High Bridge or Bust; Seven Days on the Pecos River – Part 1

Editor’s note:
I ran across a story recently about a group of paddlers floating down the Lower Pecos River, from Pandale to the Highway 90 boat ramp, a route that’s very familiar to us. The story was actually written twelve years ago by a San Antonio architect named Randy Hohlaus, who along with eleven companions, paddled eight canoes down the remote Pecos, one of the most beautiful rivers in Texas if not the entire Southwest. Randy’s tale is well written, rich in detail and colorfully told, an old school style of storytelling that puts the reader on the emerald river for the seven glorious (if not sometimes brutal) days that it generally takes to paddle the 60 miles from Pandale to the High Bridge. I enjoyed the story so much that I tracked him down and asked for permission to post it here. He agreed, and so I hope you enjoy Randy’s story as much as I did…

High Bridge or Bust; Seven Days on the Pecos River 

By Randy Hohlaus

Part 1. Tribes

Three months of planning, meetings and long distance phone calls finally came together as we rolled in with our gear and boats to Seminole Canyon State Park, our base camp for the adventure that lay ahead. It was closing time at the park headquarters and the park rangers were closing up. They were pretty short on conversation and bent on getting out of there. We had to figure our own campsites out, sweating whether David, one of our companions, was going to make it in from Midland.

We aborted this trip two years ago when the river was only piddling at about 100 cfs, kind of standard flow the last ten years or so. Been there, done that, did not want to do it again.

But when I saw last year the lake once more reclaiming the Pecos canyon under the High Bridge, it was time to start talking this trip up again. Fortune smiled this year and the river cranked. The USGS internet gauge read 375 cfs at Pandale and 750 cfs at the weir, way beyond what any of us had experienced on this river. The IBWC gauge read half that however, 175 and 350, closer to what we have had before on the best of conditions. The TPWD guide to river conditions lists 500 cfs as “ideal for floating,” and 900 cfs as “approaching hazardous conditions.” So which gauge to believe? We would soon find out.We nestled into the Owl’s Nest in Comstock for a great meal of enchiladas and some jukebox music. Friendly folks shooting pool turned out to be our park rangers, all related to Nick the manager, and it seemed now we were friends of the “family.” Nick set us up well for this outpost on the edge of the desert. I asked him if he had any cigars to sell and he said no, but then gleamed and pulled two small cigars out from a drawer behind the counter. “Take these.”

“What do I owe?” I asked.

“Nothing, my friend, have a great trip.”

And so to keep the river gods happy I accepted the gift……..

The next morning, last showers, and we were slow to leave; we’d regret that later. We picked up Paul Atkinson, our shuttle outfitter, and our shuttle drivers at the trailer park, got a last candy bar and coffee at the Comstock store, and caravanned off on the gravel road to Pandale Crossing, an hour and a half away.

Paul gave us a final lecture on the river as we were about to depart Pandale, retired NPS Ranger that he was.  A fine thing, especially the part about the river leeches. More on that later. Before we left, I heard him remarking to one of his shuttle drivers how much he wanted to do this trip, but probably would never do it due to his age and his health. Right then I realized just how lucky I was.

Our goal for the first day was to reach Goat Canyon, 18 miles downriver. Our royalex canoe was loaded like a pig, and more our fault for the overloading, it paddled like blunt instrument trauma, but by the end of the trip, we came to appreciate it highly for its abundant capacity and toughness. And we learned a lesson too, if you are taking your share of food, never volunteer for the meals at the end of trip. Volunteer for the first ones, and get that load out of the boat. In addition, we carried the beer and lunch bags, so we were saddled down and top heavy the whole trip through. We never were in want (or thirst), however. On this day I approached with trepidation the greatest of the rock escarpments. Here, on our last trip, sat a trophy home compound built right on the crown of the cliff 500 feet above. Dominating the wild view for miles up and down the river, it ruined the remote wilderness experience for a good part of the day.  However, time helps heal. The bright red roof and fresh red cedar siding of ten years ago were now dull and weathered grey, as nature worked its inexorable processes, blending the man-made structure somewhat into the stone face. Frank Lloyd had it “Wright,” when he said, “No house should ever be on a hill or on anything.  It should be of the hill. Belonging to it.  Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.”

