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Grande Slam

Although it's rarely paddled these days, the dehydrated Rio Grande can still hand out a drubbing.

Text by Frank Clifford | Photos by Rob Kesselring

Although there is still whitewater in parts of the nearly 1,900-mile Rio Grande, the "Great River" today is more like a patient surviving on intravenous injections. A pipeline from the Colorado River system provides the Rio Grande with enough water—for now—to meet the needs of New Mexico's largest cities. Downstream in Texas, almost all of the Rio Grande water that flows through Big Bend comes from the Rio Conchos, a tributary that originates in Mexico's Chihuahuan highlands.

Even with those infusions, the Rio Grande is in trouble. In 2007, the World Wildlife Fund listed it as one of the world's 10 most endangered rivers. One study shows that 7 of 36 native fish species in the lower canyons have disappeared, and 8 others are nearing the brink.

Since the 1940s, the main channel of the Rio Grande below the Rio Conchos has narrowed by more than 50 percent, according to a study published in 2009 by scientists at Utah State University. "The changes in the riparian corridor, fluvial deposits and aquatic habitat are extreme," park scientist Jeffery Bennett wrote in a report for the U.S. Geological Survey.

Annual flows from the Rio Conchos to the Rio Grande have also plummeted—from more than 700,000 acre-feet in the early 1990s to 100,000 in recent years, the result of drought, agricultural diversions, and population growth in the region. Climate change is expected to reduce current stream flow in the Rio Conchos by an additional 25 percent before the end of this century. "The actual environmental conditions in the Rio Conchos are unsustainable," scientists concluded in a 2009 study by the Center for Research in Water Resources at the University of Texas at Austin.

The prognosis for the Rio Grande is no rosier. The U.S. Department of the Interior estimates that climate change will cut current flows by an additional 14 percent over the next 40 years.

Despite these pressures, the river was far from lifeless during our trip. Coots, teal, great blue herons, and flashy vermilion flycatchers patrolled the water, while a variety of hawks coasted high overhead. Wild burros brayed at our passing. Bighorn sheep grazed on rocky hillsides a few hundred feet above the river.

One morning, we rounded a bend in time to watch a mountain lion saunter up a terraced hillside. It switched its tail and gave us a sidelong glance before disappearing into the shadows. Occasionally, hikers in the national park have been attacked by the big cats, but from our safe vantage on the river, the cougar was a thrilling sight, evidence that we were in a part of the world where one of nature's aristocrats still reigns.

As we traveled downriver, springs poured in from rock outcroppings and billowed out in aquamarine swirls. The water level rose, and the rapids became more boisterous. Five of the seven boaters had canoed down bigger, faster rivers in northern Canada. Maybe we thought we'd taken the measure of this river, forgetting that even the tamest streams can set traps for the heedless. Or perhaps we didn't take seriously enough the warning of the outfitter to be careful in the Palmas Rapid, where the river boiled through a narrow channel between the left bank and two large boulders.

The first canoe—with me in the bow and Kesselring, the most experienced paddler, in the stern—sailed through without a hitch. But the next two entered the rapid too close together. When the leader ran aground at the bottom of the narrow chute, the trailing canoe (the only one of the four with a single paddler) had no passing lane. The paddler, part of the Michigan contingent, who'd done a flawless job as the soloist up to that point, hesitated just long enough for the current to slam his boat into a boulder.

Like many accidents in rapids, the event looked deceptively inconsequential: a canoe sideslips languidly and collides silently with a rock. We didn't realize how bad it was until we surveyed the damage. The paddler had escaped injury, but the canoe, still pinned against the boulder, appeared to be mortally wounded. Its bow was folded back, its wooden gunwale was in splinters, and three jagged gashes had opened up below the waterline.

No one needed to explain the fix we were in—seven paddlers sharing three canoes already weighted down with water and provisions, with the most challenging rapids of the trip still ahead. We considered going for help, but the nearest town was 25 miles away, and I recalled Hill's take on the hiking option a century ago: "Should we lose our boats and escape the canyons, what chance of life would we have in crossing these merciless, waterless wastes . . . ?"

Which meant we had to fix the boat. First, we had to rescue it from the middle of the river. After an hour-long struggle to leverage it off the rock, we pulled it to shore and set to work. Luckily, one of us had thought to bring a fiberglass-repair kit.
We bent the bow back into a reasonable facsimile of its original shape. Then came the trickiest part of the job: reinforcing the hull.

"Does anyone have a Swiss Army knife?" Kesselring asked.

We looked at each other like passengers in a disabled rental car who'd neglected to check for a spare tire. Then I remembered I'd carried such a knife, like a rabbit's foot, on outdoor trips for the past 20 years, even though I'd never used it. I retrieved it from my pack.

Working with the awl from the knife, a pocket-size Versa-Tool, and a handful of bolts, we reattached as much of the splintered gunwale as we could salvage. Next, we plugged the gashes with fiberglass patches. Nicaraguan rum substituted for the solvent we needed to clean the hull before smoothing on the patches with resin. We improvised an extra thwart from a piece of driftwood to stabilize the bow and wove a latticework of cord to hold the sides together. We worked long into the night, then waited impatiently the next morning for the sun to rise above the canyon walls and harden the resin. 

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