In 1980, my father had the kind of idea that most normal, conventional dads would have considered imprudent if not reckless. But my dad wasn’t normal or conventional. And to this day I’m glad.
I was about to be a teenager and my 11-year-old brother wasn’t far behind. We were at the cusp of being too cool to hang out with our parental units, and we had better things to do that clearly vexed them, like spend all day playing Atari or listening to AC/DC.
My dad’s idea to temper these juvenile tangents was to take us on an adventure down the Rio Grande. It was a canoe trip that would allow us to bond with each other, commune with nature and experience a piece of frontier. But it was not the one advertised in the Terlingua or Lajitas brochures. Our adventure was to begin at the Boquillas Canyon Ranger Station and end in Langtry. It was roughly 160 miles of river, and the mid to late stretch comprised what’s known as the Rio Grande’s Lower Canyons.
River rats and whitewater enthusiasts consider the Lower Canyons to be the third-wildest river route in the United States, the first and second places going to the Grande Canyon of the Colorado River and Hells Canyon of the Snake River in Idaho. The Lower Canyons are in remote territory below hundreds of miles of desert. Recreation guides today still list their navigation as an excursion that should be attempted only by experienced outdoorsmen.
I didn’t know that then, of course, and even if I had it probably wouldn’t have bothered me. I started going on canoe trips with my parents when I was 8, mostly on day runs around Canyon Lake and New Braunfels. We spent several long weekends camping and running the rapids there and it was a lot of fun.
I could handle a paddle OK for 12-year-old, but the Guadalupe was not the Rio Grande. It didn’t have stretches where the canyon walls rose over 1000 feet. If a heavy rain came, the Guadalupe would swell, but it wouldn’t send a 16-foot-high, angry wall of water down the canyon you decided to camp in.
This was back before cell phones and GPS. It’s easy to understand why my mom cringed when the trip was mentioned: One false move in that isolated stretch could be your last. Something that might be a simple accident anywhere else could be a life-threatening situation in the Lower Canyons.
And that’s where I spent the last parts of May and the early days of June 1980. It was the hottest, driest year in recent memory, and we had no air-conditioning, electricity, TV, video games, radio, telephone, soft drinks or showers.
When we left home in Fort Worth, we drove all day and camped at the Boquillas Canyon Ranger Station. The next morning we put in and started the journey.
Our party included my father, E.R., Sr., my brother Roy, my father’s longtime friend Danny Heiliger, his son, David (who was my age), and me. We had three aluminum canoes. My father was the most experienced canoeist, so he shared a canoe with Roy. Danny and David and I handled the other two canoes, one in which we would ride and paddle and one that we’d drag in tow for stowing most of our gear. My father and Roy mostly paddled ahead, scouting the liquid terrain and picking the best spots for us to manage the currents.
With a south wind at our back and the current carrying our canoes, we made great time the first two days. Those days were also nice because that’s how long the perishable foods like bacon, eggs and bread lasted. From then on we subsisted on canned Spam, Dinty Moore Beef Stew, Vienna Sausage, Chef Boyardee Ravioli and an occasional side of shoestring potatoes. We cooked things up with an old two-burner Coleman stove. Dessert was peanut butter and crackers.
At the end of the second day, we got past Stillwell Crossing and La Linda Bridge and camped at the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area near Maravillas Creek. It was a good spot, and we hiked up a small canyon before dinner. I’ve never seen so many tarantulas and centipedes in my life, before or since.
We used water purification tablets to make the river and frequent spring waters potable. We bathed in the river or in long-used hot springs marked by short, stacked-rock walls, built up through the years by fellow river runners. Sometimes they even conspicuously left a spare bar of soap on the flat rock wall of the hot springs. Even in my 12-year-old mind it was a sign of passing camaraderie.
Still enjoying the south breeze at our backs, we cruised past Castle Butte (situated on the Mexican side, where they call it El Capitan) and negotiated some light rapids at the Outlaw Flats. In a few spots we saw small Mexican residences and a man or woman regarding our passage. Then, at Big Canyon we saw a nice spring flowing into the Rio from the Texas side and negotiated another reasonably harmless set of rapids. But here the river started flowing due East and the going got tough.
