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

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #135 on: December 28, 2017, 01:39:15 AM »
Camp Cain’t: December 3, 2017


The night before, I’d made sure to lay out my bedroll so I was facing east. I wanted the rising sun to wake me. It did its job. I was – to my great relief – still alive in my little hidey-hole. I immediately wriggled out of my sleeping bag, heedless of the early morning cold, and started quickly packing up. I wanted to get on the water as fast as possible. At the last minute, I changed out of my warm nighttime fleece and back into my now-dry river clothes, and humped my pack around the cliff, down the sandy slope, and across the rocky beach to the water’s edge. Next came my packraft, out of its little hollow and down to the water. Lashing my backpack and groundpad to the bow of the raft with what was, by now, well-practiced speed, I then slipped on my PFD and belly bag, leapt in to the cockpit and pushed off into the gurgling waters of the still-dark canyon. I wanted to put some fast distance between me and the campers on the Mexican shore, regardless of what they might or might not be up to.  I really couldn’t say what those men were doing in that remote and forbidding canyon, but I usually play the percentages, and the percentages said they weren’t there for recreation.


I hoped I wouldn’t see another person all day. More than that, I hoped I’d be off the river for good by the evening, my packraft deflated for good and ready for the long off-trail hike to Telephone Canyon and then 14 days back to my vehicle at the Mesa de Anguila trailhead. This evening’s goal was the extreme eastern edge of the park where it, the river, and the old Adams Ranch all met at a single point. I would make camp immediately downriver of there and spend the evening re-packing for the transition from my days of river travel to my days of off-trail backpacking.


I’d always viewed the rafting as simply a technical means to an end – a way to get from Point A (my vehicle in Lajitas) to Point B (the eastern edge of the park) where I could then begin the REAL trip - the backpack back to Lajitas. But it had become much more. My time on the river had been special to me. It had been surprisingly challenging, even stimulating – I’d mastered the packraft, learned a great deal about the Rio Grande and its borders that I hadn’t known before, taken in incredible views of the landscapes along the way, survived threats and injuries to both my body and my soul, and grappled with profound questions of life, death, ethics, and the harshness of life in a remote and forbidding wilderness – but I was now more than ready to return to the familiar rigors of travel on foot. On the river, I never had to bother with finding my way. I always knew (more-or-less) where I was and where I was going, but not always what I would find ahead or whether I had the skills to deal with it. That made river travel thrilling, intense, and often unnerving. On land, knowing where I was would always be a bit of a challenge, but I had no doubt I could deal with whatever I ran into. There was comfort in that familiar test. 


Contemplating the end of the day, I followed a bend of the river eastward and paddled into the light of the rapidly rising sun. The Arroyo Venado and its rapid of fallen boulders was a little more than a mile ahead of me, around two more bends, maybe half an hour away. I had seen distant pictures of this rapid in Mule Ear’s earlier trip report of his group’s epic ramble through the southern Deadhorse Mountains. Louis Albach, in his wonderful guidebook, The Great Unknown of the Rio Grande, had described the Arroyo Venado rapids as ranging anywhere from Class I at low flows to Class III at high flows. I estimated this morning’s river flow at about 800cfs, at the higher end of moderate. I wouldn’t actually know what I was dealing with until I saw it with my own eyes. 


It didn’t take long. I heard the rapid long before I saw it, and it sounded massive. I rounded one of the many bends of the river and there it was, coming up fast. It wasn’t nearly as large or imposing at it sounded from upriver, but it was still a formidable challenge for my little raft. The unique challenge of the Arroyo Venado rapid is that it was formed as recently as three or four years ago, when rocks and boulders crashed down from the overhanging canyon wall on the Mexican side. These rocks were not the huge and ancient boulders of the Rockslide in Santa Elena Canyon, or the similarly old obstacles in the Mariscal’s Rockpile and Tight Squeeze, all of which were worn smooth by hundreds, if not thousands, of years of raging river waters. No, these boulders were newly fallen and still retained their rough edges, sharply-delineated planes, and dangerous points, any of which could puncture my little raft’s single air chamber. Negotiating the rapid would require deft maneuvering and that would require split-second reading of the rapid and quick decisions. Perhaps I could have beached upriver and scouted the rapids, but I was in the mood for speed. I hit the rapid, moving fast, and worked left to right through the maze, cutting and twisting as I went. I nearly hit a rock broadside at one point, but dug my paddle in hard, turned on a dime, and then stroked deeply and quickly to launch my raft past the boulder. Before I had time to worry, I was through the rapid and into the calm eddies below. I spun around and examined the rapid I’d just run. Not bad. Not bad at all. I was a LOT better at this than I’d been on my first or second day on the river, almost ten days ago.


I barely had time to notice the mouth of Arroyo Venado, on the Texas side of the river, but I did note its gnarliness. This was the arroyo that Mule Ears’ party had ascended this past February. It was extremely daunting terrain. As I moved downriver, I encountered the mouth of Cow Canyon, which looked even more challenging, and then, just below it, high on a rocky slope, the Rabbit Ears formation, with its distinctive short double columns of rock extending upward from a single, massive, narrow and flat spire. The Rabbit Ears signaled that I would soon be coming to the end of the closed-in canyon. It would open up into much broader vistas, bounded on each side by large washes and terrain much less steep and cliffy. Shortly before exiting the narrow canyons, I spied a another huge, striking rock formation on the Mexican side of the river. This one looked remarkably like El Chupadero (the lizard) seen upstream yesterday, a creature straining upward toward the sky, only barely separated from the inland cliff, but in this instance the snout and jaw were much larger, much longer, representing much more of the creature. To me, it looked like the native Longnosed Gar (Lepisosteus osseus), breaching the surface, streams of river water pouring from its mouth. So I named it, naturally, El Gar, or El Pez Aguja, a downriver companion to El Chupadero. A few minutes later, I emerged from the canyons into broad open country and the river slowed to a meandering crawl, sheltered on both sides by huge, ample stands of Giant River Cane, twenty feet tall and twenty feet thick, blocking out all views inland except for the distant high cliffs that formed the canyons from which I’d just emerged. It was 1pm.


