Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Labor Day 1995 - Boquillas Canyon part 2

If you didn’t read yestrday’s post first, you might want to.

It occurred to me this morning that I probably left a lot of stuff out so here is some elucidation on things I gloss over in my reports.

These trips are wilderness canoe camping trips.  And when I say wilderness I mean no cell phone service, no amenities, no roads.  Big Bend, in the Chihuahuan desert, is about as far from civilization as you can get.  Once you put in on the river, if you don’t have it with you, you are shit out of luck (like the time we left the kitchen utensil box on the trailer) and if you pack it in, you pack it out including human waste.

Many people, I for one, think, thought, that the desert was a dry lifeless place.  I was astounded, my very first trip there, with how beautiful, how serene, how spiritual and full of life it really is.  These years in this place helped me put my life back together at a time when it had seriously unraveled.

As a guide, my job, our jobs, were to make sure everything we needed was loaded on the trailer, make sure all the gear was loaded and tied in flip-proof in the canoes at put-in, safely ferry 20 - 30 people (not including guide staff) down the river most of whom had never even been in a canoe before, carry all the gear (except the water which was distributed among all the boats), set up camp, prepare and clean up after the meals, break down camp, reload the canoes, rescue people and flipped boats, perform first aid if necessary and when we finally got to take out, load all the gear back on the trailer.  The trailer we pulled with the guide van was about 30’ long and carried 16 boats ranging in length from 17’ - 20’.

The horses mentioned in this story (and others to come) come from the Mexico side of the river.

part 2:

The second day, I was lead canoe.  Charles described the landmarks I should look for for our regular stops and I recognized them all.  At one point we came up on a large group of horses.  Two adults and one colt on the shore and four or five adults and one very young colt right in the middle of the river.  They were belly to neck deep.  I moved over to river left so as to hopefully not spook them.  They didn't seem to mind as the whole group paddled right past and they never moved.  When we stopped for lunch at Rabbit Ears (a distinctive rock formation), one of the clients found a mother lode of quartz crystals embedded in the canyon wall on the walk back into the side canyon and some blessed shade.  It looked like a giant geode that had split open.  Crystals are just bristling out of the wall and breaking off.  There were a bunch of them laying on a little ledge just below.  I can't believe none of us ever noticed that before, as many times as we have walked by there.   


We made camp our second night.  Just as we were setting up the kitchen, a horse wandered through and then on.  Everyone was more social the second night and after all the chores were done we sat around socializing and playing word games.  Just after the last ones went off to bed, a mare and her colt galloped down to the river right by the kitchen area, looked around confused by all the gear, turned and galloped back in the direction from which they had come.  The stars were brilliant, the weather was perfect, the bats were plentiful, and the coyotes sang.     


Breakfast the next morning as usual.  Second trip in a row with no wasps so I guess they have moved elsewhere.  One of our clients announced at the beginning of the trip that she was rather anal, obsessive compulsive.  We decided after breakfast that if the trip was going to last one more day, she'd be elbowing Charles out of the way and taking over as head guide.  She was really nice though so we just let do her thing, worked around her.  And I never did see Connie eat at any meal.  They were late to breakfast.  We did our circle and then we were off.  We had a really great group of clients.  It was one of those trips where everyone comes together as a whole, instead of two or more sub-groups.  Renee took over lead canoe since my partner wanted to try the stern.  After about 45 minutes she was ready to give it back.  Everyone made it through Graduation Rapid with style - previously we had had one flip and one swamp.  Then I took over lead to take out.  Got to take out on time, the trailer was there waiting for us and we got it loaded, and waited for the bus.  And waited.  And erected a shelter.  And waited.  Finally we put as many guests on the van as possible and drove them to Stillwell Ranch (this is the place the two trips rendezvous for the ride back).  After the van left we erected another shelter for the remaining guests (who had already changed) since the first had utilized the van, and us guides all went and sat in the river.  Finally the bus shows up.  It had overheated three times on the way to get us.  Then it overheated once again on the way to Stillwell’s.  The bus and the raft trip van (with their guides) took off within ten minutes.  After we had our showers we got on the road ourselves stopping for dinner in Del Rio.  I drove the Marathon to Del Rio shift this trip.  We had to take it slow so our van wouldn't overheat, the AC didn't work well, and we had to stop for gas 9 times.  The van was underpowered and pulling that trailer up those long inclines, I could literally see the gas gauge drop.  But we didn't have any other engine trouble.  We didn't hit Don's till just after 8 AM.    


