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Boquillas Canyon - Rio Grande - 2009

River/Section: Rio Grande/Boquillas Canyon
Put-In: Rio Grande Village, Big Bend National Park, Texas (mile 809.9)
Take-Out: Heath Canyon Ranch (mile 776.8)
Overall Distance: 33 miles (approximately)
Timeframe: 5.5 days (liesurely)
Gauge Height: 4.40-4.35 (RG Village USGS Gauge) - Low
Flow Rate: 160-145 CFS (likely incorrect)

Pictures: Mark Boyden | Sky Lewey | Richard Grayson | Glenn Zimmerman | Brandon Seay

Our goal was to paddle Boquillas Canyon of the Rio Grande over Thanksgiving week, hiking some along the way. We were successful, but it was a tad more of an adventure than I originally expected. On the evening of Sunday, Nov 22, 2009, our group of 10 folks — 6 males, 4 females; some married, some family, others unrelated other than a love for the river — gathered at Rio Grande Village to begin our week-long expedition. While most seem to think this canyon is a 3-day trip, we planned on 5-1/2 days to allow for some hiking and a layover day on Thanksgiving.

I'd paddled this section of the river 3 times before, the last time in 2003. However, this was the first time I held the "coveted" title of trip leader and I was a little anxious about it. I wanted everything to go well, of course, and while I had handled the meal duties in prior trips, my buddies who had done this for years had always made sure that every detail was covered for every instance (like repairing the 1.5 foot-long crack we had in a boat on the lower canyons a few years back).

I started the preparations several months before the trip and all looked well. I contacted the park to ensure my logistics were correct, reserved some campsites, and arranged a shuttle with the Stillwell store, not to mention ensuring gear and food were ready for the trip. About a week before the trip, I received a call from Jed, a shuttle driver for the Stillwell store. He told me he wanted to confirm some of the trip details for my lower canyons trip. (Hmmm. And I thought we were doing Boquillas Canyon.) I assured him we weren't doing the lowers (especially not on that schedule), so he said I needed to get it setup with the store and to talk to Nanette. So, I called the store and got it all straight. They had the right info on the calendar (from my original call, talking to WT), but they were confused because apparently we just weren't running things on days that were making sense to them. However, we finally got it straight and they were indeed ready for us when we got there on Monday morning.

Dinner the Sunday evening of gathering was pesto (using fresh basil from the garden) and pasta with a fresh garden salad (more garden veggies) — eventually including some yummy cherry tomatoes brought by Brandon from his garden. We all had a chance to meet and talk and compare gear so we all knew what to leave behind in the trucks. My buddy Bob, who had lent us a couple of boats and accompanying gear, joined us for the meal — a joy for me and I think the others as well. I still wish he could have joined us on river, but alas he was working a new job in Presidio. Nice of him to take the "short jaunt" (about 2 hours 1-way) and join us. Sky was dropped off right at dusk by a friend from Alpine. Brandon and his new bride Annika arrived the latest with Fred, our Heath Canyon contact, who was running his shuttle. The group was complete and dinner was consumed.

The next morning, after a quick breakfast taco session — the first of many that week — we threw everything into the vehicles and dashed over to the put-in. The drivers ran (drove?) to Stillwell to get the shuttle driver and return — a 2.5 hour round trip. While we were gone, our crew loaded our boats (and others). When I returned, another group of 6 was just launching in inflatable canoes. Like any good Texas (as well as trip leader), I asked them where they were from, where they were going, and such. Part of it was natural curiosity, and some of it was so we knew which camp they planned on using so we could plan. They were from Wisconsin and Colorado and they planned on getting through Boquillas and the Lower Canyons in 12 days. For some reason, they seemed a little less than affable and sharing, so I didn't pursue further discussion or questioning. Instead, I blew it off believing that based on that schedule there was no way we planned on doing the same first camp. Anecdotally, according to one of ours, while our crew was helping them move gear and load their craft, the TL of their group was telling his group (loudly) that there was no way our group was going to make it down Boquillas Canyon in our canoes.

