At 6’6,” Ike Billings is a giant of a man. He is a sixty-six-years old retired ranch hand, part time bass fisherman and as direct as he is tall. It didn’t take long to get to the point. How long, I asked, before it’d be safe to get back on the river in his boat? He paused for a bit and said a few days still. Then he said there was still a lot of river cane and other debris in the water. Maybe by Tuesday. I asked where he thought our kayaks and dry bags might be. He didn’t even pause to think about it, saying the chances of us finding our kayaks and equipment were slim to none. He went on to say that our kayaks were probably already in Mexico, being used to either smuggle children or drugs into the country, probably both. I told him I understood that, but because I’m hard-headed, I asked if he’d still take me back onto the river to look for our stuff. He thought about it for a second and then said, “Sure, why not.”
Part One – Ike
If you ever decide to paddle the lower Pecos River, be sure to leave some juice for the end. In a river filled with hardships, one of the cruelest is the last eight miles. Just when you think you’re close, and the rapids and flutes are all behind you, a new battle begins, this time against brutal head winds that ricochet off the towering canyon walls and do funny things to the water, like stirring up whitecaps. It’s worse in the summertime when it’s almost always windy. That stretch has long been known to experienced paddlers as quite the tough slog, and so it’s not uncommon for paddlers to hire someone to tow them out that last stretch of river. We hired Ike Billings.
We originally hired him to tow us from Deadman’s Canyon to Highway 90, and the plan was for him to meet us at Deadman’s at three in the afternoon, on Saturday, June 21st. We obviously never made it, having been flooded out on Friday. I called him a few days after the flood and compared notes. We agreed to stay in touch, knowing we would need his services soon.
It took two months for Dan and I to get back down there, finally spurred to action when Dan’s cameras were found on Lake Amistad by two bass fishermen from San Antonio. Armed with the GPS coordinates to where the cameras were found, we knew it was time to call Ike, and while down there, we would search the river below Lewis Canyon. That was the plan going in.
Part Two – Canebrakes
After discovering the ladder at the weir was no longer there, we shifted our focus to Lake Amistad, at least until we could find the owner of the land across the river from the Continental. We had fresh GPS coordinates where Dan’s Pelican case had been found the week before, floating in a canebrake, near Amistad’s mile marker 28.
The dictionary defines a canebrake as “a piece of ground covered with a dense growth of canes.” To the folks who spend time on the Pecos and Devils Rivers, both heavily lined with river cane, the term canebrake is also used to describe the giant floats that are created when these dense patches of cane are ripped from the banks by flood waters. The current then carries them downriver where the canebrakes start aggregating and growing in size, scooping up other types of debris, including trees, rocks, man-made debris and dead animals. The morning of the flood we saw house-sized canebrakes rolling down the river, and I remember wondering what it would be like trying to paddling a kayak next to one. Or in one.
When we realized the morning of the flood that we’d have to hike out, we envisioned having to scale the steep canyon walls, and so we decided to take whatever minimal equipment we’d need to survive on the desert plateau. After loading some provisions into makeshift bug out bags, we crammed the remaining ten dry bags and four Pelican cases (with camera equipment) into a crevice in the wall twelve feet above the river. But the Pecos rose 30 feet that day and swept everything away. Dwight Childress and his group remember seeing several dry bags and Pelican cases floating past Lewis Canyon where they were stranded, the river having taken their trucks. He said the cases and dry bags were already starting to collect inside some of many canebrakes washing down the river. That was the last time our equipment was seen until fifty days later when the bass fishermen found Dan’s Pelican case containing his cameras.
The plan was for Ike to take us to mile marker 28 in his bass boat, so the morning after our failed attempt to find a take-out at the Pecos weir, we met Ike at Box Canyon Marina and launched on a search that would focus on the northwestern arm of the lake. The same arm eventually becomes the Rio Grande, and because the Pecos and Rio Grande merge just below Highway 90, anything flushed out of the Pecos would eventually make its way into Amistad. With any luck, we’d find another waterproof Pelican case or dry bag. We planned to start our search at the same large canebrake where the cameras were found, and then search the surrounding shoreline and canebrakes in the area.
