Note: This is the third in 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 I and II click here: Back to the Pecos: Part I – Spills / Back to the Pecos: Part II – Wild Horses
“…A Flood Watch is issued when conditions are favorable for flooding. It does not mean flooding will occur, but it is possible. A Flash Flood Warning is issued when a flash flood is imminent or occurring. If you are in a flood prone area move immediately to high ground.” From the National Weather Service (http://www.nws.noaa.gov/floodsafety/watch_warning.shtml)
“Humberto, this is Emilio. Just wanted to let you know that we got about three or three and a half inches of rain here in Comstock….you guys need to be careful…that’s all…just be careful.” Cell phone message left on my phone by river shuttle driver, Emilio Hinojosa, at 7:15 AM, Friday morning.
Friday, June 20, 2014
Pecos River, Mile 37 – 6:30 AM
Although it’d been drizzling on and off since just before midnight, the rain started in earnest around three o’clock that morning, and that’s when my tent started to leak. We had been warned the night before that we were under a Flash Flood Watch, so I slept with some of my gear in my tent including my rain gear, and I ended up using my poncho just to stay somewhat dry through the night. It didn’t matter much, though, because between the rain beating on our tents, the occasional roll of thunder and the thoughts of a rising river, none of us got much sleep.
We had set some rocks down to mark the river’s edge the previous evening and I checked the rocks throughout the night–I think we all did–but the water barely rose despite the steady rain. Then, through the sound of raindrops hitting my tent, I heard Ryan shout out to Dan that the river was rising and that we needed to break camp immediately.
We were all hoping the rain would stop by 5:00 AM as had been predicted, but it continued to pour, and at 6:30 and so, using the satellite phone, Ryan called his girlfriend for a weather update. He was stunned to hear the update: the rain was now projected to last until 2:00 PM. Worse still, our immediate area was now officially in a Flash Flood Warning.
I stepped out of the tent and walked down to the river to check the river level; it had only raised a couple of inches despite all the rain we’d seen. The water was a little darker from the rain clouds, but otherwise, the river didn’t look bad. We broke down the tents, packed our gear up into dry bags, and gathered much of the equipment under a rock overhang behind our campsite. We then filtered some drinking water from the rainfall that had collected in Scott’s canoe.
Having restocked our water, we went to check on the escape route. It was during the walk there in the pouring rain that I first noticed how much water was now cascading into the river from the hundreds of cuts and draws up and down the canyon. A few minutes earlier, there was no water coming from them, and now they were spilling hundreds of thousands of gallons into the river.
As we neared the escape route, we saw it: a powerful waterfall cascading from a draw and blocking the path. I think we all stopped and stood there for a bit, a little in shock. One minute our biggest problem was not losing any of our gear, and the next minute it occurred to me–for the first time really–that we were now in danger.
After what seemed like a long walk back to camp, we huddled together under the overhang and talked about our options. We could get in the boats and try to make a run for Lewis Canyon, but we were unfamiliar with this stretch of river and didn’t know how many rapids lay between us and the canyon. I also thought of Scott, who was paddling his canoe solo; he was going to have a hard time lining it down the rapids on the rising river.
Another option was to climb up onto the 12-foot ledge under the overhang and wait it out, but we looked up and then down the river, and seeing millions of gallons of water cascading over the sides of the canyon into the river, we dismissed that idea.
The last option was to try and climb up out of the canyon, but that meant abandoning the boats and most of our equipment. The waterfall took our escape route downriver, but we hadn’t yet explored the route upriver of our campsite, and with that, Dan and Ryan walked the rock ledge to look for another escape route up the canyon while Scott and I moved the boats higher on the ledge.
Scott had mentioned something the night before about seeing a jeep trail shortly before arriving at the campsite, and in the daylight we could see it a few hundred yards upriver. As Dan and Ryan got closer to it, they were blocked from reaching it by a 50-foot wide, and very powerful waterfall–bigger than the first one we’d come across that morning–dumping a torrent of muddy water into the river. It didn’t look passable, so the two turned back.
