We woke up to broken clouds, but no rain, and with the storm behind us, we loaded up and left Lewis Canyon. It’d been six days since we launched from Pandale and by the end of the day we hoped to be in Painted Canyon, which was an easy day’s paddle downriver.
Although I’d never been there, I was familiar with Painted Canyon because of the picture that graces the cover of Aulbach’s Pecos guide book, a photo of the rapids that sit at the mouth of the infamous canyon. I’d read and heard lots of stories about the scenic stretch of river, including some from Underbrink, who told me about a face-like rock outcropping on one of the limestone cliffs that greets paddlers on arrival. The face, he said, resembled the statue of Pele or an Easter Island head.
Sure enough, as we paddled up to the canyon we were greeted by the prominent face, sitting high up on the bluff overlooking the river. It’s the scenery, though, that the canyon is most famous for, and upon seeing it in person for the first time, I found it more beautiful than I imagined, even by Pecos River standards where it seems around every bend is another scenic vista.
Water-colored cliffs rose two-hundred feet in the air and surrounded emerald pools filled with bass and gar. A large bowl-shaped lagoon had been carved in the limestone by thousands of years of water flowing from the canyon, and a small stream of water splashed into the lagoon from a gap up on the boulders ringing the pool above it. A short distance away, terraced ledges jutted from the river, perfect campsites ten feet from the river’s edge.Later that day, someone looked up onto the bluffs across the river and saw a small herd of Aoudads grazing atop the rocky cliff. Part antelope and part goat, the sure-footed Aoudads were transplanted to Texas after World War II by soldiers returning from the battlefields of North Africa, intent on breeding them for Texas hunting ranches. But the Aoudads are notoriously hard to keep penned and these days some estimates put their numbers in Texas at about 25,000. They’re frequently seen on the lower Pecos traversing over the narrowest of paths and ledges, defying gravity and even running gracefully along the 200-foot drop offs.
We fished the nearby pools, stalking largemouth and dinner-sized catfish, but the fish weren’t biting…and that was okay. We swam in the lagoon, shocking our bodies by jumping into the cool water in the 95-degree day. We took naps on the bare limestone, in the shade of rock overhangs just off the lagoon.
No words or photos can do justice to a place like Painted Canyon. Looking back now over those last 48 hours on the river, our time at Painted Canyon seems euphoric to me, like a dream or some naturally-induced high. For all I know it was the dehydration from not drinking enough water (a problem we’d solve the next day by finding a spring). Maybe it was just the excitement over the prospect of actually finishing the trip this time around.
On the last night at Painted Canyon, while sitting around the campfire, Underbrink surprised me by asking when I planned to come back to the Pecos again. At first I laughed and joked about us not finishing this trip yet, but after some thought, I told him that this might very well be my last time on the Pecos. I explained that the river required too much time and effort, and too many resources, and that there were so many other rivers and lakes in Texas that Dan and I still needed to explore, to say nothing of the salt, for which we were long overdue. Besides, I said, our readers were probably tired of reading about the Pecos River by now; it was time to expand our horizons.
Early on the eighth day we broke camp one final time, loaded the kayaks and left Painted Canyon bound for Deadman’s Canyon where we’d meet Ike Billings who would tow us the last six miles to the boat ramp on Highway 90. Ike was supposed to tow us out at the conclusion of the 2014 trip, but after the flood, it turns out we didn’t need a ride after all, at least not by a boat.
As we paddled away from Painted Canyon, it occurred to me that despite the weather, barring some unseen catastrophe, we were finally going to finish the entire Pandale to Highway 90 route. This was an important milestone for Dan and I, one that had eluded us for three years now, and I felt a little giddy that we were now only hours away from reaching that milestone.
An hour after leaving Painted Canyon, we arrived at the low water dam, or Pecos weir as it’s called. The last time we’d been to the weir, we’d driven there over rough-cut trails that traversed the Continental Ranch. It was during a search for our boats and equipment two months after the flood and we were accompanied by Miles Gibbs who manages the ranch. I wrote about that visit to the weir in a story called The Graveyard, and I described the weir like this:
“…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 cordwood along the backside of the clear water dam.”
