High Bridge or Bust; Seven Days on the Pecos River – Part 2

By Randy Hohlaus

Part 2. Rapids

I awoke day three in my tent, pretty stiff, to the sounds of loud, very loud voices around the campfire from a couple of my companions, and someone whose voice I didn’t recognize.  Figuring out what was going on, and knowing I was enough out of earshot to miss out on the particulars, as trip leader I promptly went back to sleep. When I finally straggled up, our Houston compadres were gone, at least out in their whitewater canoes somewhere and probably playing in Harkell Canyon’s whitewater downriver.  Just as well.

This place was as incredible this morning as last evening, with golden morning light awash on the cliffs all around us. We did a morning hike up the canyon looking for a rumored red shaman figure.  Never found it, as time kept us from exploring the multitude of high rock shelters above us.

I finally identified the spectacular flaming magenta trees we kept seeing up the canyons as Mexican Buckeyes, not redbuds as some thought.  Here they were enormous trees covered in blossoms and swarming with bees, not the punky bushes like the ones creekside at home.  We did finally find a cool pouroff from the highland above, a smooth worn and sculpted rock slip and slide waterfall, now dry, above a large green pool. The only thing not so cool were the carcasses in the water, a raccoon and something else, larger, victims likely of a recent flood.

“Boat Over!!”

Harkell Canyon Rapid claimed the first victim of the trip almost within eyesight of the canyon’s mouth as Scott rolled into the froth.  In what was to be repeated a half dozen times more in the higher flow, the flotilla stopped and everyone pitched in to free the gear from the boat, unpin it from the rock, float the boat over to the bank, dump the water, refloat the boat and then repack all the gear and bags. Each capsize cost us at least 30 to 45 minutes, as the group had to stay together. After pounding out Scott’s canoe, we could see that the boat, though badly bent, was still floatable. It was a little worrisome.

A few miles later, “Boat over!”  It was us this time, oh well.

It was along this stretch that we started to encounter rapids that required lining or walking our loaded boats. Water levels were such that scouting the rapids started to become a regular event.  After one such rapid, lining and walking our boat thru in water up to our waist at times, Chris and I looked down and saw our legs covered with at least a hundred of little squirmy “leeches.”  These things apparently cling to the rocks in places by the thousands.  Not needing any medicinal bleeding and not wanting to find out if they would actually dig in, we brushed them off.  They soon became constant companions.At Thirty Six Mile Camp, we barely got our shelter up when the rain began.  The weather now changed as a cold norther swept into the canyon.  We awoke the next morning to the sounds of drumming.  David the Tech King was swinging his rubber mallet, pounding out the dents and folds in Scott’s boat left over from the previous days boat wrap.  It was touch and go as the wrinkles relaxed and the gunwale lines flattened back out, but the aluminum and royalex held without shearing open.

I also finally found seam failures in my clothing dry bag.  It was really shot.  I had to dry out my clothes each evening, a real pain, but now more serious that the weather had turned from sunny and warm to cloudy and cold.  Joe offered me his spare, the biggest zip-lock baggie I had ever seen, the size of a small suitcase.  Awesome preparedness.  Using it to double bag my dry bag and the application of copious amounts of duct tape now allowed me to keep my clothing dry.

One problem solved, but a new one kept me chained to the dry-out routine. With constant portaging and lining in the deep water, and capsized boat rescues thrown in, I still faced wet clothing to dry out every night.  At least I had dry changes in the bag.

Grey scudding clouds whipped across the sky, prepping us for a day in which the thermometer never left the fifties.  Our immediate goal today was the world class petroglyph site at Lewis Canyon, but we hoped to reach Painted Canyon and have a full layover at one of the most beautiful river camping spots anywhere. Little did we know that one goal would leave us exhilarated, the other humbled.

We passed our old camping spot at Indian Cave Camp at mile 37, a stone ledge which was now overgrown with cane and brush.  In fact, a lot of camp spots I had marked in my log from past trips were overgrown with salt cedar, cane and other growth, a legacy of years of drought and low water.  And there was no evidence of the rancher’s miles long river burn we saw ten years ago (the one also mentioned in Louis Albach’s Pecos River guide).

