So many miles gone by

Best brooch ever.
Best brooch ever.

It seems a long time ago when we finished up our float down the Rio Grande. The four of us arrived at the Heath Canyon take-out across from the defunct mining town of La Linda two weeks ago. It was a very smooth trip full of unexpected delights and a generally relaxed ambiance. You can read about it in the posts below if you haven’t already. As soon as we landed things went a little south for me.

Recent flooding wiped out the road to the shore of the Rio Grande so you either hump your gear a quarter mile or you pay some dude an unspecified tip to carry gear to wear the van and trailer can park. At least that was the rumor. Everything on the Rio Grande was shrouded in an air of uncertainty.

We arrived at the take-out a day before the shuttle was due because desirable camp sites were scarce near the take-out and the shuttle company charged $75 an hour so we did not want to arrive late. Better to pack up the night before and enjoy the wait the next morning. As storm cloud formed on the horizon we deconstructed our water crafts and did the best we could to wash away excess mud. Hardened mud was everywhere. It was in the seams of Stells’s tubes, under the decking, mashed into the cam straps. If there was a hollow spot there was mud. We threw water with our bucket and used sponges found abandoned on the gravel. It was heavy work but satisfying. After nine days with no hope of being clean we were finally heading in the right direction.

As soon as Stella was cleaned my back went out. I was reaching for sponge to hand it to M. I’d felt twinges of irritation all week so it wasn’t a complete surprise but I had hoped to make it off the river and get a rest to avoid the drama. Suddenly I could not stand up. I was stuck bent over for about 10 minutes. The gravel and mud prevented a collapse to the ground. I just hung there in terrible pain. My legs began to quake as I tried to keep from causing more damage. Eventually I pushed myself upright. From that point on I was in the position of having to tell Burt what I wanted done instead of doing it myself. I hate ordering Burt around. He was receptive given the emergency but it was very awkward for me. Burt rolled up Stella and then moved everything to higher ground because the storm clouds concerned me that a flash flood might be headed our way. With the chore done I paced the beach and hoped for relief.

What should have been a lovely evening of storm watching was for me just a sort of fizzle out of a great trip. Pffft. We retired to bed. The next morning a team of characters met us and offered tehir services to shuttle our gear up to the road. Rumors of the tipped based intermediary shuttle turned out to be true. These dudes were at the end of the road in more ways than one. Wives had abandoned them because Walmart was too far away. They wondered if we hand any marijuana we could spare. They could not stop talking. Me, grateful for any excuse, said, “I need a walk” and I disappeared for an hour of road walking. I saw a coyote. My back was killing me but I adhere to the keep moving or die school of back care. I walked.

Without more than some hugs and a see you next year, we bid farewell to our companions. I had the Olvis in mind. I wanted a shower and my dogs. As I lay in the Van Horn, TX cheapo hotel bed post shower I noticed a really big cockroach running across my bed. Huh. There’s another one. I looked for the black bug. I even swatted at it. I felt like I was hallucinating. I kept seeing a bug run by behind my computer as I wrote. I got up and looked for it. I was very calm. That was when I realized to bug was following me everywhere I looked. It wasn’t a bug it was a really big floater in my field of vision. Hmmmm. Seems like a bad thing.

I googled sudden eye floater and read not to worry unless there were flashes of light. I mentioned it to Burt and decided not to worry. There were no flashes of light. If there were flashes of light the interwebz said get to a doctor ASAP. Flashes of light combined with a new floater might be a medical emergency. Twenty-four hours later we were doing laundry in Portal, AZ and trying to decide our agenda for the next few days. I lay in bed and noticed a flash of light. Oh, shit. We were three hours from medical attention. I immediately went into a panic attack. Burt called my doctor. He agreed it was an emergency. We called Portalites. We tried to decide how to best get medical care for an eye emergency on a weekend in a city where we have no eye doctor. After many plans and phone calls we decided to head to an emergency room the next morning in Tucson. Burt would get up early and pack everything and we’d head out as soon as possible. So that’s what we did. I spent a night watching the cockroach scurry as flashes of lightening lit him up. I wondered if I should try LSD. It might have made me feel better. Medical emergencies when you are a transient in a remote location don’t come with straightforward solutions.  More later.

