Sunday, March 6, 2016

Canoeing Boquillas Canyon on the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River, Texas-Mexico

Three days alone and afloat in one of North America's most remote and rugged wildernesses which stretches across the international boundary of Texas and Mexico.
Deep in the Heart of Boquillas Canyon, Texas-Mexico


Even the most hardened of Chicagoians begin to get restless in the dead of winter. While many will fly off to Hawaii, Florida or the Caribbean, I'm feeling the familiar tug of the desert which is what I've missed the most about living in the East and the Midwest. For the first time in my early career, I took a full week off from work and headed off to West Texas.

El Paso probably doesn't top the list of snowbirding Midwesterners but I've always loved making the trip to see the family. We spent four days celebrating a birthday and enjoying the warm company of family and the Chihuahuan Desert. When our time together ended, each made their successive trips to the airport while I rented a car and headed east. The destination was 5 hours any maybe only 2 gas stations away- the Big Bend of the Rio Grande.


The controversy and standoffs that frequently make the news of the international border are unheard of it this stark corner of North America. Surrounded by 200 miles of desert and one of the most remote mountain ranges on Earth- the Sierra Del Carmen, you could say that this border is as insignificant as a line on a board game. Though its been more or less settled for centuries, the Spanish named the area "El Despoblado" or "The uninhabited" after surveying a land mostly devoid of people. Five hundred years later, not much has changed.


My ultimate destination, The Rio Grand Wild and Scenic River is the least visited national park unit in the entire NPS system. The only other unit that is comparable is Aniakchak National Monument which is located far west on the Alaskan Peninsula and can only be reached by boat or plane. Despite its proximity to Big Bend National Park, no more than 300-400 people run this river in a year and almost all of them do it in March.

On the drive out
To get to Big Bend is a long drive from essentially anywhere. There are no major cities in a 200 mile radius. People tend to fly in to El Paso or Midland-Odessa and rent a car from there. A glorious drive across the West Texas desert awaits. While I'm no stranger to long lonely roads myself, I thought it unusual to drive 150 miles without seeing a single service center or gas station. Cell phone reception is spotty and limited.

The closest settlement of any population is Terlingua-Study Butte (pronounced "stoo-dy" butte). One might expect this town of 250 residents to be just a hole in the wall. Surprisingly, the town is really more of a Austin-Culture meets West Texas Frontier. Cozy restaurants, playhouses and music parlors dot this dusty town creating a cultural oasis in an otherwise harsh landscape. Musicians established in the competitive Austin circuit frequently make their way out here for shows. They may not be a town in the country with a greater ratio of cultural outlets per capita.


I chose Desert Sports for an outfitter for this trip. Despite the isolation, there are three outfitters in Terlingua who all provide similar services. My plan was to put in at Rio Grande Village and to take out at La Linda which are essentially the only options. Fortunately both are accessible though paved roads and the company was able to shuttle my car in both places. We were able to easily get a canoe on to a full size rental and head off.


My driver had a keen knowledge of the river as well as the natural and human history of the area. None of my numerous questions stumped him. Having that kind of background to draw from prior to three days in the wilderness proved to be invaluable. He spoke of the area as someone who had been entranced by the desert's subtle but profound glory and settled here for that reason. Most guides have a rehearsed background of an area, mine had a genuine love and appreciation which is so rare in a guide these days. 


I settled on the following three day excursion. I've labeled what I've thought would be good campsites along the way. Note that upon leaving the national park boundary, both sides are on private land. Also note that the fine for crossing into Mexico and back without checking in with border patrol is $5,000. Though rarely enforced, it is something to consider. 



As evident upon the map, this is a rare example of a bilateral international park which makes the area exceedingly wild. Big Bend National Park is already essentially off the grid. On the Mexican side, Parque Nacional Maderas del Carmen is actually area that was originally bought out by CEMEX, the world's largest cement company. They created the first "Wilderness Area" in Latin America and it lives up to the high standard set by other wilderness areas of North America. I would be headed straight through the middle of this place through a 1,500 ft deep canyon. It couldn't be a better trip for a nature-starved Chicagoian.


At Rio Grand Village, my guide helped me unload the canoe any about a week's worth of supplies and drove off. I was alone and starting at the Mexican Border. In the distance, rising a vertical mile above the pancake-flat desert were the Sierra del Carmen. shrouded by a few layers of clouds. Pushing off from the boat launch landed me right smack dab on the International Boundary which would be my lifeblood and compass for the next three days.

Off in the distance are the Maderas del Carmen which are a vertical mile above the river
The Rio Grand flows at about 100 cfs this time of year which mostly causes channelizing through the wider, shallower parts but can get a little dicey at times. While not devoid of swift water or rapids, all of them are either easily walked or lined if necessary. At the beginning, certain sections were playful and others were miserable, requiring extended navigation through shallow, sharp rocks. I would be thankful to leave this section and get in to the canyon.

