Monday, January 5, 2015

The Complete Beginner's Guide to Canoeing: Rio Grande Edition

In 1998 I earned my canoeing merit badge. I was a month away from turning sixteen and a scout at Camp Rock Enon. The eight hundred acre camp nestled into North Mountain near Gore, Virginia invariably had a lake - requisite for most camps - where I learned to pilot an aluminum canoe. I doubt it was my first excursion piloting a boat, but earning a merit badge is supposed to be the quintessential symbol of skill. The canoe was probably cumbersome,  a keel running down the bottom, something that looked more like the wing of a floatplane than a boat made for expeditious navigating. I imagine it took at least three teenage scouts to drag from a grassy shore into an algae-bloomed lake. The counselors probably had the three young scouts load into the boat together, telling them to share two paddles and take turns in bow and stern propelling and guiding the boat around the lake. At one point in the exercises required to earn the badge, the scouts had to capsize the boat, ensure it fully swamped with water and then paddle back to shore. To my avail, despite the mundaneness of a flat water lake, I took this opportunity to learn in preparation for upcoming river trips on the Shenandoah, Rapidan, and Rappahannock rivers. 

But that was a long time ago. I grew up. I don't like water as much as land, and with a fear that I may have forgotten those essential boyhood skills, like notions for woodcraft and a keen assuredness for survival, I went to my local library and found The Complete Beginner's Guide to Canoeing.  

This gem of an instructional, how-to guide is well worth a look. Especially if you plan to paddle 108.5 miles down a remote river, bordering two nations, descending class three rapids, and in country where rescue is days away.

Now, since how-to books are rarely read cover to cover, but instead meant as garnishes on your coffee table, targets of opportunity worth silently boasting over at pretentious cocktail parties, I'll spare you the chapter by chapter summary. We'll hit the highlights and look at what helped me most in preparation for, and execution of, my Rio Grande expedition.

Chapter Fourteen: Salute to Paddling Partners
As a teen at scout camp my paddle partners were most likely selected at random by the counselors teaching the merit badge. I'm sure I coordinated with my scout friends to take the class together, but I have no idea who was in my boat that day on the lake and on my troop's subsequent river trips I would have many partners.

I loved paddling with my dad and spent many days drifting down Virginia's historic riverways with him, but my dad loves fishing. And fishing means you float rather than paddle constantly and paddling means going fast, keeping up with the group. I wanted to paddle, not float. A canoe trip with scouts means super-soaker squirt-gun wars, smacking paddles on the water to see who can make the loudest crack, and daring one another to stand and cannonball over the starboard side: all activities not conducive concurrently spin casting for small mouth bass. Eventually my mood mellowed and as my skills grew I got put in the stern, so he could fish the bow. I might not be the paddler I am today were it not for his fishing addiction.

What I didn't know as a teen was that I would grow up, meet a woman, get married, and that she'd trust me enough to get into a canoe with me for eleven days (many years after earning my merit badge). 

Chapter Six: Select Your Stroke
"They call these divorce boats," said Jim, our shuttle driver from Desert Sports

Jim dropped us off at Santa Elana on December 26th. Ten nights and eleven days later we'd see him  again, waiting on a rocky shore over a hundred miles downriver in La Linda. Our trip covered nearly the entire southern border of Big Bend National Park, Texas and the northern border of the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila.

The good thing about having eleven days and over a hundred miles to paddle is there's plenty of time for learning how to paddle a canoe. The bad thing about not knowing how to paddle a canoe when you start an eleven day, one hundred mile expedition is the unknown. The mystery of what awaits on a river: long distances of lake-like flat water requiring both paddlers effortless technique; swiftly sweeping river turns full of wave trains ending in whirlpools recirculating brown murky water back upriver; extremely low water levels requiring a pilot to guide the boat back and forth avoiding ankle deep sections, which ultimately require at least one paddler to disembark and push the boat over the shallow gravel; then there's a plethora of unnamed, unrated rapids (mostly Cl 1 - Cl2) and a handful of named and rated rapids (several Cl 2 and a Cl 3). 



Chapter Eleven: What River Rats Know

On river trips it's essential to take advantage of free floatation and laden your boat with any and all gear imaginable. This includes those comfort items you may not normally toss into an ultralight backpack. This includes food and indulgences normally considered "heavy" on most other outdoor excursions. The only logistical consideration is loading all the gear and packing in a practical way for easy, stress free access. Furthermore, the gear needs to be stowed in waterproof bags and containers. The sooner you develop a system for packing and a method for loading, the process becomes easier and less time consuming each day. 

It's essential when paddling into the great unknown that river rats bring nourishment. It's also essential to use what the great out of doors provides. Despite being in the desert, December river water is perfect for chilling a pale ale.

Our meals consisted of dehydrated soups, potatoes, noodles, and beans. We found a "Save-A-Lot" style grocery store in El Paso and stocked up on as many products labeled in Spanish as possible. For the first several days we ate mostly tortillas, avocados, and rehydrated refried beans. For lunch we grazed on apples and crackers, granola and nuts.