Take-out at
Take-out at
Take-out
Take-out
Stella packed. Here's the new shore line from the over night flash flood.
Stella packed. Here’s the new shore line from the over night flash flood.
A local with exceptional facial geography.
A local with exceptional facial geography. It might house a geode.
Boating is colorful.
Boating is colorful.
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Boquillas Canyon

Ahhh, shade.
Ahhh, shade.

It was a long day getting into Boquillas Canyon. There’s a ten or twelve mile stretch of park where floaters are not supposed to camp. The Mexican side is available but it’s populated and we chose to avoid those areas. When we finally reached the canyon it was late afternoon and time to decide where to spend the night. This was never an easy decision. The Rio Grande does not offer wide sandy beaches with trees and plentiful tent sites. We juggled the various shortcomings and amenities. There were mud landings, no moorings, steep banks, hummocks. On the plus side were views, hiking, grass, shade. Ideally we wanted a flattish spot with a cobble landing and a tree somewhere within 100′. No mud. Well, no mud was impossible but we could dream. Access to a walk was nice, too.

Our second night in Boquillas was the penultimate night of the trip. We had in a mind a spot vaguely described and near a feature called the rabbit ears. Early on we had hoped to lay over and explore this canyon but we never were able to make more than 15 miles a day and did not store up enough milage to allow a rest day. Late in the afternoon we thought we had found the rumored canyon but there was no landing area. We decided to stop at the next hospitable bend. This was as magnificent failure to achieve a goal as I have ever experienced.

The camping area was merely meh. Two spots for tents and room for a kitchen. We’d arrived with enough daylight to explore the side canyon heading off into Mexico. On the beach we noticed some very small cat tracks and lots of twisted scat. If you’ve cleaned a litter box it was the same size as a house cat. One upside to the shellacking of mud was we could see tracks everywhere we went.  Once the area dries out the tracks will all blow away with the wind. We headed up the canyon in the creek bed which required some boldering and thorn wrestling. We were rewarded with waist high blanket flowers and desert marigolds. Wet spots in the canyon walls featured mysterious flowers with lush leaves and scores of stamens. Flowers in fall would normally be all it takes for an satisfying hike but this canyon had even more to offer. The walls were packed with crystals. Literally packed. There were crystals of all shapes and many hues everywhere we looked. I’d never seen such a thing. I like a pretty rock as much as anyone but this was mind blowing. A site like this would be world famous on any of the western U.S.’s popular rivers. Here in Big Bend it was up to us to find it on our own.

I was tired. This was the first multi-day backcountry trip I had taken since before my heart troubles started more than four years ago. I had resigned myself to never doing an arduous trip again but my recent change in medication changed my mind. I figured I’d try and see how it went. This trip went well but by day 7 I was tired. So while Margaret scrambled up a pile of rocks I sat and gazed off into the canyon. My eyes were unfocused. I sat and looked without looking. I had the unfocused gaze of a hunter that sees nothing but catches movement in a wide field. Suddenly I saw something slipping between the rocks and cacti above us. I yelped, “It’s a mammal, it’s an otter, it’s an I DON’T KNOW WHAT IT IS! It’s black, it’s moving! Look! Look! Look!” Burt had his binocluars and he spotted it as I pointed and continued to describe what I was seeing. “It has a long tail, its face is flat, the ears are rounded, it looks like a squirrel, a really huge squirrel, its legs are short, it’s a squiotter!”  Each of us took a turn with the binoculars before it disappeared behind a ridge only a couple hundred feet away. Nobody had an idea what we had just seen. All we could say was a short legged, long tailed, flat faced mammal that moved like an otter or cat.

