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Upper Canyons - Rio Grande - 2006

River/Section: Rio Grande/Upper Canyons
Put-In: Rancherias Canyon
Take-Out: Heath Terlingua Creek
Overall Distance:
Timeframe: 6 days
Gauge Height: ~4' - Low
Flow Rate: unknown
Date: November 18-26, 2006

Photos: Mark Boyden

It had been about 10 years since I last experienced the magic of the upper canyons of the Rio Grande. A small core group of us do a portion of the Rio Grande every year around this time. This area had not been paddlable for a number of years due to very low flows. I had heard that Mexico was feeding the river again, and since I was putting the trip together against this year, I decided that we would be paddling this section of the river.

The upper canyons of the Rio Grande includes Colorado Canyon, Madera (Monilla) Canyon, and Santa Elena Canyon and runs approximately 20 miles upstream and downstream of Lajitas, TX. Each has it's own flavor of beauty, which you can experience through a number of the photos included with this report. For those that have done this section, most remember Santa Elena Canyon due to it's towering cliffs that raise straight out of the water several hundred feet into the air on both sides of the river. The river has carved a winding, snake-like groove through that section of the river with almost no way in or out except the ends of the canyon.

After many months of arranging schedules, preparing and such, the time for the trip finally came. Friday, November 17th, the weekend before Thanksgiving, the rag-tag group met at "the Hut" in Martindale, Jeff Pine's 8-acre place of respite on the San Marcos river, right at the Falls at Martindale -- not much of a falls in reality, but still a beautiful spot on the river. The plan was to meet there that evening, get everything packed into the trailer and two vehicles we were taking to haul the entire crew to the river, and be ready to roll early in the morning for the extremely long drive on Saturday. We had to drive beyond Lajitas on the far side of Big Bend to our campsite in the state park and also arrange for our shuttle and get a river permit as well as deal with all the other on-the-road travel issues such as food, gas and restroom breaks.

Throughout the evening, members of our group arrived raising the level of excitement each time. A number of us had a great potluck dinner topped off with a homemade pecan pie that I had made the night before. On the way I had earlier picked up the two Kanucks who had flown in from Quebec. Richard Morin, an excellent paddler who had first joined us on a Boquillos Canyon trip in 2003, and had returned in 2004 for the high-water Lower Canyons trip as well as a couple of trips of his own in the interim, this time brought along the president of the Quebec Canoe Club, Pierre LaMarche. This man, nearly in his 60s, was definitely a great addition to the trip and brought great stories told in a heavy Quebeccian French accent as well as the eyes of the child seeing great wonders of the Texas big country for the first time. He only had Richard's stories to urge him here; and in spite of that, he came. The group also included three father-son groups: myself and my son Brian (the youngest at not quite 19 years) on his first real expedition trip, Jeff Pine and his father Lloyd (both veterans), and John Marler and his father Don, also his first. Unfortunately, our 9th, Bob Barbour of Houston fame had a work conflict at the last minute and was unable to attend. We took his boats anyway though and put them to good use. We missed you, Bob!

The next morning we got up early, shoved in a quick meal of breakfast tacos with chorizo, threw our remaining gear onto the trailers and off we left for the all-day drive. We skirted around San Antonio on 1604 and ended up on I-10 headed west. Along the way, we stopped in Junction as we like to do and eat the great Bar-B-Q at Coopers. Even though it was well before lunch time, they slow cook the meat over mesquite starting about 5a in the morning, and it just melts off the bones. We ordered up a mess of pork chops, ribs, brisket, sausage, potato salad, beans, and cole slaw and ate it family style. It was time for a nap, but some of us had to drive. Fueled up, we hit the road again. Eventually, late in the day, we made the turn down to Alpine and then picked up 118 down towards Lajitas.