Part Three – Amistad
Texas Monthly author S.C. Gwynne describes the topography around Lake Amistad as a, “…collision of Hill Country limestone river bottoms, Chihuahuan Desert uplands, and … Mexican brushlands.” The lake’s shoreline is made up of rocky points, steep drop offs and limestone ledges; its water is deep, clear and it was turquoise colored the morning we met Ike at Box Canyon Marina. Dan and I loaded onto his bass boat, taking only a few bottles of water, binoculars and a kayak paddle that we thought we could use to break up the canebrakes if need be. As we launched, I looked out across the narrow point in the lake, and saw Mexico a several hundred yards away, on the opposite bank, although you wouldn’t know it unless you had a map.
The lake was glassy and Ike got his bass boat up on plane quickly. With the wind in our faces, we followed the mile marker buoys, one after another and then another, watching the northeastern shoreline, which looked rugged and desolate.
In theory, the constant summer winds would push the canebrakes up into the south facing coves, so we eyed them as we passed. We rounded a point and saw some wild goats up an outcropping, and a few miles later blew past some Mexican fishermen, gill-netting from a large, white wooden skiff, or lancha, as my dad used to call them. Other than the Mexican fishermen, we didn’t see anyone else on the immense lake.
We rounded another point and saw our first canebrake, at about marker 25, and we slowed to take a closer look at the mass of cane. Dan and I scanned it with binoculars as Ike idled us closer, and Dan caught a glimpse of something. As we neared it, we could make out a blue dry bag sitting in the canebrake, which was several hundred feet wide, but the bag was only ten feet from the edge of the cane. As we inched the boat closer to the canebrake, I remembered that this wasn’t my first time doing this.
Part Four – Flashback
That happened the week after the flood, when Luisa and I went down to search the campsite without Dan, who couldn’t get time off from work. While down in Comstock, we’d enlisted Ike’s help to search Lake Amistad and the canebrakes. That time it was just me and Ike in the boat, Luisa having decided to wait for us on dry land. Ike had already warned us that we probably wouldn’t find our kayaks; he thought they’d long been snatched up by the Mexican smugglers who were always on the lake.
We launched, heading north towards the Rio Grande, and I saw another boat on the far Mexican side of the lake. I asked Ike if the smugglers ever troubled him when he was on the lake. He chuckled, and said his 20-foot bass boat could outrun most of the Mexican boats, which is why he kept the Mercury 250 outboard in tiptop shape. Besides, he said, he was more worried about the Mexican Federales who sometimes patrolled the lake, than the smugglers. Everyone knew they were the real danger out here because you never knew what they were up to.The best way to deal with them, according to Ike, was cash.
I was suddenly reminded of the Han Solo character from Star Wars and had to chuckle. Here was an older Han, cruising around the lake in his trusty (and powerful) bass boat, his Millennium Falcon, having to occasionally outrun an opportunistic smuggler or maybe even a crooked Mexican cop.
And like the movie character, Ike knew what he was doing. Early on he warned me, even if we found our kayaks encased in one of the giant canebrakes, the cane was so thick, we’d never reach it. I recall thinking to myself, yeah right, like I’m going to see our kayaks in a canebrake and just leave them there. If Ike’s boat couldn’t motor into the canebrake, then I thought, I’d simply swim or wade into the canebrake to retrieve our ‘yaks. Of course, I’d be wearing a PFD and I’d be tethered to the boat.
Those were foolish thoughts, though, born of my ignorance about canebrakes. I was about to learn better.
As we neared the first canebrake, I couldn’t believe its size—it was as big as a football field. Ike throttled down and motored closer for a look. I could see the cane float was over a foot thick, much if it underwater; the tangled mess of cane also hid jagged mesquite branches, cactus, agave spears and God knows what else.
