Rio Grande canoe trip brings Big Bend National Park into perspective

Canoeists glide among rock formations lining the Rio Grande, which marks the border between Texas and Mexico. Paddling along the river provides visitors a unique connection to the picturesque isolation of Big Bend National Park near Terlingua, Texas.
Canoeists glide among rock formations lining the Rio Grande, which marks the border between Texas and Mexico. Paddling along the river provides visitors a unique connection to the picturesque isolation of Big Bend National Park near Terlingua, Texas.
Published Feb. 4, 2012

mexico wasn't going to move, so I had only one option: bang into it.

Canoeing along the Rio Grande in west Texas requires quick reflexes and international diplomacy. After crashing into Mexico's banks and shredding a small patch of Carrizo cane, I quickly U-turned and did the same thing to the U.S. side. Viva binational boating!

The nearly 1,900-mile-long Rio Grande, known as Rio Bravo in Mexico, wiggles like a water snake from the San Juan Mountains in southern Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico. More than 1,200 miles of the waterway form a natural border between Mexico and the United States, including the sharp elbow that gives Big Bend National Park its name.

With more than 800,000 acres of serrated mountains and parched desert, the park can be inhospitable to all but a few hardscrabble species. Only about 350,000 people visit Big Bend annually, mainly during the high seasons of spring and fall. (In the hot center of summer, the numbers drop to as low as 15,000 a month, compared with, say, Yellowstone's 900,000 visitors last July.)

"Everything here is governed by water and heat, the lack of one and the intensity of the other," said John Hargis, senior shuttle driver with Far Flung Outdoor Center, an outfitter that leads float trips down the Rio Grande.

Although most adventurers hike the park's trails, roughly 15,000 folks a year navigate the area by river. Big Bend is in nowhereland, an empty area at the bottom of west Texas, with no tall buildings to crimp the expansive sky or urban lights to dull the Lite-Brite starscape. The nearest commercial airport is 245 miles away in Midland. The road to Terlingua, the largest town closest to the park entrance, resembles a sun-bleached painting of unbroken desert and futile existence.

'Nothing but solitude'

Most commercial services, including the three tour operators that organize river excursions, loosely congregate in Terlingua, a quirky town of about 400. In addition to its variety of filling stations (for cars, stomachs and zzzzs), the former mining town features a cast of colorful characters.

Far Flung Outdoor Center has been sending guided boats down the Rio Grande since 1976, the year owner Greg Henington started "commuting" between Houston, where he worked in banking, and Terlingua, where he moonlighted on weekends. (In 1993, he became a full-time Terlinguan, though he still shuffles many business cards: fire chief, paramedic, president of the tourism board.)

"Big Bend has always caught my attention," said Henington. "For hundreds of miles, there's nothing but solitude. There's a romanticism about the area."

The company runs trips lasting from a half-day to five days, including easy outings for those clumsy with paddles and tent poles. Our two-day trip started early in the morning. (Weather report for late December: blue skies, no clouds, temperatures in the high 70s, dropping to the 50s in the evening.) Because of the long distances between pockets of civilization, I spent the night near Terlingua.

Crossing the divide

The shuttle bumped along the rutted road. For nearly two hours we drove east through Big Bend, ticking off the miles to our put-in point.

The Rio Grande has mercurial mood swings. At this moment, she was feeling low: Extreme drought has caused the river level to fall precipitously. (After peaking at 40,000 cubic feet per second in 2008, it now flows at about 70 cubic feet per second.) This meant smaller rapids, slower currents and more protruding rocks and canoe hangups. To counter the shortage, Henington has introduced canoes into his fleet of rafts. His mantra: "Adapt, improvise and overcome."

Vessel type was not the only change in our plan; the location of our entire trip altered, too. We followed the guides out of the park and into the 103,000-acre Black Gap Wildlife Management Area and Temple Canyon.

The vans stopped at the foot of La Linda, a ghost town once rich in fluorine mines. The corroding hulk of a processing plant faced off with a bridge that, pre-9/11, had allowed a fluid exchange of cultures and commerce. Since 2002, however, the government has closed crossings in the area, cutting off trade between Boquillas, Mexico, and Rio Grande Village, Texas. (Before, you could take a ferry or a mule across the quarter-mile stretch of the Rio Grande; now you have to drive 100 miles to the border crossing at Presidio.) Officials are considering reopening the Boquillas border; meanwhile, U.S. Border Patrol trucks, checkpoints and motion triggers, plus the impenetrable terrain, lack of major highways and dearth of cellphone towers, discourage illegal activity.

The law does, however, permit incidental visits to Mexican shores, such as to scout, stretch your legs or reposition your canoe.

At first, making contact was premeditated. My friend Mary and I pointed the bow toward foreign territory, but although Mexico was only a few strokes away it took us a while to reach it. Confusing our left and our right (paddle the former to move to the latter), we spun around in circles. After we stopped spinning, we advanced in a straightish line.

It didn't take us too long to find our rhythm. Henington provided a quick course as he floated by like a pasha on a magic carpet. We also emulated the better paddlers, following in their wake, which was often clear of debris. Fortunately, the 11-mile stretch of aquamarine river ran so slowly and gently we could chat with nearby canoeists. Henington pointed out features in the geology and ecology.

The water temperature was medium-brisk (in the 60s), but if you fell in, all you had to do was stand up and shake off the droplets. Because of the low water level, Mary and I frequently ran aground on islets of rock. We'd push ourselves off or await a hero in a passing ship. We stayed on the water, except for a lunch break, until late afternoon. The guides had scouted out a campsite with two tiers, a beach area where they'd set up the kitchen and dining table, and higher ground where we'd pitch tents. We built our nests in a hollow between the cliffs and the river, with a thick quilt of stars covering us from above.

Steak and stars

"Play Jessie's Girl," we shouted at Brian Merrill and Chip Broyles, who were strumming their guitars around the campfire. Flushed from wine and Champagne, which we sipped from metal camping mugs, we weren't very creative in our requests. Our friend's name was Jesse.

We'd gathered like an extended family for a feast of grilled bacon-wrapped steak, mashed potatoes, green beans and salad. Guide Tony Flint, a part grizzly-part teddy bear of a man who was our head chef, served dessert by the fire.

Slowly, members of the group peeled off to tuck themselves into their sleeping bags. I stayed awhile longer, because I had one wish as yet unfulfilled: I wanted to see a falling star.

Tony joined me at the shoreline, where the river flowed by without a whisper.

"Stand here 10 minutes," he said, "and you'll see one." I stared at the sky as directed. Within seconds, a sparkle of light shot across the heavens and disappeared into the darkness. I was now ready for bed.

Islands in the sky

The final leg of the journey was kind to us. Wide strips of river, with only a few ripples to shake the boat. The water seemed deeper and bluer, the vegetation less pushy. We paddled a few effortless miles before lunch. As we ate by the river's edge, I asked Mark Williams, a supervisory Border Patrol agent and co-traveler, about the park's landscape, trying to understand its unexpected appeal. With poetic grace, he described what some locals call sky islands, the Sierra del Carmen mountains appearing as islands in the desert ocean. Hawaii adrift in the Lone Star State.

The crew packed up the meal, and we shoved off for the last 2 miles. The takeout point was tricky. The opening was narrow and the shore was hilly, so we had to space ourselves out. When it was our turn, Mary and I moved toward the bull's-eye.

For a split second, I wanted to touch Mexico again, a final farewell from its north-of-the-border neighbor. But instead we coasted right into the big ol' arms of Texas.