During that search visit, we arrived at the weir late in the day and there was no one there. This time, as we paddled up to the weir, we came across a group of paddlers who were putting in from a jeep trail on the opposite river bank from the Continental. I struck up a conversation with one of the men who introduced himself as Joey Benton from Marfa, and he said the group, a mix of adults and kids paddling canoes and kayaks, were going on a boomerang trip to Lewis Canyon and back.
Joey offered us a beer and the topic soon turned to floods. He told us his story of the Memorial Day 2014 flood that had trapped him and his 8-year old son, as well as the son’s friend and his friend’s faster. It occurred three weeks before our own flood trip, and I remembered hearing that some folks needed to be rescued. The river rose 15 feet and forced the paddlers to abandon the river and climb out of the canyon, much like we would three weeks later.
During the climb, Joey’s son lost one of his shoes, and the four had to hike miles to the nearest highway, through deep draws and ankle breaking rocks, not to mention a long list of desert plants and animals, that will either stick, sting or bite you, as Scott Gartman described it in The Flood. The group was eventually picked up by a Border Patrol truck and they made it home relatively unscathed all things considered.
Joey and I vowed to keep in touch so perhaps I could write a piece on their trip, and then we said our goodbyes. As they paddled off, I felt a ting of sadness. They were embarking on a new adventure, upriver into the Texas wild, and my group was retreating back to the land of concrete and glass. I guess you could say I was envious.
We continued paddling downriver and ran Big Rock Rapid much more easily than I remembered during our boomerang trip. Funny, but it seemed like everything was easier this time around. Shortly after Big Rock, the river began to widen and got deeper; it started feeling more like the small arm of a lake than a river. We also started seeing a few power boaters, the river here being deep enough that the prop killing underwater boulders could be mitigated with low speeds and watchful eyes.
A few hours later, nearing Deadman’s Canyon we saw Ike off in the distance, motoring towards us in his bass boat. He slowed and came alongside, allowing us to climb in from our ‘yaks, one at a time. As we climbed in, he took our kayaks and tied them end to end, and when all four boats were tied he secured the line of ‘yaks to a cleat on his transom. Neither Robert nor Underbrink had ever met Ike, so I introduced them, and then Ike handed us all a cold beer which we quickly drank on the twenty minute ride back to the boat ramp where Emilio had left my truck.
Although this trip spanned only eight days, in actuality, it’s been a much longer journey, one that goes back to a year before the flood trip, back to our boomerang trip in 2013 with Shane Davies, because that’s when we first saw the sheer majesty of the lower Pecos River. The boomerang trip, it turns out, was just an appetizer, a glimpse at a unique and enticing ecosystem, unlike anything we’d seen. It was during that trip that Dan and I set our sights on the entire 60-mile route–Pandale to Highway 90.
And then that whole 500-year flood thing happened and I’m not gonna lie, it threw us a curve.You can call it fate, or luck, or you can chalk it up to being in the proverbial wrong place at the wrong time; the good news is that there was one hell of a silver lining, the stories that resulted from the flood: tales of crushed and twisted trucks and giant canebrakes, hidden springs and wild horses, mountain lions and helicopters. And there are still untold stories to be chronicled.
The truth is that Dan and I are stronger for having gone through our adventure on the lower Pecos and though it’s a cliché, it’s accurate: if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. In the end, we got a second shot at an incredible river, and it was made all the sweeter for having done it in the company of my son and two great river companions. In the end, the only downside was that it took Dan and I three years to finish the journey.
After the trip, with the itch sufficiently scratched, I thought it was time to focus on other things. As I had told Underbrink that night at Painted Canyon, there were other rivers and lakes that needed exploring. That’s why I told him I’d probably never come back to the lower Pecos, and when I said that around the campfire that night seven months ago, I truly believed it.
Lone Star Chronicles – Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Fish
Note: To read the first five 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)