But it was the smell that got my attention. The canebrake was covered in a thick layer of dirt and mud and seed and insects, and there were carcasses protruding throughout the muddy cane. Suddenly I realized what I first thought were gulls flying over the giant canebrakes, were actually vultures, feeding on the carrion that littered the field sized float. We saw a dead goat, and later what we think was a beaver. One carcass we saw was so badly bloated, we couldn’t tell what it was.
We also saw some man-made things in the canebrake, like jugs and coolers and tarps. In one large canebrake, we saw a kayak, and even though it wasn’t ours, we approached the canebrake for a closer look. The kayak was about fifty feet from the edge, and I didn’t see any way to reach it. I asked Ike if he’d ever tried to drive a boat through cane. He said he’d never had a reason to. When I suggested we try, him idling the boat slowly into the canebrake, while I hit it with the pole I’d brought, trying to break up the river cane, Ike agreed to give it a shot.
So he positioned the bow of his boat against the edge on the canebrake, and I took a big swing at the cane with the pole trying to break it up and give us a place to enter the float. The pole bounced off the cane like I was hitting a rock, but Ike revved the boat’s motor anyway, and headed into the cane; he managed to break some of it away. I quickly used the pole to disperse the loose cane, and again he gunned the engine and pushed a little further into the canebrake. We did this a third time and then a fourth, and we got about a quarter of the way to the kayak. I was beginning to think this might actually work, and then the engine died. I looked back at Ike who was already climbing over his seat towards the outboard. It was then that I realized the river cane that we’d pushed aside surrounded the boat and then closed in behind us, fouling the motor’s propeller.
Ike reached down and tried clearing it with his hands, but the blade was sharp, as was the cane; and the mud was putrid, so cutting himself would have been a very bad thing. He trimmed up the motor, and once clear of the water, he reached over and carefully removed the hacked up river cane from the propeller, then he lowered the engine again and cranked it. He shifted into reverse, and I used the pole to keep the prop clear as we backed out of the canebrake, leaving the kayak behind. It was too dangerous to keep going.I now knew there would be no swimming or wading in the foul canebrake. If we lost the engine while in there, we’d be stuck until someone came along to pull us out.
We searched several large canebrakes that day, and although we saw lots of things trapped in them, we couldn’t reach any anything. Consequently, we didn’t retrieve anything from Lake Amistad on that first search. But I was thankful for Ike’s help. I offered to pay him for his services, but he refused to take any money, instead telling me that if I came back in a couple of months, he’d be glad to take me back out for another search. He said the canebrakes would be smaller by then, and we’d stand a better chance at finding anything that might still be trapped in them.
Part Five – Mile Marker 28
Now, almost two months later, we were back, nearing the dry bag that Dan had spotted in a canebrake near mile marker 28. This could very well be where Dan’s cameras were found. As we neared, I noticed the canebrakes were thinner than the first time I’d been to the lake with Ike, who told me then that the stalks of cane eventually got waterlogged and sank, slowly dissolving the canebrake. We recognized the bag as one of Scott’s, and as we near the floating cane, Dan knelt down on the bow holding the kayak paddler trying to extend his reach. Although thinner, the floating mass still held enough cane to foul the prop, but with the bag much closer to the edge this time, Ike put the keel of his boat on the cane’s edge, and we were barely out of reach. He revved the motor and punched the boat in a few feet closer to the bag. Dan lay down and tried to use the paddle to pull the bag closer to the boat, but it was still just out of reach.
Ike gunned it again, and again the boat lurched closer. Dan could now get the paddle on the bag, but the cane was still thick, and its hold of the bag too tight. Again Ike revved the motor and pushed into the cane a little deeper. That was enough and Dan was able to pull the bag to the boat against the cane.
Although we knew it was Scott’s, we weren’t sure what was in it. I unrolled the seal and opened it, getting a blast of rancid air from inside the bag. The raging Pecos proved too much for the dry bag and water got in, mixing with a bag of tortillas that had been in there since the flood. I closed the bag quickly and tossed it aside.