Lewis Canyon loomed to our left at mile 38.  We disembarked, and got a chance to view the world class Pecos Culture petroglyph site, acres of mysterious and often abstract symbols carved into the flat rock mesa high above the river. Especially exciting were the hundreds of new glyphs uncovered by recent excavations, graphically depicting deer and bear hunts by atlatl armed warriors from the dim ages before the bow and arrow.  On this flat table rock where we walked, they walked thousands of years before, leaving their marks for us to ponder.

The rest of the day was rough and debilitating.  River flow was visibly accelerated in speed and increasing volume from all the side canyons.  Lewis Canyon Rapid at mile 38, Waterfall Rapid at mile 39, Shackelford Rapid at 39 ½, and Ledge Rapid all had to be scouted, the runs set up, and at least four capsizes ground our pace to a crawl. These were all rapids that could often have been smartly run in the lower water of years past, but the torrent this year made us pick a wiser choice, which forced long and often difficult portages with heavily laden boats.Waterfall Rapid was a canoe eater. A torrent of water ripped over the edge funnel and convoluted into a massive rock dominating the center channel. To avoid this, we walked our boats single file on the shallow rock shelf on river left. One by one we pushed the boats over the edge of the eight foot drop into a tangle of more boulders than water. We narrowly avoided a serious injury when over 300 pounds of canoe and equipment rolled on Scott’s ankle as it went over the edge.

We also faced a rough sweeper rapid into a cliff face, studded with a nasty boulder garden.  Our only portage option was horrible, the rapid was bound by dense solid stands of tall river cane.  Narrow side channels of water spilled directly into the thick canebrake leading to the high rock ledge along the side of the drop.  A few abortive attempts to line the boats into the rapid failed due to lack of dry riverbank from which to work the lining ropes. Our only choice was to bushwhack the boats directly into and over the cane.  It was a brutal grunt of an effort, working knee deep with precarious footing in the channels barely wide enough for the boat, all the while trying to keep our feet from being pinned.  To get through two hundred feet of thick river cane we took to hammering the loaded canoes directly into the mass of river cane, creating a pushdown that the last boats could slide over.

We determined Ledge Rapid was runnable, except for two boats that went over.  Chris and I got a bad angle going over the ledge, and hit too shallow, hanging just the back six inches on the ledge.  We just about got it free when the water began to pour over the back end of the boat, a trickle at first and then a torrent.  The water grew, then sloshed, and then over it went.  The trip maps and the mini-kegs went over and washed downstream.  Major disaster!  The Beverage Program was threatened with termination!  After righting our boat, dumping water, collecting the floating dry bags and then tying them back in, we searched the clear water of the downstream pool and found the kegs and the maps deep on the bottom.  Both Chris and David bravely dove in to retrieve them and saved the day, despite the chilling water.Light was failing fast.  Painted Canyon was still a few miles ahead.  To keep on or not.  Déja vu, this was the same decision I had before Painted Canyon on the last trip ten years ago.  When Scott’s boat went over again in a fairly innocuous rapid, that was it. He was now visibly shivering in his wet clothes, and we began to get concerned about hypothermia.

We all were getting tired and showing bad judgment, and there was no guarantee we could make camp by dark.  The sun had now set, and the rapids were too hazardous to attempt night paddling.  I called for everyone to scout the first available site, but dense cane and salt cedar choked whatever level strips of land could be found between the cliffs.  Unlike ten years ago, there were was no flat rock to be seen.  It was a little tense.

Around the curve at mile 41, we found a gnarly sloping boulder field of ground on river right which nonetheless had promise of small grassy, if not flat, areas for tents.  I called for camp, and I think everyone was relieved.  Dog tired, thoroughly wet, shivering in some cases, we pulled over practically in the dark.  A full day of paddling, and only seven miles covered.  The river had won this day.  Scott immediately named it “Camp M____F____,” a very apt description that cannot be repeated here.

To be continued…

Note: To read Part 1, click here: http://lonestarchronicles.com/high-bridge-or-bust-seven-days-on-the-pecos-river/

Lone Star Chronicles – Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Fish

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