Our river shuttle was Stephen of Rio Grande Adventures. At least that's what I thought it was. Turns out that was their old name, for at least a couple of years. Somehow I missed that over the phone. It's now Dead River Outfitters. A stickler for details, I had instructions that it was about 60 miles south of Alpine and to look for the big sign. We ended up missing it because of the name confusion. After a few poor quality cell phone calls, a trip to Study Butte, a stop at a road-side hotel, and some more bad directions and misunderstood communications with Stephen, we finally figured out what needed to be done. We decided to split up as it was getting dark. One group of us went to meet Stephen while the other went to the Barton Warnock Education Center to get the river permit and check in for our campsite at Big Bend State Park.

Since I setup the shuttle, I was in the group that went back to the Dead River Outfitters to arrange and pay for our shuttle. It turns out that in the 6 weeks since I had made shuttle arrangements, Stephen had sold his business. He was still willing to do our shuttle though [and he indicated that he would continue to do shuttles for us river rats]. He was in a world of hurt though, and he told us the stories of losing two of his best friends over the past few weeks. It obviously had been tough on him and the grief was quite evident. He told us that was the reason he sold the business so that he could go live life instead of working 25-hour days, 8 days a week, 366 days a year. We all know the old adage about waiting for retirement, eh? My condolences go out to him and his friends' families. We left him with shuttle payment and got instructions on where to leave the vehicles and find them at the take-out.

We had planned on getting dinner before going to the campsite (instead of cooking it). There were a couple of places near Terlingua that one in our group knew, but Stephen told us that the best place to eat was the Red Hot Chili Pepper in Study Butte (pronounced stoody beaut). The other places we knew of were supposedly expensive and slow, although the one in the mine shaft certainly sounded interesting. We ended up at the Red Hot Chili Pepper where we could bring in our own beer and took full advantage of that. The food was good, especially with the hungry sauce that we applied to it. However, I must admit that I can get better food in Austin. But, hell, this was Study Butte and we were hungry.

We had made reservations for the Aranosa group site at Big Bend State Park. I would suggest that next time we just stay at the Colorado Canyon put-in at Rancherias. It's first-come, first-served, and you can self-pay at the Barton Warnock Education Center. The team that went earlier couldn't find any river permits. So, after dinner, I stopped and put a paper-written self-permit in the permits box with all the information I could think of (using my memory of old permits) along with a note on it about the issue. We didn't want to wait for the center to open in the morning and spend another hour or more driving before getting on the river. Besides, my contact at Big Bend Headquarters at Panther Junction that I had phoned weeks before said that I could self-permit there. So, I did, just maybe not the way they intended. As you'll find out later, that was good enough, at least to a degree.

At the Aranosa group site, we got in and just rolled out under the shelter [we had called earlier to get the gate code and how to pay what we owed]. There was a composting toilet there, and we had been instructed how to access it. We sacked out pretty quick and it was somewhat cool, but not overly so. Sunday morning we had breakfast tacos again, and then packed up to go to the Rancherias put-in two miles down the road. After unloading, we dropped the vehicles up on the road as instructed and then loaded our boats. [Note: the pictures start at this point]. As usual, we had a lot of gear. This IS vacation after all. I'll note that the Kanucks use these big blue barrels and from other pictures that I've seen from their trips, everyone in that neck of the woods uses these things. They are VERY water proof and sturdy, but big. I may have to get one or two of these. [I now own two of these.]

We had eight people and five boats: a 16' Mad River Explorer, a 16' Old Town, a 17' Wenonah, a 16' Mad River Freedom, and one other I can't remember. Shortly after 10 a.m. we were finally floating on the water. It felt good to be there again. Right after the put-in is the first little rapid, appropriately called Rancherias Rapid, a class 2-2.5 rapid. This rapid quickly took its toll on the Marlers giving them the opportunity of their first of many unscheduled swims. We only had about 42 miles to go in total and we were getting off the river on the following Saturday, so we didn't have to move far or fast. So, we didn't. We laid back and enjoyed the beauty of the canyon. Colorado Canyon is a beautiful canyon. It's not high, but there are many layers of mountains in the distance.