The river suddenly had a verdant, claustrophobic, and suffocating feel. The vegetation loomed inward, almost menacingly, reminiscent of what James Whales’ old 1950’s potboiler film called, “the green hell.”  More to the point, I was reminded of canoeing in the 1980’s, deep in the wilderness of Belize, on the Macal and Mopan Rivers, or on the Usumacinta River in Guatemala's Peten jungle. I half expected an iguana to leap from the vegetation into the cockpit of my raft. Nevertheless, spooky as it might have been, the slow crawl of the river gradually disarmed me, lulling me into a quiet, relaxed state. I put my feet up onto the bow, straddling my backpack lashed there, and again leaned back onto my spare PFD at the stern, and closed my eyes. In seconds, I was asleep. Again, as I did a few days ago, I woke suddenly with no clear idea of how long I’d been asleep or where I now was. Since the current was slow and I heard absolutely no sound of approaching rapids, I dug into my belly bag and pulled out my maps, carefully studying the bends of the river. Memorizing them, I returned the maps to my bag, and began paying close attention to the river. I should soon know where I was.


Right about then I had my most amazing bird sighting of the entire trip: an Aplomado Falcon, only the second I’ve ever seen. It emerged from beyond the cane on the Mexican side of the river, about 30 feet above me, and flew directly and muscularly across my line of travel, some 150 feet in front of me, disappearing beyond the cane on the Texas side.  The bird was in my view for maybe seven or eight or nine seconds. But it was unmistakable: an adult male. All the birders here know the rule: no pictures, no corroboration: it didn’t happen. And so that sighting remains a private experience shared only by me, the bird, and the river. Who knows, maybe I was still asleep and it was only a dream.


As I floated lazily downstream, I began to notice a perceptible difference in the river. What had once been a one-hundred-and-fifty foot wide river, became a one-hundred foot wide river, and then a fifty-foot wide river. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was experiencing the profound hydrological and ecological effects of Arundo donax, or Giant River Cane. This non-native plant, first imported into the western hemisphere some four centuries ago as a building material, and then later used for erosion control on river banks, had come to dominate the banks of southwestern rivers. As it colonized the river banks, forcing out less aggressive plants, and creating a thick monoculture, water flowing through the cane on the margins of the river was slowed, and the slower current deposited more sediment, creating more substrate for Arundo donax to colonize and marginally stabilize the banks. It was a positive feedback loop and the end result was an ever-narrower river channel.  But, as the river channel narrows, the Venturi effect dictates that the constricted river must flow faster, and that faster current carves the bank more precipitously. Eventually these competing factors reach a state of balance: the river banks narrow and become choked with a thick, impenetrable stand of Giant River Cane growing from a substrate of thick mud, right up until the point that the banks become impossibly steep, plunging almost vertically down to the bottom of the river. On Day 2 of my river trip, I'd discussed the scourge of Giant River Cane with the river ranger, and he'd told me about enormously clever efforts to use releases of predatory wasps to control the cane. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the clear-sightedness and creativity of conservation biologists.


https://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/the-wall-of-reeds-that-the-border-patrol-would-like-to-tear-down


Approaching the easternmost edge of the park, I nervously scanned the Texas banks, looking for a suitable exit point at which to beach, but none was to be found. The sharply eroded banks sloped upward toward the inland desert at 45 degrees or more, sometimes approaching 90 degrees. As steep as those banks were, they were still thickly colonized with Arunda donax and there was simply no way I could force myself up those banks and through that cane. Making matters worse, the constricted current was racing past the banks at 6 or 7 or 8 miles an hour, vastly complicating any efforts to beach my packraft on an inhospitable shore. I didn’t dare pull out my non-waterproof Holux GPS to try and take a reading, but nevertheless it was clear to me that I’d passed Heath Creek, and passed the easternmost boundary of the park, as was rapidly heading downriver toward the La Linda takeout. This was NOT what I had intended. Every mile downstream meant another mile deeper into the private Adams Ranch, and another mile (or two) that I’d have to hike overland back northwestward through private land until I reached the entrance to Telephone Canyon. I was becoming increasingly agitated: I had to stop racing downstream and find a place to reenter Texas, but good options appeared non-existent. I thought to myself, “this cane has screwed me." I was livid.


About that time - just downriver of a surprisingly difficult rapid - a large, flat beach of cobbles and sand appeared on the Mexican shore. “Any port in a storm,” I said to myself, and thrust my packraft up onto the rocky shore. It was 2pm. I had originally planned on beaching on the Texas shore and spending the rest of the afternoon unpacking and repacking my gear in order to prepare for the shift from river travel to backpacking, but it was not to be. My task now was to find a way across the river and back into Texas. I pulled my raft up onto the cobbles, well above the waterline, slipped off my PFD, pulled out my 7x17 monocular, and headed east along the beach, to scout the opposite shore, looking for any place that I might successfully breach the wall of Giant River Cane.


Texas apparently didn’t want me back, so I figured I’d just have to fight my way in.


