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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

A century ago, the torrents of the Rio Grande through the Big Bend country of southwest Texas mocked the best efforts of explorers to conquer the river. "Foaming and tumbling in a furious manner," Army Lieutenant Nathaniel Michler wrote in 1852, the river is "totally unmanageable."

Today, the fury has been calmed. Dams, diversions, hotter temperatures, and diminishing moisture have all taken a toll. Since Michler's time, the river that once served as a moat between countries has seen its annual flow decline by more than 80 percent at the point where it enters Big Bend. Still, it is premature to write the river's epitaph, as I recently learned on an 83-mile paddling trip through a stretch that Michler had deemed impassable. In fact, we probably should have paid more attention to his cautionary words, because even a parched and weakened river can still slap you around.

Our group met in Terlingua, a bleached Texan hamlet just outside Big Bend National Park. There were seven of us. We'd come from as far away as California and Michigan, and though we were all experienced paddlers, none of us had been on this stretch of river before. We'd been brought together by Rob Kesselring, a Minnesotan who has been leading trips on Canadian rivers for many years, and whom we'd all canoed with in the past.

An outfitter drove us from Terlingua to the put-in at La Linda, a ghostly village dominated by the hulking shell of an abandoned DuPont fluorite-processing plant. The river's industrial past quickly gave way to prehistory as we glided through the limestone portal of Heath Canyon, which enclosed us in walls soaring several hundred feet high.

To our left was the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area; to our right, Mexico's Maderas del Carmen Flora and Fauna Protection Area. Both are part of a 3.5-million-acre binational conservation region—about 60 percent larger than Yellowstone National Park. We passed a lone camper in an orange cap, and after that we didn't see another human for almost a week.

It wasn't until 30 years after John Wesley Powell's famous 1869 trip on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon that anyone documented a successful journey down the Rio Grande. In 1899, Robert T. Hill, a member of the U.S. Geological Survey, floated 350 miles from the town of Presidio, Texas, into what is today Big Bend National Park and on through the serpentine lower canyons.

Hill and his crew were terrified much of the time. Huge boulders atop 1,000-foot cliffs seemed poised to fall into their camp. A notorious bandit named Old White Lip roamed the countryside, robbing and killing. But it was the fast-flowing river that frightened them more than anything. "Too much water was to be dreaded rather than too little," Hill wrote.

How things have changed. By the time we arrived this February, chronic drought and another warm winter in the Southwest had left the water level too low to float our canoes through the park. In the lower canyons, however, along a wild and scenic stretch managed by the National Park Service, several springs supplied enough water to give us a taste of the old rambunctious Rio Grande, the one that had kept Hill in a continual state of anxiety.

For the first few days, we bumped across shallows and riffles, frequently portaging over rocks and sandbars. Our canoes rode precariously low from the weight of 18 gallons of potable water—a necessary burden on a river often laden with agricultural chemicals and elevated levels of E. coli.

After 11 miles, we entered Maravillas Canyon and came upon the first significant rapids. At this same spot, a detachment of Texas Rangers had fled the river in 1882. The leader of the expedition, Captain Charles L. Nevill, and two of his men had nearly drowned, and they had lost most of their food and ammunition. "I was carried down the river like I was shot out of a gun," Nevill wrote.

During our run, there was just enough water in the canyon to provide a bouncy ride over a cascade of standing waves, too small even to splash water into the boats. But the river grew faster and more hazardous as we continued downstream. The trickiest passages came where the river turned sharply and the current surged into forests of giant reed. A bamboolike invasive species, the reed (a.k.a. wild cane) wreathes the river for miles, growing 20 feet high in places and choking out native vegetation and wildlife habitat. Curling over the banks, the tenacious stalks can put an unwary paddler in serious jeopardy. If you let the river sweep your canoe into one of these thickets, you can be pushed sideways in the current and tipped over. We lost hats and glasses to the cane and broke a paddle trying to escape from it, but no one capsized.

Native to India, giant reed was introduced to this country for use in erosion control and windbreaks. Today, it is the most conspicuous sign of the river's ill health. As water flows have diminished, sediment has accumulated, allowing the reed and another drought-tolerant alien, salt cedar, to proliferate. These plants, in turn, hold sediment in place, which narrows and straightens the river channel, steadily eliminating the meanders and pools that are the nurseries of aquatic life.


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