Pecos River Journal – The Continental

Pecos River Journal - The Continental 4.5Part 1. Lewis Canyon

The plan was to get on to the lower Pecos River at Lewis Canyon, located a mile below our last campsite from the flood trip. We needed a ranch that would let us put into the river, and if we were lucky, it would have enough river frontage to maybe allow us to take out on the same ranch.

I remembered Ryan telling me about the Continental Ranch, which he believed to encompass all of Lewis Canyon. It’s a 30,000-acre, family owned working ranch that lines the eastern side of the river just below our campsite. The ranch is also a popular rock climbing destination and home to one of the oldest rock art collections in the world, including a field of 4,500-year old petroglyphs near Lewis Canyon.

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The Continental Ranch is so big, and the terrain so difficult, that helicopters are used to gather large herds of sheep. (Photo courtesy of Miles Gibbs)

With a little bit of research we were able to contact the Continental’s owner, a true Texas gentleman by the name of Howard Hunt. When I told him about the flood and our camp a mile upriver from his ranch, he graciously allowed us access to the river through his land. He handed us off to his son-in-law, Miles Gibbs, who manages the ranch these days. I contacted Miles and we set a date to come down and have him show us potential routes, both on and off the river.

We arrived in Del Rio and had planned to meet Miles at the Continental’s ranch house. Because we got flooded off the river before making it to Lewis Canyon, neither Dan nor I were familiar with this stretch of river, so we needed to recon both the put-in and take-outs. If we felt we could do it safely, then we’d put in early the next morning in the canoe, and finally search the stretch of river below Lewis Canyon. If we didn’t think it’d be safe, or that we couldn’t do it in one day (we had no camping gear), then we wouldn’t go. Before I left home, I promised my wife that we wouldn’t do the paddle if there was any danger at all, or if we couldn’t get off the river in one day. I wanted to keep that promise.

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This unassuming entrance to the Continental belies the enormity of the ranch. (Photo courtesy of Miles Gibbs)

We pulled off of Ranch Road 1032 and drove four miles down a bumpy caliche road until we got to the Continental’s ranch house. We knocked on the door and were greeted by Miles, who was younger than I thought. He invited us in and offered us some water, telling us about the ranch, which he managed for the Hunts. We talked about our plan in his living room, my attention alternating between Miles and the photographs of the Pecos hanging on the walls. After hearing our tale of woe, he said he might be able to help us.

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This is one of many bump gates that separate the huge pastures making up the Continental Ranch.

Miles agreed to show us a couple of places on the river: an easy put in at Lewis Canyon, and more importantly, a possible take out above the weir, which was still within his ranch. Although there was no road going down to the weir on their side of the river, there was a metal ladder running up the 200-foot canyon wall, and a mechanical pulley. He was honest, though, and said he wasn’t sure the pulley actually worked anymore. I think we joked about it and laughed. Miles turned out to be cordial, well-spoken and quick with a smile. We liked him immediately.

We would follow Miles in his 4-wheel mule, and he’d show us his ranch, at least the parts we wanted to see. He warned us that some of the roads would be dicey, especially a couple of the draws we’d have to traverse, the results of the same flood that ran us off the river two months prior. Luckily, we were in Dan’s Wrangler and therefore we weren’t too worried about the roads. Miles pulled off in the mule and we followed, driving out the back of the ranch house compound, headed west towards the far off bluffs that lined the river. Our destination, Lewis Canyon.

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On the jeep trail headed towards Lewis Canyon. The closer we got to the river, the worse the trail became.

We followed Miles through a series of fences and bump gates dividing the large pastures that made up the ranch. The distance from the ranch house to Lewis Canyon was only about 10 miles, but the rough, rocky jeep trails made for slow speeds as we twist and turned our way down the massive desert plateau. I was happy we’d brought Dan’s Jeep down here and not my truck. We’d been warned by Emilio that it was a rough trail to Lewis Canyon and he was right. Although I have a 4-wheel drive truck, his jeep was much better suited for this terrain.

About 45 minutes after leaving the ranch house, we finally arrived at the top of Lewis Canyon. We crested a rise in the plateau and then started a gradual descent down the rocky trail. Miles stopped the mule and walked back to warn us. “It’s gonna start getting a little rough,” he proclaimed. Now I was really glad I didn’t bring my truck.

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Lewis Canyon makes up the northern border of the Continental Ranch.

I looked down into the large creek from the bluff overlooking it. A rocky escarpment straddled the mouth of the creek, which was carpeted in a rush of river cane. A steep, rocky jeep trail had been carved out of the limestone rise just below the canyon, and it led down to the river, reminding me a little of the jeep trail we’d climbed to escape the flood a few miles upriver from here. We began our descent down the trail, and it occurred to me that after nearly sixty days, I was once again going back to the Pecos.

Part 2. The Ozona Group

The flood that stole our kayaks and equipment also claimed four pick-up trucks belonging to a group of campers on the river that ill-fated morning. After word got out about our ordeal, I was contacted by Dwight Childress, of Ozona, who said that he, along with his family and friends were camping at Lewis Canyon on the morning of our flood. He said they’ve had a fishing lease in their family for years, and that they typically went down to the river a couple of times a year, camping and fishing, maybe even running a trot line or two, up and down the river from Lewis Canyon.

The group had an aluminum shelter up on the bluff where they normally camped, although from time to time the kids were known to camp down on the river. But in all the years Dwight had been coming down to the Continental, he’d never once slept on the river, choosing instead to sleep under the relative comfort of the shelter. The night before the June 20th flood, however, in a cruel twist of fate, his children convinced Dwight to camp down on the river with them. The other adults in the group agreed as well, and so they packed their camping gear and kayaks into the beds of their trucks and headed down the jeep trail to the river.

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The jeep trail leading down to Lewis Canyon is seen in this photo. The same ledge that the Ozona campers used for their riverside camp can be seen in the upper left corner (the camp was another fifty yards downriver). Heavy rain on June 20th created a powerful waterfall that kept the Childress group from reaching this trail and prevented them from driving their trucks out of harm’s way.

The jeep trail brought them down to a low limestone ledge and they followed it about 50 yards downriver where a garage-sized boulder blocked the vehicles from driving further down river. The area next to the large rock was just wide enough to turn the vehicles around, and that’s where the group camped the night before the flood.

Clouds started to roll in on them even as they set up camp, but pop-up storms aren’t uncommon in this part of the country, and they didn’t worry too much about it. It started sprinkling around midnight, but the rain really started coming down about 3:00 in the morning. By 6:00 A.M. they’d had enough and decided to abandon the riverside camp. They loaded up the trucks and started driving back up the river on the same ledge they camped on, when suddenly they came to a muddy waterfall emanating from a large draw and cutting them off from the trail leading out of the canyon.

Dwight knew they were in trouble and might have to climb out. Although there wasn’t anything they could do for the trucks, they could at least carry the kayaks and camping equipment up the steep, rocky bank to safety. They knew it wouldn’t be easy, and it wasn’t. The group worked in teams, carrying the kayaks and the canoe and the camping equipment, up the rise, which was overgrown with blackbrush, dog cactus and prickly pear.

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Two of the four vehicles lost in the Pecos River flood by the campers from Ozona.

It took the Ozona campers two hours to get their belongings up the bluff, out of the river’s reach. The river got to the trucks just as the tired campers carried the last of their things up the rise.

Afterwards, with their boats and equipment out of harm’s way, there was nothing left to do except to sit there and wait for help, watching as one at a time, the river swept away the four trucks.

To be continued…

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


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