Texas Whitewater Wilderness

Canoeing the Canyons of Big Bend
By Cindi Myers
  |  Gorp.com
Navigating the Rio Grande

The canoes glide soundlessly beneath the cathedral majesty of the canyon walls. A canyon wren's call breaks the stillness, the clear notes descending the scale like a pebble cascading the blue-gray rock.

Like the explorers who first mapped this border region between Texas and Mexico, we are awed by towering walls that block the sun and shield life here from the outside world. I shiver as the boats pass through shadows deep in the canyon, and feel the first faint tingle of nerves in anticipation of the river ahead.

"Rapids coming," a guide calls, and I feel my heart quicken as we reach for lifejackets and paddles.

Rapids are one reason we've come to Santa Elena Canyon of the Rio Grande River, near Big Bend National Park. The largest of three major canyons in the area, Santa Elena lures hundreds of whitewater and nature enthusiasts every year to one of the last true wilderness areas in Texas.

Most people see the river as part of a group, like this one. Solo exploring is permitted, but not advisable, as we later learned.

Our trip originated in Lajitas, a resort town on the river located approximately 17 miles from the western entrance to Big Bend National Park. Nine 'civilians,' two guides and an apprentice guide set out in seven canoes loaded with supplies to spend two days on a river largely unchanged since Apache and Comanche Indians made it their home.

It's early morning when we gather by the river to load canoes and get a brief lesson on maneuvering them in whitewater. Our experience ranges from none to intermediate, but even those of us who thought we knew our way around a canoe are intimidated by the guides' description of what we'll face. Our chief concern is the notorious"rock slide," at Santa Elena's midpoint.

We have a day to relax and practice our strokes before we reach the canyon. We drift in the slow-moving Rio Grande, leaning back on lifejacket cushions with hats tipped over our faces to block the desert sun. Our guides, Bob and Billy, offer commentaries on the local scenery and life on both sides of the border.

The afternoon is filled with water fights, picture taking, a minor stretch of rapids and a lot of talk about the canyon we'll be entering.

We set up camp early near the mouth of the canyon. The dark slash dominates the landscape, rising over 1500 feet in places.

Dinner is gourmet Mexican food, complete with wine. Everyone pitches in to prepare the meal, and afterwards we join in a sing-along around the campfire. The firepit and wood were hauled in on the canoes, the goal being to leave this area as untouched as possible. Not so much as a cigarette butt is to be left behind.

A soft breeze stirs the evening air and a full moon bathes our beach in twilight. We bed down under the stars, interrupted only once by a wandering burro. Did those long-ago explorers spend a night like this?

Another feast for breakfast. We all agree the trip is worth it for the food alone. Then we're off to the canyon's cathedral walls and devilish whitewater.

Billy's last words echo in my head: "Don't lose the paddle!"

Many of the rapids we encounter are formed when the river and the canyon make a sharp bend. Water rushes toward sheer rock, then veers away abruptly. The sensation of hurtling toward the wall, then rushing away at the last minute robs you of breath and makes your heart race. Each time the canoe seems destined to collide with the cliffs until, magically, it gets flushed sideways to safety.

Mid-morning, we hear a roar like a distant train. The sound grows louder, filling the canyon. Rounding the bend, we see our nemesis ahead. Rock slide. The slide was formed centuries ago when part of the canyon collapsed, filling the chasm with boulders the size of houses.

We beach the canoes to scout the raging water boiling through the rocks. We look incredulously at each other: We're going through that?

When the surveyor R.T. Hill paddled the river in 1901, he considered rock slide unnavigable. He and his men spent three days portaging heavy boats and supplies around the obstacle. They dubbed their camp on the other side "Camp Misery."

Billy and Bob confer, then announce we'll take the slide in two stages: canoeing the first half, and walking the canoes through the second half. Bob goes first to demonstrate the correct route, and to set up a throw line below in case anyone capsizes.

Our canoe is next. I kneel in the bow, lifejacket securely fastened, clutching my paddle. Billy's last words echo in my head: "Don't lose the paddle."

The first rapids slam the bow and try to spin us sideways. I fight the water with my paddle and we're righted in time to make our cut through the boulders. But then another wave hits us and spins us wildly, away from the shore.

"Grab the line!" Bob shouts over the thunder of the roiling water. Still clutching my paddle, I lean over and grab for the line. The rope is wet and slick in my hand and I'm afraid I'll lose it before we reach shore. Bob wades out to pull us in, water rushing around his slight frame.

Safe on shore, I look back to where we'd have gone, had the throw line not been waiting. Water foams around mammoth boulders, sending up clouds of spray as it thunders against the immovable rock. I shiver and turn to watch the next canoe through.

Everyone makes is safely through the first half. Canoes and paddles collected, we turn to the next business: walking the boats through the shallow water around the remainder of the rock slide. Rounding the boulder we narrowly averted, we gasp at the sight that awaits us.

Balanced on an island of rock near shore rests the remains of an aluminum canoe. It's the remnant of one duo's attempt to shoot the rock slide unguided. Bob assures us that the two men weren't seriously injured, but judging from the shape of their canoe we're amazed they're alive.

The relic subdues us, but only briefly. We can't resist posing for pictures in the battered hull.

After the rock slide, the river grows gradually calmer and we become quieter too -- subdued with weariness and thoughts of the journey's end. We lunch in Fern Canyon, a place of prehistoric beauty -- lacy green ferns and silver rock, miniature waterfalls and dripping pools. We explore secluded caves, and the guides tease us with stories of buried treasure.

The canyon shadows lessen as we drift toward the end of our journey. The walls grow farther apart and the water becomes a mirror, reflecting the cliffs above.

Vans parked along the beach and tourists toting cameras verify our return to civilization. One last look down the canyon, past the string of canoes, and we promise we'll be back again to explore this Texas wilderness.

If You Go. . .

Big Bend National Park is located approximately 330 miles southeast of El Paso, on Texas Highway 118.

Far Flung Adventures, in Terlingua Ghost Town, (915-371-2489) and Big Bend River Tours , in Lajitas, (800-545-4240) both offer multi-day trips to Santa Elena and the other canyons around Big Bed. A two-day trip with either outfitter will cost about $225 per person. Both companies provide guided rafting trips with food and included. They only offer canoe trips when the water on the Rio Grande is low.

For more information contact: Big Bend National Park, Texas, 79834; (915) 477-2251.

Cindi Myers is an avid paddler, hiker and freelance writer who enjoys writing about the Texas outdoors.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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