It was apparent from the start that running the river would be easier this time around. During the 2014 flood trip, higher than normal flows, made for tougher rapids, especially on the first day of that trip. This time, the Pandale flow gauge was marking a leisurely 80 cfs, less than half the flow of the flood trip, and this, along with a more experienced crew, made for easy paddling despite our fully loaded, sit-on-top (fishing) kayaks.
According to Aulbach’s guide book, there are 16 sets of rapids that sit between Pandale Crossing and Deadman’s Canyon, mostly class IIs and IIIs, with only one or two reaching class IV if the flow is right (or wrong, depending on your point of view). During the flood trip, we lined several of the rapids and even portaged past one through 50 yards of tough, cane filled terrain; on this trip, we hoped to run them all. At least that was the plan.
Several miles below the put-in at Pandale, we ran into a group of paddlers who’d launched an hour or so before us. One of the men in the group had torn a hole in his kayak running a class II rapid earlier in the day. Now they sat on the bank, drinking beers and waiting for their patch job to set. We chatted for a bit and they indicated that like us, they too were paddling all the way to Highway 90, but they seemed in good spirits and didn’t appear to be too concerned about punching a hole in the their kayak so early in the trip. We finished chatting and paddled off when I noticed the punctured kayak was a lower end model. It occurred to me that on a river like the lower Pecos, you paddle a cheap kayak at your own risk.
Besides lower flows, we also had Underbrink along, which was nice. He was familiar with the entire stretch of river, something he gleaned from having paddled this route twice in the last two years. Part Robin Williams and part Daniel Boone, Underbrink was a strong paddler who not only brought with him a wealth of knowledge, but also an enthusiasm for the outdoors that is downright contagious. He liked taking the lead and took it upon himself to scout the rapids for the group, calling out the best lines to run. When he wasn’t scouting rapids or scaling house-sized boulders (while waiting on us to catch up), his high octane persona kept us laughing, and his nightly antics were an endless source of amusement around camp, like the time he ate a live minnow that had jumped into one of the kayaks, and then dryly proclaimed, “It doesn’t taste like chicken.”Our daily routine usually consisted of running rapids and fishing the pools between them, with occasional breaks to take photos and explore the river. Because we had eight days on the river, we took our time and did more fishing than the flood trip, and from the first day, it seemed there were fish behind every big rock we passed or in the numerous river cane cuts that lined the river. We mostly threw small swim baits and were usually rewarded with hard fighting buck bass and an occasional trophy-sized fish. Then late each afternoon, we’d start scouting potential campsites.We chose campsites based on several factors, like location (in terms of miles paddled each day), space/flatness for tents, and most importantly, access to higher ground, in case the river rose. Close proximity to a spring was a plus. On a river as remote as the lower Pecos, you’d think there would be plenty of good campsites, but that’s not always the case. Dense river cane, coupled with the rocky desert topography, meant we could paddle a five-mile stretch of river and not find a single suitable campsite.
Late on the first day, we came to the same ledge where we’d camped the first night of the flood trip, and after some discussion, we opted to again camp there. The mood was good as we set up the tents and prepared the evening meals. Our first day on the river had been a good one, with lots of fish caught and no spills by anyone in the group. We made the satellite phone call to Ryan for a weather check (which would become a nightly routine) and though there was still a thirty percent chance of storms, the light cloud cover didn’t concern Dan so I wasn’t worried.At one point, the group we’d passed earlier in the day floated by our campsite, saying the patch had held so far. We wished them well and as they paddled away, I thought there was probably a good chance we’d run into them again, but I was wrong. We never saw the group again after the first day.
Sitting around the campfire that night, I remembered our stay on that same ledge in 2014; I spent the better part of that night tossing and turning in my tent and worrying about the river. By contrast, tonight the mood was jovial and we talked about the first day’s paddle, and about our food and the equipment; and how the ‘yaks were holding out. I also learned a little about the families of my paddling companions, and at one point both Robert and Underbrink spoke of fathers. It wasn’t lost on me how lucky I was that my son and I shared the same passion for the outdoors.Part 2.
