“Another alternative [to bringing drinking water] is to acquire fresh river water during the trip. Although the use of river water is not recommended, water taken from the Pecos could be used in an emergency if it has been purified through filtering or boiling. In either case, however, the alkaline taste of the water will still be present. Springs are another source of water. As a warning and a precaution, all water taken from springs along the Pecos River should be purified by filtering or boiling before consumption.”
~ The Lower Pecos River, by Louis F. Aulbach and Jack Richardson, 2008
In one of the river’s harshest ironies, drinking water is one of the bigger challenges facing Pecos paddlers. You wouldn’t think that by looking at the river’s crystal clear water but according to Outside Magazine, the flow of water over alkaline beds hundreds of miles upriver leave the river water full of alkali salts, which can make you sick.
During our ill-fated 2014 trip, we relied on bottled water, augment by filtered spring water, but some of the springs that were called out in Aulbach’s guide book proved difficult to find. So drinking water on the Pecos has been a hot topic with us for a couple of years now, and since that trip, we’ve come across paddlers who traversed the same stretch and drank the river water with no ill effects. Underbrink and some friends, for example, paddled the lower Pecos twice in the last two years and both times his group drank filtered river water without problems other than it tasting like “tepid well water” as he described it.
And so it was that we decided to drink the river water during this latest trip, and spring water of course…if we could find the elusive springs. From the first day, it was evident that everyone was right about the taste, which reminded me of dirty sock water. We added flavoring to the water and that made it somewhat palatable if you could keep it from getting too warm, hard to do in 95 degree heat.
I quickly learned that the only thing worse than well water is warm well water, and after a few sweltering days on the river, I found that the taste of the alkaline water started to wear on me. I’m sure it was more psychological than anything else, but I just couldn’t quench my thirst, and despite using lots of powdered flavoring to mask the taste, I had to force myself to drink the filtered river water. I didn’t think we were in danger of dehydrating, but I sometimes found myself paddling along, in a kind of daze, day-dreaming of things like ice cubes and cold bottles of beer.
Fortunately, we were able to find some of the springs along the route and they offered cool, fresh tasting water. Dan found the first spring near Oso Canyon on the second day when he looked back into a cut in the river cane the rest of us had just passed and saw the telltale signs: gin clear water and dark green moss growing on the river bottom. He confirmed the spring by paddling over and reaching down to touch the water. Cold.
Because of its location, it didn’t appear to be any of the springs called out in the guide book, but it’d been a pretty wet year and not unusual for additional springs to start seeping from its bedrock. We filled our Nalgene bottles, as well as a gallon jug we carried, and Underbrink filled his Camelback. After chugging some of the fresh tasting water and refilling, we paddled off, but not before I threw myself into the river near the spring. The cold soak shocked me from my heat induced stupor and all was right with the world.
Later in the day, we rounded a bend and saw a herd of wild horses grazing on river right. The Edwards Plateau is home to thousands of mustangs who graze an existing out of the harsh Chihuahuan Desert uplands. It’s not unusual for Pecos paddlers to encounter the horses; we came across a good sized herd during our flood trip, and now we’d came across another one, this one smaller than the last, only eight horses, including a couple of large chestnuts, a beautiful white mare and several paints among them.