For a day or two the wind was in our faces and the Rio was so flat in places that we felt like we were paddling against it. Thankfully, the oar had started to feel good in my hands and the extension and pull of the stroke was strengthening the muscles on my skinny frame.
The days against the wind left us exhausted and sent us early to bed. We didn’t pack tents. We all slept in sleeping bags on cots and the couple of nights that it rained, we simply slept under the cots. When it didn’t rain and we weren’t exhausted the view of the stars from the canyon floor was like a black ribbon dotted with a million cosmic pinpricks. And the quiet was eroded only by the murmur and ripple of the Rio.
Ancient mariners navigated the oceans by the stars; we navigated parts of the river by the sounds of the water. You couldn’t always see around the next bend. You might spot a sudden drop-off from ahead, but often, by the time you saw it, it was too late. The river current had you and even if you jumped out of the boat you just weathered whatever was below in your life preserver and cutoff blue jeans.
A relatively smooth-flowing river was a steady burble. A mild whitewater was a splashy gurgle. A serious rapid was a significant din. A dangerous whitewater or cascading waterfall was an incessant roar.
In the quiet, crevassed solitude of the Rio’s Lower Canyons, we could hear a serious rapid at least a quarter-mile away. A dangerous shoot might announce itself up to a half-mile away. If we heard either, we almost invariably maneuvered over to the clearest bank and parked our canoes while my dad or Danny or both hiked down and surveyed the boisterous thoroughfare. If it didn’t look too bad, we ran it. If it looked like trouble, we portaged around it, emptying and transporting our canoes past the danger and then retrieving our gear. I don’t remember many portages on the trip. Three at most. It should have been four.
I know we portaged around Hot Springs Rapid, near San Rocendo Canyon, because it featured a giant boulder that divided the river into two wakeboard-worthy wakes, the split, whipping currents just daring us to try either side. I also remember it because, after our wise portage, we camped there for the night and bathed in another short, stacked-rock wall hot spring on the Mexican side.
We portaged again near Burro Bluff Rapids (also known as Upper Madison Falls). These rapids sat below a high sheer bluff on the Texas side and featured two parts about 150 to 200 feet apart. The upper part was messy but passable on a good day, but the lower part came so soon after the upper part that even if you successfully negotiated the upper part, you’re chances of banking in the swift currents before the lower section could be iffy. We decided it was a chance not worth taking. A long portage, but better safe than sorry.
After the first few days our arms were tanned and toned. We were making 10 to 15 miles a day and the calmer portions of the Rio required extended exertions. The work made the occasional rapids all the more rewarding.
I think we ran the Panther Canyon Rapid and I know we ran the San Francisco Canyon Rapids, because their currents were bent on sweeping us into the canyon wall and I don’t think our canoes made it though without trading aluminum with the vertically corded limestone.
By the San Francisco Rapids we had the rhythm of the Rio down and I probably could have passed for as much of a grizzled river-runner as any other preteen in Texas. There had been some tricky turns and a few minor “tumps,” but nothing serious and our increasing dexterity played a part. By the eighth day we passed Sanderson Canyon (on the Texas side) and knew that Langtry was just a few days out. Perhaps that’s why we didn’t portage around what’s now appropriately referred to as the Large Rapid just a few miles further.
In the fog of the last 32 years and perhaps because of the trauma involved in the event, I can’t remember whether we even banked and surveyed the Large Rapid. We may have been victims of our own haste or increasing expertise-developed cockiness, or we may simply have misjudged the waters. Whatever the case, the Large Rapid changed everything.
My father and Roy bumped a rock or two but went right on through, paddling ahead. But Danny and David and I were unceremoniously swamped along with the tow canoe and the Rio spit us out several yards below, flailing for sunlight and then desperately grabbing for oars, cots, canteens and whatever else we could salvage from the submerged canoes.
At first, my father and Roy didn’t even realize we had flipped. They were waiting around a small bend and Roy had jumped into some calm water for a quick swim.