At camp, Ryan called Jackie to get an update on the weather. The news wasn’t good. The river has come up two feet at Pandale and the rain was still expected to continue until mid-afternoon. Ryan then decided to call the Border Patrol, who we’d heard was the best agency to call if in trouble on the lower Pecos. At this point, Ryan was just trying to inform them of our location, but the sat phone reception from under the overhang was so poor that they couldn’t understand each other and then the call was dropped.
I stood there under the overhang next to Ryan and tried to take it all in. How did we get to the point where our only option was to climb the narrow ledge and wait it out the rising river? I suddenly pictured the four of us up on the ledge and realized it would be crowded. Even worse, if the river rose on us, we’d have no place to go except into the muddy river which would be flowing furiously and filled with giant piles of debris. Dan must have had the same thoughts because he suddenly said he was going back upriver for another look. As he walked away, I glanced over at the river and the water was muddier than it had been the last time I looked.
Ten minutes later Dan returned from his second scouting trip and said that he thought we could make it passed the large waterfall and eventually to the trail. But we had to leave quickly before it grew any bigger. And so, having no other good options, we made the decision to abandon our boats, and all our equipment, and try to hike out of the canyon upriver.
From the time Dan came back from upriver until we left our campsite for good, ten minutes had elapsed, and I would describe those minutes as a mad scramble. We all went through our bug-out bags one last time. I opened mine again and thought of the desert above us; if we couldn’t reach anyone on the sat phone, then we’d have to walk 20 miles just to get to FM 1024, itself a lonely desert road, and from there another 20 miles or so to the nearest house. I added more water and some snacks; I also grabbed the laminated maps we’d been using and shoved them into the bag. I remembered my camera and took it from its Pelican case and rolled it up in a dry hand towel, and then put it into the bag. One of my biggest regrets is not having told Dan to do the same with his camera. In the mad scramble, Scott neglected to put any water in his bug-out bag.
We threw the dry bags and Pelican cases up to Ryan who’d climbed up on the ledge, and he shoved the gear into a crevice just above the ledge. At this point we still thought there was a chance the river might not rise that high and that we’d be able to come back down and retrieve our gear after the flood. After all, the crevice was at least 12 feet above the water and the odds of the river rising that high were slim. Ryan shoved the dry bags and cases into the crevice and then came back down. In his rush, Ryan forgot about his wallet which was in one of the dry bags he stuffed into the crevice.
We took one last look around the campsite, and then started walking upriver. I heard the roar of the waterfall before I actually saw it, but when it came into full view, I now understood why Dan and Ryan had initially turned back. The fall emanated from high on the bluff and the torrent of water hit several rock ledges on the way down, churning and frothing the brown water into white foam. It flowed with so much force that the soggy ground beneath us actually vibrated.
But Dan had noticed that the torrent dumped into a wide, grassy and mesquite filled knoll sitting between the river and the cascading waterfall, and he thought we might be able to walk through it. We got to the edge of the massive waterfall’s flow and decided the safest way to cross it would be to pair up, lock arms and go two at a time.
First went Dan and Scott, planting their feet carefully against the rushing water that was trying to take their legs out from under them. Dan used his camera monopod to probe the unseen ground beneath the muddy flow, checking for depth and unseen rocks that might trip them. Ryan and I followed, again with arms locked, walking into the muddy torrent as it crashed into our legs. We couldn’t see where we were stepping, and the bottom alternated between thick grass and silt so we walked slowly, to keep from sinking into the mud. It took a few minutes to cross the cascade, but we eventually stepped into some slack water from the brush on the far end of the knoll.
We continued upriver in thigh deep water trying not to snag against the mesquite thorns and started seeing more debris in the water, including think clumps of dried river cane known as canebrakes or cane floats. After a few minutes of walking upriver, we found the base of the trail and stepped out of the muddy water and onto the rocky path that followed a draw up the canyon. Once safely off the river, we stopped and turned back to look at the rising river. From our perch on the trail we could just make out our kayaks being thrashed about in the water near our camp; they were still attached to the tree. Scott’s canoe was also still there, and more importantly, the water hadn’t yet reached the ledge where our equipment was stashed.
