Dan and I followed Miles‘s 4-wheel mule down the jeep trail to the Pecos River, just below Lewis Canyon. We came to a wide ledge and followed it downriver for about sixty yards, stopping at the large rock just as Dwight Childress’ group had done.
We first heard about Dwight after the flood, when his group got hit by the same flood that got us; they were just below Lewis Canyon and the rising river trapped their vehicles on the same ledge where we now stood. The four trucks belonging to Dwight and his friends were eventually swept away in the flood. It was one of those trucks that Dan and I first saw on the DPS helicopter flight out of the desert above the flooding river.
I remember looking down at the truck, which was sitting on its side, against the onslaught of rushing, muddy water. Of course we didn’t know of Dwight back then or the predicament they were in, but I do remember circling the partially submerged white pick-up truck a couple of times and hoping there was nobody inside.
Earlier in the day, we had asked Miles Gibbs, who managed the Continental Ranch (and who was our guide for the day) about the Childress group and their trucks. He confirmed that the four trucks were still down there, destroyed really, but still there in the wide river channel. With the flood waters long since receded, only one of the trucks was actually still underwater according to Dwight, partially submerged and filled with river rock. The other three trucks, or what was left of them, were tossed by the flood onto the eastern bank.
Since Miles was going to show us Lewis Canyon anyway (as a possible put-in for our planned paddle down the river), he said we could see the trucks if we didn’t mind doing some hiking.
Having parked Dan’s Jeep and mule on the same spot as the Childress’ campsite, we climbed around the large boulder and started hiking down the eastern rise off the river. It was a large boulder field, covered over with thick patches of river grass and blackbrush. Since it was warm that day, both Dan and I were wearing shorts and hiking boots, and we were a good ways from the Jeep by the time we remembered the snake guards that we’d left in the jeep. Rock rattlers were the danger here, their mottled grey patterns blended in with the weathered Trans-Pecos limestone. I was too embarrassed to ask Dwight to let us go back for the snake guards, so we continued hiking towards the trucks and kept an eye out for snakes.
About a hundred yards down from the Childress campsite, we came to the first two trucks, sitting side by side, right where the flooding Pecos had deposited them. In a testament to the growth of the river on the day of the flood, the edge of the river was now fifty-yards away.
I was expecting the trucks to be in bad shape, having seen one of the trucks from the DPS helicopter, but I was still shocked when I first laid eyes on them. The white paint on both trucks was like new, their chrome shining in the afternoon sun. Except that the bodies of these trucks were twisted and horribly dented; the cabs of both trucks were crushed like beer cans. They looked like they’d been spit out of a tornado.
There were no windows; hell, there were barely any window holes left. We looked inside the trucks as best we could and confirmed that these had once been some very nice trucks. They had nicely appointed interiors and the leather seats still looked new, except for the jagged metal that cut into them and the sand that now lined the cab’s carpeted floor.
After a few minutes, Dwight pointed over towards the river and said that’s where the red GMC truck came to rest, still half submerged in the river. We hiked to the river, again over several boulders and thick patches of grass, mesquite and cane. The truck finally came into view and I realized Miles wasn’t kidding about the river rock, which filled both the cab and bed of the truck. It was as if the river was in the process of reclaiming the truck, one rock at a time.
There was one last truck, a white F250, about fifty-yards further down river from the others. This was Dwight Childress’ truck, and like the others, it had been completely destroyed in the flood. Dan looked inside the cab and found some winter coveralls and a checkbook, which we brought back and asked Miles to return them to Dwight.
The Weir – Part One
Having confirmed that we could in fact put the canoe in at Lewis Canyon to begin the search for our missing kayaks, we then decided to scout out a potential take-out at the Pecos weir, eight miles downriver of Lewis Canyon. The low water dam was built to generate electricity for a nearby ranch, but a flood in 1954 destroyed the hydro-generating equipment, and so the weir now served as a gauging station.
The problem with getting out at the weir was that it was guarded by 200-foot cliffs. There was a jeep trail leading out of the canyon on the opposite bank, but we didn’t know who owned that ranch. Even Miles wasn’t sure who it belonged to anymore, saying it had changed hands a couple of times over the last several years, and that he thought the ranch was now being subdivided into smaller hunting parcels. Emilio was trying to locate the owners for us as well, but so far hadn’t found them.
Without permission to access the jeep trail at the weir, or the ranch it led to, we had very few options. If we couldn’t take out on the Continental side of the weir, we’d have to paddle another eight miles to Deadman’s Canyon (also part of the Continental), but that would mean having to cover 16 miles of very difficult river in one day. And since there was no jeep trail leading out of the river at Deadman’s Canyon, then the weir was really our only option.
Miles told us there was an old metal ladder bolted to the limestone cliff on the Continental side of the weir, and above it was an old mechanical, A-frame winch which we might be able to use to bring the canoe (and the kayaks if we found them) up and out of the canyon. Miles wasn’t sure if the winch still worked, but we could go check it out. The weir was a 45-minute drive from Lewis Canyon, so we again loaded up and followed Miles back out of the canyon.
The Mountain Lion
Miles again led the way, and we followed him out of Lewis Canyon, through more pastures, again separated by barbed-wire fences and heavy metal bump gates. We had just entered one of those pastures when we saw a large flock of vultures circling up ahead, just off the trail.
As we neared the vultures, Miles pulled off the trail, and we followed him about thirty yards into the desert where we found one of his sheep, dead and bloated. According to Miles, the sheep had been dead a day or two. He looked the carcass over carefully, saying that this had been an older sheep and it was possible it died of natural causes, but there were large holes in its body, not uncommon in mountain lion attacks. Miles seemed preoccupied with the sheep’s neck, giving it a thorough inspection.