M and M contiuned up canyon in the direction our mystery animal had headed. Burt and I returned to camp. The animal sighting was filed away for later research. I figured there must be a massive Coahuilan squirrel we’d never heard about. Maybe neotropical otters were in the area.

Mystery flower
Mystery flower. Look at all the stamens.
Possible jaguarundi tracks.
Possible jaguarundi tracks. Front and back. You can see a slight shape difference between the tracks.
More crystals
More crystals
Cool rocks
Cool rocks
Crystal canyon
Crystal canyon. This is where M was when I spotted the animal off to the far right.
Up there was the jaguarundi.
Up there was the jaguarundi.
Crystal walls.
Crystal walls.
Entrance to Boquillas Canyon
Entrance to Boquillas Canyon
Is this what we saw? This is a jaguarundi. I think so.
Is this what we saw? This is a jaguarundi. I think so. Colors vary from light to nearly black.
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More Cane and Mud

The mud never ends
The mud never ends. Floating between canyons.

The most visited part of the river in Big Bend National Park is the stretch between Mariscal and Boquillas Canyons. On the US side there are campgrounds and a visitor center and a nice boardwalk hike through a bird rich swampy spot. On the Mexican side there’s an actual town. For a few years after 9/11 the border crossing was closed and visitors couldn’t enjoy a quick trip to Mexico and the Mexicans lost a lot of tourist dollars. Today you can take a boat across and catch a burro ride or a burrito in Boquillas. It’s better for everybody. On both sides of the river you can find hot springs. The US spring is closer to the river’s edge and only the day before our arrival the pool was inundated with muddy water. On the Mexican side we accidentally found a nicely developed hot spring and signs of a historic and prominent Native American encampment.

All credit goes to Mark for stopping to explore the mysterious Mexican coastline. We were a few miles upstream of the town of Boquillas and just downstream of the US hot spring when he spotted a sign and some structures. The going was slow and we’d already stopped for a soak and clean drinking water upstream. It didn’t look like much and nobody was there. Mark pulled in anyway and sent the probe ashore. Marg being his probe. The twenty pounds of mud I was carrying in my shoes, cracks, and clothing did not inspire me to leave the boat. Every exit entailed a limb threatening skim of slick silt but we got out anyway.  Here’s where a guidebook would have told us just what to do and we would have dutifully done it. Without a guide we delighted in accidentally finding cool stuff. This spot was part of the Mexican park system and we didn’t even know there was a Mexican park in teh area. There were grinding holes all along the rocks. Above there was a pool of clear warm water. I saw that clean pool and waded in to float and dissolve my husk of clay. There was no point in disrobing. It was the cleanest 5 minutes in the 9 day trip.

When we finally arrived at the town of Boquillas we realized there was no landing for the boats. Burt and I presumed we could tie up and visit the pueblo. No such luck. Or if there was a place to get out, we missed it. Land visitors were crossing at a ford about two miles upstream from town and paying for a ride to the village. Kids waved from the streets high above water level. We floated on into Boquillas Canyon.

I had been eager to make it to the mouth of Boquillas because nine years ago a man had serenaded us from the acoustically sublime entrance to the canyon. I thought this would be a trip highlight. This year there was only a man looking for duct tape to repair his canoe. I asked the man to sing and he gamely tried Cielito Lindo but it wasn’t his thing. When I asked about the singer the man with the leaking canoe asked when I had last visited. I told him 9 years ago. That was a long time ago. Pablo was retired from singing as far as I could tell. I gave the man my twenty year old roll of duct tape and we floated on. I hope the tape holds.

Burt cooking
Burt cooking or maybe eating.
Hot Spring in Big Bend
Hot Spring in Big Bend. Nice but kinda just a mud hole with some warm water.
Grinding holes at the hot spring in Mexico
Grinding holes at the hot spring in Mexico still full of the week’s high water flows.
Pull out to explore the Mexican hot spring
Pull out to explore the Mexican hot spring
I maintained my hair nearly tangle free with alternating braids.
I maintained my hair nearly tangle free with alternating braids. Pony tail for a couple days and pigtails for a couple of days.
Fall flowers
Fall flowers
Floating in the warm Mexican water.
Floating in the warm Mexican water. It beats doing laundry.
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Mariscal Canyon

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Rock Pile rapid. Not hard but requires some maneuvering.