I walked along the water’s edge for a few hundred yards, scanning the Texas shore with my monocular but to no avail, and then the beach on the Mexican side also disappeared into an impenetrable wall of Giant River Cane. At that point, I turned inland, looking for a way around the cane, and quickly came to a dry creekbed emptying into the Rio Grande from the inland slopes. I would have to cross it in order to continue my scouting downriver. I stepped off its bank, dropping a few feet into the creekbed and immediately – to my great shock – sunk into wet gooey mud up to my ankles. Panicking, I lunged forward across the 10-foot wide creekbed, yanking my buried foot from the mud and planting my other foot a few feet farther across the creekbed where it promptly sunk up to my calf. Still panicking, I extracted my sunken foot with great difficulty from the sucking mud and lunged forward again, this time sinking my foot and leg up to my knee. One more lunge, and another leg sunk up to my thigh, and with Herculean effort I freed myself from the sucking mud by clawing my way up the opposite bank with my fingernails. Free, finally, on top of the opposite creekbank, I soon realized that both my river shoes had been left behind, now buried deep in the muddy creekbed. Was I going to go back after them? NOT. ON. YOUR. LIFE. My shoes were at least two feet under the mud, and they would just have to stay there forever.


I took a few minutes to regain my calm and then, now barefoot, headed further downstream, mostly following animal trails through the thick, thorny riverside vegetation. After a quarter-mile or so, I found an opening in the foliage and forced my way roughly through. From that point, with my monocular, I worked my way further downstream and eventually found three possible exits on the Texas shore. The first was steep (about 40 degrees) but afforded some mud on which to beach, but it led to solid river cane. The second was also steep (about 60 degrees) and afforded little mud, but led to at least one mesquite and one tamarisk tree which had thinned the river cane somewhat. The last option was steep (about 45 degrees) but featured several trees and a two-foot deep and four-foot long wet mud beach below a thick stand of river cane.  Were there better beaches downriver from here? Who knew? But should I spend another day, moving down river to look, or should I just make the best of the alternatives in front of me? I decided upon the latter course, but there wasn't enough time to execute it that afternoon. The chances of me capsizing, as I tried to beach and climb through the cane, were huge, and I didn't want to capsize just as the sun was going down and without any clear idea of what I'd encounter downriver. I would wait until tomorrow morning to attempt a crossing of the river onto a hostile bank.


Plan made, I gingerly threaded my way, barefoot, back to my packraft, avoiding thorns with careful forethought, and the muddy creekbed by detouring further inland. Back at my packraft, I changed out of my wet river clothes and into my nighttime fleece, and laid my river clothes out on driftwood and stunted trees to dry overnight. Camping illegally on the Mexican side of the river, I did my best to hide my packraft behind a dune, and laid out my bedroll on the sandy Mexican beach behind another dune, made a quick hot dinner, and then retired for the night, sometime after the sun had set and before the moon had risen.


It was an unusually cold night and I had trouble falling asleep. I was worried about tomorrow. An hour or so after I crawled into my sleeping bag, I noticed a startlingly bright glow in the sky behind the cane and trees to my right, toward the Mexican interior. I stared at it, uncomprehendingly, for a minute or so, and then suddenly realized it was the full moon rising. It would take a long time before it finally rose above the vegetation, but man was it already bright in the cloudless sky. I surrendered to my sleeplessness and squirmed out of my bag, pulled my hiking boots out of their drysack in my backpack and onto my feet, and stood up to watch the moon rise over the river. In my mind, I ran through the steps I would take tomorrow to beach, secure, and unload my raft on the Texas bank. By the light of the moon, I pulled out my hank of 3mm utility cord and lashed it to my packraft in a handy spot. I double-checked the contents of my belly bag, fully aware that if I capsized and became separated from my raft, I might be forced to survive off of what I had inside my belly bag. I wouldn't wear my boots for the crossing - I'd go barefoot - but I would clip the boots in their drysack to one of my pant's beltloops. Having lost my river shoes, these boots were the only footwear I had left and I certainly couldn't afford to lose them. Mentally, I practiced unlashing my backpack and groundpad from my raft as quickly as possible: that would be my number one priority once my raft was secured to the Texas bank.  As all of these thoughts passed through my head, I paced. Partly to keep warm and partly to work off my nervous energy. Back and forth and back and forth on the sandy beach, until I had worn a deep depression into the sand. About this time, burros began braying a soulful dirge from beyond the vegetation on the Mexican shore. It was a disturbing sound, located somewhere between anger and sorrow. Other burros, these on the Texas bank, soon answered, and I found myself in the middle of an antiphony of asses, two groups calling mournfully to each other from bank to bank, separated by the dark river. One thought, dripping with toxic irony, popped into my head: I was trapped on the wrong side of the river, on a beach where I didn't belong, far from help, and all I wanted was to get to the other side: just like Olivia Felix. Karma is a bitch.


Meanwhile the moon continued to rise and cast an eerie ivory light over the entire beach, the gurgling river, and the wall of Giant River Cane on the opposite bank. Much like my night in Santa Elena Canyon all those days ago, I watched the moonlight slowly descend the wall of cane as the moon rose ever higher: when finally I saw the full moon's reflection in the rippling water of the river, I knew it was time to stop picking at my scabs of worry and crawl back into my bag. I was now sufficiently exhausted to go to sleep.


Tomorrow, cane willing and the river don’t rise, I would be in Texas - on foot, as I am most comfortable - and headed back to my vehicle, 14 days away.


[TO BE CONTINUED]
« Last Edit: December 29, 2017, 09:57:57 PM by House Made of Dawn »
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

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Offline DesertRatShorty

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #136 on: December 28, 2017, 09:33:30 AM »
That photo speaks volumes, that looks like an impenetrable wall, especially coming from the river.

What thoughts do you have on the route that the smugglers might have been taking?

Cow Canyon: was it too obscured by river cane, or could a person hiking down it access the river?

