Paddling the Rio Grande Lower Canyons

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INTRO

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While September and October are months of perfect contentment, November brings the cold reality that our hemisphere is inexorably creeping from the sun’s embrace. Following the golden days, late fall is our comeuppance; drab and dark and just downright uninspiring. But there is a remedy. Drive south. Without even leaving the North American continent, one can find a few regions that are just about perfect during this season between seasons. My top choice: West Texas’ Big Bend country.
01open road
It had been twenty years since I guided raft trips on the Rio Grande in Big Bend, and discovered its isolated enclave of Terlingua, home to escapists of many things; winter, creditors, lawmen, mainstream America. The cultural clutter to which most of us have become accustomed does not exist here. There are no strip malls. There really isn’t much of anything. That’s exactly how folks here like it.
02chihuahua desert
Our first mission was a two-day paddling trip through Santa Elena Canyon, the crown jewel of the Rio Grande in Big Bend. I recalled blister inducing days of my youth, rowing tourists through the canyon’s twenty-one miles on a meager 300 cubic feet per second of water. This time around, we took a leisurely 2 days, and enjoyed a robust 600 cfs. The extra water came thanks to Autumn’s tropical storms and resulting dam releases on the tributary Rio Conchos in Mexico, the primary water source of the Rio Grande through Big Bend.
03entering santa elena
It was like completing a circle upon my return to Santa Elena. Memories flooded back with a tinge of embarrassment at my naivete then. The Rio Conchos was full of mystery to me in those days. Now, I returned to ride its waters after having visited its source mountains in northern Mexico a few years ago. My life is about connecting the dots—through time, across landscapes. Here in Big Bend country, there were a few dots left hanging, and they were called the Lower Canyons.
04camfire at entrance
As the Rio Grande finishes its big bend, and turns once again easterly toward the Gulf of Mexico, it enters the Lower Canyons. This 83-mile section weaves through the remote Valley of the Robbers before entering an 1,000-foot deep limestone canyon. Hiking from the river corridor into the many side canyons usually requires hacking through spiny Chihuahuan Desert scrub. Once into the creekbeds, however, bedrock sidewalks lead to cathedrals of stone.
05silder canyon
There is whitewater in the Lower Canyons. Occasional class I and II rapids break the monotony of long flat stretches, and at Hot Springs Rapid, a genuine class III+ awaits. It provided both Lisa and I a facefull.
06facefull
Sunshine gave way to solid grey midway through our 9-day trip, as a cloud shield invaded from the Great Plains. It was a depressing development initially. I wondered, did November find us? Once realizing that the temperature remained a near perfect 70 degrees both day and night, and the threat of rain was minimal, we adjusted to the new paradigm. It seemed to match the mellow grey mood of the canyons.
07clouds movin in
Combined with the warm cloudy weather, walls of invasive river cane drooped over the water to produce a tropical feel. The grasses grow into twenty-foot tall jungles that line the river for long stretches, virtually forcing paddlers to remain on the narrow corridor of water.
08river cane
Campsites varied from grassy meadows to rocky ledges to open beaches. We thought we’d found the perfect flat clay beach until eyes shone just beyond our fire’s glow. It was a raccoon, and it was bold. Despite our threats and mis-thrown rocks, it persisted to creep into our space, even pawing at a bag within our open-sided tent. We tucked all food into hatches, dropped the tent walls to the ground, and grabbed driftwood clubs to sleep with. In the morning, Lisa discovered a freshly chewed tear in her drysuit, which had been tucked inside her pfd and weighted with a rock.
09racoon tear
Fortunately the drysuit wasn’t imperative in the mild weather. After the clouds finally produced a night of heavy rain, it was almost steamy. We entertained ourselves all morning long by patiently making a fire with wet wood, then paddled the last few miles of the Lower Canyons to meet our most punctual shuttle driver Roy, creator of the Snake Days Festival in Sanderson, Texas. November was over, and it was time to return, back to America.

final overhang

Cove Canyon Canyoneering

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The canyon relented from its stairstep plunge of slick polished chutes, and for a time, we were able to walk unhindered along firm gravel, weaving in and amongst boulders as big as my backyard shed.
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Each of us found our own pace, strolling through the wonderland quietly, alone and swallowed by a far bigger world. Cliffs of Redwall Limestone rose everywhere, holding alcoves big enough to shelter a small village. Unexplored caverns of black mystery peered down at us from 800 feet above.
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When the next geologic layer surfaced beneath our feet, we gathered to sort our ropes, inspect anchors, and abseil deeper into the smooth belly of the canyon. My pack dangled below me, a sliver of sky shone overhead, and chambers of rock wrapped around from every side.
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Late in the day, Rob identified a side canyon as our halfway point. With that, I thought we might be spending the night in these depths, but hazy mystical light filtered into the gorge from the river canyon below, illuminating walls of striated gray and painted red. The river couldn’t be far now. A buried beer treasure awaiting us at the Colorado prodded us onward. As nighttime darkness filled the gorge, we sat contented, cold beers in hand and the soothing hum of the river passing by at our feet.
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Pack rafting downstream proved easier than our desert walk had been, up above. That was a 9-mile march across the Esplanade Sandstone to the head of Cove Canyon. Now, we floated on the strong back of the Colorado.
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At the roar of Lava Falls, we turned back into hikers, climbing through loose slopes of hardened black lava.
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On the rim, my gaze upon open grassland valleys felt liberating. Perhaps it was only this way because I had felt the other side, the deep hidden embrace of Cove Canyon.