Dan climbed further up the canyon to see if the trail went to the top, and to check if he had cell phone reception since we hadn’t been able to reach anyone with the sat phone earlier while still down in the canyon. The rest of us stayed on the trail and watched as several small trees in the middle of the river channel disappeared under rising waters. In the 15 minutes since climbing out of it, I estimate the river came up four to five feet.
Dan came back and reported that the trail did in fact go up to the top of the bluff, but that we’d have to cross one more small rush of water that cut across higher up on the trail. Then Ryan suggested someone try going back to our camp and grab some of the equipment from off the ledge; after all it was only about a few hundred yards down river. Dan and Ryan grabbed some rope and walked back down the trail to the river. Once they turned downriver and entered the tree-filled knoll, we lost sight of them in the thickets.
I continued to watch the river and started seeing larger canebrakes and other debris floating down the now turbulent river. It reminded me of the Indonesian tsunami video I watched after that disaster—muddy, undulating currents, carrying house-sized islands of thick debris.
I kept an eye out near our camp, but hadn’t yet seen Dan or Ryan appear out of the brush. I picked out another tree in the river, one of the last still standing against the rush of water, and I watched it as the river rose over the top of it. Right about this time, I also started questioning myself for letting Dan go back down to the river. I alternated my gaze between the tree in the river and the knoll for Dan, and kept doing this over and over until suddenly I saw something moving quickly in the clearing below. It was a doe running down river, bounding over the brush and rocks on the torrent’s edge trying desperately to escape the rising water, and just as quickly as it appeared, it was gone.
It seemed like an eternity to me, but after about 20 minutes, the two men suddenly materialized out of the trees below us, and started climbing up the trail empty-handed. They said the river had been too high and too fast, and they couldn’t get to our camp. At one point they’d both stepped into thick mud and sunk down to their thighs while the violent river rose nearby. It took them several minutes to get themselves out of the mud, after which they decided that continuing on to the ledge was just too dangerous, and they turned back.
Pecos River, Mile 37 – 9:45 AM
Our escape route ended up being a rough jeep trail, carved from a draw with just enough drainage to keep it relatively dry. With Dan and Ryan back from the attempt to retrieve our gear, we talked about our next move and decided there was nothing left to do except climb out of the canyon and call for help. We all drank water and refilled the empties with runoff, which we could filter later. We grabbed our bug out bags, and just before starting the climb, we took one last look at the camp site and could barely make out the boats, including Scott’s canoe, floating in the river.
The trail made for easy climbing and we arrived at the top of the canyon about 15 minutes later. Once up on the bluff, we could see a distinct thunderstorm just northwest of us, and we also saw what looked like a wall cloud attempting to form. Given the rotating nature of the storm, and the green glow emanating from it, Dan knew that hail and lightning were now a real threat to us, especially given our position atop a bluff with absolutely no cover.
Using a poncho to shield the satellite phone from the wind and rain, Ryan again tried to call in our coordinates to the Border Patrol. The agent who answered the phone didn’t know what to think of us at first, and he finally passed us off to the Border Patrol office in Comstock. The agent we spoke to there was also unsure of how to find us and said he would call us back. Ryan then called a local game warden who sounded to Ryan like he’d woken him up. The game warden recommended that we call 911, and so Ryan hung up and tried that; the dispatcher we reached after calling 911 decided to hand us off to Val Verde County Emergency Services. We provided our story and location, for the fourth time, and then we were handed off one final time, to a lady named Victoria, who heard our tale of woe and quickly took control of the situation.
We gave her our coordinates and told her we’d be walking on the jeep trail looking for someplace to take shelter from the storm. Scott had known there was a cabin up here, although we weren’t yet sure where it was. We could see a deer blind from our position and started walking up the trail in that direction, having decided it was better than no shelter at all.
As we climbed higher on the trail towards the deer blind, the cabin came into view on the bluff down river. The only problem was a large canyon sitting between us and the cabin. We elected to stay on the trail and hope it led to the cabin. Traveling over a jeep trail was preferable to hiking though steep draws, ankle breaking rocks and a long list of desert plants and animals, that as Scott said, “…will either stick, sting or bite you.”