I realize you weren't looking for an exit until you got to the easternmost point, but if you had been wanting to exit the river earlier, were there any spots on the Texas side? Heath Creek?
« Last Edit: December 28, 2017, 09:42:48 AM by DesertRatShorty »
I roamed and rambled, and I foller'ed my footsteps
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   And all around me a voice was a'sounding
   This land was made for you and me

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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 #137 on: December 28, 2017, 01:28:36 PM »
That photo speaks volumes, that looks like an impenetrable wall, especially coming from the river.

What thoughts do you have on the route that the smugglers might have been taking?

Cow Canyon: was it too obscured by river cane, or could a person hiking down it access the river?

I realize you weren't looking for an exit until you got to the easternmost point, but if you had been wanting to exit the river earlier, were there any spots on the Texas side? Heath Creek?

The magazine article in the link within my last post mentions white plastic bags being used as markers for maintained smuggling routes. I saw several white bags tied to trees or cane on the Texas side, but at the time I simply thought they were trash caught in the banks during high river flows. I do think the two men whom I saw camped deep in Boquillas Canyon may have been using the Marufo Vega trail as a route in and out of Texas, because they were practically right across the river from it, but that's only speculation on my part.

I did try to keep a sharp eye out for the mouths of Arroyo Venado and Cow Canyon. As I passed through the Arroyo Venado rapids, I got glimpses of Arroyo Venado and it looked tough but do-able, as I think ME and his party proved in February. I got a better look at the mouth of Cow Canyon and it looked brutal. Just upwash from the mouth is a large pouroff that would be very difficult to ascend or descend without technical equipment. 

The Texas walls of Boquillas Canyon were almost exclusively rocky, all the way down to the river. River cane couldn't get much of a hold there. It was only after the walls ended at the eastern edge of the Hubert Ridge, that the terrain gave way to floodplains choked with river cane. I had hoped to scout the various mouths of Heath Creek as they meandered their way south to the river, but the transition to impenetrable river cane was almost immediate once downstream of the Hubert Ridge. I never saw any sign of Heath Creek. And the only sign I might have seen of the eastern boundary of the park was a small section of modern barbed-wire fence high up on a bluff behind the river cane. I'd hoped to explore the eastern boundary line because a friend of mine - a professor specializing in the history of the park system - had offered to buy me a steak dinner if I could get him a picture of the large boundary marker erected by an international commission upon the founding of the park. But, alas, there was simply NO way to beach anywhere close to there. I wish the ranger who'd written my permit had warned me of the condition of the river banks along this section of the river...but, frankly, I doubt anyone knew or even thought about it. Very few people boat through Boquillas Canyon and those that do, all take out at La Linda or even further downriver. No one even thinks of taking out anywhere between Hubert Ridge and La Linda, and for very good reason.
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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #138 on: December 28, 2017, 10:12:39 PM »
Camp Diddit: December 4, 2017


Again, I’d placed my bedroll facing east so that the rising sun would wake me, and it did. I had serious work to do this morning. But the world I woke up in was not the world I’d gone to sleep in. It was cold. It was wet. The river was almost completely obscured by wisps of mist. My sleeping bag was soaked with condensation. The clothes I had left spread out on driftwood were dripping wet. Before I was willing to put them on for a 15-minute crossing of the river, or before I was willing to stuff my down sleeping bag deep into my backpack, everything had to dry. Unexpected, this was.


I shook out everything and spread it again on the available perches, strategically tilted toward the rising sun. Meanwhile, I packed what I could, including my hiking boots, ate a leisurely breakfast of GU and KIND bars, and walked back downriver to scope my intended landing spots. I had decided I’d try a practice landing at one of the first, less suitable spots, just in order to fine-tune my technique, then push off and head quickly downriver to the crossing point I’d selected as most likely to provide access through the imposing wall of Giant River Cane and back into Texas and my home nation. One of the odder things I’d noticed yesterday was a set of decrepit adobe buildings perched on a bluff high above the river on the Texas side. Selfishly, I wondered if there might be some of Bonnie McKinney’s folks there, working on the Desert Bighorn Sheep re-introduction, that could bail me out in case I capsized. I’d scoped the buildings late in the afternoon, at night, and then again in the morning, but I’d seen absolutely no sign of life among the buildings. It looked like I was completely on my own in this indescribably remote corner of the Big Bend.


Returning to my campsite, I found my gear finally dried, and the mists gone from the river. The day was warming and I was ready to make my crossing. I checked and rechecked my gear, changed into my now-dry river gear, stowed everything else, carried my raft downriver to a suitable put-in spot, lashed everything on to the raft, tossed a water bladder into its cockpit, took a deep breath, leaped in, grabbed my paddle, and pushed off into the current.


I immediately paddled toward the Texas shore, turned in tight to the river cane, and slowly paddled along its margins, constantly resisting the current, keeping an eagle eye for each of the three possible entry points I’d identified yesterday. Soon, the first access point appeared and I drove into the mud bank. Whipping out my pre-attached utility cord, I furiously lashed it around several shafts of river cane, most of which pulled out of the mud bank immediately. One or two held, and my raft spun sideways and slammed into the tiny mud spit before yanking the cane stalks free, sending me spinning downstream, cane stalks in tow.


Not exactly A+, but I’d learned a lot in that short, frantic encounter. I skipped the next possible access point – it was simply too steep – and steeled myself for my last chance. All too quickly it appeared and then, miraculously, so did a large gravel bar further downstream that I hadn’t been able to see in my scouting trips along the Mexican bank yesterday and this morning.  The bar looked far more appealing than the tiny mud beach I’d identified as my last hope. I dug in to the current with my paddle, shot back into the main current, narrowly avoiding a collision with the mud spit, and headed around a slight curve in the river, toward the gravel bar. Immediately, the gravel bar revealed itself as a mid-channel island, not an access point at all. There was no connection with the Texas shore, which was still as cane-choked as before, but there was a large rapid encompassing both sides of the island, and it was approaching fast. Instantly recognizing this, I furiously backpaddled, spun the raft around, and dug in hard to paddle backstream to my last hope. At first, I made little headway through the downstream current, but I persisted, cursing, and paddling for all I was worth. Slowly, I overmatched the current and crawled back upriver. A minute later, the tiny mud beach appeared. Two minutes later, I was upstream of it. I paused, spun the raft around, and established a diagonal line straight toward a notch in the mud spit.


