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Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again

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Offline House Made of Dawn

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #45 on: December 15, 2017, 01:22:16 PM »
Camp Leaky: November 25, 2017


Just before I drifted off to sleep, cowboy camping as always, I thought I saw the huge rocks hanging above my campsite glow with an eerie, almost subliminal light. A flash, then gone. Mostly in my peripheral vision. As soon as I tilted my head to get a better look, the light vanished. Then downriver, a few hundred yards away, I saw other flashes of light on the towering Mexican wall and…figures? Huge shadows, vaguely human-like, but with many arms and distorted parts. As I was sliding down the rabbit hole into unconsciousness, the thought dimly occurred to me that some people might find this incredibly creepy. And I suppose it was. But I was also incredibly tired. If two-headed river aliens were going to eat me alive while I slept, then so be it. I’d deal with that in the morning.


Fortunately, I was still there when I woke up in the morning. Body and brains intact. Whatever was out there, it left me alone. Maybe out of pity. I dragged my stiff body out of my sleeping bag and set about packing up. Last night had been markedly warmer than my first night on the river. 50’s versus 30’s. I slept great, really deeply, and though my body was stiff, I was full of energy this morning. A quick GU with 40mg of caffeine and soon I was full of even more energy. I stripped off my fleece sweater and pants, changed into my supplex river pants and shirt which I’d laid out on tamarisk to dry overnight, and loaded all my gear back into my raft.


One of the tricks of managing the packraft was that, while it floated great in a foot or maybe 18” of water, my fully loaded backpack and water bladders made it useless in less than that. When beaching the raft, I could drive it forcefully up onto the mud, sand, or gravel, with a few deeply vigorous paddle strokes, but once beached, it was truly beached. Like a whale. I couldn’t, or at least dare not, move the raft far onto land with that much dead weight on the bow. I had to detach the backpack from the raft and carry it to my intended campsite, then lift and carry the now featherweight raft to wherever I deemed safest for its overnight birth. Usually I tried to hide it somewhat – behind foliage or a dune. But then in the mornings, everything had to be repeated, but in reverse. Carry the raft back to the water’s edge, maybe tie it off to some anchor, pack everything back into my backpack, carry the backpack down to the raft and position in on the bow, cover it with a raincover, lash it onto the raft, then lash my RidgeRest groundpads to the pack, then hook my paddle leash and paddle to the boat. Slip on my PFD, then my belly bag, grab my paddle and launch. The raft needed to be sitting right on the very edge of (or in) the water if my backpack was attached, or I wouldn’t be able to get it moving. I was always careful to watch for submerged branches or unusually sharp rocks just to make sure I didn’t tear a hole in the air chamber while leaving (or approaching) a beach.


At 8:30am, the deep canyon was still dark and chilly. The water was swift and I immediately tackled a small rapid with ease and headed downcanyon.  A few minutes later, I rounded a leftward bend in the canyon and there, to my surprise, were Michael, Pam, and their clients on a beautiful, large beach. They had been right around the bend from me all night. With a campfire. The youngest daughter ran to meet me at the water’s edge and took my paddle leash in hand to help me dock. “Did you see our shadow games last night?” she asked. Well, yes, as a matter of fact I did, young lady. As a matter of fact, I did. Turns out they thought they might see me this morning, so they’d saved me a huge, hot, sausage, egg, and potato burrito for breakfast.  Really, could things be any better? I ate while they packed up. We chatted in the way strangers with mutual interests do when they meet somewhere strange and remote. They were headed for Fern Canyon. At one time I thought I might visit it, too, but my main priority – the real reason for being on the river was to get to the eastern border of the park and get OFF the river. I was already slightly behind my itinerary, so I decided to skip Fern and push on downriver. A little inconvenient, though, because I’d hoped to refill my water from the tinajas in Fern. As always, Michael came to the rescue with water he was carrying in his raft. He had plenty extra and he poured me a few quarts. Now I was more than good to go. Just before they headed out (I wanted to let them go first and enjoy their solitude), I walked over to Michael and offered my hand to say thanks. In it was a small wad of cash I’d packed for a possible visit to Boquillas, Mexico. “Allow me to be grateful,” I said, “it’s good for the soul.” He smiled, nodded, and gave me a quick bro-hug. And off they went downriver with big waves and bigger smiles. Pam, who always floated sweep in the rear, nodded to me as she pushed off. “We’re all one big family here on the river. Stay safe and let us know how you fared when you finally get out of the park.”


Within seconds, they were downriver around another bend and I was alone in a silent, dark canyon again. I laid down on the cold cobbled beach and stared – empty-minded - at the brilliantly blue sliver of sky spanning the jagged gap overhead, for twenty or so minutes, just enjoying being there, watching - without comment or judgment or thought of any kind - the occasional barely-visible wisp of white cloud float slowly by. Then, almost involuntarily, I started to hum, and then sing, the old Seals and Crofts song, “We May Never Pass This Way Again.” I palmed a couple of rocks and added my own percussion track while laying there looking up at the sky. Now, mind you, I can’t sing worth a bucket of spit. When I sing in public, it’s usually to punish someone. But you put me in a remote canyon with no chance of anyone suddenly surprising me, and I might just let her unselfconsciously rip every once in awhile.