As we hoped, the trail led to the cabin, and it took us a little less than two hours to reach it. We were surprised to see that what we thought was a hunting cabin was actually a shop with a large roll-up door that housed a jeep. Through the windows in the shop we could see the Jeep’s license plate number, and we called Victoria back to let her know that we had arrived at the cabin and to run the plate numbers to maybe get a good address for the ranch we were on.
Then, having done all we could, we sat and waited and tended to our aches and scratches and blisters. We had a hell of a view of the flooded river as we waited on the bluff. When we’d left the river two hours before, it had only come up five or six feet. Now the river was easily over 20-feet higher.
A half-hour later we called Victoria for an update, expecting to be told that a truck had been dispatched to retrieve us; we were surprised to learn a Texas DPS helicopter was coming to get us.
Eagle Pass, TX – 11:00 AM
Texas DPS pilot Rob Messenger and his Tactical Flight Officer (TFO), Dustin Gardner, were sitting in their helicopter at the airport in Eagle Pass, Texas waiting on the local county judge to arrive. The two were in Eagle Pass supporting Governor Perry’s immigration enforcement operation; however, the region had seen heavy rains over the last eight hours, and in this part of Texas that usually meant dangerous flooding, so Rob and Dustin were reassigned to fly the judge on a survey of the local area to assess flood damage. They were awaiting the judge’s arrival when they received a radio call that four kayakers were stranded on the Pecos River.
The air crew departed Eagle Pass for their home base 50 miles north in Del Rio where they stopped to refuel. While there, they also received a brief from Texas Parks & Wildlife Game Warden Andrew Banda; during the brief, the helo crew was given the GPS coordinates we’d provided the dispatchers we spoke to that morning. The air crew punched the coordinates into their flight computer and departed for the river.
The flight from Del Rio to the swollen Pecos River took less than 30 minutes, and the DPS air crew could immediately see it had raised significantly. They flew along the river canyon towards the GPS coordinates that we’d provided; however, before they arrived at that location they saw several blue kayaks tied on the bank near Lewis Canyon. Since the search coordinates were still a few miles away, they noted the location and continued on towards our coordinates upriver.
Pecos River, Mile 37 – 1:00 PM
It had been three hours since we climbed out of the flooded river canyon and we now sat outside a cabin on top of the bluff above our old campsite. The rain slowed and the clouds were starting to thin out a little, but the river was still swollen and running thick with river cane and other debris. By now we’d been told that a helo was coming to get us, and the first thing we thought was that this wasn’t going to be cheap.
As we sat there waiting, thinking of our gear, I suddenly heard the familiar sound from down river of rotor blades chopping though the air. I scanned the horizon but didn’t see anything, although I could definitely make out the whop-whop-whop sound of a helicopter. Then I saw it, and could see from their heading that they were headed upriver, presumably to the coordinates we had initially given Victoria.
We waived at them as they flew past, and then the helicopter banked right and flew a racetrack pattern to get a better look at us and assess a landing area. We all waved to them as they passed overhead and again the helo banked right, but this time they lined the helo up for a landing on the same jeep trail that brought us to the cabin. They put the helo down on the narrow trail and the shut it down. They got out of their helicopter and walked over to us and introduced themselves.
The first question they asked was if we were the ones who’d called for help on the sat phone. We explained how we’d made the call after first climbing out on the jeep trail, and how we hiked to the cabin to get out of the storm. Then they asked if any of us was injured; we replied that we were a little battered and bruise but otherwise uninjured. They also asked if the blue kayaks they’d seen down river were ours. At this point, we hadn’t known there was anyone else on the river; in fact the only person we’d seen in the last four days was Omar, the ranch hand, back on mile 19. Our kayaks were green, we told them, and we didn’t know who the blue kayaks belonged to.
Since we didn’t all fit in the DPS helo, they’d have to take us out two at a time and drop us off at the state park in Seminole Canyon where we would be met by the same game warden who’d briefed the crew at the airport in Del Rio earlier in the day. From there, the park staff would shuttle us to Emilio’s house to pick up our vehicles. Ryan and Scott hopped into the helo first, got seat-belted in, and then the helo took off over the river, dipping slightly into the canyon before popping up again and flying across the river on a southwest heading to Seminole Canyon.
