Saturday, April 3, 2010

Boquillas Canyon, Big Bend, Easter 1996

*photo by Thomas Mundt

This was my 11th trip. I guess I was about due for a ‘weather’ trip. It started out just like any other trip. We were all looking forward to it with great anticipation. Charles came and picked me up around 4:15 and we headed for the boat house. Everybody was in a great mood; low water, we knew, but we had a good forecast. Guide staff for Boquillas Canyon was Charles, John, Jeanne Anne, David T., Elise as helper, and I. We had 19 clients and 13 boats.

I rode the bus to our first stop (a truck stop between Houston and San Antonio), chatting with the clients, then I switched to the van for my driving stint and Charles got on the bus till San Antonio. Somewhere between San Antonio and Del Rio, the suburban (Don took two support vehicles for his very large group) lost it’s trailer lights so we pulled over with them and discovered they were also losing their trailer. So we got delayed doing a little yankee engineering using a screwdriver and the duct tape I carry in my ammo box. This turned out to be the first of many times I would pull that roll of tape out. It proved to be a very handy thing to have in there.

In Del Rio we got a revised weather report...front moving through, high of 50 Friday and then warming. Between Del Rio and Sanderson, David drove through winds and hail storms (further slowing us down). He said that you couldn’t see the road there was so much hail on the ground. Later Charles said he saw snow on the Chisos Mountains. David stopped in Sanderson (early am-still dark) for a coffee and he talked to one of the farmers in there about the weather. This guy thought the front was going to hang around for a few days instead of pass through quickly. Great.

Dawn broke on our way to Marathon, so we were late for breakfast. Got to Fossil Bone and there is no bus. Bus somehow went on to Rio Grande Village and was returning. So we changed into our river clothes while waiting. Bus arrived and we ate breakfast and then headed to put-in. Charles and I and David stopped at the store and buy up six boxes of trash bags for the clients to use as rain gear since it was now cloudy, windy, and threatening rain. Unload the trailer, load the boats and do the canoe talk as it rains off and on. We decided that since we were putting in so late we would go ahead and save time by eating lunch now.

Finally we get on the water. I’m lead, David is sweep, Jac is lunch meister (so she and I are carrying all the lunch stuff). John and Charles and Elise are amongst the clients. We get about a mile downriver, it’s windy, but we’re doing alright and go around a bend to the left as the wind is getting stronger. I manage to get about another 25 yards and then that’s it. My partner and I are paddling for all we’re worth and we’re going backwards. There was, in Charles’ words, surf bigger than I’ve seen in Galveston, moving up-river. We weren’t going anywhere.

Having been blown over to the side for about the sixth time trying to get past this spot, I finally gave up and waded over to the other shore to run back and consult with Charles who has come ashore with the larger group of clients farther back. My five boats are pinned by the wind on the far side of the river. We decided to get everyone to shelter and have some warm drinks while we wait for the wind to lessen or for the rain we see downriver to get to us. This was the beginning to one of the most challenging days of my life.

There was a stand of cane near that was crosswise to the wind, so we get everyone out of their boats and have them hunker down on the leeward side to keep warm. While I’m getting my small group from up river, people are getting the stove out, others are scouting for a better, bigger sheltered area, and so pretty soon we have a place picked out that doesn’t seem too far away from the boats and we are bringing equipment up and have the big tarp out trying to put it up, the stove is going and water is getting hot. But it is still too windy and we are not having any real success. Another area is located and we move everything over there, and finally, after much help from the clients (who were all being absolutely wonderful doing everything they could to help) we got the big tarp up like a tent. Pretty impressive. John (the engineer) with help from Delphine (French, she was my partner. She was really cute.) who is a structural and civil engineer, really did a great job getting the tarp up.

While that was going on, I had gone back to retrieve my five boats and get them over to river left because I was ready to get in some dry clothes. By then, we decided that it was time to really make camp. Again, the clients all pitched in to bring up all the rest of the gear plus their stuff. But that walk from the boats to camp and back was getting longer and longer and the wind did not let up one bit. There was a time or two during all that when I was so tired, all I wanted to do was lay down and cry and when I found a brief respite to change into camp clothes, I did just that. Well, I didn’t lay down but I did have a little cry and then I wiped my face and got up and did what needed to be done. Later we decided it was steady 30 - 40 mph with gusts 50 - 60 mph.

So I got the kitchen set up and dinner going while John and Charles set up the tents for the clients. Got dinner on, got cleaned up in the dark. Couldn’t get the lantern working, it was clogged somewhere. Everyone was in bed by 8:30.