The sentiment was true. I probably never would pass this way again. And after another hour or two of paddling I would be downstream of Santa Elena Canyon, and I really – literally - didn’t know what lie ahead in The Great Unknown. The sun was beginning its crawl down the Texas cliffs and it was time to go. I tossed my percussion rocks aside, walked back to my still-loaded raft and stepped inside its cockpit, “like Columbus in the olden days, we must gather all our courage, sail our ships out on the open sea...”


The open sea turned out to be a little more crowded than I anticipated. Passing Fern Canyon sometime later, I found not only the Angell boats, but at least one other rafting party as well. And then the upcanyon paddlers began to appear. Daytrippers who’d rented canoes or kayaks, intending to paddle up to Fern or maybe even all the way to the downriver side of The Rockslide. I didn’t envy them, that’s hard work at 1000cfs. The canyon, though, was gorgeous. Who doesn’t love the fun-house journey of paddling through those wildly tilted geologic layers of the canyon walls. The tilt made it appear as if I was paddling down a steep, steep slope. It was a little vertiginous. If I let my concentration wander, temporarily forgot where I was, a tiny panic could start to form deep in the lizard part of my medulla, and then crawl its way up into my amygdala, where its fight or flight mechanism was tempted to scream: YOU IDIOT, YOU’RE GOING OVER A WATERFALL!!!!!!!  Not really scary, but certainly titillating. Meanwhile, the poor sods paddling upcanyon must have felt like they were crawling UP a waterfall. And they looked like it. Not one appeared happy to be there. Respectfully, I averted my eyes and slid quietly past them. Leaving them to their self-imposed herculean labors. Soon, I hit the leading edge of the Santa Elena Canyon trail, fully stocked with an assortment of Thanksgiving Week tourists, perched high above me on the Texas wall. Ah, the chatter of the car-class. So nice to be back in civilization. I swung out of the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon, suddenly into the impossibly bright sunlight, and found myself onstage, blinded by the footlights, as it were: thirty or forty tourists standing on the muddy Texas river bank at the mouth of Terlingua Creek, near the entrance to the canyon trail, snapping pictures of the yawning canyon and of tiny me and my raft, while I swung hard east into the rapid just past the mouth of the canyon. It was a circus and I was the dancing bear as I carved and cut my way through the Class II curls. Mercifully, it was over quickly and I passed rapidly downstream of the crowd and back into the quiet of the people-less river.


A few minutes later I passed the Santa Elena take-out, full of a rafting party offloading clients and unloading supplies. “Where you headed?” they asked. “All the way,” I said, “east end of he park and then walk back.” “Dios mio! Into The Great Unknown! Bravo! You will LOVE Mariscal Canyon: it is the jewel of the rio! Have fun, my friend!” And I was out of earshot. I stopped a bit downstream at the last available sandbar before exiting the tourist area, beached, and walked inland to use the NPS bathroom. I’d hoped to dump some trash, but (of course) there were no receptacles there. I also thought of grabbing a celebratory ice cream from the Castolon store (the river ranger had recommended it) but I’d forgotten how long a walk it was from the take-out to Castolon (REALLY long). Maybe I could hit Cottonwood Campground and Castolon when I passed near them further downstream. Maybe even call my wife if I could find a cell signal.


A vain hope, that was. If the Giant River Cane was a problem upstream of Santa Elena Canyon, it was a nightmare below it. Indescribably thick. A continuous, impenetrable wall of vegetation twenty feet high and equally thick. Somewhere along there I passed the confluences of both Alamo Creek and Blue Creek as they ended their long cross-park journeys to the Rio Grande. I never saw the campground. As it turns out, there was one, single, tiny takeout there, but somehow it escaped me and I floated blithely past Cottonwood without a clue. Eventually it dawned on my dim bulb that the campground was behind me and there was NOT going to be any stopping until much later in the day, when I beached for the night. I was bummed. I’d really been looking forward to talking to my wife. She and the family were with our Chinese relatives in Louisiana for the holidays and I missed them. It had already been a week since I’d left Dallas.


The rest of the day was made up of the garden-variety “every-quarter-mile” rapids that had begun downriver of Matadero. I bumped and jumped my way through each of them. NPS regulations required I put at least ¾ of mile downriver between me and Castolon before camping for the night. I intended to put at least two, maybe three. I wanted to be far downstream of the Mexican village of Santa Elena and its old crossing into Texas.

[TO BE CONTINUED]
« Last Edit: February 04, 2018, 04:53:53 PM by House Made of Dawn »
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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #46 on: December 15, 2017, 01:23:52 PM »
Late in the afternoon, as I was looking for a suitable place to beach and camp, I looked down at my packraft and was horrified to notice large puckers in its side tubes. I reached out and pressed the sides of my raft and they collapsed inward with a sickening lack of resistance. My raft was losing air pressure. WTF? How? What could possibly have caused a leak? Well that put a new urgency into finding a campsite. I pulled up onto the first reasonably flat surface I could find on the Texas side, a deeply muddy, narrow shelf. I offloaded my backpack and dragged the raft up onto the shelf and inspected it. A push against the bow or stern and their puckered surfaces caved inwards like old party balloons. Well, shit. Shit! SHIT! I used the mouth-valves to reinflate the raft. I’d wait to see what happened over the next few minutes or hours. Might tell me how bad the problem was. How screwed I might be. Meanwhile I set about unpacking, changed into dry, warm clothes, laid out my bedroll, and got ready to make dinner.