Shortly thereafter, I pulled out a water gun I had found on the river, filled it up, and squirted the Marlers with it. My son gave me some comment about it, so I squirted him. He's a real sensitive type of guy, so he decided to splash me. After not stopping when requested, I splashed him back. Soon we were both soaked and I was surprised he gave up, but not before giving me some teenager angst-driven grief. But, hey, it's a river trip, eh? And we were certainly cooler than we were a few minutes before.

About a mile and a half down, just after Closed Canyon rapid, we stopped at Closed Canyon, but not before giving the Marlers another swimming opportunity. Amazingly after two swims they were in a better mood than my son after our water fight. Closed Canyon is exactly that. After a couple of hundred yards hiking up the canyon, it closes off very quickly and you'd need to be a climber with gear to get further up and I can't see if you'd get much further after that anyways. So, we headed back to the boats and on down the river.

Next up was Quarter Mile Rapids, so named because it's about a quarter mile long. I think the Marlers made it through this one without the swimming part. It was time to salute the captain, too, so we pulled into an eddy and did our usual ritual. A salute to the captain is a quick shot of Captain Morgan's Spiced Rum (the special edition stuff -- remember, we're on vacation).

About a mile further down, we decided to camp. Yeah, we'd only gone about three miles, but we had a bit of time ahead of us and we didn't want to skip camping in this canyon. We found a beautiful spot and parked it. We'd gathered a little firewood along the last bit, but ended up not really needing it. In fact, on this trip, unlike others, firewood was usually readily available at our campsites. On past trips, you had to gather wood before camping because the sites usually had none -- not the case this trip. The campsite was beautiful next to the gurgle of the water.

One of the best parts of the trip was introduced to us that evening: the beautiful night sky. It was a new moon when we got onto the water, and the sky was just gorgeous. Without any clouds and without any moon, the heavens above gave us an excellent light show. Every night but one we were able to watch the skies, see clearly the milky way, and see satellites and flying stars. Our newest Kanuck, while much more loquacious in English than I in French, had called the shooting star a flying star, and the name stuck throughout our trip. The open sky is one of the things I treasure about these trips. Living in the city and even camping within an hour's drive of cities in all directions, it's a rare opportunity to see a night sky like this. Just heavenly. And you'll have to ask Don about the purple haze on the horizon. We began to wonder what he was drinking out of that flask. I think I finally saw it, too -- after squinting harder.

Grub for our trip was most excellent. Jeff had volunteered to be the meal planner and chef on our trip. While I missed the usual night of steaks and tenderloins, on a group trip this size, it's extremely difficult to pull that off. However, true to our slogan of "this is vacation", the meals were excellent. We had beef tips and gravy over rice, meat/vegetable stew over pasta, spaghetti, and of course we had turkey and gravy with stuffing for Thanksgiving Dinner. We also had green beans, potatoes, and other such great meals. We had a few desserts of fruit cups and the very yummy cobblers made in our aluminum dutch ovens. The tasty lunches, while spartan, were made variously with cheese, crackers, salamis, sniper food (aka gorp, trail mix) of Jeff's special home-made mix, jerky (various kinds from Donna's Jerky, a home-made and delivered jerky from Bastrop area), juices, and canned clams, oysters, and kippered snacks. Breakfasts were alternatingly breakfast tacos and pancakes with maple syrup. For the tacos, we always cooked the potato in the coals the night before and then also threw in some meat like bacon or sausage along with some veggies. On this trip, we tried the vacuum-packed already-cooked bacon. I must admit that they tasted just fine. Maybe it was the hungry sauce, but it was great at the time. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. We had two days of blueberry pancakes, too, and some cornbread with a few of the dinners. With two firepans it made it much easier to cook in the dutch ovens. Although, if you've ever seen the Kanucks camp, they build huge fires that the Boy Scouts would be proud of (I was a scouter, too, and remember those days of past). We had to keep them from building bonfires. Richard just loved to throw wood on the fire and then runoff to bed. Typical Kanuck.

