Friday, December 27, 2013

Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend, Texas

We went on a little adventure over the extended Thanksgiving weekend a few weeks ago. Friends invited Andrea and me to go canoeing on the Rio Grande, in Big Bend in the western part of Texas.

The drive from Austin to Terlingua is about eight hours. Andrea, Jean, Kristina, and I enjoyed the luxury of being able to take most of Wednesday off and to get out of town early. We piled a bunch of gear and ourselves into a 4Runner and made it to our destination in time for dinner and drinks at the fun Starlight Theatre. Our other old and new friends arrived long after we had cuddled ourselves into our down sleeping bags in the parking lot of the Far Flung Outdoor Center at sub-freezing temperatures.

View of Big Bend Ranch State Park from the Rio Grande
We rented canoes, which seemed like a significant reduction of hassle compared to dragging individual boats from Austin to Big Bend, and had Far Flung shuttle us in our cars to the put in at La Cuesta in Big Bend Ranch State Park. I was amazed by how much stuff fits into these boats -- amongst other things, we traveled with two camping tables, plenty stoves and cooking gear, a (national park-mandated) fire pan and portable "waste containment system" (toilet), and of course many coolers full of food and beer.

The border between the US and Mexico in Big Bend is pretty much represented by the Rio Grande, providing for a US and a Mexico bank of the river. It was enjoyable to spend a few days oscillating back and forth between the two countries without being subject to scrutiny by immigration officers at every occasion. The only person we met on (and off) the river during our 4-day trip was a lone law enforcement ranger in his canoe, just after we entered Big Bend National Park and before getting into the canyon. The majority of animal sightings on our ~30 mile trip were cattle and horses on the Mexican side.

Rock Slide rapids, Santa Elena Canyon, as seen from the Mexican side of the slide
The most exciting part of the trip surely were the Rock Slide rapids, not too far from the beginning of Santa Elena Canyon. A huge number of impressively sized boulders are piled up against the Mexican canyon wall, and several of them strewn across the water channel provided for the most challenging rapids on this trip.

Andrea and I managed to pin our boat against a boulder sticking out of the water right before the Rock Slide. Luckily, nobody got hurt and we managed to get the boat off the rock easy enough. And the trouble of packing all of our stuff into waterproof bags and containers paid off. Our two most experienced paddlers ended up running all of our six canoes through the Rock Slide, with some of us being bowmen and others (including me) scrambling through the dry part of the slide on foot.

Our camp for the last night, across from Arch Canyon
The canyon with its steep limestone walls is truly beautiful. In fact, everything of Big Bend we saw on our trip makes me want to go back. Maybe for some hiking for a change? We certainly didn't starve on this trip, either, having organized dinner responsibilities into a different group of four for each of our camping nights. And the company turned out to be most excellent, despite the fact that some of us hadn't really known each other before this trek.

Jean compiled a little video of our trip from her GoPro footage:

Navigating the Rio Grande by canoe was a whole lot of fun. I'm glad I got to go and experience this with my friends. Before I commit to another canoeing trip I probably should spend some time improving my sternman skills, though. ;-)

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