Listening to the wind...listening to the tarp go fwoom fwoomp, fwoom fwoomp. I said a few fervent prayers before going to sleep.

Saturday dawns to a beautiful blue sky and no wind. It never did rain on us. We are all much relieved. We fix breakfast, break camp, load the canoes and try again. We’re all happy, but now we only have two days instead of three to do the canyon. A headwind comes up that dogs us off and on all day, but nothing you can’t paddle against. After a couple of hours, it clouds over and remains overcast for about four hours or so, but clears up before dark and we have a beautiful starry night.

Our second day lunch, we eat at our first day lunch site. We are having to push the clients really hard to make up some of the miles we are behind. Everyone is understanding and does their best without complaining. It really is a beautiful place and they are seeing it for the first time if not somewhat hurriedly, and everyone says they are having a good time. We have three boats flip during the day. One of them two or three times. They eventually go over four times before the end of the trip. Those of us that brought extra warm clothing are sharing it all around and everyone stays relatively warm. We’re trying to make it to Rabbit Ears for the night but couldn’t get that far. We have a family of four with, dad, son - 13, and daughter - 11. They are paddling one parent to one child. They do a valiant job.

We camped for the night about an hour and a half upstream of Rabbit Ears. It would be dark soon and we looked over and there was a perfect, beautiful campsite on river left. Like a gift. Then it’s hustle, hustle to get set up before dark. John gets the lantern going, we get dinner going. Clients make their camps. We are all whupped puppies. We eat, we clean up, we hit the sack.

Sunday dawns a beautiful clear Big Bend BQ sky blue. This time I’m the last guide up and when I finally wake up, they have breakfast humming along. When I fuss because they didn’t wake me, John just says I needed the sleep. We have to forgo our regular circle at the end.

Back on the water we are hustling our asses off. John is lead today. Everything is in fast forward. Jac and I take off ahead of everyone when we get close to Graduation Rapid so as to have lunch set up by the time they get there. We eat, run the rapid, hand the boats around the island on river left, and paddle on to take out. We get there at six, only four hours late.

And there’s no bus. However, the van and the suburban are there. They have been waiting two hours, having been two hours late themselves. Santa Elena turned out to be the Trip From Hell and their clients weren’t even at Stillwell’s yet. No water in SE, but then that’s a whole other story.

We load the clients and their gear on the van and suburban and they take off to Stillwell’s while we stay behind to load the trailer. Jac goes with the clients to ride the bus back to Houston. She has to be at work early the next day. It seems we get the gear and boats all loaded with relative ease and speed and we head for Stillwell’s as dusk sets in. It’s dark by the time we get there and we are wondering if they will still be open, waiting for us. If not, we are in real trouble since we have to get gas to go anywhere. But they are there, they know we are on our way.

Meanwhile, the bus has arrived and picks everyone up. For once, our group got the showers while they waited for the others. The bus is gone by the time we get there. Darlene, Dave, and Clayton from the SE trip are there and we trade horror stories of our respective trips. We shower and then head on to Marathon.

John is driving. Marathon is closed so on to Sanderson with fingers crossed. Sanderson is locked up tight, it’s midnight, we only have half a tank of gas...not enough to get us to Del Rio. John is wasted, all he cares about is going to sleep. Charles and David are also asleep. That leaves Elise and I to deal with the problem. We consider our options with a few mumbles from the group in Dreamtime. Cut over to I-10? one knows how and there is no map in the van. Sleep over at the all night motel with it’s vacancy light flashing? enthusiasm for this idea. No one seems interested in taking charge of the situation and since it’s my turn to drive, it sort of falls in my lap by default.

I parked the van and trailer on the side of the road and ran across to the motel to see if the night clerk knew where we could get gas or how to get to I-10. The place is deserted, sign says ‘ring bell’. I didn’t feel like waking the guy up just to ask him a question or two. I notice there is a wrecker a block and a half down talking to some guys standing by their car on the side of the road. I figure that guy ought to know the answers to my questions so I take off for the wrecker. Just as I get to it, he takes off, leaving me standing there with those three guys.

You need gas, too?”, one of them asks me. ‘Yeah”, I reply a little forlornly. Turns out, these guys live in McAllen, they are on their way to San Francisco for 5 weeks of work building out a K-Mart, and they know how to get gas in Sanderson in the middle of the night with everything long as you have a credit card, which they don’t.

But I do (this was before it was common for gas pumps to be equipped for credit cards). So I followed them to the Shell station and pumped gas for us both. They paid me in cash for theirs and we are all happily back on the road headed for our separate destinations.