I paddled hard and fast, always toward the notch, and hit it exactly right, temporarily lodging the bow of my raft. I whipped out my utility cord and frantically, intuitively, lashed it across anything that seemed thick or stable. No technique, just a whirlwind of desperate, hopeful activity. Stalk after stalk or river cane broke free from the mudbank and the raft started to spin, turning me upstream, but then miraculously one stalk held...and then another…and another.


Three were sufficient. I was facing upstream, but the raft’s motion had halted. I plunged my paddle into the river to test the depth right at the bank: two, three, four, five, six feet and my paddle hit bottom, at its full extension. The river was a full six feet deep right here at the bank and 80-90 degrees steep.  I did not want to fall in here.  I stood up, nearly capsized, and threw one foot onto the muddy bank, and my naked foot immediately sank into the soft mud. The raft slid away from the bank and I performed a particularly painful “boater’s split”, but was able to grab a thick handful of cane stalk and yank myself landward, bringing the raft with me. I lifted my other foot onto land, it sank, too. I grabbed the 30 or so free feet of the utility cord and lunged up the vegetated bank, clawing my way through the cane with my fingers. Cane broke off and I tossed it behind me, always scrambling upward along the now-almost 70 degree slope toward the first of the trees some ten feet above me, bare feet always searching for some foothold – a rock, a root, a hollow into which to dig my toes. Miraculously, somehow, don’t ask me how, I reached one of the trees and instantly lashed my cord to it. Over and over and over, and then collapsed face-down into the slippery mud, one hand holding the trunk of the tree in a death grip.


I was on land. I was in Texas. I had a grip on a tree. My raft was tethered and intact. And I had a handline to help me up and down the impossibly steep muddy slope so that I could unload my backpacking gear. I’d made it.


I looked over my shoulder to make sure the raft was secured, then grabbed the 3mm handline and lowered myself slowly back down to the tiny mud spit where I could stand and work. Quickly I unlashed my backpack and, using the handline again, climbed my way back upslope to the tamarisk tree and heaved my pack behind its trunk and into its lower branches. I made sure it was reasonably secure there, and then headed back down to the raft to retrieve my groundpad, then another round to retrieve my 6-liter MSR Dromedary bladder. Having off-loaded all the essentials, I now focused on the cane jungle. It was almost, but not quite, impenetrable: twenty to thirty feet thick and at least twenty feet tall, and tightly packed. A few trees were interspersed within the jungle, affording the only daylight, or hope, that I could see. Double-checking, once again, that my gear was secure in the arms of the tamarisk tree, I struggled out of my PFD, but not my belly bag, and shoved the vest into the tree’s limbs. Then I began to crawl on my hands and knees, or snaking along on my belly, between the cane stalks, bending or breaking off what I could, occasionally using my tiny knife to saw through what I couldn’t otherwise remove. I belly-crawled through the sand and mud and made my way toward the light on the far side. Ten minutes later, I poked my head into bright sunlight, in front of me was a ten foot expanse of deep grass, stretching inland to a tall, rough, dry and sunny wall of rocky aggregate decorated with all the traditional desert thorns.


Texas. I had broken through.


Having excavated a tiny tunnel through the cane, I now proceeded to ferry my gear through, bit by bit, one piece at a time, usually pushing it along the ground ahead of me. The handline was essential. I could never have made it up and down the extremely steep and slippery bank without it. Finally, all my gear was spread out in the sunlight in the grassy margin between the cane wall and the rocky inland slope. It was time to pull my raft from the water. Lowering myself carefully back to the water with the handline, I reached the raft, knelt down, took a deep breath, and unscrewed the plug. The raft instantly collapsed. It felt like crossing the Rubicon. Using the tiny mud beach as a precarious working platform, I hoisted the deflated shell onto the mud and proceeded to roll it up into a tight cylinder, slowly squeezing the water out of the cockpit and the air out of the chamber. Once empty, I replaced the plug, wrapped the raft tightly in two compression straps, and carried it back upslope to the tunnel. Carefully pushing it ahead of me, I managed to wrestle it to the grassy hollow. That was it: everything was off the river.


Now it was time to repack for land: after twelve days of thinking like a river, I was no longer a rafter, I was a backpacker.


[TO BE CONTINUED]
« Last Edit: May 24, 2018, 05:44:05 PM by House Made of Dawn »
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

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Offline SergeantFunk

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #139 on: December 28, 2017, 11:21:04 PM »
Even with prior knowledge that you had made it, I found myself breathless reading this latest entry.  Just fantastic storytelling HMoD!  Bravo.  :eusa_clap:
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Offline Txlj

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #140 on: December 29, 2017, 01:15:06 AM »
Ah yes. All better.

Sent from flat land


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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 #141 on: December 29, 2017, 05:54:34 AM »
Whew!  Glad you made it.    :nailbitting:

The picture of the cane tunnel had me for a minute 'cause it looked like you had to crawl along a steep cut in the silt alluvium but then I realized it was sideways.   :eusa_doh:
« Last Edit: December 29, 2017, 08:51:51 AM by mule ears »
temperatures exceed 100 degrees F
minimum 1 gallon water per person/day
no shade, no water
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Offline badknees

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #142 on: December 29, 2017, 07:05:13 AM »
Not all those who wander are lost.
– J.R.R. Tolkien

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Offline Hang10er

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #143 on: December 29, 2017, 08:51:52 AM »
I have had a bit of exposure to BiBE, so my mind gives me an image when you describe your camps, the tunnel through the cane, etc.  With your storytelling, it's usually a pretty close match to your pictures. 