Much of the stretch of the Rio Grande we floated is designated a Wild and Scenic River and therefore enjoys a certain degree of protection. Mariscal Canyon can only be reached by lengthy and bone jarring back country roads or the several day float through cane. We chose the cane float. Despite the mud and claustrophobia it was worth the effort. Rapids in this area are sparse. In Mariscal we were advised to expect two navigational hot spots, Rock Slide and Tight Squeeze. The difficulty of the rapids would depend on the flow. The guide book for this area had not yet reached stores so we were floating with information gleaned from the shuttle company, our iPhone maps, and a paper map. It was as uninformed as I had ever been on a float. So few people choose this middle part of the Rio Grande that it hasn’t been worth writing a guide. Our phones gave us a vague notion of how far we had come and where we were on the globe but neither offered information on the topography of Mexico. Half the river surroundings was marginally sketched in and the other half was a gray void. As a result we got to balance mild anxiety with the feeling of first time explorers.

Rock slide was a read and run situation where we had to chose a path through a maze of boulders. There was only one way through but with the flow in a middling to low range and the gradient low it was easy to stand on the boat deck and pick the route. Tight squeeze was another story altogether. From Stella’s deck I could not see a slot wide enough to accommodate her overly wide girth.  My cataraft is about 2 to 3 feet wider than most rafts. I also can’t easily ship her oars. Shipping means to pull the oars in and out of the way. Stella was rigged a little top heavy (she was leaking on a side and required more stuff on the air worthy half of her tubes) and the gear made shipping difficult. Add to this a passenger in the way and it gets to be a gnarly tangle.

Since we couldn’t see a route through prudence dictated we pull to shore and walk down to scout the rapid. All for of us made the trek to what seemed like an impossibly narrow slot. Close inspection did not ease our minds. There was no way Stella would fit. I hatched a plan. I told Burt to row through, pull the oars and I would wait on the rock I expected him to lodge on and push him off. My theory was a lighter boat would rise onto the rocks more easily and I could give a stouter shove from shore rather than from the boat. It worked out so well I was able to jump onto the back of the boat as I pushed Stella and Burt free. Yippee. we eddied out down below and waited for M and M. They sailed through in their more slender craft with little difficulty.

Marsical’s tight canyon provided welcome shade and dramatic vistas. We were all happy for relief from the sun drenched cane tube of the previous three days. Birds of prey flew above. Black Phoebes littered every turn in the river. Spotted sandpipers were eddy hopping in drab winter plummage.  High up a cliff on the Mexican side Burt spotted a gang of Audads.  Audad are an invader exotic species that threatens the native desert bighorn sheep. Also known as Barbary sheep, Audads are a hardy sheep-goat intermediary species that out compete the desert big horn sheep for food. Presently it is open season on Audads. Teams of well armed hunters are using helicopters and all terrain vehicles to reduce audad numbers.  Check out their horns HERE.

Gotta go….more later.

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Sunset in Mariscal Canyon
IMG_E5182
M washing up after dinner.
IMG_E5187
With little traffic to compete for driftwood it’s easy to enjoy a nightly campfire.
IMG_E5190
Toad tries to find a safe hidey hole.
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Drifting and rowing

Burt looking for bugs.
Burt looking for bugs.

Our days went like this. Everyone but me was up before the sun. They drank warm beverages in the dark and damp. I lolled about in the warm sleeping bag and dryish tent. Why get up when all there was to do was murmur and sip? Every morning was soaked with dew and we’d wait hours to let our tents dry or else we’d have muddy and wet tents. Best to go for dry dirt if you have a choice. So around 8 or 9 we ate breakfast. The first four days of food was provided by team M and M. This happened because we had originally planned a trip in Mexico and Burt and I would not be able to buy fresh food. So we volunteered to do the canned and dried meals. M and M took on the fresh food meals. Usually they cooked and I washed dishes. Their meals were very tasty. Burt maintained the groover and all of us did chores as required. Margaret managed the kitchen infrastructure, an onerous job that she handled with expedience and good nature.