Everything was quickly ready, but before I set about making dinner (it was a bit early yet) I took out my maps and considered my situation. In planning my trip, I had anticipated the need for an emergency hike out on any given day, for whatever reason: river conditions, raft failure, illness, injury. That’s why I’d brought my hiking boots along, wrapped up inside a drysack inside my backpack, even though they were big and bulky and heavy. I had good maps, plenty of food, plenty of water and bladders to carry it in, a comprehensive list of land springs and tinajas with GPS coordinates, and the necessities to purify any water I might find while hiking overland.  I pulled out my little Holux GPS logger and took a reading.  My current position was pretty much where I though it was, near the old Rio Vista campsite on the abandoned section of the old River Road. I could probably use that old route to hike back to Castolon if I had to, even with my packraft strapped to my backpack. That was the worst case (well, worst case was activating my PLB and waiting for rescue, and that ain’t going to happen).


The more likely case would be having to repair my raft before continuing downstream.  I proceeded to retrieve and inspect my repair kit. I’d ordered a small one from Alpacka as well as a roll of Tyvek tape, good for major repairs. The Tyvek somehow never arrived in the mail. I’d intended to grab one from the Big Box home improvement store before leaving Dallas but in the rush to leave, forgot. Fortunately, I found a nice, large roll of special Gorilla Tape designed just for inflatables in the Cottonwood Store in Study Butte the day before I headed out. My pack was packed so I slipped the roll onto one of my pack’s compression straps, planning to stow it inside later. Now, needing it, I laid out my repair supplies onto the muddy beach.  The Gorilla Tape wasn’t there. I stood, staring dumbly at my supplies for a minute, uncomprehending, and then an image flashed into my mind: me, at my first put-in in Lajitas several days ago, loading my raft, unbuckling my backpack’s top pocket and detaching it from the pack so that I could load the pack onto the bow of my raft, and strap the top pocket around my belly as an emergency kit. The Gorilla Tape hanging from the top pocket’s vertical compression strap, sliding silently off as I unbuckled the straps, down into the tall grass at the put-in. Unseen, unnoticed. Left behind.

I was so screwed. I was so stupid.

And I didn’t even know how stupid yet.  All I could do now is wait until any leak in my raft revealed itself over time. It would take awhile to judge how fast the raft was losing air. I might not know until the morning.  And then I’d have to find the leak and repair it if possible. If not, I’d be hiking out to Castolon tomorrow: a very unhappy man. The sun was going down. I walked back to the river and strained a few cups of muddy river water into my cookpot and made a grim dinner. Just before I ate, I walked over to my raft and checked its inflation: soft and soggy. The chill night air matched my mood. The world was cold and comfortless. Pouring my water into the foil packet of a backpacking meal, I spilled it, nearly boiling my testicles. But my survival instincts were stronger than my depression and I managed to contort my way energetically to safety at the last second. I started over, made dinner without incident this time, and waited for my meal to rehydrate. I was in a major, self-recriminating funk.


Bleakly, I glanced over at my packraft and that’s when I noticed the firepan lashed to the stern. I hadn’t wanted to bring it, chafed at the requirement, tried to substitute various ridiculous aluminum foil alternatives, but here I was with a functioning firepan. By god, I thought, if I have it, I should use it. Why carry it all this way and not take advantage of it? Using my Petzl e-LITE headlamp, I quickly gathered up downed wood: old cane, dead tamarisk and mesquite, grasses for tinder, and strategically piled the first of it into the pan. Then I opened up my emergency kit, took out my 3mm utility line, sliced off a 3-inch piece from the end, peeled it back to its flammable core and set in under my little pyre in the pan. A couple of attempts with my Bic lighter and the rope core burst into a slow-burning flame. In just a minute or two, I had a roaring fire in my modest 12-inch pan. Just about the time my dinner was ready to eat. I kicked back on the beach, ate my delicious Jamaican Jerked Chicken and warmed my feet by my little circle of defiance.  I’m going to win this one, I said to myself.