The horses grazed along a wide, sandy bank blanketed in thick grass. Perched up on the bluff, overlooking the green field was a large house. We walked up to the horses, and at first, they didn’t pay us any mind, but as we got closer, a large, scarred stallion stepped forward and lowered its head, warning us that we’d come too close. We backed off and Robert circled behind them to get a better vantage point from which to photograph the herd. Then the horses moved back towards him, cutting Robert off from us. It was a bad spot, pinning him between the herd and a thicket covering a steep canyon wall. Robert stood there, continuing to take photos, and waited for the herd to move away, not that he had much choice. The herd grazed for several minutes and eventually meandered away, freeing Robert to join us again.It occurred to me that this was the same bank where we’d run across the only person we’d seen during the flood trip. His name was Omar, and he was a ranch hand who’d been tasked to clear a large swath of river bank so his boss could bring his guests down and entertain them on the river. This was home for this group of mustangs, which made them them luckiest herd on the river. We spent a couple of hours watching and photographing the horses and even broke out the drone to get some overhead footage of the herd.We were so consumed by the wild horses on river right, that we almost overlooked a nearby canyon on river left. It was late afternoon and time to start looking for the night’s campsite, so we paddled over to explore the narrow ravine and immediately saw a small stream flowing from it. We followed the water back into the canyon, bounded by a smooth arched wall on one side and perch-filled pools of water on the other. We continued following the burbling water to its source, and it led us to a fissure in the moss-covered limestone, from which emanated a gush of cool spring water. A few yards beyond it was another spring just like the first, and we quickly realized we’d hit the jackpot; the grotto-like ravine held several springs.Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, the next bend in the canyon revealed a spring that flowed from high up on the rock face, this one with strands of cool water dripping from hardened rock formations carpeted by moss and ferns. In the heat of the afternoon, we stood under the shower of spring water and rejoiced in its cold sweetness.
Although we knew better, we were so exited about the find that we kicked caution to the curb and drank directly from the dripping strings of cool water. Later we would fill our water bottles and take proper showers under the grotto spring, marveling at our luck and the river, which seemed to be have one surprise for us after another.
We stayed at the spring filled canyon that night, and woke up to overcast skies, refreshed from the easy camping and fresh water. As we paddled away that morning, we didn’t know it would be our last reprieve from the alkaline river water until the last few days of our trip. We tried, but failed, to find Chinaberry Spring at mile 33, and we found ourselves falling back into our normal routine of purifying river water to sustain us during the second half of the eight-day trip.
Several days later, high temps, warm winds and the constant paddling conspired to rob our bodies of badly needed fluids, and all we had to drink was the alkaline river water. By the seventh day of the trip, I was feeling the effects of dehydration; I was listless and lethargic. With the last of the known springs behind us, there was little we could do except push on to Painted Canyon at mile 44.
One of the best known locations on the remote river, Painted Canyon was infamous for the rapids that sat below it, a set of class III-IV rapids that were without question the most difficult on the river. It’s the rapids at Painted Canyon that adorns the cover of the Pecos River guide book, and we’d heard a lot about Painted Canyon from Underbrink.
The canyon’s also known for its startling vistas and rock art shelters. In addition to that, Underbrink had long been telling me about the Face, a limestone outcropping that boar an eerie resemblance to the Easter Island heads. The multicolored face seemed to be looking down onto the rapids, which we’d have to traverse on our last day on the river.
Because we’d been flooded off the river in 2014, neither Dan nor I had actually been to painted Canyon and we were anxious to explore the area. The canyon was littered with car-sized boulders, and dotted with small pools of water that seemed to get clearer the further up we climbed. At first we thought it was runoff, after all, the entire area have been bushwhacked by a severe storm the night before. But as we continued to climb, the water started getting colder and before long we saw it.
The spring emanated from the rock-filled stream bed, where it spilled from one pool to the one below it. Using the filters, we filled our water bottles and chugged one, then another. Even though it may have been psychological, there was no denying the instant boost we got from drinking the cool and fresh tasting water. Best of all, with only one more night at the river, we’d finish the trip with good water to spare.
To be continued…
Postscript: Drinking unfiltered water brings with it the possibility of contracting a variety of waterborne illnesses, like Cryptosporidium or Giardia. So far nobody in our group has gotten sick from drinking the unfiltered spring water that day, but your mileage may vary, and so we highly recommend you not drink unfiltered spring water unless you’re in a survival situation.
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 – 5. The Storm (CLICK HERE)
Return to the Pecos – 6. The Reckoning (CLICK HERE)