Note: This is the first 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 II and III click here: Back to the Pecos: Part II – Wild Horses / Back to the Pecos: Part III – The Flood
We first paddled the lower Pecos River a little over a year ago, and ever since that memorable trip we’ve known we’d be going back. The last trip had us put in at the Hwy 90 boat ramp and paddle upriver to the Pecos Weir and back, approximately 13 miles in each direction. This time we’d be paddling the more challenging 55 miles from the town of Pandale down to Deadman’s Canyon—I didn’t make up that name.
The stories of hardship on this stretch of the river are plentiful, and I think we’d heard them all. Besides the troubling logistics of having to bring enough provisions for five days on a remote river, there’s also a laundry list of physical hardships that we’d have to endure: brutal desert heat and wicked canyon winds that made paddling a constant beat down; stretches of river that twist swiftly through mazes of river cane, which act as potential sweepers waiting to swat you out of your boat and steal your gear (or worse) if you’re not careful; ‘rock garden’ rapids that force you to navigate mine fields of underwater boulders, any of them capable of crushing the bows of your kayaks if approached incorrectly; and then of course, the infamous stretches of canoe and kayak eating flutes.
To a man we knew this would be a tough trip, both physically and mentally; hell, the distance alone is more than most paddlers want to deal with on a normal river, and the lower Pecos isn’t normal by anyone’s standards. Still, we were a determined group and desired the adventures and reward that came with paddling the remote river. Like scenic river valleys, clear running springs, beautifully painted cliffs, ancient pictographs and abundant wildlife. For us these rewards easily outweighed the risks and we were pretty sure we could mitigate the hazards through months of planning and a lot of preparation.
We were wrong.
From the first day, the Pecos proved to be more river than we’d bargained for, and on the fourth day of our journey, she got downright nasty. Despite all our planning and preparation, the river ultimately beat us and we paid a heavy price, losing everything including the boats. We almost lost our lives.
This is the story of that trip…
Monday, June 16, 2014
Fort Worth, TX – The Premonition
The plan was for four paddlers to float down the lower Pecos over the course of five days, and although it was ambitious trip, without a lot of time for fishing, we all felt it could be done safely. The one thing we did plan to do was to find, photograph and document some of the campsites, springs and pictographs the area is famous for.
With three of the four paddlers coming from Fort Worth, we decided to meet at my house, load the kayaks and a week’s provisions into my truck, and then drive through the night to Comstock, Texas where we’d be shuttled to the river.
Besides Dan and me, we were also joined by Ryan who’d been part of our crew during the first trip last year. About the same age as Dan, Ryan is a former white water rafting guide who I thought would be handy to have along due to the class I, II & III rapids that we’d encounter on our trip. Although we’d originally planned to do this trip in late May, Ryan is a high school teacher now, so we delayed the trip by three weeks in order to accommodate his work schedule. The downside to waiting for Ryan was that the trip was now much later in the season than I would have preferred, but Ryan is a proven paddler with solid outdoors skills and we wanted him along.
About a week before the trip, Ryan mentioned in passing that he had a bad feeling about this trip. He mentioned it again, almost jokingly, as we loaded the trailer that night. When pressed, he couldn’t put his finger on it and chalked it up to not being as familiar with the fourth paddler as he was with us. On this stretch of river, we’d all be dependent on each other and one weak paddler affected us all.
Scott, the fourth paddler, was from San Angelo and would be meeting us in Comstock the next morning. Although we’d never met him in person, we’d gotten to know each other through hundreds of online private messages where we did the bulk of our planning and stayed in constant touch with each other. Scott too is an experienced kayak paddler, with several lower Pecos trips under his belt, which is why we invited him. In addition to his experience on that stretch of the river, Scott was also an excellent photographer and fellow blogger.
In the end, Ryan couldn’t rationalize his fear and he forced himself to ignore it. As he put it, “I basically told myself to quit being a little bitch and get over it.”
