High Water on the Rio Grande

Article by Cliff Jacobson

Some people don’t like to do the same river twice—attitude being “been there, done that, seen it all.”  Maybe not.  I’ve done many of my favorite rivers several times.  And each time they have provided new insight and challenges.  My latest (November, 2019) fourth run with friends down the Rio Grande, a very remote, spectacular desert river in Big Bend National Park that forms the border between the United States and Mexico, is a case in point.

On previous runs, the water flow ranged from a barely runnable 150 cfs (cubic feet per second) to 550 cfs, a low but ideal level for open canoes.  On this most recent eight-day journey that began at Lajitas, Texas, we were a group of four in two solo canoes and one tandem*.  Our launch date was November 4. The flow rate was 550 cfs and the sun was shining—perfect.

Past Rio Grande trips have always been in February, and typically we barely saw a soul—just free-ranging horses and cows, wild pig-like javelinas, great blue herons, soaring hawks, and road-runners, plus, on occasion, a few congenial Mexican vaqueros (cowboys) on horseback, searching for wayward livestock.  But now we were running into boating parties practically every day.  Among them were three “river rangers” (two men and one woman) on patrol. We paused to chat.  They were friendly and helpful, river-knowledgeable and equipped for emergencies—and most importantly, dedicated to making the river experience enjoyable for all.  Note that just three law-enforcement personnel are responsible for patrolling the 118 miles of river that border Big Bend National Park—an impossible task for so small a crew.  My hat is off to them.

Camp just below Santa Elena canyon.

On our first day, not long after we made camp at the entrance of Santa Elena Canyon, the first of two major canyons we would be traversing, we encountered a party of two canoes—a 40-year-old man paddling solo, and two young women paddling tandem.  The man identified himself as Chris Baker—a former U.S. Triathlon Olympic team coach and river guide.  Five years earlier, at age 35, he was struck by a car while riding his bike.  He was minutes away from death when the ambulance arrived.  He physically recovered after months of surgery and therapy, but his memory didn’t.  He only remembers scattered bits and things about his life before the accident; others, his friends and family, had to fill in the missing gaps as best they could.

The water was very high, muddy and dangerous.

Chris’ medicine for healing is the wilderness.  He and his girlfriend, Natalie Cloes, plan to experience and document, through photographs and words, every one of America’s 58 national parks—by foot, bicycle, or canoe.  Big Bend, and the river which borders it, is national park number one.  They have a five-year plan to complete the remaining 57.  When they’re not trekking the parks, they live in a pop-up tent atop Chris’s pickup truck.  They’ve allotted $1,000 a month over the five year period for expenses.  Currently, they are self-supported, so naturally they’re looking for sponsors.  Chris’s passion is photography and he is quite skilled at it.  You can see some of his work on his web-site (www.chrisbakerphotography.com).  

Katie Wolfenden, third member of the team, hails from London.  She has been to the U.S. many times; always to experience wild places, of which there are very few in England. We enjoyed sharing two campsites with this delightful trio, this being the first time we have ever shared a campsite on the Rio Grande.

Larry Rice in a Northstar B17, IXP layup.

On November 7 we witnessed a spectacular lightning storm far south in Mexico; a few hours later it began to rain at our camp. That night the river began to rise.  Fast! 

The next day (November 8) it ramped up to 2,000 cfs and was now flooding into the cane thickets and willows that lined the banks.  What in the past had been an easy run, was now a challenging undertaking in our tripping canoes. 

There were two iconic obstacles that we faced on this stretch of river: Rock Slide (within Santa Elena Canyon) and Tight Squeeze (in Mariscal Canyon).  At low to moderate water levels, Rock Slide is relatively easy.  But, at higher levels, you’d best be skilled, and very prudent.  We carefully choreographed our moves: first, a 20-yard portage (canoe drag) over a gravel (er, mud) bar on river left (the U.S. side), then line the long, heavily-loaded tandem canoe around a short but harsh turn (the shorter solos could be paddled); float into an eddy on river left; then forward ferry across the strong current to the clear channel on the Mexican side.  Turn left into the narrow slot and you’re home free.  It was dicey but doable.

Two days later, just before we entered Mariscal Canyon, with the river still high and getting higher, we were surprised and concerned to see an abandoned blue kayak on shore on the American side. We didn’t stop, as the current had grabbed us and was taking us quickly within the canyon’s dark and deep walls.

About 100 yards above Tight Squeeze, where the 1,200-foot-high sheer rock walls are practically close enough to touch with outstretched arms, we saw what appeared to be an identical red kayak downstream, wrapped around a boulder in the jaws of the rock-jumbled rapid.  We pulled smartly into an eddy above Tight Squeeze so as not to run blindly into this dangerous obstacle. What had happened?  Where were the occupants of these two abandoned kayaks?

