The Rio Grand River at Big Bend Texas
Iíll begin with early reports of low water levels; low enough to consider putting off our trip for a more favorable year. The dessert had experienced an unusually dry rainy season in 1982. Our first meeting in December for the following February trip ended with a decision to put off making a decision until the latest day possible in hope of reports which would indicate the Rio Grand River had stopped dropping or at least stabilized at 0.59 meters. This was one-tenth meter below lowest recommended running levels. January 7th was our commitment date. It arrived after many calls to Big Bend National Park ranger head quarters, the area of our proposed put-in. Water levels had increased some tenths meter and were dropping again. Outfitters in the area expressed an opinion that water entry into the drainage basin supplying water from Mexico was greater than Mexicoís release levels. Water should be available for the season.
The Rio, a monumental flow before trapped by human intentions, had raged between the canyons we were to pass through. Remote to all but the Apache and Comanche Indians it remained un-navigated until after the mighty Colorado had been run. Because of its remote and hostile environment, its serious water flow, survey teams had only attempted to view its course. The remoteness remains tucked within high walled canyons, dry dessert climate, cactus and other plants armed for defense. The power of the river is now only felt during uncontrolled floods. Dams in the US draw down its supply for agriculture. Only a trickle reaches Big Bend from the US. Mexico supplies the water we paddle. It too is dam controlled.
Out of ten people at our first meeting eight were still prepared to go. Five of us from NYC area would shop for and package food, pick up most group equipment and prepare a blue Ford van for the 4,700 mile round trip. Eight would need to be comfortable and able to sleep during two days down to Texas plus two back. The remaining three people from Philadelphia and mid New Jersey area, for their part, would take added tours at cooking and cleanup during the river trip.
With little over four weeks before departure, our first preparation meeting began on Friday evening January 14th. Menus were prepared, a list of the groupís equipment needs reviewed and assignments for purchases accepted. For the following three Friday evenings the "NY" contingent gathered to package group serving allotments of food for each meal during our 13 days on the Rio.
Only one problem kept gnawing away at our time and energy. The blue van went in for general servicing and inspection intended to eliminate potential problems for the trip. First, new brake linings were needed all around. Next, a developing hole in the non-stock exhaust system required radical surgery. Trips to several junkyards produced exhaust manifolds. At 13 degrees daytime air temperature and a heater that barely produced warm air our junkyard excursions were unpleasantly cold. Yet another junkyard produced a heater core and fans that could replace the auxiliary heater that had developed a timely leak. Better now than on the road to Texas. The last three projects were to replace two broken leaves for the right rear spring, get front wheels aligned and put in additional plywood to make four seats into a comfortable six. Add reading lights, CB, stereo, radar detector, many man-hours, one overpriced Midis Muffler shop we passed up, much running about, van at various shops for work, exhaustion, exasperation and finally we had a vehicle apparently ready for the long haul.
One last meeting to distribute food and equipment among canoe teams and share anticipation the weekend before departure, then suddenly we were off. After two hours late departure from NY, five of us arrived in Philadelphia to pick up the remaining three. Two and one half hours later, after sluggish packing we shoved off again. A question had been answered. What does it take to tie down four canoes and eight packs on a van roof so they will stay secure for 2,000 plus miles? Question two: how will the van respond to such unreasonable weight (approximately 800 lbs) so far from the ground (10-Ĺ feet). The answer was apparent before reaching our first gas stop west of Philadelphia on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Fordís heavy duty E350 van topped off close to its gross vehicle weight of 8,600 lbs was barely taking notice even at speed. But why have the auxiliary heater fans stopped, the gas and water temperature gauges too? A new fuse failed. A test lamp, left from earlier work, showed the positive feed to the terminal was dead. Hot-wiring a jumper wire from the positive bus bar straight into the circuit bypassed the problem. Off again. It was night now, time for a new driving team (pilot and co-pilot). The rest of us went to sleep for the night on fold down benches that became a flat, padded, wall-to-wall surface. In the black of early morning the contrasting bright specs in our headlights became thicker and thicker. A snowstorm we should have just missed was all around us. According to an enthusiastic National Weather Service person who had gone over weather maps based on our intended schedule, we would clear a big storm if we remained on time. A 4-Ĺ hour late start had put us in direct confrontation with "The Storm of 1983". By early light and a new driving team it had long since gotten serious. By breakfast we had been through bouts of wind and snow combining to create daylight whiteouts at 300 feet. Four to five inches of snow reduced speeds significantly and made passing an experience to remember. We stopped at Whites Truck Stop in Virginia to eat, gas up and discuss our future.
The decision was to push on until forced to stop. We would miss our designated river start time and forfeit the trip if late. We had enough food on board for 13 days if stranded. Cautious driving would have to suffice. Three inches of snow adorned our canoes and van during breakfast. In motion again it became evident that leaving the truck stop would not be easy. Trucks were everywhere, anywhere they could stop. Rich bailed out to reconnoiter. Slogging through snow ten inches deep a narrow passage was found to where a car was spinning its wheels on a slight incline at the truck stop exit. As we inched our way out it turned out that trucks were even parked on the southbound entrance ramp to I 81, our direction. This was not working. The northbound ramp we had passed had been clear. Weíll go north one exit and come around. It was the only option. After pushing a car now stuck in the northbound entrance, we started the 16 mile round trip. Two hours later having pushed the van through a snowdrift at the northern turnaround we passed Whiteís Truck Stop and the trucks still blocking the southbound interstate entrance ramp. We had made the right decision. We pressed on across washboard snow, wind, no passing any more and hair razing speeds of 15 to 25 miles per hour. The van vibrated and shook like there would not be a tight nut or bolt left. Five to seven hours of snow was finally over. Just north of Odessa Texas a plea came forth from a half asleep George Flynn. Sure would like catfish for dinner.