We again scanned the large canebrake and saw other objects on the far side, but they were hard to make out from the front of the canebrake. We decided to put Dan ashore and let him hike to the back of the cove for a closer look at the far end of the brake. Ike idled his boat to within a few feet of the steep bank, and Dan jumped out. He turned towards the back the cove, and started walking, carrying the kayak paddle.
While we waited for Dan, I jumped onto the bank with the dry bag we’d found and started to open it. Sheltered from the wind by the bank, the foul smell was worse. Even Ike could smell it from the boat, and I briefly considered throwing the whole damn bag into the lake. I walked away quickly and caught my breath. Then I walked back and looked inside the bag. Wincing from the smell, I saw a white, gooey substance that looked like milkshake coating the inside of the dry bag and its contents, mostly cooking utensils Scott had used on our trip. The water and heat had basically liquified the flour tortillas.
Holding my breath, I dumped the contents onto the bank and rinsed the bag in the lake. I dunked all the other contents as well, and got most of the goo off before putting them back into the dry bag. Despite the fact that the entire bag and its contents had been thoroughly rinse off in the lake, when I took a quick sniff prior to sealing the bag again, the smell still gagged me a little.
I climbed back on to the boat, grabbed the binoculars and resumed searching the cane. Ironically, besides a lot of debris, I also saw an abundance of life. There were bugs everywhere, we even saw a couple of small snakes. Cranes stood guard over the floating cane, and gulls circled above. The last time I was here, buzzards gorged on carcasses entombed within the canebrake, and judging by the smell, the floating mass still contained some leftovers. The most amazing thing, though, at least for me, was that two months after the flood, the canebrake had sprouted several shoots. Mother Nature at work, restarting the cycle.
Dan yelled from the back of the canebrake; he’d found something, and after digging around with the paddle, he pulled up another paddle—it was the kayak paddle that Scott used with the canoe on our ill-fated trip. Another scan with the binoculars revealed a few more things that might have been ours, but they were too deep in the canebrake for us to determine for sure, much less reach them.
We left the large canebrake and continued our search of the shoreline, but only found two other things, both of them Scott’s. Another bag, this one containing his fishing lures; the only reason the bag wasn’t at the bottom of the lake was a small air pocket had kept part of the bag above water. We also found the bilge pump Scott carried in his canoe when we got flooded out. How’s that for irony? We didn’t, however, find anything belonging to me, Dan or Ryan.
As we motored up the lake arm towards the Rio Grande, the bluffs got steeper and the river shallower. The turquoise lake gave way to a deeply stained, wide, sediment-filled river, its water looking like Yoo-hoo. By now the canebrakes had all but disappeared, and we hadn’t seen anything else in the coves, so we asked Ike to run us up to Seminole Canyon, another few miles ahead, for a quick search of the area. Seminole Canyon was below the confluence of the Rio Grande and the Pecos. Our gear floated past the canyon on its journey into Amistad, and with hundreds of trees near the mouth of the canyon, there was a slim chance our kayaks might be snagged in them.
But the further upriver we got, the muddier and shallower the river became. We were still two miles from Seminole Canyon when the river became so muddy that the fish finder stopped working. Without depth readings, we slowed to a crawl or risk running aground in the heavy silt. Soon thereafter, we did hit bottom, and had to use the kayak paddle to push off. Even then, the paddle sank halfway up the shaft before we pushed off into deeper water. They say the silt near the confluence of the Rio Grande and the Pecos can swallow a man.
We were now sitting in a wide but shallow part of the river that was lined with thick mesquite groves. We couldn’t leave the relatively deep part of the river channel, only barely deep enough to draft the bass boat. And without being able to search the massive, tree-filled mud banks on foot, our kayaks could be nearby and we’d never see them. Even if we could get onto the bank for a foot search, the bank itself looked sporty, not much more than 20 years of muddy sediment accumulating against the steep canyons walls. It’d be silty as hell and there was a lot of ground to cover.
In the end, we didn’t want to risk it, and so we turned the boat around and headed back to Box Canyon.
To be continued…
Lone Star Chronicles – Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Fish