredibly grateful for the wherewithal to change my adjectives and therefore, my outcome. I knew I craved this sort of adventure and accomplishment, and I didn’t want to allow my perception of fear to be my truth. I wanted to enjoy every moment. We can’t do that focusing only on the bad. That was the thing too though. None of it was bad, just moments calling us to pay greater attention, be smart and use wisdom.

This last night, we celebrated. Chris, the camping chef du jour, made us blueberry and sweet potato pancakes with maple syrup and candied bacon, prepared by Eric. The next morning, we took one last hike around the edge, reveled in our achievement, and said goodbye. On the long dusty road back, I found myself surprised to be missing the water. Would I do it again? It took me a few days to decide, but yes would be my answer. Just not yet.

A trip like this can hold many lessons: new appreciation for the simple things, respect for the tough, and admiration for the land. I was grateful for preparation, but also learned once again that I can make do with less. I am grateful to Brian for keeping me safe. I never did take that tumble. I am also grateful to Eric and Chris for their spirit of perseverance, and to the whole for having me along.

I looked up the word adventure out of curiosity: an unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity. Well now you tell me! I need a new word, one with less hazards. Until then…. I’ll Adventure on!

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