About 1 pm, after a quick lunch of sandwich wraps, we launched our 7 boats holding 10 people — mostly 16-foot canoes, but including one expedition kayak. We had 2 couples and one father-daughter team. The rest were solo in their crafts. Our plan was to head to the camp about 1.5 miles inside the mouth of the canyon (mile 803.5) — about the first location one may camp. About a mile or so down on river right were two springs feeding into the river. We found a dry bath house above these warm springs, likely emanating from the same source. There was enough room to bath/shower were one wanting. We also found another small spring a little further beyond on river left.

As we approached the canyon walls one really couldn't see the crack that was the mouth unless you knew what to look for. Approaching the canyon mouth, a man on the Mexican side with field glasses exchanged NPS ranger names with Richard. We also noticed someone paddling to that same side in an aluminum canoe. The man with the field glasses sang songs, and apparently the song had changed just before arrival. Richard, a park volunteer at times, had borrowed a (slowly leaking) Tripper from the park service, and had been apparently noticed. After slipping inside the canyon, we stopped to play in the sand just inside on river left. We wondered where all that sand came from. Those of us who surfed the sand had to take a quick bath before we hopped in our boats to head to camp. And we were somewhat baffled by the guy standing up in the cave, arms crossed, sunglasses on, staring intently to the other side of the river, and saying nothing when greeted.

Upon arrival, the camp we planned on using had the folks in inflatables that had launched just before us on it. I said hello to them, asked how it was going, and then indicated that was the reason I had attempted to communicate with them about where they were going — so we all could plan and be happy. They indicated they didn't know where they had planned to camp. I wished them well and we moved on to a site just downstream. There were plenty of camps throughout the canyon as it turns out so no worries about a camp anywhere, really.

After a most wonderful dinner of enchiladas, rice, and beans cooked by Richard, and the most beautiful sunset, we settled in for some chatting before heading to bed. I (and others) noticed the whimsical smiling face in the bright moon light on the far wall. At one point, Brandon shared that the last time he'd stayed at this camp it had been very windy. Well, it was quite calm, so we worried not and stayed up awhile and chatted and drank cool beverages before finally letting the fire die down and we all bedded down for the night. Sky was the first to fall, as she was most nights. Pierre has the art of falling asleep almost anywhere, and he was down next, too. Z-man and his daughter were out shortly thereafter. I think Richard, Jeff and I were the final holdouts. Finally, we did a final overview of the site and the fire and all headed to bed.

All of a sudden there arose such a clatter.... No, it wasn't Christmas eve nor even Santa Clause. It was the sound of the wind whipping our kitchen around and pots and pans clanging to the ground. I got up hurriedly as did the Z-man (Glenn) and Jeff. The wind had gotten pretty vicious and was whipping every which way. Glenn and I were putting kitchen gear up so it didn't blow away. We'd already chased a few things into the river and retrieved them. My pop-up tent which was anchored by my gear needed to be set upright again so Glenn helped me with that when I heard his daughter yell out. I sent him off on that and re-anchored my tent then ran to see what had happened.

Glenn later shared that upon arrival, he asked his daughter what was up. "It's gone!" she said. "What", Glenn asked. "The tent!" she said. (One might wonder at this point how he missed that - lol). By this time, Brandon was up, too, and Glenn had spotted the tent on the far side of the river and the old battery-powered LED lamp glowing at the bottom of the river, lending an eerie aspect to the scene. Brandon and I jumped into a boat and retrieved the tent, although it was hard to get it back across in the wind.

We then began to setup Glenn's tent again. Glenn's tent was borrowed from Bob and had modified it so it essentially no floor (so his roll-a-cots would setup better), so nothing inside the tent could weight it down. After "borrowing" (pilfering?) some stakes laying next to Richard's tent, we managed to get it up and staked down, however, the wind kept blowing the poles off their clips and flattening the tent.

We were wondering what to do when we heard a loud clatter behind us. At that point, the whirling winds had picked up Richard's empty Tripper (empty to try and repair the leaks) and thrown it into the water. I grabbed a boat to go after it and encouraged Brandon to jump in again with me to go get it. He pushed the boat aside and dove into the water after the boat, caught it and wrestled it back to shore. For the next 10 minutes, I tried to figure out how to get the boat I was in back to shore against the wind. Finally!

Next up was Brandon's wife, Annika, yelling "Brandon!" at the top of her lungs. He was still just a little busy finishing with the boat, but finally got over there. The wind was pulling the poles out of their tent and stabbing them back into the fabric and making holes. It bent and broke the poles and it wasn't going to stand any more either. We finally flattened both tents and piled rocks on them to keep them from blowing away. The winds were horrendous!