Since we had gotten in so late, Aaron and I went ahead and stayed to help unload the van.  After everything was done, Don entertained us with Tales From The Dark Side Of The Bus Ride Back.  Tensions rose and they almost broke out into fist fights.  The bus overheated again on the way from Stillwell's to Marathon.  Some of the Santa Elena people bought a case of beer at Stillwell's and then insisted that they stop for ice.  Dinner was hamburgers from McDonalds in Del Rio.  The air conditioning went out after Del Rio.  People got nasty.  Santa Elena people had moved Boquillas people's stuff and taken their seats on the bus and would not give them up.  Another contingent in the back barricaded the door to the bathroom and wouldn't let anyone use it because of the smell, which did not make the belligerent beer drinkers happy at all.  Elise (guide on the raft trip) bit someone from the Boquillas trip because she thought he was going to put her through the vent in the roof of the bus.  Then Connie (the one who wasn't eating on our trip) got sick and went into shock.  Don had her up in the front of the bus monitoring her vital signs and keeping her cool with ice.  Turns out, she was sick before she left on the trip.  Through all this Don, John, and Shirley were trying to calm everyone down and soothe ruffled feathers.  They got back at 5:20 AM.         


We had our own little mutiny on the van ride back.  They all took up for Aaron and voted that he should get to call in sick to school.  So I relented and let him stay home.


  1. hey ellen - this was a great story!! i laughed as the story started out slow with great big narrative threads and then got faster and faster as the tensions mounted and the threads got tighter and thinner and finally i laughed out loud when the person bit someone. i know that's juvenile but honest to god that's just too funny!!! thanks for this. steven

  2. I remember my first attempt to paddle a canoe. We hadn't been given any real instructions, so my partner & I just went in circles for the longest time until we figured out what we were doing wrong. We were both pretty bright chicks, but I'm embarassed at how long it took us to figure out how to stop going in circles!

  3. Yours is an adventurous spirit. And you make me long to head out into the wilderness.

    I love the way you temper your love of the desert with humor.

  4. What a delightful adventure, through the eyes of a guide, for a change. I could sympathize with your hard work the whole time; and you must tell us how you got to be so strong.

    p.s. I own a canoe; never go out on it because it scares me to death. So, I tip my hat to those who do.

  5. And here I was, half-way through, already planning my congratulations comment.

    Jezzis! And you put yourself through this voluntarily, WHY?

    But I did enjoy the nature imagery. Especially the wild horses. Reminds me of Cumberland Island in Georgia where the horses still run free.

    Some of your beer drinking bathroom barring bus mates could learn a thing or two about cooperation from the ponies. And PS, they don't have air conditioning either.

    Glad you're back, alive, safe, and sound. Hallelujah!

  6. Steven - this was not actually the story I intended to do first which I realized after I had posted yesterday. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I have quite a few of these that I will post off and on. Some of them I have lost over time. some are very long like the one that tells about a 10 day trip.

    The Bug - sounds like my first time in a canoe.

    San - it was a wonderful time in my life and I would love to go again, just not as a guide.

    lakeviewer - I love to canoe. It's like dancing with the river.

    Alix - you ain't heard nothing yet.

  7. Brave soul! Gorgeous pictures. I'm a wimp, me thinks.

  8. Ellen, Dear Friend, why of all the wonderful trips we did, did you post that one?!?! Couple of clarifications, Elise was not a guide at this point. She was along as my guest on the Boquillas trip. It was her first time to go to Big Bend. And Don was not on the bus from Stillwell's till the pull over of the bus outside Del Rio with the clients in near mutiny. Shirley may have been on the bus, but I do not remember her being there. I just remember that I was the guide on the bus at that point and half the bus was drunk and the other half was hot, sticky, stinky and cranky. The guy that got bit was obnoxious and guarding the bathroom. We were at the front of the bus and a guest came up to complain. Elise was in the aisle seat and decided to put on her teacher face and go back and talk with him. He thought this was funny, that an 85 lb, 4' 10 woman was trying to tell him that he should sit down and shut up that he picked her up and shoved her head up towards the open roof vent. She protected herself by biting his arm to get him to put her down. He did, but at that point the bus driver had enough and pulled over. He told everybody that needed to go to find a bush. Don in one of the guide vans arrived at about that time. He got everybody back on the bus and rode the rest of the way back to Houston with us. Don being a big guy and me backing him up, things quieted down. I have always felt it was a failure of mine that I didn't keep control. And, while we laughed about the bite, Elise was in truth assaulted. I should have had the guy arrested. Today I would in a heartbeat. Another failure of mined was that I didn't support Elise enough. It is amazing that she came back and became a guide, but she never, never was a raft slug.


I opened my big mouth, now it's your turn.