Riding the Rio Grande, Day Ten: Camping with Tarantulas

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 10th day of their trip. You can read reports from previous days here.

NM: 10/2, 8:00 AM
Mariscal Canyon, Big Bend National Park, morning light.

We camped last night on a flat sandbank on the Texas side of the river. Tim and I find a trail up a break in the walls that leads to the top of the cliff. We step out onto an overhanging rock on the rim and can see deep into the canyon we ran last night. There are vultures soaring below us, riding updrafts along the cliff walls.

Today we only have a six-mile float from where we're camped now to the pullout, where we parked Dad's bike yesterday afternoon. Once we get there we'll have to run 70 miles of shuttle up and down rough trail to get both bikes and the truck to our camp for the night, but compared to the distances we've been covering lately it feels like we get to take it easy.

BM: 8:15 AM
Woke to canyon wren song this morning. Nice.

Tim and Nate waving from rimrock. Love the cactus- prickly pear? -- growing in clumps in different places. The vastness of this desert landscape is amazing -- muted colors, shadings, layers of shadows, layers of geology, of meaning.

Fun to watch Nate goof with Tim. They're good friends as well as contractor/employer. Mutual respect. Nate's checking to be sure Tim gets what he needs RE shots, lighting. Be interesting to see how it will all work out in the writing.

NM: 10:00 AM
We start the day's float. There are big yellow wasps flying everywhere. Not aggressive, but they are drawn to the colors of our gear and crawl into our cups and bottles while we're eating breakfast. Neat-looking bugs, but Tim hates them. He's got a thing about bees, can't help ducking and swatting whenever one flies by. No wonder he gets stung so often. I'm feeling evil, so I tell him I think they're the kind that stings tarantulas, paralyzing them so that their larvae can live off fresh meat.

NM: 12:00 PM
Drifting, spinning lazy circles down the canyon, leaning back on the boat and staring up at the walls of the canyon. Dad's only paddling to keep us from scraping the sheer, scoured walls of limestone and basalt.

There are lots of birds down here. Kingbirds, canyon wrens, vultures, and a flock of cinnamon teal we keep jumping as we make our way downstream. Tim spots an audad on the Mexico side - a wild-looking sheep native to Morocco, I think. Must have been released by some game farm or another over there.

We tried to fish last night for a few hours, and then again this morning, early, but couldn't put much heart in it. The water was so high and so dirty. We were hoping for catfish, but park regs ban natural bait. Tried threading chunks of spam onto our hooks and chumming with bits of Vienna sausage instead. Not even a nibble.

BM: 1:30 PM
It's getting hotter. We've drifted out of the canyon and without the walls' shade the sun makes clear we're deep in the desert. Got to keep our eyes peeled for the pullout. We marked it with a rock cairn flagged with a big tuft of reed, but if we miss it it's another 20 miles, unprovisioned, until the next place to stop.

NM: 2:00 PM
We spotted the pullout a half hour ago and pulled the boats up onto the bank. Tim and Dad start unpacking them while I run the shuttle on Dad's bike. I left my boots in the truck when we dropped in at the head of the canyon, so I have to ride in sandals. Makes for a sketchy trip, with cactus lining the trial and the front tire throwing out rocks. I stock up on water and take it easy - this is real desert, a bad place to ditch solo in sandals. Spook lots of lizards on the ride, plus a couple of jackrabbits and three big roadrunners that pace me for a few yards before darting off into the thorny scrub.

I get to the truck, leave the bike, then drive back to pick up Tim and Dad, who pile in as soon as I arrive so we can go back again to pick up the bikes. Fortunately, Dad's riding very well now. He's stopped looking down at the obstacles he's crossing and is looking ahead instead, picking out the lines he needs to follow. He pumps his fist every time he crosses a rough spot. Great to see the confidence.

BM: 7:00 PM
Was quite worried about the last leg of the shuttle on the motorcycle this afternoon. Lots of loose sand and gravel - been my nemesis so far and accounts for two or three of my bifffs. But, I think I'm getting better. Made the 17 miles or so without a hitch. Only a couple of truly scary moments, quickly controlled. I was elated and grateful.

Now I'm in my tent listening to Nate and Tim "critter hunting" - they're looking for tarantulas and scorpions in the dark, scaring each other, giggling like little boys.

NM: 9:00 PM
Dad does the dishes and leaves us a bit of hot water to wash our faces with. Then he goes to bed, or at least spends an hour or so listening to Tim and me hunting bugs in the dark.

Walking through a wild desert with no light but a headlamp gives you a new perspective on the landscape. During the day you're distracted by the big picture, the scope and the newness of the view. But at night you can't see anything but what's in the width of your beam. It makes you pay attention to the little things at your feet.

There's a lot down there. The sand is pocked with tiny burrows, a spider or a scorpion hiding in all of them. Their eyes sparkle like diamonds in the light.

Tim and I find a huge tarantula in one of them and I tease it out by tapping in front of its hole with a twig. We spend a half hour taking its picture, then another shooting a walking stick and a couple of scorpions before finally turning in for the night.

Tomorrow we go to Amistad. Long day on the road, part one of a two-day ride to get to Falcon Reservoir, where a guide I found on the Internet will take us out for largemouth. Here's hoping we'll finally get into fish when we arrive.