At the risk of becoming too comfortable with scheduling only two activities a day during our destination stay, our last full day before moving on from Big Bend presented an opportunity to squeeze in three. That’s right…we were going for the hiking hat-trick!
By rights, we were being overly ambitious—biting off far more than we should ever chew—but as we’ve found since starting out, time is not our friend. Not to be melodramatic, but we may never pass this way again…and if we do (whether in this life or as Shirley MacLaine), it may not be with the same get-up-and-go. So, while we still can, we will continue to fool our bodies into believing we are first-round draft picks.
Typically, before dropping anchor, we’ll have researched most meaningful possibilities in our area. Then we’ll cherry pick around our common interests based on associated cost (we’re on a budget!), reasonability (is it safe and sane?), and time (is there enough of it?). By adopting this strategy, we’ve managed to stay focused and in sync.
But on this particular day, we agreed, “Who cares what it costs! This is totally insane! We’ll never have enough time! So, let’s do it!” On this day, we would canoe down the Rio Grande and hike through Slot Canyon while at Big Bend Ranch State Park, then return next door to Big Bend National Park for a backcountry drive to Santa Elena Canyon, hike the Santa Elena Canyon Trail, and return through the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.
Two days earlier, we reserved with Angell Expeditions for a Sunday float. For many, the holy grail is to raft through Santa Elena Canyon in the shadow of its 1500 feet canyon walls while attacking Class IV rapids. However, local outfitters were eschewing the Santa Elena junction put-in due to historically low water levels.
Instead, we agreed on a canoe trip through Dark Canyon in the State Park—not nearly as dramatic as the former—but at least we’d be floating on water, rather than pulling our boat across it.
We put in at Madera Canyon at 10:30 am.
And found we had the whole river to ourselves.
It was Mike, our river guide in one boat and us—with Leah at the bow and me at the helm—in the other.
The air temperature was equal to the water temperature at about 75°, and the wind was at our backs. It could not get any better, or be any easier…until we reached the first of three technical skill zones.
While not exactly Class IV water, the rocks and current still made the run challenging and fun. To avoid tipping the canoe, Mike had us stop each time to survey the water. We walked the shoreline, and watched how the fast-moving water was running in order to plan our route. After easily demonstrating the turns in his own canoe, Mike ceded the river to us to try for ourselves.
First time out, Leah panicked. “I’m not doing that. It’s too soon to go swimming. I’d rather walk it.”
“C’mon, Leah,” trying to encourage her. “It’ll be fun.”
“Not with you steering, it won’t!” she bellowed. “I’m not getting wet. Why don’t you do it with Mike.”
Mike agreed. With me in front, and Mike at the helm, we glided between the rocks, and sailed through the water effortlessly.
“See,” I crowed, “that wasn’t so bad.”
“Sure thing.” Leah was unimpressed. “I’ll do the next one,” she offered with uncertainty.
After 30 minutes of lazy floating, it was show-time yet again. We repeated the same set-up procedure as before, and Mike made it look just as easy as before, but these rapids were faster and rockier, and required more finesse.
“With this one,” Mike warned, “it’s very easy to capsize, so if you feel the boat tipping, just step out onto the rocks.
“No problem,” I mustered.
“Yeah, right!” Leah mocked.
We valiantly headed into the white water, picking up momentum, and following all of Mike’s directions perfectly.
“I don’t know about this,” Leah yelled.
“Just keep your paddle out of the water, and I’ll guide us through,” I yelled back.
I zigged when and where I was meant to zig, and zagged at the appropriate time and place, until…
“LOOK OUT!” Leah screamed.
…a very large boulder suddenly jumped directly in the path of the canoe, spoiling my perfect run. The boat got caught up on the rocks, turning it sideways just as Mike predicted, and the rushing water was forcing the boat over.
“DO SOMETHING!” Leah screamed.
So, I stepped out as instructed—keeping the boat steady—and pushed it through the last turn, while Leah traveled like Cleopatra.
“I’ll have you know that I had nothing to do with that. You told me to keep my oar out of the water, so it’s not my fault.” she gloated.
“It must be nice to be blameless and dry,” I said to myself.
With the wind gusting at 20 mph, we were quickly approaching the take-out area, yet it was only 12:30 pm. The tailwind had cut our expected float time in half.
“Is that it?” asked Leah.
“End of the line,” confirmed Mike. “This is where the truck is parked.”
Feeling badly, Mike added, “I know it seemed like a short trip, but if you’d like, we could head up to Slot Canyon and do a hike. It’s not like it’s out of my way.”
Leah and I exchanged glances. We had intended to hike the canyon on our own anyway.
“Absolutely,” said Leah.
So, we got in the truck and followed Mike over the mountain, on the way to our second goal.