The next day, we left Colorado Canyon behind and moved into the area known as Madera (or Monilla) Canyon. After scouting, we all got through Panther Rapids just fine, although for fun I could say that the Marlers got to swim again. Maybe they did, but I'm having a hard time remembering. We passed the Teepees this day, too, just before you go through Madera Canyon Rapids and then on down to Ledgerock rapids. We stopped to scout this rapid. The water was pushing pretty hard on this rapid and it would require a few really tight turns. Richard, true to form, decided to take the chicken route on the left and ended up dragging it a bit. The Pines decided to show us how to be real men and take it down the right side. They managed to keep it upright and slide over things, but I'm still not sure how. The rest of us decided that discretion was better than valor and just lined and dragged them over the chicken route on the left. Pretty easy and we were on our way again. About two miles down on the Mexican side, we found a nice place to call home for the evening. We were just upstream of the noted "Grassy Banks" around mile 913.

We ran into a river guide (Tom Parker) from one of the outfitters on Monday who was carrying a set of four guests down to Lajitas. In a rubber raft, they had stopped at one of the places we had stopped to stretch our legs. A very friendly guy, he asked if we wanted to become guides too and gave us his card. Richard is still considering it (but isn't fond of all the work he has to do to get certifications). We ran into him a couple more times throughout the week, and he was about the only people we ran into on the river. It was pretty desolate, although that's one of the reasons we love being here. I was just surprised that there weren't more people paddling this section since it had water in it and hadn't for a number of years.

Tuesday was the day we decided to put some miles in. We wanted to do our layover day on Thanksgiving Day and we wanted to camp on the Texas side at the mouth of Santa Elena so we could hike up to the top and look down and around and get a view of the Sentinel. Realize that this didn't really mean we had to work really hard, rather that we just actually had to paddle. We put in about 12 or 13 miles on Tuesday. It included a stop in Lajitas to fill up our water jugs. We had water filters, but it's easier to get water from the Lajitas country store. And Lajitas is certainly much different than the last time. With so much development from that whats-his-name lawyer from this neck of the woods, buying up the whole town, getting pork-barrel highway-bypass funds, and using huge tonka toys to maim the banks so he can build a golf course replete with a 19th hole with a chip shot across the border to a bad replica of a broken Alamo on the Mexican to entertain high-dollar guests. I felt like I was in a bad Disney movie for a moment. Along the way, I remember looking for Rock House, but didn't see it this time. I did see a couple of new buildings in that area and I think maybe it's become a little commercialized there as well.

After the trip into Lajitas we paddled into Big Bend and stopped above Matadero Rapids for the evening. That left a short day to get to the mouth on Wednesday. Another great campsite, another great meal, another great fire, and another great night sky. Back up on off we went. BTW, I wasn't fooled by False Sentinel. Really. Great canyon though through here.

When we got to the campsite at the mouth of Santa Elena, we setup Texas style. Big. Since we had some time, we took a bath and a swim. Some went for a small hike up the side canyon. After hearing that they'd found an old stone house and an area with matatas (corn grinding holes), I went to see it. I found the house, but not the matatas. We also climbed up onto the cliffs next to our campsite so we could get a great view of Arroyo San Antonio on the Mexican side and the Sentinel. On our previous trip, we had stayed on the Mexican side. Nice campsite, but I really enjoyed this one, too. We say another group zip by and they stayed just below us. The book says to not miss the campsite and run the entrance rapids. Neither of us did.

