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

Say Yes To Adventure - - Features - WORDS: Jud­son Vail IMAGES: Jonathan Vail LO­CA­TION: United States of Amer­ica

Jud­son Vail

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.’

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