Note: This is the second of a three-part series about a trip down the remote lower Pecos River. Four of us set out on this journey on Tuesday, June 17, 2014 and four days later the river rose on us forcing us to abandon our boats and equipment. To read parts one and two of the story click here: Back to the Pecos: Part I -Spills / Back to the Pecos: Part III – The Flood
Wednesday, June 18, 2014
Pecos River, Mile 10 – Breaking Camp
After getting our asses handed to us by the rapids the day before, we arose the next morning and boiled some water for coffee and breakfast while breaking camp. We felt surprisingly energized given all that had happened the previous day.
It was Ryan who first heard, and then saw, a wild goat standing atop of the ridge above our camp. We hadn’t seen much wildlife the day before, probably in part because of our troubles on the rapids, so the mountain goats came as a surprise. I went for my camera and was just about to snap some photos when three more goats emerged from behind the ridge. They all stood there, staring down at us and bleating occasionally, as if daring us to come up and tussle.
As I photographed the four goats, another dozen suddenly stepped up to the ridge and just stood there, reminding me of an old western movie where a couple of indians on horseback ride up to the edge of a cliff and look down menacingly on the wagon train below only to be followed by a few more Indians, and then finally the rest of the tribe. Only instead of indians, we got goats.
Pecos River, Mile 14 – The Horse
At mile 13, we came across another series of cane lined rapids, but by now we were starting to get the hang of them. Scott was still lining the heavy canoe down most of the rapids as a precaution, but running them in kayaks actually got a little easier.
The final turn on this set of rapids shot us into a long, shallow pool nestled between two steep bluffs with several car-sized boulders strewn throughout the pool. The morning sunlight caught the golden colored cliffs perfectly and the vista was so breathtaking, that it took us a minute to notice that there was a horse standing in the river, looking directly at us.
The large white stallion stood there, alone in the river, next to an old cane break that had washed up on some rocks. He looked at us warily, but didn’t budge even as the river’s flow brought us closer to him.
As we neared the horse, we saw he was bleeding from several fresh scratches and cuts; we also noticed that his powerful body bore several old scars. We weren’t sure if he was a ranch horse that had strayed into the canyon, or one of the wild horses known to inhabit the Edward’s Plateau. We slowed our approach as we got nearer, but the horse held his spot in the river, watching us pass by, one at a time.
It occurred to us that maybe one of his hind legs was caught or wedged under a rock or flute as he literally did not move an inch in response to our presence; his hind legs also appeared to sit deeper in the river, but we couldn’t tell if he was trapped from our vantage point as we paddled by.
Once passed the horse, Dan and Ryan paddled back to check if he was in fact stuck in the rocky river bottom, although I’m not sure what they would have done about it if he was. Again, the horse just stared at the two paddlers as they neared. When Ryan got to within a few feet of the horse bearing an offer of river cane in his hand, the stallion took a step back and then turned to walk upriver slowly, his curiosity obviously satisfied.
Knowing the stallion wasn’t seriously injured, we paddled on, speculating that if it was a wild horse, perhaps another alpha male came along and exiled him from the herd. As we paddled away, I felt sorry for the beautiful stallion and hoped he found whatever it was he was looking for on the lonely stretch of river.
Pecos River, Mile 16 – Omar
A few miles further downriver, we ran into the first (and only) human we’d see on this part of river, a middle-aged man who was clearing rocks from a pasture near the river. Scott introduced himself first and then realized the man didn’t speak English. I paddled up and started conversing with him in Spanish; he smiled and said his name was Omar and he was a hand for the ranch that lined this section of river.
He seemed happy to see us, saying that he rarely saw paddlers coming down the river. Not that it mattered anyway, he said, because his English wasn’t very good and the paddlers never spoke Spanish. When I asked him asked why he was clearing the field, he said that his boss wanted to bring his guests down to show them the river. He added that as the newest ranch hand, the back-breaking job of clearing rocks fell to him.
We asked Omar if the horse we’d seen upriver belonged to his ranch and he replied the only horses in the area were mustangs. He also mentioned that a herd of wild horses hung out in one of the canyons a few miles downriver, and that perhaps the horse we’d seen was part of that herd.