The fact that we’d been flooded off this river two years ago probably made us a little overcautious when it came to weather. The forecasted thunderstorms didn’t help, and when we put in at Pandale Saturday morning, it was raining lightly. Fortunately for us, despite the forecasts, we spent the bulk of the trip under partly cloudy or sunny skies. Our nightly routine, though, included calling Ryan on the sat phone and getting a fresh forecast.
On the second night, while setting up camp under a long curved overhang, which Underbrink said reminded him of a wave, we saw storm clouds building downriver of our location and they seemed to be headed our way. A quick sat phone call to Ryan confirmed our fears: there was a large rainstorm south of us, in Mexico but heading in our direction. According to Ryan, the slow moving system was about two-hundred miles wide and it looked like we’d catch the eastern edge of the system.
We’d known there’d be a good chance of rain from the previous night’s forecast, so we picked the campsite that night based on the long overhang, which would keep us out of the rain. We also had a large canyon about fifty yards down the river that we could use as an escape route in the unlikely event the river rose. With darkness approaching quickly, we sent the two Daniels, my son and Underbrink, to scout the canyon while Robert and I remained under the overhang to get a campfire going.Once up the canyon, the two Daniels found a rock shelter that would be relatively easy to reach; there was even a small grassy knoll at the bottom of the trail which we could use to move the kayaks to higher ground if needed. Satisfied they’d found a good escape route, the men started switch backing down the draw, methodically poking the grass for rattlers with a hiking stick, when they heard a guttural, high pitched growl. Dan immediately shined his flashlight back up the canyon and both men saw the large reflective eyes and ears of a young mountain lion, his head protruding from a large boulder above them. The lion stared at them, and then it growled again.
The men instinctively looked around for another lion, thinking the mother can’t be far from her cub. They started back towards the river again, quickly making their way down the boulder filled canyon; suddenly poking around for snakes didn’t seem as important. Then another high pitched growl reverberated off the canyon walls. This time they didn’t stop to look. With his headlamp lighting the way, Underbrink climbed down the boulders, watching the path ahead while Dan walked behind him, almost back to back, keeping an eye on their six, his gun at the ready. They heard another roar, and this one sounded to Underbrink like it came from the far side of the canyon. Perhaps the mother lion responding to her cub.
They didn’t wait to find out, bounding over the car-sized boulders, one after another, until they finally emerged from the canyon onto the river ledge and headed back to camp, relieved nothing followed them out of the canyon.
They walked into camp, smiling nervously, as we stoked the campfire, and I asked them about the escape route. “Do you want the good news or the bad news?” Dan asked.
“The good news.”
“We found a nice shelter,” he said, “With enough room for all four tents.”
“And the bad news?”
There’s a mountain lion up there, and it’s not happy.”
We sat around the campfire for the next few hours talking and laughing about the lion and the rain and anything else we could think of to pass the time. At one point, somebody pointed out the biblical passage about Daniel and the lion’s den; we all laughed, calling tonight’s adventure: Two Daniels and the lion’s den.The rain eventually came that night, but it wasn’t very much, so we didn’t have to retreat into the canyon. After the men’s encounter there with the mountain lion, I doubt we’d have venture back up there anyway.
To be Continued…
Lone Star Chronicles – Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Fish
Note: To read the other parts of this story, click here:
Return to the Pecos – 1. Decisions (CLICK HERE)
Return to the Pecos – 2. The Crew (CLICK HERE)
Return to the Pecos – 3. Onto the River (CLICK HERE)
Return to the Pecos – 4. Water (CLICK HERE)
Return to the Pecos – 5. The Storm (CLICK HERE)
Return to the Pecos – 6. The Reckoning (CLICK HERE)