Thanks for sharing your adventure.  Can't wait for "Part Two - Land".

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #144 on: December 29, 2017, 11:31:43 PM »
I now found myself in a secluded hollow on the US side of the international border.  I didn’t take a GPS reading (nor am I sure I could have, given all the blocking terrain), but my best guess of its coordinates, from looking at Google Earth, is 29 23 17N by 102 50 00W. To my rear and somewhat to each side of me was the wall of Giant River Cane and an incredibly steep ten-foot mudbank separating me from the Rio Grande, from Mexico, and from the first twelve days of my trip. Immediately in front of me was a towering aggregate rock cliff, maybe fifty feet tall, pierced through with caves and overhangs, and curving away from me at its far sides. The east, or right side of the cliff, as I faced it, was choked with a mix of vegetation that reflected the peculiar ecotone in which I stood: part succulent and cacti; part river cane, tamarisk, river willow, and mesquite; and wholly impenetrable. The west side of the cliff fell away into a rocky, sandy drainage, perhaps five feet deep, stretching from the cane wall northward into the desert beyond. To the west, even further to my left, the drainage was bordered by a classic desert slope some seventy-five feet high, filled with cholla, ocotillo, lechuguilla, pricklypear, and rainbow cactus. That would be my way out of this hollow and inland to Telephone Canyon.


First things first, I set about packing for land travel. Out came my backpacking boots, and onto my feet. I have to admit, they felt great. Their robustness and perfect fit filled me with confidence, even chutzpah, far different than the fragile, open river shoes now moldering deep in the mud on the Mexican shore. I filled up both my SmartWater bottles with a liter of water and slipped them into the side pockets of my Osprey Aether 70 pack. I already had a full 4-liter MSR Dromlite bladder inside the bladder pocket of my pack. The 6-liter Dromlite that had been in the cockpit of my raft now held only 4-liters of purified river water as well. I slipped it into the interior of my backpack, just above my sleeping bag compartment. On top of that went my Basecamp odor barrier bag with five days’ food, enough to get me to my next cache in the desert near Mile 13 on the main park road south of Panther Junction. Then the stuffsack with my Vargo messkit and stove, a stuffsack with my raingear, and another with my “layers and spares”. Lastly, on top, went my Integral Designs Silshelter Tarp, and then I cinched the packbag’s mouth closed. The packraft fit between the main packbag and my pack’s top pocket (aka, my “belly bag”, which was now reattached to my backpack). My groundpad was, of course, attached to the rear bottom of my backpack. And my paddles were broken down and inserted into my pack's rear Stuffit pocket. The PFD, and my paddling gloves, were slipped over the exposed handles of my paddles where they rode comfortably and securely.


My total packweight was probably somewhere around 56lbs: 18lbs baseweight, a little over 5lbs food, 25lbs water, and 8lbs of packrafting gear. I hoisted it all onto my back and groaned. This dog wasn’t going to hunt. I rummaged through my pack, pulled out my 6-liter Dromlite and emptied out 2 liters of water. I was confident I could find water SOMEWHERE in the next three days before reaching Ernst Tinaja. That brought my total packweight down to less than 54lbs: a small but welcome difference.


Before humping that load up the slope to my west, I decided to do a bit of scouting. I unhooked my pack’s top pocket (the belly bag) which held all my emergency supplies, and converted it into a fanny pack. Then I grabbed my two trekking poles and started up the slope, reaching the flat summit in just a few minutes. From there, I could see quite far both up and downstream along the river, as well as inland. It was fascinating to look down on the walls of river cane that bordered the water, to see the full extent of the barrier. Looking northward and westward, I could see the Hubert Ridge in the distance, including – in the very far distance – its terminus at the narrow eastern mouth of Telephone Canyon, which was my goal for the day. Between there and where I stood, I could barely make out a network of faint ranch roads. I’d noticed these before, both on topo maps and on Google Earth. Happily, it looked as if I might be able to use these as route to Telephone Canyon. Seeing as how I had been forced to beach on private land (the former Adams Ranch) and would now be crossing it illegally in order to reenter the national park, I was interested in doing so as quickly and efficiently as possible. I wanted to be back on national park land by sunset.


I returned downslope and across the wash to the grassy hollow sandwiched between the rocky inland cliff and the Giant River Cane jungle along the river bank. Time to man-up, I said to myself, and hoisted the pack onto my shoulders, grabbed my trekking poles, turned westward, and headed for the slope. It was a quick climb, if occasionally slippery on gravel, and I made the top in good time. The weight was manageable. I could do this. I took a couple of quick pictures from the top, mostly of the river and cane, and then turned north along the spine of ridge. I was headed for a spot in the distance where a rough ranch road crossed the ridge. The temperatures were fine, the wind was modest, and the skies were blue. I was happy.


Finally, I was backpacking again.


