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.
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.
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.