Riding the Rio Grande, Day Nine: Rapids in the Dark

Last fall, Field & Stream _Online Editor Nate Matthews and his father, Bruce, spent 15 days fishing the Rio Grande River from its headwaters in Colorado to its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico. These excerpts from their journals tell the story of the 9th day of their trip. You can read reports from previous days here.
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NM: 10/1, 6:30 AM
Woke up this morning in another beautiful campsite, just 100 yards from Mexico and 30 miles or so from the western edge of Big Bend National Park. Everyone's dragging a bit, so we fire up our stoves and brew some java. Tim's sitting at a picnic table and nursing a cup. "God, coffee. Work!" he says.

Our goal over the next two days is to reach and then paddle a stretch of the Rio Grande that flows through 1800-foot deep Mariscal Canyon, which is supposedly the most beautiful canyon in Big Bend. The float is not very long, only 11 miles, and we'll be splitting it up over two days, but there's only one place to camp in the canyon, about halfway through the float. Dropping in at the put-in with enough light left to reach it will be critical.

Our route today takes us clear across the park, then up a 4-wheel-drive trail that follows the river deep into the backcountry. About 12 miles up this trail we'll hit the pullout for the Mariscal float. The plan is to drop Dad's bike off there so we can use it as a shuttle vehicle tomorrow. Dad will then hop in the truck with Tim and we'll continue an additional 17 miles up the trail to the put-in at the head of the canyon. From there we have unload the boats, pack up our gear, then paddle to our campsite before it gets too dark to recognize. If we overshoot we'll have to keep on going to the pull-out, because there's nothing but sheer cliff on either side. Should be an interesting day.

BM: 9:30 AM
Fabulous ride this morning from our campsite down TX 170 and into the park. Beautiful winding roads, river and mountain views, great morning light. We passed a Mustang rally - hundreds of them zooming head-on towards us around the curves. I'm finally starting to understand the rush Nate's been telling me he gets from riding this stuff. Leaning into those turns, trusting the bike to pull you through. Feels like I'm starting to get the hang of this motorcycle thing.

We stop in Terlingua, a tiny tourist town on western edge of the park, and we all have migas for breakfast at the Los Jalapenos cafe. Funky town, in a western hippie border sort of way. Home of the World Chili Championship. There's a store attached to the cafe, and Tim asks the lady at the counter how she wound up there. "Well," she says, " I lived in an ambulance for a while, and followed a lot of Greatful Dead shows .…" She trails off, and we leave it at that.

NM: 10:00 AM
Feeling nervous about the float today. We heard reports in Terlingua of very high water levels. Supposed to be one difficult class III near the middle of the canyon called the "Tight Squeeze." The rafting companies we talk to won't tell us it's ok to float it in an open boat, but they won't tell us not to, either. Probably just covering their asses.

Still, I'm glad Dad's along on this trip. He used to race kayaks back when he was my age, before I was born. Would travel up and down the east coast on weekends, trying to gain enough rank to make the Olympic qualifiers. I'm a pretty good paddler, but he's seriously skilled, and I feel a lot more confident with him in the stern.

BM: 4:00 PM
We reach the 4-wheel trail around 2. It's really hot. Not so much humid, sweaty hot, but downright oven-hot. Got to drink lots. Hitting high 90s, over 100. The trail is gnarly, lots of loose sand and gravel trying to grab at my tires. Riding in the stuff takes it out of you.
It takes us two hours to make it roughly 30 miles up the trail to the put-in. Right now we're taking a quick breather before packing up the boats and pushing off into the river, but we don't have much time to rest. The sun is dropping fast.

NM: 5:00 PM
Finally floating the canyon. What an amazing place this is. Dad and I are eddied out at the base of a huge cliff that's pocked with golfball-sized divots worn into the rock by circling currents of sand. I've got my paddle handle wedged into one of them and it's holding us against the wall while we wait for Tim to catch up.

The river is corking high. Chocolate brown and fast. Not much room for error in these powerful currents. Even Tim is having nervous moments in his little one-man raft. "Those eddies are pushy," he says after he drifts down to where we're waiting. "This boat doesn't have the surface area it takes to fight them. If I leave an oar in the water in the wrong spot this thing will flip in a second."

It's also starting to get dark. The canyon is so deep that light leaves the bottom very quickly. There's still some sun coming down from where its hitting the walls of the canyon above us, so we'll be able to paddle for a while longer, but we can hear the bats nesting in the cliff chittering, getting ready for their evening feed. Not sure how much further it is to the campsite but we'll need to push hard to reach it if we're going to get there before it's completely black down here.

BM: 8:00 PM
Had to paddle the last half-hour of the float in near pitch dark, with nothing but a gap of sunset at the top of the canyon and the light from our headlamps to pick our way through the darkness at the bottom. We hit the Tight Squeeze with just enough visibility to scout it, then it was pretty much lights out. Fortunately the rapid was not so bad. Straight shot, if a little wet, then stay on the left edge of the current to avoid getting pinned against a cliff. Pretty simple, really -- even in the dark it wasn't much of a problem. What was more scary was finding the campsite after. But we do, and despite Tim spooking a rattler on the bank as we pull up our boats are able to set up our tents and make dinner without accident.

Now Nate and Tim are heading down to the river to wash the dishes and see if they can catch a fish. Seems a little futile in this high water, so I'm turning in. We've got the second half of our float tomorrow, then we have to run the shuttle to pick up the truck and the other bike from the put-in. Gonna need the rest.