We chatted for a few more minutes, said our goodbyes and continued down the river.
Pecos River, Mile 18 – The Flutes
Breaking camp earlier that day, we knew we’d be paddling into a notorious 4-mile stretch of the flutes today. The Pecos River flutes are a series of long corrugated trenches carved into the river bottom by years of water-borne erosion. Although flutes were scattered throughout our entire 55-mile route, they were more prevalent in this upper part of the river we now paddled, including one particularly difficult 4-mile stretch of profanity inducing, ankle-breaking flutes.
This 4-mile stretch of flutes first came to our attention on our first Pecos trip, when we looked upriver and saw a group of kayakers coming down towards us. Even from a distance we could see something was wrong as they appeared to be stopping repeatedly to drain one of the kayaks. Most sit-on-top kayaks are drained by standing them up on their end and letting the water trickle out though a small drain hole. Simply put, it’s a pain in the ass, but these guys were having to stop and do it every couple of hundred yards or so.
Once they reached us they recounted their story of how the kayak had been breached two days prior, and how, despite their attempts to patch the breach in the plastic (i.e., duct tape), they’d been forced to continue on their way down the river having to drain the crippled kayak every quarter mile or so since. The kayak’s leak developed after miles of ‘yak dragging on the long stretch of flutes…the same ones we were about to enter.
Pecos River, Mile 19 – Wild Horses
Just as Omar had said, a few miles later we came upon a herd of a dozen or so wild horses at the mouth Everett Canyon, grazing on thick clumps of grass growing near the river from the recent rains. There were dark colored stallions and chestnut brown mares, and several ‘paints’ or pintos with brilliant white and dark spotted coats. We banked the kayaks, took a break from the flutes and hoped to get some photos of the horses.
I’m not an expert on wild horses, but these horses all looked healthy and well fed despite having to carve out their lives on a harsh desert plateau. Even the lone white stallion back by the rapids looked to be healthy other than some scratches.
At one point, Dan and Ryan tried approaching the herd to shoot some video, when suddenly a large male turned and took an aggressive stance towards them. They lowered the cameras and took a quick couple of steps back, waiting to see what he’d do next. Hoping the horse would resume his grazing and allow them to shoot some video, they stayed put, but the protective stallion just stood there, holding his ground and watching them wearily until they turned and walked away without the video.
A few minutes later, the entire herd made their way down to the river and drank from its waters. We continued to snap pictures of the majestic horses, and Scott managed a great photo of Dan and I next to each other, the wild horses in the background. That photo is now a favorite of mine, and it will forever remind me of why we came to the lower Pecos in the first place.
Pecos River, Mile 20 – The ‘Yak Drag
First the good news: thanks to the higher flow, we were able to float above most of that 4-mile stretch of flutes. This was a huge break for us especially after having been beat up by the river the day before. Now the bad news: we still had a couple hundred yards of flutes to deal with, and while two or three hundred yards of flutes is better than four miles of flutes, it still sucked.
In simple terms, the flutes mean a lot of getting in and out of your kayak to line your boat down the trenches by walking atop its ridges, always keeping an eye on your trench looking for traps, and escapes, in the limestone maze. If the trench you’re lining runs deep enough, and long enough, and you end up covering a good chunk of distance, then you picked a good one. If your trench narrows and traps your boat, then you didn’t.
Once trapped, that’s when the fun begins. You’re now forced to lift your (heavily loaded) kayak into the next trench…if you’re lucky…otherwise you may have to do it again and again, and unlike most Texas river rock, the Pecos has a brutally abrasive, coral-like texture that tends to scrape a lot of plastic off boats. My Ride 135 was a few months old when I first floated the Pecos last year, and four days later it looked four years older. But I’m not complaining; at least she didn’t spring a leak and make me drain her every couple of hundred yards.
There are stories of paddlers taking a whole day to run these same four miles of flutes, but for once the higher river flow worked in our favor and we were able to punch through the flutes in a few hours, and without much ‘yak dragging. What I thought was going to be a grueling day on the river was actually a lot easier than I expected, and we needed the break.