The next day was Thanksgiving. We took the layover day, but the other group moved on. Most of our group decided to hike up to the top of the mouth of the canyon and look down the canyon. Having done this before, I decided to sit in the shade and read and snooze. I watched the group climb up what I would consider the hard way. From what I hear, it was beautiful. My son dropped out of the group pretty quickly and came back, but the rest of them forged on and were gone at least a couple of hours. Afterwards we swam again. It was a gorgeous day. Late in the afternoon, we had two NPS rangers stop by. They were in a green 16' canoe that said Park Rangers. It was Mike Ryan and Tom Morlock. They were very friendly and we had a great talk. They gave us a few ideas on where to find a camping spot in the middle of Santa Elena. We'd always gone through in one day, but we had decided that we would camp in the canyon this trip, something we hadn't done before. We traded some stories, lamented the low use of the river. Eventually we got around to the question about the river permit. So, I relayed the story and prepared myself for a fine. Instead, the man pulled out his pelican box and asked me to fill out an official permit. Apparently his brother-in-law had some responsibility for making sure there were permits at the Education Center, and they were going to talk to someone about it. Hopefully you'll find one when you go there. So, there we were, officially permitted. We of course had everything: two firepans, extra paddles and PFDs, and a toilet, so we were golden that way. After awhile, they mosied on as they had to get to Terlingua by the end of the day. They even told us how to run Rock Slide, the biggest, meanest rapid on this section of the river, and about a mile inside the mouth of the canyon.

Friday we got up and going a little slowly. Likely it was all the high-end bourbon and tequila we'd celebrated with the night before. We packed up and headed into Santa Elena. Rock slide was a hard scout and a hard rapid. However, we decided we could run it, especially since the rangers and other before us told us they were gonna run it fine. Richard and Brian tried, but didn't make it. They and the boat slid off the rock and on through and they recovered pretty easily. Next through was an older gentleman. He didn't make it either and beached on the gravel bar just below. He managed to get it so there was a suction on the boat and he didn't seem to have the strength to deal with it with a small cut on his hand and the cold of the river. After he initially said he didn't want help and us watching him struggle for 10 or 15 minutes, Jeff finally jumped in and swam over and helped him get on his way (he was holding us up, too). Next up was Pierre. Dang, Pierre pinned the boat. At least it was pinned bottom side up, but we had to get it out of there. Jeff started hollaring out instructions, we got a rope swung, and three of us were out in the water to work it free. It took us about 5-7 minutes of working at it. After that, none of the rest of us ran it. It was a short drag over three feet of gravel to avoid this tricky maneuver. After two boats down and easily an hour or more at that one spot, I think we were ready to just move on.

During the day when we stopped for lunch, we ran into Marcos Paredes, a National Park Ranger, and I think the Director of Big Bend Park's River area. We had a nice chat with him, too. He was headed on down to Fern to camp for the night. We wished him well and he headed off. Inside the canyon, it gets cold without the sun to warm you up. Many of us put on coverings to keep us warm.

We found a nice gravel beach to camp on that evening about a mile above Fern Canyon. The next morning we were up and stopped at Fern Canyon. It's a beautiful little walk up inside the canyon. At one point, you have to climb up through a little bitty cave in the stream where the water runs through. You'll get a little wet, but not much. Not everyone decided to make these climbs though, because a couple of areas is quite tricky. After awhile, though, you finally get to a point that is very hard to get up (or back down), and we turned around, but not without snapping a few pictures of the place. Eventually we finished the rest of the trip through Santa Elena. What a beautiful place. As we neared Terlingua it was more and more and more people. We even passed two sets of people paddling kayaks upriver to Fern.

We unpacked up our stuff and found our vehicles parked where we expected. them. Unfortunately, we also found mounds and mounds of dog hair and dirt and such in our vehicles and on the seats and such. We had to do a lot of cleaning and it smelled majorly of dog. I guess our shuttle guys let their dogs run around inside them. The drivers weren't very happy to say the least. Beyond that, though, we loaded up and headed to Alpine. We got some great food at the Hoffbrau House at the main old hotel inside town. This recommendation came from an old college friend of mine who now lives there and is an artist (but sadly was out of town at the time). We then drove back towards home stopping for a hotel along the way.

Awesome trip. Always worth it. FYI, the gauge read a little over 4' on the gauge which is considered at the low end of the ideal range for a float trip. There were only a couple of places that we dragged a little bit.

BTW, my father-in-law pointed me to this National Geographic article on the Rio Grande river. Enjoy.


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