Though most of the river is through unpopulated desert mountains, a brief glimpse of civilization is visible at Boquillas del Carmen. It is a town of just about 200 residents on the Mexican side all of whom make their livelihood by the shear novelty of being a border crossing that must be made by boat. There is a check-in station that's open Wednesday through Sunday from 8 to 6. Passports are required. While this seemed tempting to try, I had a lot of ground to cover and I headed the guide's warning about wanting to make it into the canyon prior to the afternoon winds. I floated on past the town and then was totally alone for the rest of the trip.

Boquillas del Carmen on the Mexican side
It was difficult to say where this was all going. In front of me the steep walls of the Sierra del Carmen rose prominently to a table flat mesa several thousand feet above. Yet even being only a half a mile away, I couldn't see the entrance to the canyon. I took another dog leg turn North and the deeply sliced notch loomed ominously. In the shadow of it, the temperature was palpably cooler. A diamond shaped rock stood like a wilderness Gibraltar guarding the entrance to this magnificent canyon.

I knew there wasn't going to be cell phone reception. However I didn't get an accurate GPS signal either; something I wasn't anticipating. I had the expertly written guidebooks, "The Great Unknown of the Rio Grande River", by master paddler Louis F. Aulbach would would serve as my only guide from here on out. It almost sounds like the title of a cut-rate western movie yet "great unknown" is a name that has stuck around since well before even the national park was here. 


The book serves as a fascinating guide to the river as well as a thorough documentation of just about everything and anything related to the human history of this section. I would not have run the river without it.

Entrance of Boquillas Canyon
Just past the entrance of Boquillas Canyon, (taken with a self timer)
Gentle floodplains turned instantly into impossible to scale cliffs. I landed on a sandbar and took the scenery in. By now it was mid-afternoon and the shadows danced across the caves of the opposite canyon wall creating strange visages. 

The first recorded run of the river was less than 150 years ago. One can only imagine how different the river was then without any dams or impediments which dominate the river's course today. Further north in El Paso, the river is hardly more than a small creek due to irrigation and diversion. Most of the water that carried me through the canyon actually comes from the Rio Conchos, a major tributary analogous to the Missouri River to the Rio Grande. With its headwaters deep in the Sierra Madre Occidental, storms and dam discharges 300 miles away can cause this section to swell without warning. I continually kept this in mind for any landings or campsites.


A lovely part of the upper canyon is that the water is generally slow moving. I preferred to simply use the paddle for steering rather than power. The river's current was enough for my initial tour. I laid back on the stern dock and tried to enjoy every moment of this perfect solitude. Though generally silent save for the sound of the river itself, it was occasionally pierced by chirps of distant fauna. With a gorge this deep, everything echoed in thunderous succession. Even my own thoughts seemed to reverberate. 





This was hardly anything like a true pioneer trip down a river though it felt that way at times. None of the working technology I carried was particularly cutting edge; just a boat, extra paddles, tent, food and water. It felt good to live this simply, even if only for half a week. After a day gazing at the innumerable monoliths of this desert mountain range the evening were filled with delightful inactivity that was a far cry from boredom. Once the sun went down, I was contented to build a small campfire and stargaze. These were rare moments in my 20s when I didn't feel the compulsive need to fill my idle moments with goal-directed activity.


The stars were, of course, luminous and countless. I laid on my back next to the campfire light and spent hours just looking up. The first night I camped in a particularly deep gorge and the dark, phantasmal ridge dominated created a haunted, almost unwelcome affect to the canyon. I felt like an intruder.

Extreme temperature fluctuations characteristic of the desert meant that the nights were as cold as they were in the midwest but quickly gave way to tropical warmth in the mid morning. I continued my float down the canyon which opened up after Boquillas.

Eventually I did find a place that was hike-able. Tying my boat securely and well above the highest waterline, I found some type of a heard path to follow. From high above the valley, the river's life-sustaining power was more appreciable. I suppose all canyons have a way of forcing one to see the power of water over a long enough time period but every time I am amazed. The large mesa in the distance and the pinnacle of Schott Tower rising 5,000 above the river were all plainly visible. Still, the green ribbon of the Rio Grande looked calm and serene, despite the cataclysmic effect it has on sandstone.






Onward I drifted. An odd thought occurred to me at one point. Though this would not be the furthest nor the longest I would have spent away from others, I don't think I've ever felt more cut off from the world. If a war had started, a pandemic had broken out or an atom bomb was dropped somewhere, I wouldn't have known about it. I was just too off the grid.