Hollywood movie prop originally used in the film Durango

One plausible explanation was that the two kayaks were traveling together—the red one, which was far in the lead–capsized above (or at) Tight Squeeze, and the boat pinned.  There was no sign of the paddler so we guessed he got out safely.  When the blue kayaker saw the capsize he quickly headed to shore and later connected with his friend.  What to do?  Our map indicated that a very rough four-wheel-drive road ran from roughly the blue kayak’s location to Rio Grande Village, 40 miles away.  Could the pair be walking the road to RGV?  If so, could they carry enough water for a 40-mile hike through the desert?  We doubted it.  More on this later…

The 1,200-foot-high sheer rock walls are practically close enough to touch with outstretched arms.

At “normal” water levels, Tight Squeeze commands respect,  but it isn’t particularly difficult.  But at 2,000 cfs, the water is pushing hard and you can’t see what’s beyond the ordinarily canoeable, narrow slot against the Mexican wall.  Safest plan was to portage!  We ferried to river left then spent over an hour hauling boats and gear over a mound of big boulders on the U.S. side—first time we’ve ever had to carry around this rapid.  And, oh, the mud.  Everywhere, on everything. There was simply no escaping it.  Given this scenario, we worried about our new friends—Chris, Natalie, and Katie –upstream.  We hoped they were not on the river today. 

A short distance below Tight Squeeze, where the river had slowed, we set up camp for two nights in a magically beautiful site deep within Mariscal Canyon. 

Playing around in Santa Elena canyon on a 2016 trip at low water

On our layover day at camp, we inspected the stick we had placed upright at the river’s edge.  The crude gauge told us that the water level was dropping rapidly.  Good; it should be much safer tomorrow when we continued downstream.

We wondered about the fate of the two unaccounted-for kayakers upstream.  Concerned that they may be hiking out, an epic journey, to say the least, I called Big Bend headquarters on my satellite phone.  I quickly explained the situation we had observed and said I was on a satellite phone in a canyon and could lose contact any second, so please forward my message to the proper park authorities.  There was a short pause, followed by, “Sorry, sir, we don’t handle calls like this; you’ll have to call 911!” At this, I went ballistic, reiterating that I was on a satellite phone in a canyon and the phone could go dead any second!  “Please, just relay the damn message,” I hollered.  Seconds later, the phone went dead.

Around 4 p.m. the next day the Chris Baker team arrived.  Whew!  They had wisely camped for two days while the river dropped. Smiles and hugs followed and I made a fine supper for all. 

After Mariscal, we had two more days on the river.  Our plan was to pull out at Rio Grande Village (RGV) while Chris and his team would finish below Bouquillas Canyon.  We shared contact information and Chris promised to send photos.  

The Littlbug stove making short work of twigs up to 2 inches thick

Day 8 and overcast.  The river had dropped substantially but it was still moving fast—so fast, that we were a full day ahead of schedule and RGV was just 12 miles away.  Should we camp another night in the mud or hustle to mud-free ground where hot showers awaited?  No contest—best speed to the end!

We arrived at RGV at 2 p.m. and immediately set up camp.  There are 100 campsites in RGV and nearly all were taken, most with RV’s, but 20 or so with tents.  At 4 p.m. the wind began, ultimately reaching 50 miles per hour, with some gusts higher than that.  Minutes later EVERY tent (except our North Face VE-25) blew down, breaking poles, shredding fabric, flying off like kites.  My solo canoe (Northstar Phoenix) was overturned and tied to a tree; it twisted around on its line several times and would have flown away had it not been leashed.  We drove to the little convenience store near the campground and learned that sections of the park were closed and park personnel in the Chisos Mountains area were directed to report to safe quarters. 

Just before dark, RV’s began to leave the park en masse. 

By morning, there were just a scattering of RVs left in the campground, and zero tents.  We had planned to breakfast at Chisos Mountain Lodge, and from there go for a short hike, but with freezing rain, howling winds, and the steep, twisting road up to the lodge temporarily closed due to ice, we just bagged it and headed for home.

Camping in the canyons offers breathtaking views

On our way out of the park we stopped at the Visitor Center and spoke with the head ranger there.  “Did you guys get my message about the wrapped kayak?” I asked.  “No, sir,” he replied.  Then, I went “calmly ballistic,” suggesting that they should have a MUCH improved protocol for this sort of thing.  The ranger agreed and said he’d look into it.  We never did learn the fate of the kayakers or the name of the person who took my call.

As this trip tale illustrates, a “been there, done that, know it all” attitude can get you into big trouble when out-of-control variables threaten what you think you know about what lies around every bend.

*A BIG thanks to my friend, Larry Rice for use of his photos from our recent trip.  Larry paddled tandem (Northstar B17 canoe) with Darrell Foss, who has Alzheimer’s disease. In 2016, we had to cut short a Rio Grande trip with Darrell due to complications with his condition (see my blog, Knowing when it’s time to quit!).

Friend Dick Pula, an accomplished paddler and one-time U.S. Olympic canoeing team contender, and I each paddled Northstar Phoenix solo canoes.

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