Halfway through the trip food quality dropped and Burt and I prepared meals of impervious ingredients and M and M washed up. Tastee Bites Indian Meals in a pouch are quick and  palatable and easy to clean up. There was also some dried lentil soup and spaghetti and bean burritos. Most nights there was chocolate in some form for dessert. Note to self: Mark does not like fancy chocolate. More for me.

Every morning we’d wait for stuff to almost dry and then pack up our kitchen, groover and personal campsites. Then we’d load it all back onto our boats. Take off varied from 11:20 to 10:20. As the trip progressed and the ground dried up we left earlier and earlier. Around 1:00 PM we’d stop for a lunch. Shade was a bonus. The meal was usually cheese, crackers, fruit, salami. Early on there was bread, later it was all crackers. We’d sit on the ground and huddle around a cutting board of sliced snackage. Pringles, the traditional river snack, lasted four days. Sometime around 4:00 or 5:00 PM we’d start looking for a suitable camp. Suitable camp meant a safe landing zone and a dry place to pitch our tents. We’d want a place to lash the boats, too.

The low point for the trip for me was slipping on my boat and crashing to the deck while barking my shin. I crawled into the weeds and cried it out. The mud was infuriating and dangerous. Every step required care. I recovered.

During the course of the week the water level stabilized and the ground began to dry. The dew was lighter and hope dawned that maybe we had a handle on the mud. Or maybe we just got better at picking campsites and accepting our fate.

Most nights we had a fire, sang a few songs and headed to bed by 9:00 PM. Repeat.

A bug I missed. A katydid.
A bug I missed in the previous album. A katydid.
A type of blanket flower.
A type of blanket flower.
Burt and M singing
Burt and M singing
Dew on the grass. It was such heavy dew that it made mud.
Dew on the grass. It was such heavy dew that it made mud.
The general state of my shoes.
The general state of my shoes.
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Put-in at Cottonwood, Rio Grande

The red circles are where we put in. The flow is in the opposite direction of the arrow. The arrow was a mistake.
The red circles are where we put in. The flow is in the opposite direction of the arrow. The arrow was a mistake. The blue squiggly line is the river and the border between the US and Mexico.

There’s this saying about notoriously muddy rivers: Too thick to drink, too thin to plow. And here’s the only thing I had the energy to write during our trip down the Rio Grande: No water in sight. We float a ribbon of mud. There’s no keeping anything clean. Energy spent avoiding mud is energy wasted.

That was Day 3. On Day 1, put-in day, it was drizzling and the river was muddy from a storm the previous few days. The previous day’s stormwater had washed out the usual put-in road and we could not use its boat ramp. Instead we went to a place called Cottonwood and our gear was dropped off 100 yards from the river. Between the trailer and the shore was a gauntlet of cane and mesquite and a tube of shin deep mud. The weather was predicted to clear and we hoped the mud would dry out as we floated downstream but meanwhile we carried our boats and supplies over a slippery thorny landscape and got to work rigging it all together.

Our intrepid and muddy crew was comprised of Margaret, Mark, Burt and me. M and M drove a 13′ raft of an unknown but elderly age. The Gypsy Carpenters managed a 15′ cataraft born in the late 80s. Both boats and crew had seen many river miles. It had been ten years since I had rigged my dear Stella for a lengthy expedition but I’d done it so often it wasn’t too difficult to put her back in working order, rigged to flip. Burt and I only had a few skirmishes over rigging protocols. The captain is always right (me) even when she’s wrong. It’s part of my plan to over throw the patriarchy. I’m starting with my boat. Do as I say even when it’s stupid. My mantra of recent weeks is, “I am done seeking equality. I want domination and retribution.” Burt humors me on the boat.