Dustin stayed with us, and after the helo departed, we chatted about our trip. He mentioned that it was unusual for most paddlers to carry a satellite phone and that most often when paddlers were stranded by a rising river, the rescue crews were called in either by the outfitter who put the paddlers in or by relatives who called when they didn’t show up on time. This usually meant hours of searching for the lost paddlers. In our case, the crew locked in our coordinates, and that’s exactly where they were headed when I flagged them down. We all chuckled when Dustin mentioned that he’d been briefed that we were in a jeep at the coordinates we’d provided—an obvious misunderstanding about our last message to Victoria asking her to find our location by running the jeep’s license plates.
Twenty minutes later, the helo returned for Dan and I. Dustin would stay behind with our bug-out bags and Rob would come back for him after dropping us off at the state park. We climbed aboard the helo and strapped in; then Rob took off over the bluff, banking hard right and dropping into the river canyon to scout out our campsite. The kayaks were gone, and the muddy river was flowing well above the highest ledge in the canyon, obliterating any sign of our camp or the ledge where we left our things. It’s funny how the human mind works. I’d been watching the river rise for the last four hours and I knew it had gone up well passed the ledge, but a part of me refused to believe our gear was gone until I actually saw it with my own eyes.
Seminole Canyon State Park was about ten miles away from our location, as the crow flies (by road it’s about 50 miles away). After the ‘fly-by’ confirmed that our boats and gear were gone, the helo pulled out of the river canyon and turned back around taking a southwest heading, and overflew the river for a bit. A short distance downriver, I saw a vehicle in the river and used the helo’s intercom to tell the pilot. He turned the helo around for a look and confirmed that there was in fact what appeared to be a white truck or SUV sitting on its side in the raging river. A mile down from there we saw yet another car in the river, and it occurred to me that we weren’t the only ones to have a bad day on the river; I hoped nobody drowned.
As we approached the state park, I could see that half the parking lot had been roped off to make a landing zone, and Rob expertly put the helo down on the pavement. We unbuckled the seatbelts, let ourselves out and walked away while Rob kept the helo running. Once clear of the helo’s rotor blades, Rob lifted off again bound for the river to retrieve his TFO and our bags.
Pecos River, Mile 38 (Lewis Canyon) – 2:00 PM
After dropping off our bags at the State Park, Rob and Dustin flew back to the river and landed their helo in Lewis Canyon near the kayaks they had seen earlier, only now there was also a large group of people near the ‘yaks. There were actually two groups gathered at the canyon, both refugees from the flooded river. One was a group of eight from Ozona on a camping and fishing trip; and the other a youth group from a church in Waco.
Both parties had been trapped in the canyon by the flood and had no way out. The group from Ozona carried their boats and equipment to the river in a new pick-up truck with a gooseneck flatbed trailer. By the time they realized the river was rising, the trail leading out of the canyon had been blocked by rushing water in a draw that crossed the gravel road. They were able to carry most of their camping gear and boats up to higher ground, but they couldn’t get the truck out; when the water rose, they watched as their truck and the large trailer were swept into the river. I believe that was the white truck I saw in the river during my flight out.
Even more distraught than the group from Ozona were the paddlers from the church group who had somehow become separated from one of the young men in their group early that morning when the river rose on them forcing them to paddle down the swollen river. The missing teen’s kayak ended up floating down to Lewis Canyon, but there was no sign of the young man. The helo crew called in the church groups’ position to the Val Verde Sherriff’s office which would dispatch some trucks to drive them back to the ranch house where their vehicles were parked. Then the crew took off upriver to search for the missing teen.
Pecos River, Mile 35 – 2:30 PM
The DPS helo hugged the rough canyon terrain as it flew upriver searching for the teen who’d been missing all morning. Suddenly they saw something on a ledge that sat just above the swollen river. As they got closer, they saw it was a young man wearing blue shorts, a green t-shirt and one sandal, waving from a ledge that sat about 200 feet below a steep bluff. He also wore a PFD, but there was no sign of a canoe or kayak, and so they rightly assumed this to be the missing young man.
