Monday, October 03, 2011

Head Over Heels by Rob Hodges

“If you flip, be sure to catch the boat. You don’t want to lose all your food and gear. ‘Cuz you might not see someone for days, and we might not find you. You’ll be on your own.”

That warning from the owner of a now-defunct outfitter company sloshed through my waterlogged brain as I frantically swam after the canoe slipping away in the swift current of the Rio Grande.
The prescient advice had been imparted only an hour previously as the adventure-tour operator dropped my friend Justin and me near the entrance to Colorado Canyon in Big Bend Ranch State Park in October 2003. While unloading the canoe and supplies from the back of the truck, the outfitter asked an unnerving question.
“Y’all do have whitewater experience, right?”

There was an awkward silence as Justin shot me a quick, concerned glance.

“Uh, no,” I stammered, somewhat indignantly. “I told you that on the phone a month ago when I made the reservation. I told you we had plenty of flatwater experience, but no whitewater. You said that was no problem.”

Then it was the owner’s turn for a moment of silence and concern. A very long, stress-inducing moment passed while her eyes darted back and forth, sizing us up. Finally she shrugged and muttered, “Well, I s’pose y’all be all right.” She continued unloading the truck.
We had been preparing to embark on a multi-day canoe trip through the rough backcountry of the Big Bend. It was the first visit to the region for each of us. The plan was to drift without a guide through the canyons carved by the Rio Grande, camping wherever we wanted on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border, and ending on Day Four by meeting the operator a few miles past the exit of Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park. Then, we were going to continue the adventure with a three-day backpacking trek and more primitive camping.

In theory, it should have been a fairly easy intro to whitewater for two able-bodied paddlers. But two weeks prior to our trip, the region had experienced its most rainfall in 10 years. The Rio Grande was racing, and numerous sections that would normally provide only mild bumps were intense Class III rapids—which are quite formidable in a canoe.

“You’re probably going to get wet. If you do find yourself swimming, don’t panic,” said the outfitter before giving her aforementioned advice about catching the canoe.

Our food, tent, stove, and other supplies were in waterproof dry bags strapped to the canoe. The only thing in jeopardy if we lost the boat was us.

After slipping into the current and beginning our journey, it only took 45 minutes to encounter the first major rapids that tossed us into the river. Fortunately, I was able to reach the canoe once the rapids ended, but we no longer had the paper maps of the river I had been holding, which noted landmarks, ideal camping spots, and the Day-Four rendezvous point. We felt defeated. Neither of us knew why the boat had flipped. It had happened so fast. Knowing we faced countless more rapids—without a map—did not inspire confidence.
But it in the end, it turned out fine, and the uncertainty only added to the adventure. When we had gone over the maps with the outfitter, I had paid close attention, so certain landmarks looked familiar when we encountered them.
Over the course of that week, I paddled and hiked and fell in love with the Big Bend landscape. I climbed up onto the Mesa de Anguila, hiked around that desolate plateau with panoramic views, and peered over the edge into Santa Elena Canyon. I stashed a couple gallons of water near the Homer Wilson Ranch House for use during our three-day trek. I watched a sunset intensify the crimson and orange hues of Red Rock Canyon along the Blue Creek Trail. I witnessed another remarkable sunset from what is probably the most scenic vista in Texas: the South Rim of the Chisos Mountains, which is high above the undulating Chihuahuan Desert floor that stretches for miles and miles into Mexico. And I only involuntarily fell into the Rio Grande once more, while navigating the boulder maze of the Class IV rapids known as the Rock Slide.

It was the perfect Far West Texas adventure, and just what I needed to choose a new favorite part of the state. Technically, I had been to Far West Texas many times before, but it had always been passing through en route to some other destination such as New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona or California. Now I knew my home state had a special place on par with any grand setting those other states had to offer. I couldn’t wait to return.

Whitewater rafting should be taken seriously. The dangers of the river and the harsh Big Bend landscape are very real. Prior to considering any paddling trip in the region, consult a reputable local outfitter such as Far Flung Outdoor Center, Desert Sports, Big Bend River Tours or Big Bend Expeditions.

Rob Hodges is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in such diverse publications as the Houston Chronicle, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Austin Monthly, Edible Austin, South American Explorer, national meetings magazines, and Texas Historical Commission travel guides. Having traveled through about 30 countries on five continents, and about 40 states in the U.S., he can say with authority that Texas is a great place to live. His home is about a mile from the Capitol in Austin, where he lives with wife, Kate, and daughter, Zadie.  His work can be seen at

Stay tuned all week!  Rob will be sharing photos and stories from his trips to the Texas Mountain Trail region through Friday!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow - what an adventure! Looking forward to more of your stories and photos.