It might just be a personal decision, but I believe when casting your boat off upon a rivulet of water into The Great Unknown, there's a need to have at least a little information about the unknown. Is that a contradiction? Can we really call it unknown if we embark with some knowledge of where we're going? Nonetheless, much discovery can still occur when you have knowledge of the unknown, because maybe in that tangible not knowing, we'll learn something intangible about ourselves. Though rivers only go one direction, it's important to bring literature that will open up this singular path. I brought a river guide - the only one for this section - by Louis F. Aulbach. This guide is essential for first time paddlers of the Rio Grande. It supplies brief summary of river hazards, lists of essential gear, and prime camping spots, but it's also filled cover to cover with detailed historical vignettes and explanations about the habitation of the Big Bend area. I brought a journal, to capture my "muse" in ink. And Gretchen and I shared two books: the Bible, and the Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy.

Chapter Eight: Sailor's Delight

"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul." -John Muir

"Harmony with land is like harmony with a friend; you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left." -Aldo Leopold

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." -John Muir

The night skies of Iraq are the only that can compare to those in Big Bend, the least light polluted of all the parks in the lower 48 states. The Milky Way, present each night like a long brush stroke overhead.

We competed counting Big Bend Sliders and Spiny Softshells, drifting in the calmer sections, silty sloped shores lined with giant reed.

We chased Great Blue Heron for miles and miles.

We saw many, many feral stock wandering both sides of the border.

Wandering from camp each afternoon, we learned the names of cactus and gained a greater perspective on our camp.

And each day the ritual of unloading the boat, content to be off the river, ready to pitch the tent and establish camp for the night.





The Great Unknown of the Rio Grande

Chihuahuan Desert: Some Photos, Part 2

Preliminary photos of 11 days floating the Rio Grande from Santa Elana to La Linda. 

That gap in the canyon wall over my left shoulder is the exit of the Santa Elana Canyon.


 Scouting the "Rock Pile Rapid" in Mariscal Canyon.

Trying to get a better look at "Rock Pile Rapid."

 Admiring the canyon walls while scouting Tight Squeeze Rapid in Mariscal Canyon.

Looking at "Tight Squeeze" from a pebble beach upriver.

Mid way through Mariscal Canyon

Found some death in Boquillas Canyon

Boquillas Canyon

Near our final departure from Boquillas Canyon

Double checking the guide book in San Vicente Canyon

It got cold, that's why we're wearing all those clothes. In Boquillas Canyon.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Chihuahuan Desert: Some Photos, Part 1

Some preliminary photos from the last ten days in west Texas. 

 Pinnacles Trail, the premiere backpacking excursion in Big Bend National Park. We hiked the Outer Mountain Loop, a 32 mile loop that circumnavigates the Chisos Mountains. 

 Stunning "fall" colors in December in the Chisos Mountains.

More Chisos leaves and rock. 

Gretchen after summiting Emery Peak (7825 feet). The highest point in Big Bend Nat'l Park. 

Looking south west from Emery Peak.

 The Outer Mountain Loop leaves the upper elevations of the Chisos Mountains 
and meanders across its foothills through scrubby desert 
and up dry creek beds called washes or arroyos.

Nearing the end of the Outer Mountain Loop, Gretchen ascends one of 
many switchbacks on the upper slopes of the Chisos on the Blue Creek Canyon Trail 
before descending into "the basin" where our car is parked. 
A 32-mile loop that took three days.

 Gretchen looks at the Rio Grande and sees Mexico just beyond. 
This sandy shore was part of the Marufa Vega Trail.

Desert Marigolds 

Marufa Vega Trail

Marufa Vega Trail

Looking out on the lower desert from a sandstone "hoodoo" in the Grapevine Hills 
in the northern portions of Big Bend Nat'l Park.

The only skies that can compare to Big Bend were those I saw during my 15 months in Iraq. About half our nights have been completely cloudless and looked a little like this, 
the milky way running diagonal across the frame. 

Desert Poppy 

Mesa de Anguilo Trail 

Sunset from our campsite on "the mesa." 

Gretchen took this photo of ocotillo and sunrise up on "the mesa."

Gretchen took this photo of a very fuzzy barrel cactus (I guess she took the photos of me too, but I didn't give her photo credits on those, figured it was self explanatory.)

The rock wall on the left is Mexico. I'm taking this photo from the shore of the Rio Grande in the USA. 
The gap in the two rock walls is the exit of the Santa Elana Canyon. 

Sunrise from our final backcountry car camping site, Ocotillo Grove. We spent three nights in these drive up sites, what they call backcountry car camping. Our other nights were backpacking. 

 The Chinati Hot Springs. This was not in the Terlingua, Big Bend area. This was thirty some miles up the highway from Presidio, Texas, and then seven miles up a gravel road into the Chinati Mountains. The caretaker told us the water was coming out of the spring at 109F 
and the water in the soaking pool was 101F. I would argue it was less than 101F. 
We weren't left with that internally warm, radiating heat feeling.

Hot springs in the national park near Rio Grande Village. 
The springs filled what looked like an old stone foundation of a house, right on the banks of the river. 
These springs were reported to be about 105F. 
We've been here twice already and plan to visit a few more times. 
While soaking several wild horses appeared out of the brush and drank from the river on the far shore. Feral livestock are common and frequently swim the river and 
can be found grazing the open range around the national park.  

Feliz Navidad!