One of my main interests in this area was the various US military camps installed in Big Bend in the early 1900’s in response the political and social instability of the Mexican Revolution. No nation welcomes a neighbor descending into chaos, but that is exactly what the United States got when Porfirio Diaz’s autocratic presidency fell apart in 1910.  Pity the poor Mexican people: they’ve lived under 500 years of corruption, enabled by a willing (or submissive) bureaucracy that makes the US version seem positively saintly. As always, we could argue all day about why this is, but it’s hard to argue that from time to time, the Mexican people become fed up with their circumstances and attempt to throw the bums out. In 1910, destitute peasants, abused farmers, marginalized labor unions, and (most importantly) even some wealthy landowners (like, for example, Pancho Villa) refused to accept an extension of Diaz’s 35-year-long reign of corruption. A revolution ensued, the revolution collapsed into civil war, and Pancho Villa was eventually reduced to a lawless guerilla leader, roaming across his native state of Chihuahua. International commercial interests in Mexico were hamstrung or crippled with the breakdown of Mexico’s political and social order. And Villa was not the only guerilla staging raids across the Rio Grande; many others, of uncertain loyalty and motivation, took advantage of the general chaos to make a quick peso. As early as 1911, the United States had begun stationing military personnel in the Big Bend to protect civilians and commerce.  Tensions came to a head on the evening of May 5, 1914, when Mexican guerillas/bandits raided the candelilla wax camp at Glenn Springs, Texas. Nine men of Troop A of the 14th Cavalry were stationed there. A three-hour gun battle ensued. Three soldiers and one civilian were killed, and many others were severely wounded. Stores were looted, buildings burned, and the wax camp destroyed. The incident became a national scandal and President Woodrow Wilson ordered the Texas National Guard to establish permanent military settlements at Glenn Springs, as well as elsewhere in the Bend near Lajitas, at Castolon, La Noria on the ore road near Ernst Tinaja, and at the newly-created Camp Mercer on the Rio Grande near Stillwell’s Crossing. General John Pershing was sent to the southwest as the head of an expeditionary force tasked with subduing Mexican rebels and bandits in the border areas, with only marginal regard for the international border. The US- Mexican border had become militarized yet again.


And that is how Telephone Canyon got its name.


The 4th Texas Infantry’s I Company was tasked with stringing a telephone line from their camp at La Noria, just west of Ernst Tinaja, to Camp Mercer, above one of the many mouths of Heath Creek at the Rio Grande. The route they chose ran awfully close the present-day trail over the Deadhorse Mountains and through what we now call Telephone Canyon, and then along the Heath Creek drainage to Camp Mercer at the river. I knew I was awfully close to the ruins of Camp Mercer and hoped I would stumble upon them. Were the adobe ruins - near where I put in (best guess: 29 23 24N by 102 50 05W) - actually the remains of Camp Mercer? I thought not: an existing powerline still ran to them and they seemed far too well-preserved to be those that I was looking for. Most likely, the ruins of Camp Mercer were just downstream of where I landed, along the network of roads I was heading for, but further south, next to the river. I was headed in the opposite direction, north towards Telephone Canyon.


[TO BE CONTINUED]
« Last Edit: August 22, 2018, 01:31:36 AM 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 #145 on: December 29, 2017, 11:35:31 PM »
I’d spent months studying this road network via Google Earth and felt I had a good grasp of it.  I knew most branches would eventually funnel westward into a single track heading to the fenced gate at the eastern mouth of Telephone Canyon right at the boundary between the national park and the old Adams Ranch. I trusted my skills, sure that through a combination of map study, dead reckoning, and intuition, I could wend my may through the spiderweb of ranch roads to my evening’s destination. The weather was beautiful, the topography was relatively flat, and the roadbeds were good. Pretty close to perfect if you’re humping 56 pounds through the desert.


To my rear, in Mexico, rose the Sierra del Carmen and a myriad of stark, isolated, and imposing volcanic mountains. In front of me were the massifs of the Deadhorse Mountains, forming the eastern end of Big Bend National Park: Hubert Ridge and the high, forbidding ridges that delineated Hog Canyon, Brushy Draw, Margaret Basin, and Telephone Canyon.  It was 1pm and I had about 4 miles of desert to cover before I made camp at the eastern end of Telephone Canyon.


Around mid-afternoon, still under clear skies and bright sunlight, I spied some kind of man-made equipment near the side of the road a few hundred yards away. It turned out to be an automatic wildlife feeder and a desert spring with a concrete cap and an attached pumping system. Clearly, this was part of the Desert Bighorn Sheep reintroduction program being conducted on the old Adams Ranch property. I looked around for automatic cameras, but found none. I took the opportunity to re-purpose the concrete cap on the spring as a camp stool. I set my hiking polls aside against a greasewood bush, unshouldered my pack, sat down and stretched my legs. I snacked on a GU and some jerky, drank several ounces of water, and set up my Holux GPS to get a reading. I was in the middle of nowhere. Sure, there were ranch roads, but it didn’t look like there’d been another human being anywhere near here in months. After a minute or two, my GPS logger registered coordinates of 29 28 3810N and 102 50 5513W. Yep, the middle of nowhere.


I checked my thermometer: 89 degrees. Yow. I considered drawing some water from the pump-fed pool atop the concrete cap, but decided against it. I was sure I had enough water to last me until Ernst Tinaja, a few days hence – and if I didn’t, I could find more in the tiny tinajas in Telephone Canyon. The pump-fed water belonged to Bighorn Sheep. It had been put there for them, not me, and I could survive without it. I shouldered my pack, grabbed my trekking poles, and headed east down the ranch road toward Telephone Canyon. The landscape was as barren as they come, but beautiful in its own sere, rolling way. I was happy to be out here, happy to be on foot, happy to have my necessities on my back.


A mile or so later, I spied what looked like more manmade artifacts in the distance. As I approached, I realized it was a fence and gate: the National Park boundary. The entrance to Telephone Canyon. I’d dreamed of this spot for three years and now it was only a short walk away. This is the spot from which I’d always wanted to begin my hike across Big Bend National Park, and now I was almost there. Admittedly by a somewhat non-traditional and borderline legal means, but there nonetheless. But, hey, was it really my fault that the Rio Grande was straightjacketed by Giant River Cane throughout its eastern reaches in the park? I did the best that I could under the circumstances.