Night deepened to almost total black. The moon was rising ever later each night and it hadn’t yet topped the river cane in the distance. My fire was just about dead, but the stars burned brightly overhead. The night was cold and I was ready to turn in; the morning would bring what it would bring. I watched the embers in my pan, my fourth set of wood into the fire, fade away to a low pulsing orange glow. And then, out of the corner of my upstream eye, I saw a light coming toward me. A big one, and fast. I started and swung my head around. Swinging toward me around a sharp bend in the river was a light that looked like a railroad engine’s lamp. Maybe 300 yards upriver. And it must have been moving at 15mph. My first thought was a motor boat. NPS patrol, Border Patrol? But, no, not a motor boat, not here with all the intermittent shallows. Smugglers, maybe. I was, after all, in The Great Unknown and I hadn’t seen a human being all day since leaving the Santa Elena takeout. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I suddenly realized my headlamp was on and instantly switched it off. With my foot, I pushed some sand over the embers in the fire pan. And then the light winked off. Completely. As if it just disappeared. I grew more tense. I had no means of defense. My teeny, tiny CRKT NIAD knife was several feet away, attached to the zipper pull of my belly bag. I froze my movements, stopped breathing, and listened as hard as I could.  Just then, immediately in front of me, only a a dozen yards away, giggles broke out. Girlish ones. And a light like an automobile headlamp flashed on, illuminating half the river from bank to bank and 30 yards downstream. “Who’s there?” I shouted. “We are!” came the soprano reply, and more giggles. “What kind of boat are you in?” “Canoe,” they yelled, just as I flipped my headlamp back on and spied a gaggle of young women zooming past me at incredible speed. They were paddling for all they were worth as they rocketed pell-mell into the rapids just downstream of my camp. They were gone before I could ask anything else, but immediately a second, equally powerful lamp flashed on just upstream. Another canoe, this one full of men laughing. “Where are you headed?” “RGV!!!!!!” “At night?!?!?” “IT’S THE OOOONLY WAY!!!!” And then they hit the rapids with a communal “YEEEEEEEHAAAAAAAW” and were swallowed by the downstream dark, never to be seen by me again. 

Well, that was unexpected.

Running the river in canoes at night at breakneck speed. That takes cojones. I figure it was a multi-day race between two groups, maybe they put in at Castolon, and neither wanted to be the first to stop. A game of chicken, as it were, but both competitors headed in the same direction. If they were waiting for the river to blink, things could get interesting before they were done. The experience had an odd effect on me: if these young folks were comfortable running the river in a race at night, then what was I worried about? In comparison to them, I seemed like a wimp. Buck up, man. Tomorrow is another day. I doused the last of my fire, crawled into my sleeping bag and pulled it tight around my face against the riverbank chill, and nodded off to sleep.

Tomorrow is another day.


[TO BE CONTINUED]
« Last Edit: December 16, 2017, 08:02:13 AM by House Made of Dawn »
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

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Offline Robert

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #47 on: December 15, 2017, 02:24:03 PM »
Quote
In just a minute or two, I had a roaring fire in my little 12-inch pan. Just about the time my dinner was ready to eat. I kicked back on the beach, ate my delicious Jamaican Jerked Chicken and warmed my feet by my little circle of defiance.  I’m going to win this one, I said to myself.



When the movie version comes out I think Tom Hanks is a lock to play your part. But he might balk at having to do another tooth extraction scene.

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Offline Buck

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #48 on: December 15, 2017, 02:25:44 PM »
The night canoers would have freaked me out as well.  Reminds me of one night well after midnight when I was half-snoozing in the hot springs and suddenly a burrow across the river cut loose, braying the dead back to life.  I probably raised the water level a little!

"Hey, how 'bout a Fandango..?"

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #49 on: December 15, 2017, 04:45:26 PM »
The night canoers would have freaked me out as well.  Reminds me of one night well after midnight when I was half-snoozing in the hot springs and suddenly a burrow across the river cut loose, braying the dead back to life.  I probably raised the water level a little!

I heard a few burro braying in the night during my trip. That's a sound that will wake the dead, and possibly help you join them.
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

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Offline rocketman

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #50 on: December 15, 2017, 07:09:05 PM »
Like a Labrador waits on his next meal, or a young child waits for Christmas...we suffer until the next HMoD installment fires off.  :icon_lol: :notworthy:
Making ice cubes FROM THE SUN!!!

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #51 on: December 16, 2017, 09:50:26 AM »
Quote
In just a minute or two, I had a roaring fire in my little 12-inch pan. Just about the time my dinner was ready to eat. I kicked back on the beach, ate my delicious Jamaican Jerked Chicken and warmed my feet by my little circle of defiance.  I’m going to win this one, I said to myself.



When the movie version comes out I think Tom Hanks is a lock to play your part. But he might balk at having to do another tooth extraction scene.

Of course, in the new film, Hanks will then proclaim, "Testicles! I have boiled...TESTICLES!!!" And sit down to a meal of Rio Grande Oysters.
« Last Edit: December 16, 2017, 10:29:30 AM by House Made of Dawn »
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #52 on: December 16, 2017, 12:55:18 PM »
Camp Kitten: November 26, 2017


I slept well that night, as I had all the nights so far on the river. The insects had been negligible, so I didn’t need to bother with the mesh headnet I’d brought, or my tiny bottle of repellent. Mud, sand, even gravel all made good beds because I could sculpt them to fit the shape of my body. Being mostly a side sleeper, a depression for my hip and shoulder were always appreciated. Adding my two RidgeRest pads on top of that, and slipping inside my Feathered Friends bag with all its venting options, my head resting on my stuffsack of spare clothes and extra layers as a pillow, and I was literally a happy camper.