Pecos River, Mile 22 – Second Night’s Camp
It was getting late which meant it was time to start looking for the night’s campsite. We found a flat limestone ledge on river left that sat below a low shelf on the wall. The shelf would make a great escape route and it would also allow for good photography. Once on the shelf, the view revealed that we were actually off the river a ways, having paddled though a series of shallow cuts in the limestone to reach the campsite.
We set up the tents and started our evening routine of changing into dry clothes, boiling water for our freeze dried dinners, and prepping for the next day’s paddle. Tonight we had the additional task of purifying water that we’d collected in our old water bottles from a spring we’d found earlier in the day.
Having spent the previous night sweating in my tent, this time I faced my tent’s fly into the wind, hoping for a breeze to fight off the bugs and keep me cool. It worked well; too well, in fact, and after a couple of hours I got cold and was forced to slide into my sleeping bag for the remainder of the night.
In the morning, we awoke refreshed and ready for the next day’s paddle. Unlike the first day, the previous one was actually fun and exciting, and for the first time we felt like we were in control of the river and not the other any around. If today was going to be anything like that, then I was looking forward to it.
Thursday, June 19, 2014
Pecos River, Mile 24 – Water
In one of the nature’s cruelest ironies, the toughest logistical challenge of floating the lower Pecos is drinking water, or more accurately, the lack of it. You wouldn’t know it by looking at any of the thousands of pictures out there of the river’s crystal clear water, but according to Louis Aulbach’s Pecos River Guidebook, the flow of water over the river’s bottom dissolves the limestone and results in alkaline water that’s unhealthy to drink. We still have some unanswered questions about this, which I will write about another day, but we didn’t want to chance it, so we planned to haul in at least a case of bottled water per person. Or so I thought.
At the last minute Dan decided to bring only a few days’ worth of water and gamble on the fact that we’d locate the springs documented in the guide book. Scott had the coordinates for all the springs programmed into his GPS, which he lost on the first day when his canoe overturned. That forced us to rely on the general descriptions of the springs in the guide book, but they are notoriously difficult to find, often forcing the searchers to bush-whack their way through thick river cane, in shoe sucking mud.
Both Dan and Scott carried portable water filtration systems, and although alkalinity isn’t something that can be filtered out as far as I know, if we had to, we would obviously drink the river water, but we didn’t want to do that until the last half of the trip, just in case. Consequently, drinking water was something that weighed heavily on my mind, even though I personally brought enough water myself—again, the group was only as strong as its thirstiest paddler.
There were two springs that we needed to find in order to maintain the needed amount of drinking water without resorting to drinking the river water. The first was goat springs near mile 17, which we hit on day 2, and then chinaberry springs at approximately mile 30 which we’d hit today.
I’m not sure how he did it, but Dan was able to quickly find Goat Springs the day before when he noticed the water in the creek he was walking suddenly got colder. Looking around, he saw a small seepage coming from the rock just barely above creek surface. The water trickled so slowly, I’m pretty sure I would have missed it, but as I said, Dan has a knack. We used a gallon jug that we’d cut the top off to collect the water from Goat Spring, and then poured it into our empty water bottles. Even though it was probably clean enough to drink right from the spring, the close proximity to the tepid creek water convinced us to run the water though the purifier before drinking it. With three days left to go, there was no sense in taking chances.
The water we collected at Goat Spring was a blessing, and we filled every available water bottle, but we would still need to find the Chinaberry Spring on the next day or we risked running low on drinking water during the last couple of days of our trip.
Chinaberry Spring is also mentioned in the Outside Magazine piece which described the paddlers on that trip as having to wade through knee deep mud while cutting their way through spider infested river cane. The guidebook described the spring as being hidden near a grove of chinaberry trees and river cane in a long pool that followed some rapids, with several rocks near the spring, and a cave in the canyon above. Unfortunately that description fits a few different locations in that vicinity.