We rejoiced at noonish that the boats were built and loaded and no ankles were twisted or backs misaligned. We had 10 days of food, 40+ gallons of water, spare oars, a kitchen, tents, camping gear, a bathroom system and beer on ice all stowed.

A bathroom system? What’s that? On most wilderness rivers in the US you are required to pack it in/pack it out. That means poop, too. So boaters have to carry a receptacle to carry the poop. We call it the groover. The groover is so named because typically you poop into an ammo can and when you sit on it it leaves grooves in your back end. The old days were much rougher than now. These days, and for as long as I have been boating, people are smart enough to put a toilet seat on the ammo can and add comfort while eliminating grooves. Yet the name and its lore stick. The word has stuck so well that grooving is now code for making a bowel movement in most circles of boaters. I have to groove. Did you groove, yet? The groover rode on my boat. I almost always take the groover. It’s the best response I have if someone complains that my boat is too light. I non-chalantly say, “But I have the groover.” No response. Nobody wants to risk a trade. Works every time.

And so we set off onto a ribbon of dirt. The silt was so fine you could eat it and not grind your teeth. It was so fine you couldn’t claim you were exfoliating. It was so fine your private parts were unmolested when you sat in it. It was as soft as flour and made just as effective a glue.

We had 100 miles ahead of us and 9 days to get it done. The river was up and we floated along without effort. Our guess was we were making 5 miles per hour. After the arduous put-in and drives down we made an early day and hit camp around 3.

Far Flung Outfitters did our shuttle.
Far Flung Outfitters did our shuttle.
Last mud free moment for 9 days.
Last mud free moment for 9 days.
This was the last bit of terrain we had to carry our gear through.
This was the last bit of terrain we had to carry our gear through. Grass was a salvation.
Too thick to drink, too thin to plow. It's not funny.
Too thick to drink, too thin to plow. It’s not funny.
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Chinati Hot Springs

Our comfortable, clean, and cozy room at Chinati Hot Springs.
Our comfortable, clean, and cozy room at Chinati Hot Springs.

Burt’s hot spring itch has taken us to some sketchy places in remote corners of the world. Moisture, decay, mold, mildew. Those are not my favorite words for a warm spring. Yet so many warm spring resorts are nothing but slippery pots of smelly water. I was less than enthusiastic about driving several hours into the desert to check what looked in the hot springs guide book little more than a preppers hidey hole. But Burt. This one was a big win for him. Chinati Hot Springs defies all previous personal experiences and sets the bar for a wilderness and comfort and fun. Chinati is hands down the nicest hot spring I have ever been. This oasis of warm water is remote but the current management has not used that as an excuse for ramshackle infrastructure or untidy accommodations. It’s spotless and still funky. A drive to the Chinati Hot Springs is worth your time and money. I say this and I don’t even enjoy soaking for more than ten minutes.

This place has been a resting stop for hundereds of years. Native Americans, Spaniards, Mexicans, world travelers all have found rejuvenation in its warm water. For a while it was owned by the artist Donald Judd and the public was barred from enjoying its riches. Judd died a couple of decades ago and the spring is back open for all. More on Donald Judd in the Marfa post. If you go, get a room or camp, and cook for yourself in the spacious, spotless and view-licious group kitchen. Say hi to the friendliest gray tabby cat I have ever met. I so wanted to steal him.

Sign near Chinati Hot Springs. Attractive but hard to read at even a modest speed.
Sign near Chinati Hot Springs. Attractive but hard to read at even a modest speed.
the Audad has become a problem and we arrived in time for erradication.
the Audad or Barbery Sheep has become a problem and we arrived in time for erradication.
Rock art 1
Rock art 1
Rock art 2
Rock art 2
Rock art 3
Rock art 3
rock art 4
rock art 4
Chinati Hot Springs has serious water pressure.
Chinati Hot Springs has serious water pressure.
Burt likes hot water.
Burt likes hot water.
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