Tuesday, June 17, 2014
Comstock, TX – Emilio’s
After an overnight drive shared by the three of us, we arrived at the home of our shuttle driver, Emilio Hinojosa, around 8:30 in the morning. At 75 years of age, Emilio is a well-respected Pecos shuttle provider who we first read about in the Outside Magazine piece that put this river on our bucket list. He is also mentioned in Louis Aulbach’s Pecos River Guide, as well as other sources, so it was an easy decision to let him to shuttle us to Pandale.
The son of a ranch hand, Emilio was born on one of the large ranches that line the lower Pecos, so it’s not an exaggeration to say he’s been on the river his entire life. The Southern Pacific Railroad runs through Comstock, and Emilio remembers during World War II the trains passing through town, laden with soldiers and equipment destined for far off battlefields.
Despite Emilio’s age he is surprisingly fit, and besides operating the shuttle service, he’s also a part time handyman who still does work for many of the ranchers around Comstock.
When we arrived at Emilio’s, Scott was there waiting on us, along with his canoe. We initially had planned to take four sit-on-top kayaks on this trip, but early in the planning stages, Scott made the decision to take a one-man canoe, a 15-foot plastic Coleman instead of a kayak. Despite some misgivings I had due to the wind, I could certainly understand the advantage of a canoe; he could carry more of the provisions needed to paddle a river as remote as the Pecos, and he even had enough room to bring a few luxury items like a cot.
After introductions all around, we loaded Scott’s canoe onto the trailer, and with Emilio, drove 50 miles up FM 1024 to Pandale where we’d put in. After setting off, Emilio would drive my truck back to his house in Comstock where it would stay during our trip. On Saturday, five days later, he’d drop the truck off at the Hwy 90 boat ramp to await our return.
Pecos River, Mile 1 – The Flow
The headwaters of the Pecos River are located in northern New Mexico, but a series of dams drain the river to a trickle long before it reaches Texas. The depleted river then winds its way through the western edge of the Edwards Plateau, and it’s there that something strange happens: the river reappears as deep springs start feeding millions of gallons of waters back into the west Texas river. Outside Magazine called it the “Lost River of Divine Reincarnation.”
This was one of the wettest years since the start of the 5-year drought that we were going through, and the Pecos watershed saw a lot of rain in the weeks preceding our trip. The week prior to getting there, the Pecos was flowing 180 CFS at Pandale, about twice the normal for that time of year. This could actually be a good thing and we welcomed the rising gauge. Fewer people paddle the lower Pecos in the summertime precisely because of its low water flows which makes for less paddling and more boat dragging over the river’s abrasive rock bottom. The recent rain meant we might actually be able to float above most of the rocks and flutes that are notoriously hard on canoes and kayaks.
What we didn’t know was the affect the increased flow would have on the rapids we’d be negotiating. Part of that was answered when we put in at Pandale, and what should have been an easy flowing river at the low water crossing, wasn’t so easy. Cut ledges just under the surface, coupled with swift water near a bend at the crossing, made for a slightly difficult launch. We managed to put in without incident, mind you, but to me it seemed harder than it should have been. Looking back now, it was a harbinger of things to come.
Pecos River, Mile 2 – Spills
The first sign of trouble materialized on some rapids near mile 2 named Little Fielder where thick river cane lined the river banks obscuring our views of the run and acting as potential sweepers in the fast moving current. The water appeared to me to be too deep and too fast to line the boats, and Ryan, up in front of the group, elected to run it. He’d previously cautioned that if we got sucked into a strainer, to immediately begin climbing up–up the boat, the cane, the trees, whatever it took to not be caught underwater by a strainer, and that’s what I was thinking about as we lined up to shoot the S-shaped rapids.
First went Ryan who quickly shot out of sight as he rounded the first bend. We waited a few seconds and didn’t hear anything, and so then Dan followed him in.