Dan found one spot that looked promising and we banked the boats near a gap in the thick cane where he felt the spring might be, and on entering the gap in the cane, we immediately felt the water cool slightly. Dan was up front using a machete to hack his way through the dried cane; I was 20 feet behind him trying not to lose my river shoes in the knee deep, very silty mud, the kind that sucks at your shoes with each step, releasing pockets of putrid sulfur-smelling gases. We looked for several difficult minutes but didn’t hear or see anything that looked like it might be hiding a spring and so we finally gave up and continued downriver without the water.
And so just like that, for the remainder of the trip we’d have to rely on what little new bottled water we still had left as well as the water we collected at Goat Springs the day before. If that wasn’t enough, then we’d have to filter and drink the river water.
Pecos River, Mile 30 – Rock Gardens
The Pecos Guidebook calls them rock gardens, and that’s a pretty accurate description for these long underwater fields of boulders populating large sections of the river. Most of the rocks sit just below the river surface making them hard to see until you near them, and crashing into one with your kayak will at a minimum cost you some plastic; hitting them head-on with any kind of speed can be a ‘yak killer. To make things even sportier, many of the rock gardens are strewn within rapids.
But rock gardens weren’t all bad. Once Ryan taught us how to negotiate them, they were actually kind of fun. For example, he taught us to read the waves and to differentiate between the ‘wave trains’ and the white water wakes caused by barely submerged boulders. Wave trains are caused by the deeper underwater rocks and usually indicate enough clearance to safely paddle over them. White water wakes, on the other hand, usually meant potential kayak and canoe trapping rocks.
Combined with rapids, the rock gardens became a regular occurrence that quickly forced us to master the art of paddling our kayaks down the slalom-like, boulder filled runs. If done wrong, the boat might catch a rock, and even if not a fatal blow, the sudden stop in swift water would immediately whip the boat’s stern over until stopped by another rock, possibly pinning it there. If the water flow is strong enough, it might overturn the boat and toss your things into the river.
Done right, the rides were exhilarating and fed the hunger for adventure that first brought us here, without a lot of risk. Of course it took some practice, but each successive run became easier as we learned the basics, like back-paddling to slow the kayaks and give us time for adjustments; and digging in with our paddle blades to ‘rudder’ the boat into a turn (when paddling your arms off isn’t enough to turn the ‘yak). Most importantly, we learned to be decisive while in the run–taking a couple of seconds to pick which side of the rock to use probably means you’re not going to clear the rock at all. Don’t ask me how I know that.
Pecos River, Mile 33 – The Canoe
As I said, the three of us with kayaks started getting better at running rapids with each one we passed; unfortunately for Scott, he was paddling solo in a canoe, which meat her was at a distinct disadvantage when it came to running rapids. Turning the canoe in swift water took more time and energy than turning a kayak, and time wasn’t something we had in the rapids, so after the first day, Scott pretty much lined all the bigger rapids and many of the smaller ones for the remainder of the trip.
The rock gardens also proved to be difficult for Scott who was paddling without sunglasses (he lost his only pair on one of the first rapids on Tuesday), and without polarized glasses he often didn’t see the rocks until it was too late to do anything about it. This led to a lot of frustration for Scott.
However, without a doubt, the single biggest issue affecting Scott’s canoe was the wind, and it was always there, fighting us and forcing him to work twice as hard keeping up. On one particularly long pool, paddling against 30 MPH head winds, I slowed my pace to wait for Scott and was shocked to see the pained contortions on his face as he paddled the canoe into the stiff wind; I felt horrible for him and considered trading boats for a few miles to give him a break. At one point, I finally had to ask him: knowing this river like he did, why would he bring a canoe knowing he’d have to paddle it solo for 55 miles in brutal wind?
He replied, “I didn’t think the wind would be this bad this far upriver.”
Pecos River, Mile 37 – Last Camp
As we neared mile 37 we began to notice scattered clouds forming down river as we looked for a suitable campsite for the night. It was getting late and we briefly talked about continuing on to Lewis Canyon which should have been less than two miles below us. But the entire trip, our GPS readings had been off by about mile according to the paper maps we carried, and even Scott, who’d been to Lewis Canyon many years before, was unsure of its location.
