PADDLING THE RIO GRANDE
Out in the Chihuahuan Desert of the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico, the Rio Grande River has cut a canyon through the stone. The gorge in some places is more than 1,000-feet deep and the formations that stand are an ancient testament to th
PADDLING THE FIRST five miles of flat water from Rio Grande Village in Big Bend National Park to the mouth of the canyon, the four of us pass the tiny Mexican town of Boquillas del Carmen. The day is bright and the air is hot and dry. Dave and Tim know some of the villagers from previous visits and along the way we pull over to offer what extras we have in our loaded canoes; batteries and propane, Colas and sweets for the smiling children who call Dave ‘abuelo', meaning grandfather. Men lounging on the banks accept cold beer and in return offer us the bright little wire trinkets they sell as souvenirs. These are all but the last people we see for the next five days and the final reminder that man has made a strict distinction between the north and south banks of this river. We paddle on into the canyon and the chance circumstances of being born on one side of the water or another seem precarious and strange. The Grande Canyon walls rise around us in the late afternoon. We paddle along, small among the oxidised rock weathered to a tawny red over the aeons and on past little caves of leucite crystals where lava once flowed over potassium-rich rock. Soon we pull over to the shore and haul our things up a sandy rise to make camp. In the cooling evening, I sit out on the dunes watching the river that gives life to so many things in this vast desert. The big waxing moon appears in the soft line of sky beyond the rim rock. Canyon wrens make their final calls as night arrives to the borderlands.
The coming days are spent immersed in the wilderness of the canyon where men do not live but only pass through. We have come from upstate New York, Northern Colorado, Central Texas to meet in this faraway place. We are paddlers ranging in experience, Dave and Tim having run this river many times before, but the enchantment of this desert land is commonly shared among us all. Everything that we need to survive and a good bit more is stored in our boats; food in dry boxes and ice chests, water in six-gallon containers
and clothes and bedding in dry bags. Beer and whisky are placed wherever there is room.
We enjoy the slow opaque flow of the river, Dave often paddling ahead to scout camps, Jonathan taking photographs and Tim providing facts and lore he has gathered during his time in this part of the world. We drift downstream in a great peacefulness, swimming alongside our boats in the warmest hours, scanning the crags for aoudad or some other wild ungulate. Little brown and white cliff swallows dart across the water and shining black ravens croak among the high walls. Big Bend sliders, a red-eared turtle, sun themselves on rocks, which are unique to these waterways.
Tim shows us a candelilla camp on the south bank. Villagers from Boquillas come here to melt down the thin stalks of the succulent for its wax, which they then sell to people who use it to make cosmetics and other products. There is a large stove made of stones with a steel cauldron set inside. Next to it a pile of the harvested plant lies with crude shovels and scoops resting across the top. Up among the canyon walls is a shelter with a thatched roof of rivercane. Trash is strewn about; signs of human life and hard work.
Tim explains how the men cook the candelilla stalks in a solution of boiling water and sulphuric acid, melting away everything but the waxy residue.
“Next time I ought to bring them some masks to wear,” he says, looking over the primitive job site. “And some better shovels too.”
We continue down the river. There are places where the canyon widens and we are afforded views of distant mountains, peaks of the Sierra del Carmen range. Desert rain falls on the parched land as we paddle, and the air is filled with sweet smells of creosote and petrichor after the first moisture in months.
We take side hikes, switchbacking up crumbling slopes of limestone towards towering mesas. Tim leads us along the vague trails lined with prickly pear and cholla, lechuguilla and stool – spiny, thorny things. And still somehow a phainopepla, a dark and crested bird of this desert country, perches carefully among the cactus prickles. Five hundred feet above the river we gaze out across the extensive rolling land. We see where significant chunks of limestone have crumbled from the rusty canyon walls and fallen into the river, exposing virgin white rock millions of years old. Ravens croak in the updrafts high above the water, their calls spanning the abyss. The vastness of the land is only matched by that of the sky and as I look out to the south, it feels as if I am witnessing the edge of the world.
In the evenings after we unload the boats and make camp, we drink beer and sit by the river. Jonathan catches a catfish in an eddy near a boulder and returns it to the stream. Little bats fly overhead in the grainy dusk and we watch the clouds become awash in fading sunlight, fiery and pink against the receding blue sky.
Each night with a mesquite fire burning and the kitchen set, Dave prepares the dinners. He carefully works the coals around the Dutch oven lid, slow-cooking pork chops or spare ribs. “No one's losing any weight on this journey,” he reminds us as he loads our plates.
Around the glowing fire in the night, we dine heartily while our shadows loom among the rock walls. After dinner, we drink whisky and with full bellies stare into the flickering flames and smile across the darkness at one another and reflect on our great fortune for being here. Dave tells us stories of paddling a canoe down the Grand Canyon, and trips he has taken alone in some of the most remote places in this country.
“Abuelo,” we say, “have a drink of whisky.” But he declines, explaining with a wide grin how worried he would be if we three younger men happened to run out of liquor.
“Dave is razzin' us again,” Tim calls out into the night. “Hey, Tim,” Dave says, “why do the locals put those sticks in the sand along the banks?” “To keep an eye on the water level,” Tim says.
“I know. But why do they need to keep an eye on the water level?”
“Oh,” Tim says, “general curiosity.” Dave finds the answer greatly amusing and howls from his camp chair. “General curiosity,” he considers the answer. “I'll have to remember that.” Before sleep comes, I lie in my bag and stare up at the night skies. The glaucous moon is obscured by the dark white clouds; clouds that the desert zephyrs are herding gently across the firmament. Beyond the relief of the battered shapes, the black heavens lie silent over all the land.
Wingbeats of ravens or the calls of canyon wrens in the early morning find their way into my dreams and soon we are stirring. Another day waking up along the river, where you cannot hear a car or see a building. This is a place that no number of men or civilisations could ever create or lay claim to. I smile and yawn and pour a little bourbon into a cup of hot black coffee.
Tim fries eggs and bacon and mashes avocado into potatoes or whatever else he can find. We sit hunched around a small spire of smoke and eat our breakfast before we begin to break down camp. Each item must be packed away again in its place, all this stuff somehow consolidated into the boats, and the boats, in turn, must float down the river. Our final day is marked by the violent headwinds known to this place. The next fifteen miles we smile and paddle into the gusts, out of the wondrous canyons and onto the open flats of the desert again. And save the big sky overhead nothing much is visible beyond the banks of wild and rampant rivercane swaying fifteen feet above. I see a small prairie falcon fly from one side of the river to the other, and then back again, darting in and out of the thick carrizo. She lives on either side of this river, freely and with a simplicity of her own, and it seems strange that for many people, this cannot be so.
The wind rages on and the sun shines and I know that we are in a land that is greater than the names man has given to it. Heavy waves slap against our bows as if to send us back into the Arcadia from which we have come, as if telling us to turn around, and remember all that was missed. And maybe someday we will. But for now, we paddle on, on down the river.
‘ Around the glowing fire in the night, we dine heartily while our shadows loom among the rock walls.’