Elise and I are chatting away as we speed towards Del Rio while the guys sleep in the back. There are scads of jackrabbits and deer on the sides of the road, some standing on the shoulder, but most grazing in the easement. I’ve never seen so many deer before, but luckily we have a whistler on the front of the van to scare them off. And it works...mostly.

So I’m barreling down the highway, pulling a two-ton monster trailer loaded with 13 boats and the attendant gear and this deer darts across the road in front of me, followed by another who just plods across, never looking any way but straight ahead. I’m gonna hit the stupid thing. I can’t brake hard or swerve unless I want to jack-knife the trailer. I brake and swerve as much as I dare (which is not much). I’m freaking out, yelling ‘Oh no, oh no’. THUMP. Charles bolts up, ‘What’s wrong!’ I hit a deer! I hit a deer!

My slight brake and swerve was enough so that I only hit it’s head with the right front corner of the van, instead of running over the whole thing, so we were safe. But my heart is pounding and I feel terrible. OK. OK. Couldn’t be helped. But there are still many deer on the roadside. It’s not long before another deer decides to cross the road in front of me, but I’m ready now. I lay on the horn and it changes it’s mind. Man! What is going on! Almost to Del Rio, the end of my drive time. We’re on the outskirts of town when a third deer dashes across the road in front of me and I manage to avoid hitting this one as well. By now, I’ve decided there is some kind of deer conspiracy against me and am very glad to hand over the wheel to David.

The rest of the trip back was uneventful and we pulled into the boathouse about 11:15 on Monday.


  1. i yakked for a couple of years - so when you write about the rafting i'm right inside the moment unfolding. i feel my stomach tighten, me head focus, my arms and heands go still, my feet go up on their toes. this is wickedgood writing with so much detail i cannot believe your memory!!! steven

  2. Oh how I love west Texas stories. Funny to think such weather can hit at Easter in Texas.
    I've a few of those Big Bend, Ft. Davis, Marathon stories! I'd live out there if I were a single woman, but don't think I could drag the G-man there to live... golf, rattle snakes, & cactus don't mix well, but he loves the area for hiking & star gazing!

  3. Yikes! And I too can't believe how much you remember!

  4. I don't think I could handle that much excitement.

  5. Hi ellen -- usualy I answer you on my blog but the deer were in a large holding pen behind the scenes at the zoo. I'd been there for a meeting in the marketing dept and was walking back to my car. I don't know if they were doing something to improve the deer exhibit in the Children's zoo or if these are three new doe we got in who need to stay in quarantine before we put them out to join the others, but there they were, out on the sizeable lawn to enjoy fresh grass, sunshine and space to run around.

  6. Dang- That's a hard way to get venison in the fridge! I went down a river in a canoe once - ONCE- never again. You sure know how to have a good time, I must say...

  7. Well, now I'm exhausted too! Whew! Fortunately the few times I've traveled on a river I wasn't in charge & not expected to do much (I used my "girl-ness" to full advantage in these circumstances. Can I help it I'm short & wimpy?).

  8. Yikes! I would never have the nerve to get that far into the natural world.

    You're ... oh ... you know what I'm going to say.

    Cool story!

  9. Oh NO! That poor deer!

    It must have been an awful feeling knowing you were going to hit it and also knowing it could eff you up pretty bad. Thank goodness you were safe, but whassup with those deer? You'd think they would be a little more cautious!

    Your adventure sounded marvelous - especially the no rain part. This story sounds familiar though. Have you posted about this before? Or am I confusing it with another of your wonderful Davy Crockett stories?

    Much love to you Ellen, and happy Easter.

  10. Hey Alix, same river, same canyon, different trip. I posted a trip report of a Labor Day trip last September. This Easter 1996 trip was probably one of the most challenging trips I was ever on. Usually we had excellent weather and 3 days instead of two to do the trip. Easter, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving usually find me thinking about river trips as that's where I mostly was on those holidays for about 10 years or so.

    As for the deer, that part of Texas was in the middle of a terrible drought and the deer would graze close to the highway because what rain fell, fell on the highways (hot air rising and all that) and that's where the grass was. but it was the only time I remember them being so numerous and going all kami-kazi on us.

  11. quite the trip. Photo is lovely, though.

  12. Wow.. those deer sound more like lemmings.. suicidal. What a pity that you hit one but I'm glad you weren't hurt in the process. That's quite a memory you have.

  13. Great story! Sounds like an exciting trip! I had a close encounter with a deer once, but fortunately was able to avoid hitting it.

  14. What a beautiful adventure. Too bad about the deer. Between my husband and I, we've hit at least a dozen. It's so sad that they're all over, running into the roads like that.


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