Pierre had arisen by this time to see what the commotion was all about. While I didn't witness it, I understand that his tent was saved from going into the water just in the nick of time. Richard also had arisen and had to spend time re-anchoring his tent as it was held down by a single stake after he had arisen and let the wind shake it around some. At some point, we heard Brandon yell, "C'mon! Is THAT all you got?!?" Sky later shared that she didn't dare get out of her tent. We're all glad she stayed as that would only have been more problematic for us. And Jeff who had gotten up to help shared that he had told Misty to "no matter what, stay in the tent."

Finally, after battoning down the tents and the kitchen, we decided we had to figure out what to do with folks. So, I decided it was time to check out my own situation. Let's check on the tent. Damn! My tent's gone. Really? Yes, really. Damn. I let it sink in. Damn, damn, damn. I guess my old scouting knot-tying skills needed a refresher course. Tent, pad, sleeping bag, glasses, watch, and some other gear. While I looked around on land, just in case, you know, I also knew I'd find it later (tomorrow?) floating somewhere since I had my sleeping pad inflated. But, damn! What to do now? So now we're all trying to figure out what to do. We decided to get as close to the canyon wall as we could and moved up there. Before laying down, Brandon said he had found a cave there on the site somewhere in a previous trip, but he wasn't sure where and was ready to bed down. Knowing his memory capabilites, I decided to look and after just a few minutes was rewarded with it.

I ran back to the group and got them to move into the cave which cut down significantly on the wind. We bedded down there for the evening wrapped up in whatever we had listening to the soulful sounds of the wind whipping through the canyon. Luckily for me, Glenn had extra sleeping gear and lent me some for the night. As we went to sleep, probably about 90 minutes after it all began, I remember saying something to the effect that my adrenaline rush had finally burned out. Glenn later said he got up a couple more times and battened down more of the kitchen and group gear. Probably best he did.

The next morning, we moved the kitchen to the cave and had breakfast. Floating across from us was a roll-a-table that belonged to someone else -- likely the folks just up-river. We hung onto it to see if we'd see them again. Glenn went fishing/searching for lost gear (that's why we call him the Z-man, always rescueing gear). He found my tent and such about 1/4 mile down and brought it all back and dried out my tent and sleeping back while I cooked pancakes for the group. After some discussion, we all decided we wanted to move on, so while we got a late start, we battled the headwind further into the canyon about 4 more miles to a spot that wasn't highly windy any more. We found the boot bag as well. Tired and later than we wanted, we got off the water and made camp.

Luckily we didn't have to experience the winds again. Richard, upon returning his boat, relayed the story to Marcus Paredes, the park river ranger about the winds. He said, with a smile, "Imagine that! Winds in Boquillas Canyon." Well, it was a bonding experience for us, and we talked about it the remainder of the trip. In the end, we only lost a few things, although my tent needs a replacement and Brandon's tent needs some new poles and repair. We lost some cutting boards, personal eating gear, a collapsible bucket, and such, but managed to keep the important stuff around. And I think we know why there is so much sand near the mouth of the canyon. And we now call that area Hurricane Alley.

That that second night on the water, we stayed on a campsite on river right about mile 799.5. It was a nice spot and much less windy than the previous one. Dinner was supposed to be steaks, but we were tired, so we just did chili (with beans and more) and cornbread with salad. Madline found a tarantula. It wasn't alive anymore, but she got to freak the others out with it. She has a live one at home anyways.

On day three (Wednesday) we were feeling better and slightly more refreshed and ready to do a hike — no late night wind storm to battle. The plan was to head to Rabbit Ears to camp -- about 9 miles -- even though we knew from several posts it had been washed out. We wanted to hike that canyon on Thanksgiving Day. We passed the Marufo Vega trail fairly early on and stopped awhile after for our lunch, sandwich wraps for that day. That's when the inflatables group caught up to us.

Were you missing something I asked? They wanted to know if we'd found something blue. Yes, we had their roll-a-table. They became much more engaging at that point. We chatted for awhile and then after asking if we were headed to Rabbit Ears and answering affirmatively, they said they planned to hit Cow Canyon. At some point, introductions began to occur. It turns out that one of the crew was Larry Rice, a writer who contributes to Paddler magazine among others. A short while later, we stopped and hiked Arroyo Venado, thinking for some reason we were at Cow Canyon (more boy scout skills down the drain). As we headed into the side canyon, one of the inflatable crew, pulling out their GPS says, "we're at Arroyo Venado canyon." A fun hike, but short, as we came to an essentially unpassable wall.