The tow canoe never resurfaced. Danny grabbed the main canoe and David and I gathered as much of our stuff as we could find. We banked and righted the main canoe and stowed our remaining gear in it.
We all reconnoitered at Dryden Crossing, short a Coleman stove, an oar, all our remaining food stores, most of our clothes, my hat, one canoe and all of our cockiness. We camped there and were momentarily distracted by the remains of a steel ladder that ran halfway up the canyon wall on the Texas side. The omen added insult to injury.
We went to bed hungry and — for the first time — I noticed I smelled like the river.
The next morning we got up slow and hungry and paddled on. The high canyon walls were flattening out and the sun’s oblivious gaze was longer and hotter. The tablet-purified river water was little comfort for our growling stomachs and my dad and Danny weren’t exactly sure what we could do about it.
There have been many times in my life when things didn’t go my way or the way I’d planned. We often don’t get much sympathy in the “real” world and in the wild, even less. Growing up, my brother and I were not unfamiliar with the normal, tried and true tactics for eliciting sympathy and weren’t above whining to get our way. But my dad insists to this day that my brother and I never whined or cried about our predicament on the Rio even though, and perhaps because, we knew exactly what it meant. We would have to push the next two or three days without food and make it to Langtry as soon as possible. Even at 11 and 12 years of age, we had no impulse other than to push on and do what comes natural to most of us in a natural setting: survive.
By midafternoon we had banked and spent what would have been lunch resting under cots and avoiding the heat. Dad and Danny were probably kneeling amongst river rocks muddling alternate means of sustenance. I don’t know who heard it first, but we all soon heard it.
EXCEPT FOR ONE kayaker, we hadn’t seen a soul in days or heard a human sound made by anybody outside our party. And it had been a week since we’d heard a machine, but we could hear one now.
I was lying under a cot and the uniqueness of the sound — a sound I wouldn’t even have noticed back home — was slow to dawn on me. I only got up because David and Roy did. We all made our way to the water and stood listening.
Eventually a flat-bottomed, inboard motor boat appeared downstream heading up, and we waved it over. We explained our situation to the owner of the vessel and he said there was a little dirt road that led to Dryden just downstream ahead of Shafter Canyon. We loaded up and floated down and there he got his truck and helped us haul our remaining two canoes to Langtry. We got something to eat and spent the night in a dilapidated hotel. Happily.
I maneuvered through several stretches of life before I really thought about our Rio Grande odyssey again.
When a man from Eastland was shot by a pair of teenage snipers while rafting the Santa Elena section of the Rio with his wife and a guide in 1988, it gave me pause. But girls, self-absorption, college and early adulthood sank it farther and farther in my rearview. And then other travels, marriage and my own children occupied the fore.
It wasn’t until my kids got to be 11 and 12 that the memories of our Rio Grande adventure rolled over me like a furious gully-washer, removing some of the silt I’d gathered over the while and revealing the journey for what it was. A great notion framed by a limestone wilderness, measured by splashes and trickles and punctuated by hardships, revelations and luck.
I still remember the canyon swallows that clung to their mud nests by the thousands against the breezes and gusts of the gorges and hollows. I remember the far-off caves in the walls of Panther Canyon, whose past (and possibly present) dwellers I contemplated overmuch on the night when we camped in the area. I remember the cool mornings, the canyon shade and the tightening I felt in my stomach before every rapid, the careful dread first, the excited skill going through and the exhilaration after a successful run; and, on most days, a hankering for more whitewater, more tests and more successes.
These days, most of us are so far removed from the wilds that our sudden intentional or unintentional placement in them usually presents unacceptable levels of risk. But the reward can be far greater than the safety ensured by their avoidance.
My kids are now around the age that I was then and though modern river-runners have all manner of gadgets designed to make the trip safer, my wife remains a hard sell. But I haven’t given up.
I still can’t look at a can of Dinty Moore Beef Stew or Vienna Sausage without getting queasy, but I know there are adventures to be had beyond the increasing reaches of contemporary electronics and the habit of creature comforts. And I’d like my children to know it, too, before they get too old.
E.R. Bills is a writer from Fort Worth. He does historical, travel and opinion writing for newspapers and magazines around the state. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.