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Flash flood kayaking Utah’s North Creek

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When Hurricane Norbert doused the Phoenix area with up to five inches of rain, I was somewhat disappointed with myself that I didn’t throw my new Fluid kayak in the truck and drive two hours to chase the water. But 6,000 cfs of street runoff in the nation’s fifth largest city didn’t seem like a whitewater paradise. When my own neighborhood flash floods, I honor the obligation and ride the wave, but this time, I decided to leave the ghetto boating to the locals.
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Lucky for me, a shot at redemption was at hand. A second pulse of Norbert moisture hit southwestern Utah, sending the Virgin River to flood stage just as my friend Bill Barron pedaled his way toward Zion on his bike campaign for U.S. Congress. Bill’s platform supports a tax on carbon at its source, thus forcing industry to invest in renewables, and maybe slow the acceleration of climate change. We stopped and saw Bill at a Zion campaign event. And we rode the fruits of a wild climate.
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For good paddling, the Virgin was way too high and silty and full of floating logs, but North Creek looked just about right. Fed by a famous canyon known as The Subway, North Creek tumbles toward the Virgin through a quaint desert valley lined by colorful bluffs and deep green cottonwoods. This was the section we hoped to paddle, before the water was gone. In true Southwest fashion, the 1,000 cfs we spotted on our first pass dropped to 200 cfs by the time we returned an hour later.
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Once on the water, Josh and I were pleasantly surprised by the flow. It was higher than it looked, almost perfect for a first descent. Was it a first? Probably not, but until one of you southern Utah paddlers tells me otherwise, we’re claiming it! In any case, it was new to us, a new and unexpected drop lurking around every corner.

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Queets River pack rafting—an almost source to sea

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The groomed elk path vanished, and we found ourselves in the deep woods, linking passages in old growth forest—wading through huckleberry bushes, sliding down gullies, stepping over and into rotten mossy logs. By moving slowly and carefully, we could make steady progress without undue risk. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the luxury of slow caution. Darkness crept up from the depths, and the thought of bushwhacking by headlamp into the Queets River gorge nagged at me with every new horizon of trees unfolding ahead. At least the river chimed encouragement from below, far below.
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Rivers of the Olympic Peninsula offer opportunity to float through one of the world’s great forest reserves. When comparing forests of big trees, the Olympic rainforest is unequaled. Nowhere else do so many trees of large diameter—5 to 15 feet—and soaring height—200 to 300 feet—exist in a single unmolested unit. Walking through these forests gets one up close and personal with the giants. Floating here offers longer views to the multi-storied canopy. Our pack raft trip down the Queets River promised a little of both.
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Climbing above the North Fork of the Quinalt on day one was a humid, even muggy affair, appropriate conditions for the beefy hemlocks and massive cedars that loomed over our trail. The balmy feel abated by morning, when fog formed before our eyes as the transpiring forest released its moisture with the rising sun.
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Up we marched, out of the cloud and into the changing forest of the mid-elevations. The cedars changed from red to yellow, the hemlocks from western to mountain, and the firs from Douglas to silver. The record Alaska, or yellow, cedar, gave us reason to pause for a photo and due reverence, a wonderful gnarly old tree. When we spotted another huge Callitropsis nootkatensis an hour down the trail, we felt compelled to measure it and compare numbers. By my rough measurements, the old champion retains the title, but the two trees are close enough in size to warrant a return with tape and laser to record exact dimensions. A new champion could be on deck!
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Emerging from the forest into sunny subalpine parks of distinct Olympic lime-green, we shed our packs for a quick swim in a shallow cool pond. Onward, upward, downward, the “traverse” trail seemed to constantly climb or descend.
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We pushed on toward an airy ridge where Mt. Olympus and its trademark glaciers burst into view. The Queets was visible below, glistening like a silver ribbon on the dark woods. A snowfield rested nearby, assuring our water supply. This was camp.
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Another long day of up and down hiking along the Skyline Route led to Lake Beauty, and the first other backpackers we’d seen.
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Soon we were hustling into the gorge in a race against darkness. With twenty minutes of light remaining, the opaque color of the upper Queets peeked out beneath cedar boughs. At water’s edge, we found ourselves in a gorge of smooth grey walls. Luckily, a mossy camp presented itself, sitting beside a cold spring-fed creek feeding the river.
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I hadn’t planned on much whitewater during this almost-source-to-sea mission, but our route into the canyon deposited us farther upstream than anticipated. Although we were below the unrunnable Service Falls gorge, several rapids remained before our deliverance into the valley. Bret had never paddled a pack raft before. His game face was on.
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Following a full scale portage (boats deflated in packs) around class V Kilkelly Rapids, we re-launched in late afternoon sunlight and pitched camp amid the wild Upper Queets Valley. Surrounded by old-growth forest in a rarely traveled river corridor, this was the place, the moment I’d been seeking since scanning the map from my living room floor years earlier.
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Day five was about making miles. Low water crept us along and logjams forced several short portages. A herd of elk, the first we’d seen despite plentiful sign, crossed the river above camp just as dusk turned to dark. Another small herd crossed the shallow river while we ate lunch two days farther downstream.
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It was not elk but fish that the natives were after near the river mouth. From the highway 101 bridge we could see numerous skiffs plying the water between their nets of coho salmon. The river debauched into the Pacific as a narrow stream carving through a fog-shrouded coastline. The humble opening gave few clues to the wild splendor that exists upstream, on the wild Queets.

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