Of course, my first thought upon waking around 7am was, “what about my packraft?” I crawled out of my bag, pulled on my river shoes, and hobbled over to my raft to inspect it, expecting the worst. Incredibly, it had lost almost no air at all: almost as inflated as I’d left it last night when I went to sleep. Puzzling. Not unwelcome, but odd. I knelt down, grabbed the mouth valve, and re-inflated the raft as fully as my lungs would allow. I’d give it another hour and see where things stood then. I shuffled back over to my bedroll and backpack and fished out my Montbell down vest and a microfleece balaclava. It was cold in the early morning air. Colder than usual. My campsite faced east, but the sun wasn’t quite up and I was getting chilled. I took a swig of cold, clean water. Ate a caffeinated GU. Drank some more water. And pondered the raft. It occurred to me that yesterday afternoon was unusually cold. The water was cold, too. It was possible that the flaccidity of the raft was a product of colder temperatures affecting the air pressure inside the raft’s inflation chambers. Seemed a bit extreme, but not unreasonable. If my raft stayed inflated this morning, and more to the point, if the rising sun and warming temperatures caused it to become even more inflated, then – BINGO! – I had my answer.  I was a bit chagrined to think this might be the cause of my panic and that I had overlooked it, and overreacted, but then again, I was new to this packrafting gig. I was still learning the idiosyncrasies of the boat. I really had gone to bed last night expecting to find a dead flat raft this morning. I was still expecting every day to bring some sort of disaster that I might not be able to overcome.


I leisurely packed up some of my stuff, particularly my bedroll and messkit, refilled my SmartWater bottles, grabbed a KIND Bar, and waited for an hour to pass. In due time, I checked the raft, and yep, it was good. No loss of air. In fact, the chambers were tighter, fuller, more stretched than before. It looked like I was good to go, after all. Still missing a decent repair kit, and that would surely be a cause for continuing nervousness now that I knew about it, but at least for now I’d dodged a bullet. Nevertheless, I would never during the rest of my trip be free of the nagging fear that a leak could spell disaster. I finished packing up, carried my raft down the short ways to the river’s edge, loaded my backpack and two groundpads onto it, cleaned out my now-used firepan and lashed it back onto the stern of my craft, and got ready to launch. Today, I would head downstream toward the Sierra Chino, hoping to make at least 12 miles. During my first three days on the river, I had paddled, respectively, 6.5 miles, 8.5 miles, and 12.5 miles. 12 seemed to be a reasonable daily goal for a full day’s paddling. The only named rapid I would encounter was the Smoky Creek Rapid located at the mouth of Smoky Creek where it intersected the river after its long descent south through the Quemadas.  Of course, there would be dozens more unnamed riffles of varying degrees of difficulty. I’d learned over the last few days that sometimes those could be more dangerous and daunting than the named rapids. So, with an apparently healthy raft and renewed enthusiasm, I headed downriver into a bright, sunny, cloudless day with quickly warming temperatures.


It was an easy day, or so it seemed. Maybe I was hitting my stride, or maybe I was just relieved that my raft wasn’t leaking. Either way, I felt strong, and the paddling was pleasurable. With every little rapid, I learned more about my packraft and how it handled. I got smarter and stronger in maneuvering it. I saw very little sign of people anywhere. Maybe a fence here and there on the Mexican side of the river. Smoky Creek rapid was bumpy and I took on more water than I would have preferred, paddling cross-ways through the whitecaps. But other than having to stop and drain my raft’s cockpit, I was making good progress. The wonderful thing about river travel in a packraft is that even during "rest breaks" I made progress: always floating downriver whether I paddled or not. And when I I didn't paddle, I could lean back against the PFD and firepan lashed to my stern, lay my head on them, stretch out my legs, and spin in lazy circles. A true 360 degree view. Any upcoming rapid would advertise its presence far in advance by its low rumble. The larger the rumble, the larger the rapid. I called the alternating naps and rapids, "chillin' and thrillin'." Early in the afternoon, I spied a vehicle up on a bluff on the Texas side, and a man standing next to it. As I neared, I saw him step either inside or beside his vehicle, I couldn’t tell which. I hailed him, “Helloooooo, any one home?” He stepped back to the edge of the bluff and waved at me. “Where are we?” I asked. “Black Dike,” he answered. "Which way to RGV?" I asked. (It was my favorite joke). That young man was the only human I would see that day. But he told me what I wanted to know: I was definitely ahead of schedule. Soon I was into the Sierra Chino, recognizable by the blonde dormant Bouteloua spp. and curly Hilaria berlangeri grasses covering their low hills. A little over an hour later, I passed the IBWC gauging station near Johnson’s Ranch, a full two river miles farther than I’d expected to make it today. I started looking for good campsites, and soon found a beautiful, flat, sandy beach on the Texas side of the river, just upstream of an unnamed but long, wide, and raucous rapid.


I stroked hard and beached my packraft high on a mudflat, climbed out, lashed my boat to a heavy piece of driftwood, and went off to inspect the 50-yard long beach. It was a narrow but long beach, arranged in two or three ascending shelves of sand, the lower shelves being rocky and muddy, the highest being made almost entirely of soft, fine, dry sand.  The downriver edges of the beach were sandy and undercut and appeared unstable but I could put plenty of real estate between those areas and my bedroll. The upstream edge where I’d docked was low, muddy, and rocky, with a few shallow pools in it. The rear of the beach, to the Texas side, was covered in abundant, thick river cane and some tamarisk.  This will do just fine, I thought to myself. A perfect place to relax for several hours. High, dry, and peaceful. Walking back to my packraft, I noticed that the beach was an amazingly comprehensive catalogue of the tracks of every kind of mammal, and quite a few of the birds, found in Big Bend. Virtually everything was here: bear, mountain lion, coyote, fox, kit fox, bobcat, beaver, muskrat, javelina, mice, rabbits, weasel, raccoon, badger, skunk, ringtail, turtles, snakes, lizards, frogs, vulture, quail, raven, heron, duck, sandpiper…apparently everyone came to this beach to drink from the river or hunt near it. I wish I’d had the battery-life to spare a few photos here. It was mind-boggling. I thought to myself: anything could show up here in the next 16 hours, before I leave.