I started positioning my kayak for the run and waited to hear anything that indicated a problem. Hearing nothing, I paddled into the run and immediately gained speed in the swift water. I rounded the blind run and was surprised to see Dan, sitting in his kayak, pinned against a large rock jutting out of the water in the middle of the rapid, water rushing over his bow. I dug my paddle hard left trying to turn away from him, but it was useless; there just wasn’t time and my kayak plowed into his, knocking him into the swift flowing water. My kayak bounced off and got sucked into an eddy which slowed me down enough to make the final turn before being unceremoniously spit out into the pool below. I jumped off my kayak and started walking back quickly in waste deep water to check on Dan when suddenly he floated out of the bend clinging to his overturned kayak.
Seeing that he was alright, we turned his kayak back over and started plucking some of his gear out of the water. Most of his things were still tethered to his kayak and we were reloading them when we both heard Scott yelling for help from back in the blind chute. Dan was closest and so he quickly handed me his paddle and sunglasses, and he started wading back up into the rapids when–just like Dan–Scott emerged floating in the river yelling and cursing, followed by his overturned canoe and gear floating in the river.
As we retrieved Scott’s gear, he recounted what had occurred. Fearing the rapid was too swift to run, Scott decided to line his canoe, but on entering the chute, the swift water took his legs out from under him and drove him into a submerged rock. The painful collision forced the canoe leash from his hands and it crashed into the same rock that had pinned Dan. It quickly capsized from the force of the water, and then he and the canoe were spit out below.
Dan lost a rod-n-reel in that rapid; Scott paid a heavier cost, not only losing both his rod-n-reels, but also his camera monopod, his camp chair and the GPS where Scott had stored the coordinates for our trip’s campsites and spring locations. We hadn’t thought to back up his data into one of the other two GPS units we had with us, and so we found ourselves without information we assumed we’d have with us. Simply put, the loss of that information really hurt.
This was our first time paddling this stretch of river so I expected some spills, but I didn’t think they’d come so soon. Although Scott had run this rapid before, he said he’d never seen it flowing so swiftly, and the river was after all flowing above normal levels. Still, the damage was done and we lost some important equipment very early in the trip. It shook my confidence a little and made me wonder what else the river had in store for us below.
We soon found out at mile 4 when we came across a new set of rapids. Still smarting from the last set, this time we opted to bank the boats and study it before attempting the run. This set of rapids involved paddling a tough line between two large rocks followed by a sharp right turn against wall of river cane, but the rocks were far enough apart to easily clear them and there appeared to be enough distance between the rocks and the cane to allows us to maneuver the boats and avoid a repeat of the mile two fiasco. I suddenly found my confidence coming back a little, and I volunteered to go first.
I paddled my ‘yak into position and started the run, back-paddling so as to slow myself enough to clear the mid-stream boulders. Once past the rocks though, the water’s speed increased, and although I was paddling as hard as I could, my kayak refused to respond against the current and I was driven into the cane wall. I sat there for a split second marveling at the force of the water as it gushed over me, and suddenly the same force overturned my kayak, taking me with it and pinning me underwater against the cane. I remembered thinking of Ryan’s warning and immediately started clawing my way up grabbing anything I could get my hands on. I popped up next to my kayak and quickly grabbed a hold, and then the current carried me away from the strainer.
I immediately realized I had lost my hat and sunglasses and I spotted them floating down the river. Though out of danger, I was still in deep water and started swimming while towing my overturned kayak hoping to catch up to my hat and glasses. I quickly realized that wasn’t going to work so I turned my kayak back over and managed a deep water re-entry. I looked down river trying to reacquire my floating hat and glasses when I heard someone yelling behind me and saw Scott’s canoe stuck in a tangle of river cane and mesquite. Just as I pondered my options, the canoe floated out of the tangle and Scott sat back up on his canoe seat, having been knocked back by the trees. I noticed that his face was bleeding and he was spitting blood.