It was getting dark, so we instead decided to survey a couple of potential campsites on river left, really nothing more than limestone ledges butting up against the sheer canyon walls. We found one ledge with enough real estate for the tents and more importantly, an easy route to higher ground about 50 yards down river. This entire section of river, including our campsite, was surrounded by steep canyon walls.
Because we found the site so late, the sun set on us while we finished putting up the tents. We then boiled water and ate dinner in the darkness, talking about the river and our probable location. Without the waypoints, we were pretty sure we were somewhere near miles 37, which meant that Lewis Canyon was probably a mile or two below us.
We also talked about the rain clouds, which even in darkness, we could still see forming above us. Ryan said he planned to use the sat phone after dinner to call his girlfriend back in Fort Worth and get a weather forecast. We marked the river’s water line with some rocks, and started checking them every hour, in case the area upriver of us got rain. We would continue checking the rock markers throughout the night.
Up until now, while well aware that we might get some rain, I don’t think anyone was too worried about it. Summertime pop-up storms are not uncommon on the lower Pecos, and few of them produce enough rain the raise the river more than a few inches if at all. Still, we took precautions, like prepping our ‘bug out’ bags and dragging the boats up higher on the limestone ledge and tied them up. But these are all standard precautions on a river, and I don’t think we were too terribly worried about flooding at this point.
That changed around 11:00 PM, when Ryan grabbed the sat phone and called his girlfriend to check on the weather. He broke the news to us quickly: we were predicted to get several inches of rain throughout the night and the area where we camped was now officially in a flash flood watch.
We very briefly talked about breaking camp and paddling downriver to a safer spot, but it was dark, we were all dog tired and we weren’t sure what lay between us and Lewis Canyon. Negotiating large rapids in the dark would make for a dangerous paddle, especially for Scott whose canoe forced him to line most of the rapids. And if the river rose on us, we could find ourselves trapped in a part of the canyon without a way out. By staying at our campsite, we at least had a known good route to higher ground, so we made the decision to spend the night and see what the river threw at us.
National Weather Service, Austin/San Antonio, TX
At some point after 11:OO PM, the National Weather Service changed the flash flood watch for our area into a flash flood warning. Shortly before 3:00 AM, Friday, June 20th, on what would be our fourth day on the river, they issued the following bulletin:
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE AUSTIN/SAN ANTONIO TX 256 AM CDT FRI JUN 20 2014
TXC465-201000-/O.CON.KEWX.FF.W.OO/ VAL VERDE TX- 0256 AM CDT FRI JUN 20 2014
…A FLASH FLOOD WARNING REMAINS IN EFFECT UNTIL 500 AM CDT FOR SOUTHERN VAL VERDE COUNTY…AT 247 AM CDT…LOCAL LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICIALS REPORTED THUNDERSTORMS PRODUCING FLASH FLOODING OVER THE WARNED AREA. DOPPLER RADAR HAS ESTIMATED BETWEEN 1 AND 3 INCHES HAS OCCURRED. AN ADDITIONAL 1 TO 3 INCHES IS POSSIBLE AS THUNDERSTORMS WITH HEAVY RAINFALL CONTINUE TO MOVE OVER THE AREA.
PRECAUTIONARY/PREPAREDNESS ACTIONS…BE ESPECIALLY CAUTIOUS AT NIGHT WHEN IT IS HARDER TO RECOGNIZE THE DANGERS OF FLOODING. IF FLASH FLOODING IS OBSERVED, ACT QUICKLY. MOVE UP TO HIGHER GROUND TO ESCAPE FLOOD WATERS. DO NOT STAY IN AREAS SUBJECT TO FLOODING WHEN WATER BEGINS RISING. EXCESSIVE RUNOFF FROM HEAVY RAINFALL WILL CAUSE FLOODING OF SMALL CREEKS AND STREAMS…COUNTRY ROADS…AS WELL AS FARMLAND ALONG THE BANKS OF CREEKS AND STREAMS.
To be continued…
Lone Star Chronicles – Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Fish