Photos by Chuck Leinweber - Harper, Texas - USA

Last week Skip Johnson told about the boat he build for the Rio Grande trip so I guess I should share a little about the trip itself. After all, it was something we both had wanted to do for many years. When you live in the western US and you travel around a bit, sooner or later you get to Big Bend National Park, the gem in the desert. It is named for the bend in the Rio Grande River. The Rio Grande forms the border between Mexico and Texas. Mexico once owned most of the present day state of Texas - but that is another story.

We were invited to paddle the "GURG" or Great Unknown Rio Grande, by Louis Aulbach, a paddler, historian and writer who happens to be responsible for THE guidebook for this and other area rivers. There were to be ten paddlers and the trip would begin at Castolon, Texas (in the park) and end 80 some odd miles later at Rio Grande Village. Here is the story in pictures:


I would be taking my Jim Michalak designed Imresboat and I wanted to report to Jim about the boat so I had Sandra take this picture of me with all the gear I would stuff into the poor thing. The biggest item was water (pink bags in front) which weighed 50 pounds. In addition, there were, in no particular order, a toilet (required in the park), food, cook stove, tent, sleeping bag (it got down to 35 F one night), sunscreen, sun hat (it got up to 95 F one day), life jacket, folding chair, and epoxy repair kit (more on that later).

click images to enlarge

It is a day's drive from our place to Big Bend so Skip arrived the afternoon before with his spanking new foam cored, kevlar and fiberglass canoe. The next morning we drove to the Rio Grande.
At the Park headquarters diorama, Skip points out Mariscal Canyon, the biggest of the three canyons we will traverse. He was pretty excited about that and the canyon did not disappoint.

Day 1

The first night we spent at the Castolon campground. Unfortunately, floods earlier in the year had wiped out half the campsites. So our group had to double up. Skip's unusual boat draws a lot of attention - here a total stranger walked up and examined it closely. Of course Skip was not shy about showing it off.
After the shuttle, we get ready to shove off about noon. I built my Imresboat out of Luan since I had not heard about any others and Jim Michalak was uncertain about its performance. I was already regretting that - It had got a hole poked in it on an earlier river trip. Oh, well, I have epoxy and fiberglass. Look at all the gear in Skip's boat (center forground) and how low mine is in the water.
We had the only home made boats on the expedition. The rest ran the gamut from sit-on-top kayaks to more traditional canoes. Here are -LtoR- Kathleen Burgess, Dana Enos (80-something years young!), Terry Burgess, and our fearless leader, Louis Aulbach.
We made camp around mid-afternoon. Since I don't often get a chance to cook, I took this picture to show Sandra that I did not just eat everything cold. It is a skillet stew made from a Spam single with canned corn and freeze-dried beans - mmmmm.
After dinner I hiked around a bit. I was amazed at the extent of the recent flooding. This picture shows what was once a patch of cane which normally grows high along the river but which has been scrubbed almost clean. If you click the picture to enlarge it, you can see the river way below. The interesting thing is that most of the flood water came out of Mexico, entering the Rio Grande just above Big Bend via the Rio Concho at Presidio.
Sunset pictures are tough but you have to try. Everything about this area invites stares.

Day 2

Packing up the next morning. Paddlers know about dry bags - heavy plastic duffle bags that keep the water out of your gear. This one is clear which makes it much easier to see what is inside. On top of it is my new Spot satellite locator. I send several "I'm Ok" messages each day for the benefit of those who could not come but wanted to check on our progress. Click HERE for a Google Earth file that shows our route.

Some parts of the river are pretty sedate and we have to paddle. Sometimes there are riffles but nothing more than class II or so.

Linda Gorski (shown here) is the newsletter editor for the Houston Canoe Club and was trying a double paddle so I loaned her a paddle leash. I have found the things to be very helpful when getting in and out of your boat.

One great thing about traveling with Louis is that, being an amateur historian/archeologist, he knows a lot of interesting places to stop. Here we all pulled up to the bank and climbed the bluff to see what he had to show us. Terry takes a photo.

On top of the bluff we were treated to one of several medicine circles in the region. They are supposed to be authentic and I find it hard to imagine that anyone would go to the trouble to come way out here to perpetrate a hoax. Donna Grimes, John Rich and Dana (L-R) examine the artifact.

There are numerous riffles like this one along the river since it is pretty low. All the plastic boats were able to go bouncing over the rocks without worry - even Skip's boat seemed immune to damage. But I had a cheap plywood boat and I often walked the first day or two. Here the current takes the boat out in front as I hold the painter. You can see the other boats downriver. Later I learned to just back-paddle to go slow enough to avoid holing my boat.

When you have been paddling for a couple of days without seeing hardly any signs of human activity, this seems quite incongruous. It is a river level measuring station. The wire across the river is an old hand operated trolley, but in these days of homeland security, it does not get used much. I am told that the gondola is padlocked on the US side.

Temperatures ran as high at 95 degrees F during the say so it is not strange that John sought a cool bath as soon as we made camp. He did this most afternoons, putting most of the rest of us dirty birds to shame.
Besides his other projects, Louis is working on a river cookbook. Here he was fixing a white sause for the Tortilenni and asked me to take a picture for the book. Maybe it will be the cover picture? 
Time to eat!  Louis, John, Dana and Linda had organized into a food group and they cooked and ate together. They really put on the dog too! It is amazing that they can carry all that gear and food in their boats.
At a discreet distance, another group dines. L-R it is Ken Anderson, Donna, and Steve Beach.
Another after dinner walk revealed some of the biggest mud cracks I have ever seen - over a foot deep! Another legacy of the recent floods. Don't look at my foot - I warned you that some of us were getting dirty.

Day 3

Morning revealed more of the same beautiful vistas that we had been seeing all along. I never tire of this and in fact find the broader landscapes more inviting as views than the canyons sometimes.
About mid morning, Louis had us pull up to an otherwise indistinguisable bank.
Sure enough there were sights to see on top of the bluff. Here, an ancient automobile rusts away in the Texas sun as Donna looks on and Louis takes a picture.
Not far away was an old ranch house - now fallen into ruin, the dry stacked rock testament to a lot of determination and optimism.
Not far from the main house were some smaller buildings that Louis figures were helper's quarters.
It has been another hot day so when we stop around mid afternoon, Skip and I rig a sun shelter from a tarp and a couple of paddles.  We thougth we were pretty clever...
... but not as clever as the veterans who got busy building a much grander sunshade...
... and indeed, it was so inviting and so big that....
... we swallowed our pride and joined them - after all they had wine. L-R John, Donna, Linda, Dana...
... Terry and Kathleen. There was lots of shade.
Finally it was dinner time and as I got set to document my culinary efforts. As I got ready to take the picture, I noticed Skip with his back packing meal. Now Skip and I have paddled together quite a bit but I don't have a clue what this expression means. Maybe he was just mugging for the camera, but I like to think he was envious of my home cooked meal.

On to Part 2


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