We headed on down and discovered that we were wrong and the inflatable crew was right. We had almost 4 more miles to go to Rabbit Ears. We paddled hard with some wind that day, but had finally gotten in our first hike. At one point, Sky became the horse whisperer. She was on the bank, a horse in the cane. She coaxed him down. I'm not sure if he thought she had an apple. In the end, after he was about 5 feet from her, she decided that was enough and hopped back into her boat.

Ah, Rabbit Ears. The reports are right — the Rabbit Ears camp is no longer what it was. However, it can accommodate two sizable groups fairly easily. We setup up on the upstream side closer to the canyon mouth and had our steak night with baked potatoes and green beans along with Richard's cinnamon delight dessert. Our 13-year-old steak cook extraordinaire cooked our top sirloins to perfection. Mmm, mmm, good. After communing around the campfire, we hit the hay. I awoke early in the morning to some rain. Joy! With my holy tent and rain fly, I was a little worried. Luckily for me, it just pissed on us slightly and quit. Whew. By the time I got up, it was mostly dry, but we had quite the cloud cover (which stayed with us throughout Thanksgiving day into Friday).

Our big plans for Thanksgiving day was eating a lot of food, hiking the canyon, and generally taking it easy. Most of the group hadn't hiked the canyon (or paddled it for that matter), so it seemed like a good idea. After a breakfast of biscuits, gravy, and bacon (along with the fresh apples and oranges available every day), we set off up the canyon. There is the well-known stuck rock about 6' up that you go under (after taking the requisite Atlas picture of course). Then there are 3 sort of tricky spots. Someone had left a rope at the first one. We all made the second one. However, the third one threw off about 1/2 the group that finally turned back -- even after we strung up a rope. Richard, myself, Glenn, Sky, and Jeff all made it and progressed on. I must admit that is the hardest part. After that it was an easy scramble, generally, up the canyon. Sheer walls in places, and lots to climb around on. After about a mile or so, the canyon turns a corner and flattens out. If I remember right from another trip, if you go another mile or so, you eventually will open up onto a plain and see an adobe house. We ate lunch there, drank a beer, and headed back down to camp.

Upon return, several of us climbed to the peak of the small cliff that overlooks both rabbit ears and our camp. It gives a large view up and down the river a mile or so in both directions as well as a view straight down to the river. It's a quick scramble, and probably took an hour up and down including the time to finish a beer and enjoy the view. While there are some sharp rocks and the trail is slightly difficult in places, there were no difficult climbs like the Rabbit Ears side canyon.

Late that afternoon as we started dinner, another group showed up, about 8 with a couple of younger kids, and likely slightly dismayed at finding us in the camp they probably thought they were headed to. They were surveying the camp between Cow and Rabbit Ears on river left, and it didn't look too good. One of our folks told them to come check out the downstream portion of the Rabbit Ears site (there was plenty of room and a good distance from us). They sent over a scouting team, went back and pow-wowed, and decided it was a better place. We thought so, too, and were happy to share. And we never really knew they were there. After all, we all come down there to get away, don't we? All told, we ran into 3 other groups.

That night after our Thanksgiving feast of smoked turkey, gravy, sweet yams, corn, stuffing, and peach cobbler, we all agreed it was a fine trip. We shared stories, jokes, and headed to bed, stuffed like a turkey and happy.

Friday, after another filling taco breakfast, under the remaining cloud cover, we headed out. After a couple of miles, with sadness, we left the canyon behind us. I kept turning around and paddling backwards to watch the canyons and mountains fade into the distance. We continued to hit a number of small ripples with longer pools in between. Basically everything we'd run into on that trip was sweeping washes that either threw you into the wall or the eddy unless you hit the line right. Our group did very well, and we ended up with no unscheduled swims, even though not all were experienced river paddlers.