Returning to my packraft, I unlashed my backpack and carried it several yards up to the highest beach shelf where the soft dry sand would make an excellent bed for the night. Then I carried my packraft up there, too. I laid out all the evening’s necessities. The afternoon, with direct unfiltered sun, was unusually hot. I decided to erect my tarptent as sunshade until the sun went down. It went up nicely and I sat down to make a few notes in my journal. Later, I noticed I was running a bit short on water, having lost my largest Dromedary water bladder when I flipped in the San Carlos Rapid, upstream of Santa Elena Canyon. Fishing out my water kit, I palmed my tiny Sea-to-Summit Ultra-sil water bucket – weighing slightly less than an ounce but capable of scooping up almost 10 liters of river water and scouted the edge of the beach, looking for a suitably deep pool in which to dip the bucket. The only deep pools were beneath the undercut banks on the downriver edge of the beach, looming several feet above the river. I’d need a rope in order to lower the bucket. Grabbing my 3mm utility cord, I attached it to the bucket handles with a quick square knot, dropped a rock in the bottom of the bucket for ballast, and tossed the bucket into the river. It filled, but only slightly, so I tossed it in again, and yet again, until the bucket held well over a gallon. Lifting the bucket, it swung into the sandy bank and a cascade of sand exploded into the bucket. Well, hell, that needed to go, so I dumped the bucket and tried again. This time the bucket filled quickly. Raising it up, I gave the cord a vigorous jerk and sent the bucket swinging far out over the water so that it could clear the bank. At the apex of the arc, the supposed square knot unraveled and my water bucket sailed free into the river, and sunk. And yet it caught on a submerged branch and held. Kneeling and leaning far forward on the edge of the bank, I could see the bucket vibrating rapidly in the vigorous current, just under the surface. Just then the bank collapsed and only a quick reaction saved me from joining the bucket in the swift current several feet below.  I needed something to extend my reach. Looking up and down the beach, I spied several pieces of large driftwood. Sprinting to the closest, I sorted through the pile and grabbed a piece I thought suitable, and sprinted back. Perched gingerly as close to the edge of the bank as I dared, I fished at the bucket with my makeshift pole, snagged one of the handles, and gently but with a great sense of urgency, began to lift the bucket out of the water. It was, of course, now full of several liters of water, and heavy. Up, up it came, closer and closer to my reach until….SNAP….the branch broke, the bucket plummeted, and was instantly far downstream. Well, hell. First my Gorilla Tape, now my water bucket. I’m hemorrhaging equipment here. I was going to need that water bucket during the rest of my trip, not only for dipping water out of the river, but more importantly, when I reached the difficult-to-access tinajas in Telephone Canyon, Ernst Canyon, and especially up on the Mesa de Anguila. I quickly ran through my options. Okay, I solved it:  with a little finagling of cord, I could repurpose one of my Ultra-sil drysacks, especially once I was off the river and the danger of river submersion was past. Grabbing one, I tested it, and it worked reasonably well.


With sunlight waning, I struck my tarptent, laid out my bedroll, set out my messkit, changed into dry warm clothes for the evening, and spread my wet river gear out to dry. Movement in the river cane and tamarisk to my rear drew my attention. Birds, lots of them, flitting through the foliage. I reached for my PFD, flipped open a tiny holster strapped to the chest, and withdrew the 7x17 monocular I’d brought on this trip, in lieu of my usual binoculars. I spent the better part of an hour glassing the little forest. Most of the birds were Yellow-rumped Warblers, butter-butts we call them. But there were also a few Orange-crowned Warblers, a very rare Yellow-throated Warbler, at least one and maybe more Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a wren of some sort (House Wren, I think), and a variety of sparrows (Song, Lincoln, Swamp, and White-crowned), even a Green-tailed Towhee. Noting the dipping sun, I moved toward the river to inspect the amazing abundance and variety of animal tracks. A jumble of prints often tells fascinating tales of conflict, aggression, and survival, but the tracks on this beach mostly seemed to represent trips to the river to drink.  I know it wasn’t, but it looked an awfully lot like a print version of Hicks’ “The Peaceable Kingdom”.  Every Big Bend native but humans was represented. Unlike so many other beaches I'd landed on, no person had been on this beach in weeks.  It was an island of solitude. Sunset approached, putting a new slant on the shadows of the tracks, allowing me to identify a few more, and then it was time to make dinner. Quickly I put together a hot meal of Lime Shrimp Ramen Noodle Soup with dried veggies and mushrooms, a chaser of spicy venison jerky while waiting for the soup to rehydrate, and a dessert of Peanut M&M’s. Then I settled in to watch the stars and moon rise over the Mexican shore. It had been a good day, lots of mileage, no real problems. Things were looking up.

