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Rio Grande ride. Floating the towering canyons between two countries

A RIVER trip in the Big Bend has become an annual ritual for us. Every year we make the grueling drive from San Antonio, through hot, dusty south Texas towns and flat, boring terrain, just to spend a few hours on the muddy Rio Grande. Some people have wondered why. Perhaps it's the romance of the surroundings - the expanse of the sky stretching above the desert floor, the orange-red evening light that sculpts flat-topped mesas and rounded peaks. Or it may be the adaptability and ruggedness of plant and animal life that lure us again and again to this lonely, isolated river. Even more compelling may be the sense of paddling between two countries, of straddling the line between two ``worlds.''

Isolated and alluring

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Forming the border with Mexico, the Rio Grande stretches between El Paso in westernmost Texas and Brownsville at the state's southern tip. But it is only in the Big Bend area (where the river bends toward Mexico) that it presents a challenge to boaters. Here, the Rio Grande becomes one of Texas' most isolated and alluring stretches of river, at times ferociously pounding through canyons lined by sheer walls.

Having kayaked the Colorado Canyon last year - a challenging and popular half-day trip - my husband and I decided to try Boquillas Canyon this year. On this two-day, 33-mile trip, the river winds through the towering Boquillas Canyon, where the endangered peregrine falcon is known to nest. Unlike the upper canyons, Boquillas has tamer, Class II rapids, making it suitable for the family with youngsters who joined us on the trip.

The logistics for our river trips - especially an overnight one - in the Big Bend begin long before we see the water. A supply of drinking water is essential in this desert climate. Extra paddles and life jackets are required by the Big Bend National Park rangers who oversee river traffic.

A million miles from civilization

But the largest logistical challenge usually is to arrange transportation back to the car after we finish rafting. Last year, for the short Colorado Canyon trip, we hired someone from one of the local outfitters whose employees often serve as trip shuttlers. This year's shuttle was more difficult to arrange, because of the longer distance and paucity of roads. We were to begin at the Rio Grande campground and end on the Mexican side at the town of La Linda, two of the three places in the 33-mile stretch where the road approached the river. Only through the help of a friend, a Big Bend area resident, were we able to avoid having to drive several hours down to the takeout point to leave a car and then back up to the starting point.

Our equipment having been checked by the park rangers, and with the required river trip permit in hand, we set off from the Rio Grande campground for our two-day float. The muddy water was calm but swift as it carried us around the first bend. There, rising from the flat river plain, loomed the mountains through which the river snaked, carving out the Boquillas Canyon. The river banks rose steeply as we slid into the canyon. We would spend the next 24 hours in this narrow valley between cliffs which, in places, rose up to 1,200 feet, enclosing a calm, isolated world below. An occasional rapids gave us the chance to practice strokes, but most of the time we drifted along. A million miles from civilization it seemed, and not another raft in sight.

Darkness comes early to the canyons, so, in the waning afternoon sun, we looked for a campsite. Boaters often make the mistake of not camping high enough. Storms upstream or sudden cloudbursts can cause the river to rise suddenly; every year there are reports of hapless boaters drowning in flash floods. Finding a level spot up high against the base of the canyon wall, we settled down for the night.

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The first successful navigation of the Rio Grande occurred in the 1890s, later than other major United States rivers. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo between Mexico and the US had required that their mutual border be surveyed. In 1852, the boundary was surveyed but only one canyon was explored.

Many explorers tried to float the canyons and failed. Some sent wooden boats floating through, only to watch with dismay as the splintered remains came out the other side. The hardships imposed by the terrain hindered exploratory efforts. Mindful of the dangers, one adventurer wrote: ``Should we lose our boats and escape the canyons, what chance for survival should we have in crossing these merciless, waterless wastes of thorns for a hundred miles or more to food and succor?''

Conquered at last

In October 1889, a US Geological Survey team floated from Presidio to Langtry, successfully navigating the canyons. By this time, farming communities, dependent upon the water for irrigation, had sprung up along the river. Forts protected the settlements from attacks by the Comanche Indians. This last holdout of ``the frontier'' was populated by desperadoes, ranchers, and hardy adventurers.

In June 1944, the 708,221-acre Big Bend National Park was established and the bordering 118 miles of the Rio Grande were placed under park supervision. In 1978, an additional 127 miles downstream were declared the Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River and added to the park's watch. Today, Boquillas Canyon falls under this Wild and Scenic River designation.

The next day, after following the carved limestone canyon walls for several hours, we reluctantly emerged again to the flat river plain and hotter temperatures. We paddled past the Adams ranch (an optional stopping point) and on to the Mexican mining town of La Linda. There, beneath the bridge linking the two countries, we pulled out onto the Mexican side, loaded the boats, and began the long drive back home.

Practical information

In the Big Bend, the Rio Grande is divided into five trips, distinguished by their canyons: Colorado Canyon, an easy day trip between 9 and 21 miles depending on takeout and put-in. Santa Elena, one of the river's most spectacular trips, which, at 19 miles, can be either one or two days. Mariscal, a challenging one-day trip with difficult accessibility without a truck and a guide. Boquillas Canyon, a two-day trip, described above. Lower Canyons, the toughest the river offers and only for the experienced and hard camper. Five to 10 days are needed to cover the 94 miles.

Boater have three options: Bring equipment (inflatable raft, kayak, or canoe); rent at Lajitas Trading Post, PO Box 48, Lajitas, TX 79852, (915) 371-2234; or hire a guide service. The Rio Grande Guides Association, at (915) 371-2489, has a list of outfitters that can arrange trips from one to 10 days.

For all river trips within the Big Bend National Park (Colorado and the Lower Canyons are not), a required free permit can be obtained at any Park Ranger station. The Rangers will inspect your equipment and ask questions about your experience. A life jacket per person, extra paddles, a pump, and patch kit are required equipment. The Park Rangers also recommend a portable toilet, plenty of drinking water, and a firepan to use when building a campfire.

For additional information on trips and regulations, write or call: Superintendent, Big Bend National Park, TX 79834, (915) 477-2251. Recommended outfitters include Big Bend River Tours, at (915) 424-3219, and Far Flung Adventures, at (915) 371-2489. The Lajitas Trading Post, (915) 371-2234, will rent rafts. In addition to park campgrounds, accommodations can be found in Presidio and Marathon.

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