But extracting him from the ledge was going to be difficult. The helo wasn’t equipped with a hoist and so they considered a ‘long line’ rescue using a 100-foot rope with a padded rescue ring on one end, however, the high cliff behind the ledge meant Rob would have to position the helo dangerously close to the canyon wall; he might also have to deal with severe downdrafts known to shoot down from the bluffs above. Another problem was that they couldn’t assess the young man’s physical and mental state, although they were sure he was exhausted from being exposed to the elements since the night before. The crew was concerned the man might not be able to don the rescue ring correctly, or keep himself in it during the lift; if he slipped out of the ring he’d fall into the flooded river.
The officers decided to call in another DPS helo out of San Antonio with specialized rescue equipment that would make for a safer extraction. But it was getting late and the hoist helo would take a few hours to arrive from San Antonio. More rain was expected that night which made things even more precarious for the young man on the ledge, so as a backup to the hoist helo, Rob and Dustin also called for a Border Patrol rescue team to start preparing for a high angle rope rescue. One way or another, they were going to get the young man off the ledge tonight.
Seminole Canyon State Park – 5:30 PM
DPS Pilot Rudy Escobar and his TFO, Jeff Evans, arrived at the state park and received a brief from Dustin. Both crews refueled their helicopters and headed up the river. After reaching the stranded paddler, Escobar maneuvered the helo as close to the canyon wall as he could, while his TFO used the helo’s hoist system to lower a rescue litter down to the stranded teen. The young man got into the litter and strapped himself in, and then Evans hoisted him into the helo.
The young man was flown to Del Rio and treated by a Border Patrol EMT for minor injuries and exposure. Although he refused to go the hospital, the crew insisted he call his mother who’d already been informed that her son was missing in the flooded river, and he did.
Seminole Canyon State Park – 4:00 PM
After being dropped off at the state park by the DPS helicopter earlier that day, Dan and I made our way to the park’s Visitor Center where we were directed to the manager’s office. Waiting for us was Game Warden Banda who asked us some questions while we waited for the return of our gear. We explained how the river rose on us quickly and how we thought we might be able to go back down and get our boats and gear after the flood receded. We also talked about the difficulty of getting our coordinates out and of being passed off by the different agencies including his.
The game warden took down our information and then remarked that in all his years on the job, he’d never seen a group of paddlers as prepared as we were, and that if it weren’t for the satellite phone, we may not have made it off the river; at a minimum we would probably have spent at a night in the desert.
Epilogue – Fort Worth, Texas
We went to the lower Pecos River in search of adventure, and I guess you could say we found it, but we paid a high price. After doing the math, we estimated that between the four of us we lost close to $20,000 in boats and equipment. None of us are rich, in fact far from it, and so that was a bitter pill to swallow. Of course, as I’m reminded by my family and friends, it could have been worse. We made it off the river after an almost unprecedented flood, and in a strange turn of events, our call for help on the satellite phone led to the rescue of at least one stranded paddler who was in a much more precarious position than we were.
But the tale isn’t complete yet, not by any means, and there is still some unfinished business to do. The week after the flood, we returned to the river and searched for our gear. Although we didn’t find the boats or camera equipment, we did make it back onto the ranch where we climbed out of the flooded river, thanks to a gracious ranch owner who let us back onto his land. We also searched large sections of the river near its confluence with the Rio Grande as well as parts of Lake Amistad that were filled with a lot of the debris that washed past us on the river that morning; we found at least one kayak and a canoe, but none of them ours. I will be writing about that search soon.
Even as I type this, we are already planning for a return to the river in a few weeks for one final search of a section of the river that lays between Lewis Canyon and the Weir—arguably the most difficult stretch of the lower Pecos to access, which is why I believe there is a chance we’ll find some of our gear there. Of course, we are now without kayaks and pretty much broke after two trips to the river. That will make our return all the more challenging, but anything’s possible.
Lone Star Chronicles – Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Fish