[TO BE CONTINUED]
« Last Edit: December 16, 2017, 01:16:55 PM by House Made of Dawn »
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

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Offline House Made of Dawn

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #53 on: December 16, 2017, 12:55:57 PM »
As so often happened on this trip, I drifted off to sleep sooner than I expected and without really realizing it. I was deep in dreams when an odd sound penetrated from the outside. It wove its way into and through my dreams with increasing urgency until finally I woke, realizing the sound was NOT a part of my dreams, but instead something that needed my attention. Somewhere just below the wind, I could barely make it out: a distressed keening, repeated over and over and over. I couldn’t place it in space. Was it coming from across the river? After a few minutes, I pushed my head out of my sleeping bag and propped my self up on one elbow, tilting my head to and fro. The noise stopped, then resumed a minute later. But this time it was clearly behind me, to my left, coming from the high bank of river cane at the rear of the beach, the same spot I’d so carefully glasses while birding earlier. I ran through the possibilities in my mind: what kind of animal was this? This was feline. A mountain lion kitten? No, I’d heard those before, this was too high. That was good, I didn’t really want to deal with all the implications of a mountain lion kitten in my camp at midnight. A bobcat: well, I didn’t actually know what a young bobcat sounded like. Maybe.


I decided a little light was in order. I wanted to get to the bottom of this. Reaching behind me, into one of my river shoes, I pulled out my Petzl e-LITE, switched it on, and swept the river cane at the rear of the beach. There, 20 yards away, two pale green eyes stared back. Then winked out for a few seconds, and then returned. And then the sound again. A high, thin, heart-breaking mew. I switched off the headlamp and listened.


Suddenly a small dark indeterminate shape emerged from the cane, padding swiftly and lightly toward me through the moonlight.  Almost immediately, before I could react, it was within reach. A kitten. A tiny domestic kitten. Or at least that’s what it looked like. A striped face and spotted body, large erect ears, and a long striped tail. This was no bobcat. The kitten trotted straight up to my head and bumped it. Pushing its forehead into my chin, then rubbing its own chin across my face, purring. I was flabbergasted.


How did this cat get here? As far as I knew, I was nowhere close to a human settlement. There were none on the Texas side within the park outside of the areas around the visitor centers, and none that I knew of anywhere reasonably close in Mexico. Certainly, domestic cats were not a feral species in the park, and this tiny kitten – no bigger than my river shoe – was VERY habituated to humans. It circled my sleeping bag, climbed up onto my chest and proceeded to make what my wife calls “kitty biscuits” on my throat: alternately pressing each soft paw into my skin, stretching its toes and gently extending its claws at the same time, just barely engaging with my flesh, all the while making a deep, deep, drawn-out purr. Then it nuzzled down into the opening of my sleeping bag, slipped inside away from the cold moonlight, and burrowed down to my stomach where it continued to make kitty biscuits on my shirt.


I was still flabbergasted. I certainly wasn’t in control here. The kitten was. It had swiftly swept in under cover of moonlight and taken control of my sleeping bag. And me. It worked its way around my torso, padding and purring, until it reached my armpit, where it nuzzled in and began to probe with its mouth. Unsatisfied, it moved up to my chin and thrust its face deep into my thick unruly beard. Pressing with its paws, making kitty biscuits, then probing with it lips, searching but not finding what it wanted and needed. It moved sideways through my beard, still searching, until it found my ear. The kitten’s mouth latched onto my earlobe and suckled. Not for a few seconds, or ten seconds, or thirty, but for two minutes.  All the while making biscuits on my neck and ear. I put my hand around its stomach and legs. The fur was clean and soft, the body lean but not emaciated. This was a hungry cat, but not a starving one.


How was this possible, I asked myself. And, seriously, without irony, “am I still dreaming?” No, this is real, and crazy. Here I am on a monthlong solo expedition through the wilderness, miles from any human settlement, on the banks of the swift-running Rio Grande, in the middle of the frigging Great Unknown, in the middle of the frigging night, on a small beach with no apparent access inland, and I suddenly have a tiny domestic kitten suckling at my earlobe and purring in my sleeping bag. You know, things like this just seem to happen to me. Last year, it was the dove landing on my chest in my sleeping bag at dawn of one of my lowest days. Looked me straight in the eye, a few inches from my face, and then flew off into the nascent sunrise. Bears wander into my campsites. Mountain lions meet me face-to-face on the trails. Or stroll by with their young in tow. Dolphins circle me while I’m swimming in the gulf and nudge my calves. A weasel runs up my leg in the middle of the forest. Iguana leap into my canoe. Black Widows hitch a ride from New Mexico in my car. Raccoons with distemper come to my front step to die. A Red-tailed Hawk is shot over a thoroughfare in Dallas and then gets hit by a rush hour car and winds up in a parking lot under my van; I have to capture it and take it to a rehabilitator. A Downy woodpecker flies headlong into a tree beside me, breaks its neck, and expires in my hands. Neighbors bring me doves, mortally wounded in a storm, or orphaned baby squirrels after an owl attack, and I must despatch them. An Eastern Phoebe lands on my shoulder while I’m birding, whispers sweet nothings into my ear for a minute or two, hops to my head and then flies away. My daughter kisses snakes. My son raises cicadas and click beetles. Hell if I know.