We were looking for gas and late dinner in a pitch black 9 PM desperately empty Texas, compared to our usual view back east. There it was, a quarter mile off the interstate toward Odessa, Catfish Station and fish fillet that smiled on everyoneís lips. Later, off of our last interstate exit toward the river put-in, within Marathon, Texas and many miles to go, we had insufficient gas for a side excursion out of town for gas. Marathon was closed for the night. We were going to miss our morningís scheduled meeting with park rangers. We had arranged for them to shuttle our van to the river takeout. Marathon would open too late. Solution; empty gas station hoses for that extra half-gallon we needed for insurance to get to the open station we had found out about. All hoses were dry and why were those two cars passing by so slowly in both directions several times. Being men, Rich and I were getting uneasy feelings. Mexican banditos with their bandoliers had crossed the border for a little mayhem in the darkness. Denise, being female, walked right up to one of the cars when it pulled immediately behind us into the closed, darkened station, so much for machismo. After a somewhat unsure conversation it turned out it was the owner of the station and a friend suspicious of us but willing to go home across the way, get the keys to the station and gas us up. Taped to a mailbox at Big Bend National Park headquarters was a campsite permit issued to us (itís free) by our shuttle Rangers. Three AM, itís motionless terra firma for the first time in two days. Itís so dark you can feel your own existence in the empty space. Itís so quiet the ringing in our ears from the two-day drive seems deafening by contrast. An anxious group passes into sleeps.
It was 7:00 AM with 1-Ĺ to 2 hours drive across a dirt road to the put-in when our rangers arrived. Betty and Tom Alex were leading the way when a roof bracket snapped under the strain of 800 lbs swaying side-to-side. Everything off the roof, the puzzle of re-outfitting the rack mid-dessert, the on time schedule loosing ground again, then finally engine turnover 1-ĺ hours later. Gasoline smell, we shut down again. Replaced a cracked rubber fuel line with spare tubing from Tom Alex. Engine misfire, then it stalled. We had inadvertently loosened the ignition coil wire during our fuel line work. It was 12:30 PM. Our 2-Ĺ days of struggle to reach the put-in below our feet was over. A note left for us indicated that Joel Freemanís party of four, who were to run a parallel trip with us for a few days, had set out 55 minutes earlier. We never caught up to them. Moving everything from vehicles and securing it all in canoes is always a slow process. This was no exception. At 4:30 PM we were afloat and looking at a wide-open-area disappearing into a narrow passage between canyon walls. It was the river.
So what is a river trip like that start with a struggle? We had a few exciting moments. George butted heads with a bolder while challenging a rapid solo. He suffered some flack, embarrassment and a butterfly bandage for his recklessness. Phil casually mentioned it looked like the wind was picking up as we were making camp one evening. Picture a classic dessert adventure where your good folk are about to be sandblasted into oblivion by an approaching wall of dust thick enough to wash out images of mountains behind it. You have the exact impression of what was approaching our wide-eyed group. A brief panic, extra stakes pounded to secure tents, loose items quickly stowed, people executing rapid retreats into their tents for shelter and it was over in time for a hot dinner. The only good surfing wave we found was attacked with the abandon of kids after candy. There was the 1,100-foot straight down view from the top of Burrows Bluff into our camp taken from the prone position. The tents looked like colored marbles.
Literature for this season described three to five day cold front cycles with average day temperatures 45 to 70 degrees. Night temperatures of 15 to 45 degrees, short-term bouts of wind and even drizzle were possible for this dry February dessert. Our resident climatologists via altimeter, barometer and maximum high to low temperature thermometer brought us not enough drizzle wet enough to call it wet, one cold night at 31 degrees and one day of gentle headwinds. After breakfast on the last day with canoes packed and only 4 miles to the take-out, torrential rain caused waterfalls from clay-hard embankments 30 feet above the river. At the take-out during a slight let-up we stuffed the van with wet gear. The slick mud road splashed a sheet of mud that enveloped our entire outward view while we charged across a large puddle we were not likely to be able to push the van through. Getting stopped out here could be for a long time. No reserve food or drinking water was left. We slid our way over miles of slick clay. Finally it was time for town and hot showers. The van repacked, home was just 2,300 miles northeast.
Low water reports had not stopped us. Snowstorm and breaking equipment had not deterred us. The payoff was a laid-back, relaxed, good company, just enough work to keep body and mind happy, sunny skies and usually 70 to 80 degree weather. Add hot spring baths, time to play and hike, making camp by 4:30 PM daily, short evening excursions for the fleet of foot, comfortable morning starts and non-pressured days, we could have been at "summer camp" all winter. There was Tequila night, mules braying the next morning, some of us still out cold, breathtaking views, blue skies the color that only exists in advertisements plus good campsites every night. We had a good time. You're on your own for weather and water levels, itís not likely to happen twice. The rangers had been concerned about us. Seems the entire area had experience unusually heavy storms, high winds and heavy rain ever since we started down river. Nature had been good to us.