The day went great, the weather superb, the crystal clear water moving on, lots of fun easy rapids run with a minimum of scouting. However, due to our late start, we made our first night at Ledge Camp, at only mile 8. What a bust. The next day now would be a real push to make up the mileage.

Ledge Camp was a long narrow flat rock shelf barely above the water, bound on one side by a 400 foot vertical cliff face. This was the first of many of what I would call our “million dollar campsites,” for the views and settings we camped in were spectacular and priceless. This rock shelf camp was peppered with basketball sized stones, rockfall from the cliff face above. If one of these babies fell on you, it could ruin your entire day. Lured by the beauty of the site, everyone accepted the slight risk. The evening was enhanced by the first of our daily rotating “Beverage Program,” scientifically designed to combat scurvy among the crew through the selective administration of limes in conjunction with hops, malts and agave extracts.Fortified by T-bones from the night before, we set off on day 2. As you go down the Pecos, there is a great sense of passage. The canyon starts wide open, the curves bound by great cliffs, with more gentle sloping terrain on the opposite bank. Here the looming cliffs are highest and their most imposing. But as you progress down the river, the canyon walls funnel tighter and tighter, until you are floating down a narrow slot of limestone interrupted only by slender side canyons, bound by ribbons of blue sky above, and salt cedar and water below.

The dreaded “Flutes” loomed ahead of us. We knew the rite of passage to come – miles of walking/dragging/pushing boats down narrow ribbons of stone-bound water, grunting the heavily-laden craft across the gritted weathered ridges, then into the next channel as each slot of water narrowed down to nothing.

But surprise, where were the flutes?  We got to Goat Canyon and looked back and asked each other, “Were those the Flutes?” They were gone, or almost, for we had only to get out a few times to walk the boats. None of us, and no one that we knew, had ever run this river without the ordeal of the flutes. Now we began to think that the high USGS flow numbers were the right ones, which meant we would be facing some serious whitewater downriver in the days ahead.

We pulled into Harkell Canyon at the end of our 18 mile makeup day, somewhat whipped. Light was fading, and we were crushed to see several fishermen with square ended motor canoes camped on the grassy bank. Four trips on the river and this is the first time to ever see another party. They were nice enough fellows willing to share their site, but with all of us it would be a little cramped. And they said the campsite further up the canyon was already taken by some canoeists from Houston.We split up to find something else as there was no more time to go downriver, sending some to scout across the river. One of the men in our group named Zoltan, being from Houston, paddled up the canyon out of sight to find the other group.

“Houston canoers,” he said coming back soon. “I know these people.”

It turns out they would share their site, too, so into the curving canyon mouth we went. It was hidden from the main river canyon, and featured an incredible amphitheater of stone, with the sculpted inlet ending in a maze of convoluted limestone, worn smooth from untold floods. The entire floor of the canyon was a vast stone shelf, pockmarked with large eroded bowls. I had been on three trips past this canyon and never knew this spectacular campsite lay just inside its mouth. Amazing place. Certainly a good place to weather Armageddon, like that old 50’s movie where the survivors huddled in the canyon as the mutants wandered the highlands. We camped on the other side of the inlet from the Houston group.

We were surprised to learn that a nationally known canoe racer, designer and paddle instructor, was also there with them, guiding their trip. Then a curious thing happened. As we stirred up the night’s beverage program (Claire’s margaritas) at eight o’clock and lit our fires for the night’s menu of Indian lamb stew and pita bread for the evening meal, their lights went out and they went to bed. As brothers and sisters of the great river fraternity we figured we’d all be trading river lies that evening, and would get a chance to hear famous paddler’s exploits. Guess not. Let’s just say there were two vastly different tribal cultures learning to coexist that night.

To be continued…

Note: To read Part 2, click here: http://lonestarchronicles.com/high-bridge-or-bust-seven-days-on-the-pecos-river-part-2/

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

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