The kitten was still suckling my ear when the coyotes began to howl. Near and loud, maybe a hundred yards inland on the Texas side. The kitten froze, disengaged, and stood up on its front legs, stiffly, stretching its neck taut through my sleeping bag’s face hole, far into the dark night air, listening. Immobile, inches above my face, it sniffed the air. Then its eyes darted back and forth scanning the darkness while its eared twitched and tilted to pinpoint the coyotes’ location.  After a minute, the coyotes’ howls ended, and after another minute, the kitten’s taut muscles relaxed and it slowly settled back inside the sleeping bag. How many time in the preceding evenings had the kitten gone through this experience, confronting the possibility of its own violent death from the fragile confines of whatever safe place it had made for itself?  I gathered it up into my armpit and it began to purr again and make biscuits against my arm. Presently it crawled back up onto my chest, curled up under my chin, and went to sleep against my throat, though not for long, always cocking one ear toward the night, listening. I was exhausted but I kept myself awake, balancing her on my throat, holding the sleeping bag around her.


Sometime later in the night, the coyotes began howling again, this time slightly farther away. Other coyotes answered from the Mexican side of the river. The kitten repeated its earlier behavior, standing, straining upward to hear, to sniff, to see. Frozen and vigilant until the howling stopped. “Shhhh, calm down,” I whispered, “I’ll protect you.” Shortly thereafter, and unusually bravely, I thought, it left the sleeping bag and went down to the river’s edge to drink. Then it stood there and mewed loudly toward the river. Odd. I wondered what in the world this kitten’s story was. Almost impossible that it would be native to the Texas side. No domestic cats out here in the wilderness. So how did it come to the Texas side? I estimated its age to be six weeks. As best as I could tell, it was a female. Did her mother give birth to her on the Texas side for some reason? If so, where was she? Or the kitten’s siblings? If not, then how did the kitten ford the river? Was she chased into the river by a predator, did she fall in accidentally, did a portion of the bank give way and cast the kitten into the river upstream with her struggling to stay afloat and alive in the swift cold current, only able to make landfall at this beach? As I said earlier, she didn’t appear to be starving, she also didn’t appear to be weaned. I wasn’t sure if she yet had any hunting skills. So how long had she been separated from its mother: a day, two days, maybe three? Was the mother even alive? Who knew? Not me. These were such vexing questions.


One thing was obvious: this kitten was deeply habituated to human beings. Late in the night, or early in the morning, depending upon your perspective, she finally surrendered completely to the safety of the sleeping bag and my protection, and fell deeply, deeply into sleep against my inner arm, her front paws extended against my lips. I knew she was deeply asleep because it was the first time all night that she completely stopped purring and fell into slow, regular, relaxed breathing. Her eyes winked and her body twitched: she was dreaming.

To sleep – perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub.

This kitten had bonded to me, and I to her. It had happened slowly, subliminally, but there it was. I drew the sleeping bag tightly around us both against the creeping chill. Her soft, deep breathing finally lulled me to sleep as I was worriedly asking myself, “Now what?”

[TO BE CONTINUED]
« Last Edit: December 17, 2017, 05:31:58 PM by House Made of Dawn »
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

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Offline Slimkitty

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #54 on: December 16, 2017, 06:47:30 PM »
I really hope another cat shows up soon...


Sent from the future.

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Offline dprather

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #55 on: December 16, 2017, 07:43:52 PM »
Excruciatingly beautiful.
Leave "quit" at the car.  Embrace the trail as your friend.  Expect to enjoy yourself, and to be amazed.

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Offline mule ears

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #56 on: December 16, 2017, 08:24:39 PM »
I really hope another cat shows up soon...


Sent from the future.
A Slim one?

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Offline mule ears

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #57 on: December 16, 2017, 08:32:50 PM »
I not sure I like the direction this cat story is headed

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Offline trtlrock

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #58 on: December 16, 2017, 08:51:33 PM »
I not sure I like the direction this cat story is headed

Me neither -- it's been an amazing trip, and exquisitely written, but if it's going to involve immeasurable sadness HMOD (especially to fans of lost, helpless kittens)...you need to give us a heads-up now, so those who might want to can bail.

Not trying to be a jerk...just would like to know in advance if I should take a pass on the rest of this amazing tale.
John & Tess

"...and I'll face each day with a smile, for the time that I've been given's such a little while..." - Arthur Lee

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Offline House Made of Dawn

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #59 on: December 16, 2017, 09:04:50 PM »
I not sure I like the direction this cat story is headed

Me neither -- it's been an amazing trip, and exquisitely written, but if it's going to involve immeasurable sadness HMOD (especially to fans of lost, helpless kittens)...you need to give us a heads-up now, so those who might want to can bail.

Not trying to be a jerk...just would like to know in advance if I should take a pass on the rest of this amazing tale.

I wouldn't call the sadness immeasurable. But it is hefty. Then again, your mileage may vary. Readers can make their own judgement after the next installment.
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

 


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