Late on the fourth day we reached our old campsite, the one we’d been flooded off in 2014, and the first thing we did was to walk the camp with Robert and Underbrink, showing them where we’d pitched our tents and the overhang where we hid from the rain and planned our escape. We pointed out the crevice where we stuffed our dry bags and Pelican cases into before bugging out. We also re-walked our escape route, back through the mesquite thickets and over the grassy knoll that’d been turned into a giant waterfall, and finally back to the base of the jeep trail which we climbed to get off the flooding river.
This wasn’t my first time back to the old campsite, having returned the week after the flood to look for our things. But it was Dan’s first time back, and as we walked around the camp, I kept an eye on him. If he felt anything, he kept it well hidden; I saw only looks of resignation and acceptance, which I suppose was good. He did say the campsite looked smaller than he remembered it, and I remembered having had the same thought.
During our walk to the jeep trail, we came across the jon boat. I first saw the small aluminum boat during my last visit, and it had been wrapped around a mesquite tree by the force of the flood water, which at its height was flowing at 150,000 cfs. Emilio and I had tried to pry it off the tree but it didn’t budge. Two years later, the jon boat was still there, clinging to the tree, in a perpetual death hug.
Although we’d talked about spending the night at the old campsite, we knew that Lewis Canyon was a mile down river, and since we had 80 percent chance of thunderstorms over the next 24 hours, we decided to paddle down and spend the night there where we had better escape options in the unlikely event that the river rose on us. As we paddled away from our old campsite, I felt a ting of sadness. This might be the last time I saw this part of the river. I wished we’d been able to spend more time there, but it was getting late.If you read the stories about our search for the kayaks after the flood then you may remember that a big chunk of that search took place on the Continental Ranch, a thirty-thousand acre working ranch which started at Lewis Canyon. From that point on, we’d be first time paddlers on the stretch, which included some of the better known Pecos landmarks like Waterfall Rapids and Painted Canyon.
The nice thing about having eight days to do this trip was the option to layover at any of the campsites if needed. Lewis Canyon was an obvious choice; it’s home to 4,500-year old petroglyphs and several shelters, some of which are adorned with ancient pictographs. There is also good fishing nearby and a large flat limestone ledge on which to camp, the same ledge where Dwight Childress and his family camped the night before the flood. So before this trip, we contacted Miles Gibbs, who manages the ranch, and he graciously allowed us access to the entire ranch, which spanned from Lewis Canyon all the way down to Deadman’s Canyon.By now, we’d grown accustomed to receiving ominous weather forecasts each night on the sat phone, but because most of the storms failed to materialize, we started growing a little complacent. After five days on the river, we’d only seen one downpour, and it lasted twenty minutes. Still, when we finally arrived at Lewis Canyon, we elected to camp on top of the 200-foot bluff, a decision made easy by a jeep trail that led to the top of the river bluff. With the highest chances for storms predicted over the next few days, waiting out the weather at Lewis Canyon provided us an extra layer of safety and peace of mind.
We now had time to kill, and fished up and down Lewis Canyon in the relative luxury of unloaded kayaks. That stretch of river is one of the best fishing areas on the lower Pecos, and even I caught fish, mostly by working swim baits along the thick river cane. Turns out it drives the bass crazy, causing violent hits and lots of hook ups, something I could get used to.At one point, a five-pound largemouth pounced on Robert’s jig, and as he fought it, another bass trailed the commotion. After boating the big fish, Robert noticed the other bass, still suspended under his boat, and with the five-pounder in one hand, he picked up the rod with the other and pitched in the jig. The bass hit it, and because it happened just under the kayak, before he knew it, Robert had two fish in the boat. It was that kind of afternoon.
As the day wore on, we continued fishing upriver from Lewis Canyon, while Underbrink stayed back at camp patching the hole he’d torn in his kayak. We stopped in the shallows above Lewis Canyon to filter some river water, and noticed storm clouds beginning to build downriver from us. Soon an enormous thunderhead materialized from the clouds, what Dan called an exploding supercell. The thing that caught my eye was how quickly it was building on itself, reminding me of an alien movie.
We had a stringer of fish, so Dan and I headed back to camp to clean them and prepare for the storm. Robert didn’t want to leave them biting and said he was going to continue fishing; we were in a long, deep pool, only a half-mile from camp, and so we didn’t worry about leaving Robert behind. As Dan and I neared the camp, the thunderhead was still growing, and we now started seeing more clouds to our west. We arrived to see Underbrink moving his kayak further up the limestone ledge.With the weather moving in, we cleaned the fish quickly and then headed up the jeep trail to our camp. The wind was starting to pick up and as we climbed the jeep trail, I looked upriver expecting to see Robert, but there was no sign of him. The massive thunderhead was now overtaking Lewis Canyon, and blue bird skies gave way to angry, rolling clouds.