I asked if he’d seen me miss the turn and plow into the cane and he replied that he had not. The spot where we scoped out the rapids gave us a good view of the two rocks but not of the cane lined bend, so Scott, who was lined up to follow me, thought I had negotiated the entire set of rapids. Just as I thought of yelling out a warning, Dan appeared out of the rapids and crashed into the same wall of cane and mesquite. A little later, Ryan followed, only when he realized he wasn’t going to make the turn, he jumped from his ‘yak before it hit the cane.
The four of us gathered ourselves below the rapids to tally our loses and injuries; we probably looked pretty rough. Scott’s face was bleeding and he lost his new Costas sunglasses and his watch; I’d lost my hat and sunglasses and we were all a little battered and scratched from the cane. The worst part was that we’d only been on the river a few hours; we still had a long way to go. There was obviously no turning back but for the first time I seriously questioned our group’s ability to safely paddle this river.
Pecos River, Mile 5 – The Portage
As difficult as those rapids were, they were only class I. A mile later we came to our first class II rapids, and by now we were all tired and our confidence was dwindling. We again beached our boats and reconnoitered the rapids after bush-whacking our way though some sharp river cane to get a better vantage point. What we saw confirmed that there was no way to safely run it: a fast 90 degree turn in the rapids followed by two large rocks sitting side-by-side, making them hard to avoid.
Up until now we’d been thrown off our boats but we’d so far avoided one of the worst possible scenarios: immovably pinning a yak or the canoe against a big rock. We felt this rapid had the potential to do just that or worse: crack open one of the boats which would have been a disaster. We then considered lining the boats over the swift bend in the river, but the deep fast water and a thick forest of cane on both banks took that option from us as well. The only option left was to portage the boats.
Our goal from the beginning had been to paddle 12 miles a day, and by now it was mid-afternoon, we found ourselves stuck at mile 5 and we still had a long way to paddle before getting to our first night’s campsite. We were running out of daylight and didn’t have any other option except to portage our fully loaded boats up a steep sandy bank and then across 50 yards of thick river cane.
First we unloaded the heaviest of our equipment from the boats and carried it through the cane. Then we returned to the boats and started the energy-sapping work of portaging them. Under normal circumstances, carrying a kayak is a two man job, but we were all dog tired, the terrain was tough as it gets and the ‘yaks were still loaded down, so we decided the safest thing would be for all four of us to carry each boat. This meant more treks through the snake and spider filled cane, but, again, we didn’t have many options.
It took us an hour and a half to portage the boats past those rapids, and it took every bit of energy we had, but it felt good to be on our way again, and the few remaining rapids we encountered that day were relatively easy. Our main concern now was the lateness of the day and finding a good campsite.
Having lost the GPS coordinates for our planned campsites, we started looking for suitable locations when we got to about mile 9. We had planned to be further down river by now, but the spills and portages set us back, and we agreed to make up some of that lost distance in the succeeding days. This meant no fishing; it also meant Scott would not be able to shoot the video he’d hoped to get, but we needed to be at Deadman’s Canyon by 3PM on Saturday afternoon or we risked missing our tow out to the Highway 90 boat ramp.
As the sun dipped below the far off canyon walls, we searched for a good campsite, which at this point meant any relatively flat ledge with enough space for four tents. After scouting out a few potential spots, we came upon a decent site at about mile 10 and we made camp in the dwindling sunlight.
We were exhausted, battered and a little shocked over the difficulties we encountered on that first day. I was so worn out I thought I’d be asleep in minutes; instead the heat coupled with thoughts of the river made it a restless first night. The river had shaken our confidence and shown that we were not as prepared as we thought. Still, there was no turning back to Pandale, and so essentially we were “all in.” We had no choice now except to continue on down the river, but we still had such a long way to go.
To be continued…
Lone Star Chronicles – Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Fish