Its hard to describe how the canyon continues to unfurl; every minute seemed different to me and each bend had a new and glorious set of towers, ridges and notches. In the final third of the trip, however, the river abruptly leaves those features behind as it enters a flat floodplain with strongly divergent scenery:



The flat and straighter sections of the lower third were not without scenery but it felt like I was paddling a different river. The channels were wide and rapids were few and far between. Life grew more densely and abundantly at the river's edge where 12 foot reeds created green walls. When I did find another brief break in the flora, I was able to climb a small ridge and catch an overhead glimpse of the jungle-thick foliage.

Fortunately I did finally find an elevated sandbar to camp on for the final night. As it was an island in the middle of the river, it was a bit funny to me to think of pitching my tent on the international boundary. No-one and nothing disturbed me as the site was on the land of the national park but I wondered if the boundary was technically bisecting my tent. Another night of campfires and stars made me wish I could spend more time on the river.



It was a more bitter than sweet last day. It went much like the previous days but it was saddening to think of having to return from an almost euphoric time in the wilderness. The final sections have a few canyon walls and a legitimate rapid or two which were savored. 

La Linda is a somewhat recently-abandoned mining town with a defunct border crossing. The bridge still stands though its been blocked off on both sides. Now a ghost town, the Mexican side now has crumbling buildings slowly being taken over by the desert. Apparently it actually still has a few residents though that was hard to see from my view. 

So my trip ended unceremoniously at the edge of a mining road on the United States border. My trusty driver arrived right on time dispelling an anxiety I had. Another strange scenario which crossed my mind was thinking what would happen if, by chance, nobody ever showed up to claim me...

 

One adventure ended but another future trip was evident just beyond La Linda; The Lower Canyons. The guides tell me that this is the most isolated part of the entire 1,900 miles of the Rio Grande. For about another 80-90 miles, the river continues to divide Texas and Mexico but its an even longer section without any crossings or contact than the previous section I just completed. It takes about 7-10 days to run but no sooner had I finished this trip that I began planning the next. 

Certainly there's a lifetime's worth of return trips to the Rio Grand ahead of me.

Hiking Guadalupe Mountain, High Point of Texas

Guadalupe Mountain rises above the pancake-flat desert of West Texas high enough to support an alpine environment. Hiking it in the winter necessitated winter gear for ice and snow.
"El Capitan"
I couldn't travel out to West Texas without visiting it's most famous mountain and the only other national park of the state. Guadalupe Mountains National Park is a beacon of preservation and biodiversity in the stark desert landscape. Once the road to the park leaves El Paso's outskirts, there is literally nothing between it and the entrance. For 80 miles, the only sign of human life is a few scattered ranches. It was not a boring drive, however. I've missed desert life deeply while living in the Midwest. Various mesas, dry plains and distant dormant volcanoes dot the marvelously desolate landscape. 

Rising like a lighthouse in the distance is El Capitan, where the West begins (or ends). The limestone monolith is emblematic of the state even though it falls 700 feet shorter than the higher Guadalupe Peak. It was unusually cloudy and foggy the day I was in the park and the jagged edge of El Capitan was lightly shrouded in fog.


The trail begins just North of the Pine Springs Visitors Center and campsite. A very large network of trails leave from this area and it doesn't do the park justice to just spend one day hiking Guadalupe Peak. Hunter Peak, another one of Texas's highest, looms across the gorge created by Pine Creek. To the North and West of the beaten path of Guadalupe Peak are trails that seldom see visitors this time of year. 

Its quite a steep trek to the top. The trail rarely flattens out as switchbacks up to the summit. Some of the ledges are precipitous at the start of the trail. After the first 1,400ft of elevation, the trail slips into the upper alpine forests of the range which are an abrupt divergence from the more arid environment below. Vegitation is quite think and trees grow to significant heights. Taller ranges in the desert are somewhat magnetic towards storms and moisture, creating "sky islands". Though the flora and fauna are not that different from the rest of the desert, they are far more abundant.
Above Pine Creek
Hunter Peak shrowded by clouds
Entering the Alpine Forests
Strange sight

I happened to visit the desert during the coldest part of the winter and an earlier storm had blanketed the mountains in about a half a foot of snow. Cactus were covered in rime ice and the trail itself was an icy monorail. I actually had to wear crampons and I was thankful for having the forethought to include them in my desert inventory. At times I was punching through some significant powder.

Though the snow and ice created an ethereal look, I would not be seeing the panoramic views that often draw people to the highest mountains of Texas. Fog became denser at the higher elevations but it made the sights more dream-like



Finally standing on the summit, I had no views. However I was completely alone and had not seen anyone on the entire hike which is quite rare for this mountain. The geocache at the top had been signed a few times over the last week but I was the only one today. Pleasant solitude made a view-less hike worth the while. Without wind at the summit, everything was silent and somewhat eerie.

Often I rush my way up summits like these to make sure that I can tag the top. Next time I would like to have camped overnight at the site at 8,000 ft. I'm sure the stars were glorious on a clearer night. Nevertheless, my brief stay in the park brought me to 33 state highpoints.