Moby Goes to Santa Elena Canyon

How do you canoe the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park?

Just follow these easy steps:

1. Get a friendly park ranger to store your bikes in this shed. You’ll need them later.


2. Arrange for a driver from Desert Sports  to drive your Sportsmobile from the put-in to their shop where they’ll park it until you get off the river.


3. Shuffle, pack, and load your gear. If it gets dark before you’re done, keep at it. You’ll want to get an early start.


4. Sleep in your camping van. In the morning pick up the shuttle driver from Desert Sports. Bring her to the launch site. Watch her drive away with your Sportsmobile and pray you didn’t forget anything. You’re now committed to a 28 mile float, 8 miles of which is in a deep canyon with no access from above, no climbing out, and no one else floating the river in January to lend a hand if you’re in trouble. Try not to think about the fact that you’ve never done any white water canoeing. Or that your canoe is a Pakboat, a folding canoe that goes together like a backpacking tent. Or that you’ve only used the Pakboat a few times before on flat water and aren’t sure how it will take the river ahead. Wish yourself luck and launch.


5. Float off in the sun. Look at the hills, the water, the Rio Grande Red Eared Sliders. The Rio Grande begins in southwestern Colorado. By the time it reaches Texas it’s gone mostly to irrigation. Thanks to a tributary stream, the Rio Conchos, flowing from Mexico, the Rio Grande gets new life a few miles west of Big Bend National Park.



6. Float in the warm January sun and think about all your pals at work today. Think about the cold weather back home. After about three hours, call it a day and set up camp. Take a nap. Update your journal. Watch the moon rise and the sun set. No phone. No Internet. No nada.



7. On the morning of your second day, take a lazy float to the entry of Santa Elena Canyon. So far, you’ve seen no one on the river. No one on the bank. On one anywhere. The canyon is 8 miles of sheer walls up to 1500 feet high. No hiking out. If things go badly, you’ll have to wait for your kids to notice you’re missing. How long? Do you measure it in days or weeks?


The canyon swallows you up as you look back at the world of sun and big blue sky. Good luck and go.


8. Santa Elena Canyon is gorgeous. You glide along in awe. In a world so full of trouble, this amazing beauty.


9. Rock Slide rapids: the only serious obstacle on this stretch of the river, formed long ago when a chunk of cliff sloughed off into the river. There’s no clear way through. You’re not sure how your Pakboat will react. Your canoe skills suck. You’re not sure which route to take. You spend an hour scouting. You ponder and discuss. Do you take the “Texas Gate” on the left or the “Mexican Gate” on the right? You’re glad the water is low. You’re not going to drown, just get wet, take a swim, lose some gear, and swamp your canoe. Finally, you make a plan. You can’t put it off forever. The only way out is through. Good luck and go.


10. After all that worry, you make it through without a hitch. You feel a wave of admiration and appreciation for your Pakboat–steady, solid, and responsive in fast, tight water. What boat! In a fit of emotion, you christen your previously unnamed boat “Packy.” You give Packy a kiss and then climb the rocks and take one last look at Rock Slide rapids.



11. You make camp on the gravel bar just below Rock Slide rapids. The moon and Orion come up and slide through the sliver of sky visible between the cliffs. You make a fire against the cliff, warm and bright, and read Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire: “A venturesome minority will always be eager to set off on their own, and no obstacles should be placed in their path; let them take risks, for godsake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches–that is the right and privilege of any free American.”


12. Morning is magic. The canyon is narrow and high. The sun darts in and out like a bird, flooding the canyon below Rock Slide rapid with a fast moving blaze.





13. Load Packy and head out.


14. Float along slow and quiet. Think about your life. You’re 57 or 51. You’re not going to live forever, but who needs eternity when you can have even a bit of this.




15. As you near the end of the canyon, Santa Elena plays a trick. Bands of rock rise up from the river, making it seem like the river plunges steeply down. Despite appearances, the river continues its slow crawl out of the canyon.


16. You come around the last bend and see the canyon’s abrupt end framing the broad sky and Chisos Mountains.


17. You paddle the last 8 miles down to Cottonwood campground in open, slow water. On your left is Texas and Big Bend National Park. On your right is Mexico. Since the border tightened after 9/11, there’s little movement between the two neighbors even though the border, the Rio Grande, is shallow enough to walk in many places. Border patrol and law enforcement officers with assault rifles prowl the park. Santa Elena canyon is surrounded by the affluence of park visitors on one side and the poverty of Mexicans on the other, each so close to the other that you can easily toss a stone across. There’s a border tension here, fueled by drug smuggling and the crossing of undocumented workers. Mexican livestock also cross the shallow river to graze, annoying park officials, so the Mexicans build fences out of mesquite branches. Cattle, horses, and people: everyone must stay on the correct side of the river. No crossing. No mixing. No neighboring. You float this tenuous wisp of a river and think about borders. You wonder if there isn’t a better way. You think that if you float slowly enough and long enough, you’ll figure it out.


18. You arrive at Cottonwood campground and pull Packy out of the muddy Rio Grande. You clean up and make camp. You take Packy apart and fetch your bikes from the park’s storage shed. The night is cold. In the morning, you put everything inside your tent and leave Doug to guard the gear.



19. You bike 30 miles, down Old Maverick Road to the highway and from there to Terlingua where Desert Sports has your van.



20. You pick up your van at Desert Sports and drive back to Cottonwood to get Packy, and the rest of the gear. You’re headed back to Boise soon, but the Rio Grande has you hooked. You’ll be back. There are hundreds of miles yet to float.


15 thoughts

  1. Man I thought we had done the only river float in the deep SW worth doing (i.e. the Salt). Looks like I was wrong. Need to put this one our our river bucket list….

  2. What a fantastic adventure as always. Beautiful scenery & Janene’s writing is perfect. Makes one walk – or – paddle with nature at its best. Keep your adventures posted as I know there will be many more.

  3. Meanwhile back in Kazakhstan your old friends are hibernating at -20F in hopes of an early spring. How about bringing Packy as carryon luggage for a river trip on the Thames this summer? We’re moving.

    1. Nice idea Jeff, but Packy is a bit too large for the overhead bins. Although Packy could handle the Thames whitewater for sure. You and Roseanne will just have to come to Idaho to see Packy in action. Or join us in Big Bend next winter as an escape from the fog and rain of London in the winter.

  4. You two never cease to amaze me! I always look forward to reports of your adventures. What beautiful pictures and writing!

    1. Yani– We’re hoping to return to Big Bend to float more of the Rio Grande next winter. There are two other canyons in the park reported to be as good as the Santa Elena plus 150 miles designated as a wild and scenic river outside the park. You guys should join us!

  5. What a beautiful trip. Not sure if I would have braved the unknown. Looking forward to more of your trips!

  6. Way to go you two! As always you provided wonderful narratives and great pictures. You make we want to get on a river and do some camping! Glad all went well and you made it safely. – Mark

  7. Exactly what I needed on this cold January day as the semester nears the end and my entire spirit wants to bolt from the bureaucratic nightmare that is the public school system. Thanks for your beautiful writing Janene.

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