It looked like it was about to rain and still no sign of Robert. We battened down the tents, put on the rain flies and began securing our things, when suddenly a deafening crash of thunder exploded around us. We all ducked instinctively, and I could feel my arm hairs standing on end. We looked around at each other, and someone said something about hoping Robert was alright. We again looked down the jeep trail for a sign of him, but saw nothing. More lighting strikes, this time to our south, and it occurred to me that the cloud-to-ground strikes were hitting the tops of the bluffs, like the one we were on. Maybe Robert was better off down on the river.
We finished securing our things as the first rain drops hit and looking around, I noticed it had gotten pretty dark. We could see multiple storm cells building around us, occasionally lit up by lightning and accompanied by rolling thunder. Just then, Robert emerged from the jeep trail looking a little pale. He said he’d been on the river, a hundred yards from the ledge when a lightning bolt struck the bluff above him. The thunder was so loud, his ears were still ringing fifteen minutes later.With all four of us on the bluff now, all we could do was to wait out the storms which seemed to be flaring up all around us. The rain started coming down harder, and though I was sure the storms would pass quickly, I was glad we were not on the river. I thought about our kayaks, which we’d pulled up higher onto the ledge, but I found myself wishing we’d gone higher.
For the next two hours we were pounded by heavy rain and a lightning show that was too close for comfort. The storms seemed to be rotating around us, glowing eerily from all the lightning and again I was reminded of a Hollywood movie. We’d taken shelter under a metal lean-to that was near our camp electing to risk a strike on the lean-to over a direct hit on one of us, and now we stood there in our rain gear, listening to the staccato sound of rain pounding the shelter’s metal roof.
It poured so hard, water started pooling in the uneven desert terrain, and soon made its way under our tents. We placed rocks underneath to keep them from sitting in the muddy water, but the rain continued coming down and a few minutes later we had to shove more rocks under the tents to keep them above the water. The evening had cooled off, and I didn’t want to spend a cold night in a wet tent.
With nothing to do but wait, we took some photos and video of the storms until it got dark, but the rain didn’t stop coming. Now I was starting to second guess myself. Five days into the trip, we’d been lucky so far, but had our luck finally run out? What if the river rose? The kayaks were safe from a six- or eight-foot rise, but any more than that, and there was a danger we might lose them again. For the first time since putting in, I again questioned my decision in not postponing the trip.
I must have looked worried because Underbrink asked what I was thinking about; I wasn’t expecting the question, but was glad he rousted me from my worries. I told him, honestly, that I was mad at myself for once again underestimating the river, and putting us in danger. Underbrink, in his usual self-deprecating way, said he was glad we’d decided to come. I chuckled and looked around at the rain. How could he possibly be glad, I asked.
“Because,” he said, “If you hadn’t come, I’d probably be on the river tonight alone.” It rained solidly for two hours and took even longer for the lightning to dissipate to the point where we felt safe enough to walk down the jeep trail to check on the kayaks. The area was still being clobbered by storms, and we didn’t know how much more rain we’d get that night, so Dan and I moved our kayaks further up the jeep trail and tied them off again.
We also used the sat phone to call Ryan and then my wife, who would be watching the weather radar and worried about us. We had a hard time getting the needed satellite signals through the storm systems that surrounded us, but once we got through, Ryan confirmed that we were in a flash flood watch, as was most of the state of Texas. Afterwards, I called Luisa who she said she’d been worried about us and that there were lots of reports from all around the state of heavy rains and flooding, including some deaths down near Houston. I was still talking to her when we lost the signal, but at least she knew we were safe.
Later that night, Dan and Robert managed to start a campfire, which I would have thought impossible after the rain soaked the firewood we’d collected earlier in the day; then they grilled some of the bass we caught. There was a cool dampness in the night air, and I felt cold and exhausted. While they sat around the muddy desert camp eating the cooked fish, I moved my tent from the mud pit it now sat in to a dryer spot on the desert floor. Then I crawled into it and collapsed into my damp sleeping bag, wiped out from the night’s events. I looked at my watch and saw it was one o’clock in the morning.
To be continued…
Postscript: A few days later, after getting off the river and learning of the full extent of the storms, we realized that we only got a small taste of the heavy rains that clobbered Texas that first week in June. Unknown to us at the time, a state of disaster had been declared for 31 counties after massive flooding hit large sections of the state. By the end of the week, at least twelve deaths had been attributed to heavy rains, including nine soldiers who drowned on Fort Hood while crossing a rain swollen creek. Despite my thoughts at the time, as it turns out, we had been lucky after all.
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 – 6. The Reckoning (CLICK HERE)