We wanted to find a camp close to the take-out as we all had significant drives to make on Saturday. We passed up a nice camp on river right shortly outside the canyon but before the park boundary, probably about mile 785.7. We stopped for lunch at the park boundary before heading downstream in search of a camp. There really weren't a lot of camps visible from the boats after leaving the park boundary. I figured worst case we'd go down to Rattlesnake Island, although every time I mentioned that name, several in our group would shudder. I assured them that the name meant that one person, one time, saw one rattlesnake and they shouldn't worry any more than anywhere else they'd ever been. We finally found a nice camp on river right about a mile before the Adams Ranch leaving about 4 miles to do before the take-out. There was also a smaller one just upstream a couple hundred yards on river left. We almost went back to that until Glenn did a further survey and said we had a good spot.

That evening we had our final meal of beef tips and gravy over rice with a garden salad under clear skies. We began to prepare for taking off the river, consolidating gear and such before heading to bed. It was a much colder night than any of the others outside the canyon with clear skies, but I don't think it got down below 40 either. After the first windy night we were much better about battening down camp and anything that might move (including our tents), but never experienced high winds again. That night we got visited by a group or two of burros. They came very close to our tents and bleated very loudly several times.

Saturday morning we got up, had a quick breakfast of pancakes and fruit, threw everything into the boats and headed downstream. Near the Adams Ranch, besides the ranch house itself, we also passed an old ore shuttler that spanned the river. About 2 miles out of La Linda, we left most of our leftover food with some Mexican nationals that said they had many hungry mouths to feed including some young. I hope the story was true, although either way, I expect there were some hungry folks somewhere that would use it up. I hope they could read/understand the instructions on the boxes. We left some perishables as well as some mixes. When we got to La Linda, it was totally deserted, not a sole in sight. One of our group members pointed out the church about 1 mile in the distance. He indicated that he'd visited it once in the past and while the town was picked clean, the church was in pristine, well-cared condition, highly revered. We didn't make that hike, but maybe some day I will. Everyone was ready to get on the road, and Glenn and his daughter had to get to Houston.

An enjoyable trip overall. Everyone says they want to paddle again. As long as they don't have to go with me. <)

For some trip notes that don't fit elsewhere.... We use a Max Cold brand cooler with a false bottom creating a refrigerator on top for butter, left-over evaporated milk and other such. We deep freeze the prepared meals and other things like egg beaters, steaks, and such and put them in the bottom only pulling out the stuff we needed once/day. We've taken to using pre-cooked bacon, sausage and such because it's a bit easier to handle. We did bring along some frozen bottles of water to throw into the freezer after removing some foods. I also brought several 10-lb blocks of ice to get the food to the putin as cold as possible, but after a day or two in a flexible storage bag, Glenn put them his tall round Max Cold cooler and kept beer around it to drink colder. We even had some ice left on the last day and was using water with it to cool beers. We cooked mostly on propane stoves, but some in the dutch ovens and heat our cleaning water over the fire with a tripod. We bring several fire pans to accommodate our fires more easily, cook our taco potatoes at night next to the fire (we also boiled them one day). Breakfasts were egg tacos every other day alternated with pancakes and one day of biscuits and gravy. Lunches are sandwich wraps alternated with snacks days with salami's, cheeses, crackers, trail mix, and jerky (from Donna's Jerky, formerly from Paige, TX, now mail-order out of Colorado, but made to order goodness!). Dinners were pesto & pasta, chili and cornbread, steak with potatoes green beans and cinnamon delite (ask Richard for the recipe), Thanksgiving Dinner with mesquite-smoked turkey, gravy, cranberry along with sweet potatoes, corn, stuffing, and peach cobbler for dessert; and finished it out with beef tips and gravy over rice with a garden salad.

Animals: tarantulas, burrows (loud-ones), horses, cows, tracks of beavers, gnawed trees of beavers,

Fishing: Jeff fished some, but he didn't catch anything in the end.

Plants: We saw lots of the tobacco tree at campsites, esperanza in the side canyons, candililla, and of course a lot of bermuda grass amongst the many and varied cacti and cane.

Birds: great blues, several hawks (flying, hunting, chased by crows, and sitting on the bank rocks), king fishers, many crows (most jumping in on our campsites just as we left; but I had to chase one off that got too close to our gear for my comfort), herons (some green and another I didn't recognize), some others I didn't recognize living in the cane, quite small.

I'm obviously no expert when it comes to any of this stuff. But I have a great time out there.

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