“It’s probably nothing,” he said, “But we do have mountain lions here.”
Because we’d been so focused on the old sheep, and because there were so many vultures, we hadn’t noticed that there were more of them circling about 30 yards away. We all walked over there and saw another dead sheep.
“Bad sign,” said Miles. “That would be one heck of a coincidence for both sheep to die of natural causes so close to each other.”
And as if to confirm his suspicions, we immediately saw the large puncture wounds on its neck. Miles looked at the dead sheep’s ear tag, and said that this had been a relatively young sheep, only two years old.
I couldn’t help but notice that except for the puncture wounds on its neck and one or two on its body, the sheep actually looked pretty well intact. I asked Miles why the lion hadn’t eaten either of the sheep. Miles seemed to think that a mother lion was teaching its young to hunt. He snapped a few pictures with his cell phone, focusing on the neck wounds and then we continued on our way.
Within a few minutes, we again saw vultures, and came across a third dead sheep, this one also having the telltale punctures on it’s neck. Mile snapped more photos and checked for a cell signal. No luck. He’d have to wait until we got back to the ranch to make his call.
I asked what he planned to do, and Miles said there was a local mountain lion hunter who uses dogs to find and corner the lions. He hoped to have the hunter and his dogs here first thing in the morning. All the sheep looked to be recent kills, and it was Dwight’s opinion that the mountain lions were still in the area, having found an abundance of easy prey.
We drove on to the weir and and I noticed it was getting close to sunset. We were running later than we’d wanted to, having spent a lot of time back at Lewis Canyon. We were driving along in the rough terrain, and the desert was thick with blackbrush and ocotillo, desert ash and mesquite scrub. In other words, a mountain lion could be 20 yards from me, and in some places, I wouldn’t have seen it. Suddenly, it occurred to me that we’d be driving back to the ranch house in the dark.
The Weir – Part Two
We finally arrived at the top of the plateau, just above the weir. We had about 45 minutes of sunlight left and we needed to check out the winch and ladder that led out of the river canyon. We carefully climbed down a couple of limestone ledges, and then stepped onto a large flat rock that led to the 100-foot cliff. I walked towards the cliff, and slowed down to look for rock rattlers. It would be a shame to come this far only to be bitten by a snake.
When I got closer to the edge, the view jolted me a little. I’d actually been to the weir before, having made it this far on our first trip to the Pecos (a boomerang from the Highway 90 boat ramp to the weir and back). But now I had a bird’s eye view of the river, and the weir itself—a low water, cement-constructed dam that spanned the river. It was surrounded by emerald pools, and interspersed with short drop rapids or an occasionally boulder field. Even 150 feet above the river we could make out the schools of catfish and drum, stacked up like cord wood along the backside of the clear water dam.
The jeep trail could also be seen on the opposite bank that led to some ranch, unknown to us. And then of course there was the river itself, shimmering like a necklace in the setting sun.
It took a few minutes to get past the view, but once we did, we walked a little further along the cliff’s edge and then we saw it. A large, metal A-frame winch was sitting on the edge of the cliff, bolted into the limestone. Nestled inside the A-Frame were the attachments for the metal ladder that led down to the river. According to Miles, it was a two-piece ladder; the top section dropped down about eighty feet or so to a narrow metal shelf, or landing, that was bolted against the side of the cliff. Then the second ladder started from there, dropping down the remaining fifty feet to the river.
I couldn’t help but notice the A-frame was pretty rusty, and not as stout as I had hoped. I walked up to it carefully, and gave it a good hard shake, and it barely wobbled—that was a good sign. I looked down at the ladder and used the A-frame to brace myself as I knelt carefully at the edge of the cliff. The angle prevented me from seeing the ladder down the cliff face. I would have to lean out and over the cliff a little more than I wanted to. So I gave the ladder stanchions that were bolted into the rock a good shake and managed to convince myself that it was sturdy enough.
I leaned over, bracing myself against the stanchions, until I could finally see down below the cliff. I expected to see the ladder going down to the landing, but it wasn’t there. Perhaps, I thought, I couldn’t see it due to the bad angle.
I asked Miles about it. He said it should be there, leading to the landing. I looked down again, from one side to the other, but didn’t see it. I looked up at Miles and said, “Its not there.”
Miles and I traded places, and he knelt down for a look. He hung his head over the cliff and studied it for a second or two, and then he looked up at me, shaking his head. “Damn flood must have taken the ladder.”
Lots of things went through my mind on the drive back to the ranch house. By now it was dark, and the jeep’s headlights lit up the mule up in front of us, driven by Miles. It’s dust trail danced in our headlights, obscuring our view a little, so I looked out my window, and stared into the darkened desert, wondering what lay out there, watching us, waiting for us to pass. Not that I was worried about the mountain lions, mind you. After all, I was inside a jeep…but I wondered if Miles ever drove the ranch alone at night in his open cab, 4-wheel mule. I bet he doesn’t.
I thought about the group from Ozona, and how the river bed was now littered with the remains of their trucks. I wondered if Dwight Childress ever second guesses himself; if only he hadn’t been convinced to go down to the river that night—after all, he’d never done it before. That had to be one hell of a bitter pill to swallow, and I was hoping that he was at peace with it by now.
I also thought about our search. We had a place to put–in now, but no way to get out. We couldn’t paddle down to Deadman’s Canyon—it was just too far and too dangerous for us to do in a canoe. Our only real option was to take out at the weir, and if we were going to do that, then we had to find the owners of the ranch across the river from the Continental.
To be continued…
Lone Star Chronicles – Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Fish