With each passing step, the gate got nearer, and I got happier. And then…I was there. A thin, fragile fenceline strung through the middle of a vast, beautiful, austere wilderness. Mountains far behind, and mountains far ahead. And in between, bisected by the imaginary boundary line, some of the most flat, inhospitable desert imaginable. I took the obligatory selfie with my phone, just to prove to myself that I’d made it, and then I worked a little harmless mischief just to satisfy my own peculiar sense of fun. Half an hour later, it was time to saddle up and head for my evening’s campsite.


Now, you may think the walk from the park’s eastern boundary gate to the mouth of Telephone Canyon is a quick stroll. I did. But it is not. It is a long, long two miles across difficult desert before the sheltering walls of Telephone Canyon rise up to embrace the weary hiker. The terrain became rougher and the roadbed began to rapidly deteriorate. As the roadbed deteriorated, social and wildlife trails proliferated. So did historic trash: old tin cans, nails and horseshoes and other rusted hardware, even an ancient 55-gallon drum that had apparently served as a grill or cistern. Thankfully, a few cairns also began to appear. The hours of cruising were over; I had to wake up and pay attention to my footsteps. Not that I couldn’t find my way to the mouth of Telephone Canyon by dead reckoning…that was easy…it was just a matter of how painful I wanted it to be. Torn skin? Bloody gashes? Twisted ankle? Maybe better to look for cairns. And so I did. Soon the walls of Telephone Canyon went from blue to gray to black; from lines on the horizon to hulks big enough to blot out the sinking sun and darkening skies. By 4:15pm I was inside the canyon and began looking for a place to camp. I found a perfect spot. Soft gravel for a bed. Large rocks for seats, and for windbreaks behind which to cook my dinner. I dropped my trekking poles and my pack, unlimbered my top pocket, gently laid my packraft on the gravel, and my other packrafting gear, and began to prepare my camp.


First, I fished out my GPS logger and placed it high on a boulder to take a reading. The reading came back 29 23 0511N and 102 53 1338W. I turned back eastward and looked across the low, rolling desert toward the mountains rising starkly in Mexico. Somewhere out there was the Rio Grande, where I’d started my day early this morning. It had taken me twelve days of sometimes beautiful, often exhilarating, and occasionally comically incompetent rafting to reach that spot. And now, at this very moment, I had confirmed my arrival at the mouth of Telephone Canyon – a spot I’d dreamed of reaching for years – by clawing, hiking, and navigating my way here over rough and remote desert in which the chances of meeting another person or receiving help were little to none. No small feat.


"I did it," I murmured.  I may have injured my elbow while patting myself on the back.


The sun was now down below the ridges and the temperature was dropping. For once, I didn't need to change out of wet clothes: I simply slipped my nighttime fleece over my hiking clothes, and laid out my bedroll for the evening. Then I prepared a small kitchen and assembled my messkit behind a boulder sheltering me from the increasing eastern wind. I made myself a delicious pot of pork ramen noodle soup, jerky, and peanut M&M’s. Darkness fell as I ate and I switched on my Petzl e+LITE headlamp. The light was delightful. Comforting. Just a tiny headlamp provided the difference between an uncertain wilderness and a little bubble of civilization. Generally, I’m not a fan of the blandishments of civilization…but, for some reason, tonight they warmed my heart. Dinner done, I packed up my messkit and loaded it into my backpack, dug scoops for my hips and shoulders under my bedroll, crawled into my sleeping bag, adjusted every element just to my liking, and settled in to what I anticipated would be a very, very good night’s sleep.


As I drifted off, among the few billion stars now appearing overhead, I spied my old friend and counselor from last December, the constellation I’d named The Rattlesnake. As always its head pointed west: inviting me, encouraging me, cajoling me through the wilderness toward Lajitas.


God, I thought to myself, I love backpacking.


[TO BE CONTINUED]
« Last Edit: August 22, 2018, 01:35:45 AM by House Made of Dawn »
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

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Offline presidio

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #146 on: December 30, 2017, 12:17:35 AM »
First, I fished out my GPS logger and placed it high on a boulder to take a reading. The reading came back 29 23 0511N and 103 53 1338W.

Shouldn't that be 102 53 1338W?
_____________
<  presidio  >
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Wendell (Garret Dillahunt): It's a mess, ain't it, sheriff?
Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones): If it ain't, it'll do till the mess gets here.
--No Country for Old Men (2007)

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Offline Txlj

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #147 on: December 30, 2017, 12:18:12 AM »
Simply wonderful.

Sent from flat land


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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 #148 on: December 30, 2017, 12:29:21 AM »
First, I fished out my GPS logger and placed it high on a boulder to take a reading. The reading came back 29 23 0511N and 103 53 1338W.

Shouldn't that be 102 53 1338W?

Thanks! Fixed.

As Badknees can tell you from last year's trip report, always double-check any navigational information I post. I have some sort of geographical dysgraphia that causes me to invert/convert/subvert everything I write. It's been a severe occupational hazard. I can read and use navigational tools; I just can't write about them.
« Last Edit: December 30, 2017, 01:56:23 PM by House Made of Dawn »
"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts."

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Offline DesertRatShorty

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Re: Round the Bend in 16 Days: There and Not-Quite Back Again
« Reply #149 on: December 30, 2017, 09:23:20 AM »
I hope Lawrence Parent reads this report and revises the TC chapter: "To get to the eastern trailhead,  simply ..."
I roamed and rambled, and I foller'ed my footsteps
   To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
   And all around me a voice was a'sounding
   This land was made for you and me

 


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