From its headwaters within the San Juan Mountains of Colorado’s Southern Rockies, the Rio Grande makes its means throughout New Mexico and into Texas, coursing by way of among the nation’s farthest flung landscapes. Probably the most famend and scenic space alongside the storied river’s almost two-thousand-mile path to the Gulf of Mexico is the rugged and mountainous Huge Bend nation, in far West Texas. 

Paddling the Rio Grande by way of deep limestone canyons within the distant reaches of this remoted and wild land makes for probably the most picturesque river journey the state has to supply. And I’ve wished to expertise the dramatic pure grandeur of such an journey for so long as I can bear in mind. The seeds of this dream had been first planted a long time in the past in, of all locations, the places of work of Bowmer, Courtney, Burleson, and Pemberton—my father’s legislation agency, in downtown Temple. There, adorning the hallways, had been placing sepia-toned black-and-white images of the Big Bend region

The photographs belonged to Bob Burleson, a associate on the agency and a faithful conservationist. He served on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Fee; based the Texas Explorers Membership, which helped foyer for the institution of Guadalupe Mountains Nationwide Park; headed the American Whitewater Affiliation (now American Whitewater); and coauthored Backcountry Mexico: A Traveler’s Information and Phrase E book. I not too long ago discovered that Burleson additionally wrote one of many early guides to paddling the Rio Grande by way of the Huge Bend, which was first printed serially within the American Whitewater Affiliation’s journal and later by the Nationwide Park Service. He even as soon as guided U.S. Supreme Court docket Justice William O. Douglas, one other dedicated conservationist, on a Rio Grande canoe journey within the early sixties and, later, steered him to different pure wonders throughout the state. These explorations would develop into the idea for Douglas’s 1967 e book Farewell to Texas: A Vanishing Wilderness. 

The attention-catching images of the mountains and gorges of the Huge Bend area, and the ribbon of river that carves its means by way of them, embedded in my childhood creativeness and have remained there for some fifty years. Not like Bob Burleson, nonetheless, I’m not an avid canoeist. I take pleasure in tenting, and I just like the water. However my paddling expertise is restricted to occasional afternoon excursions on the Guadalupe River, particularly throughout the summers when my daughter attended camp within the Hunt space, and on Girl Hen Lake, in downtown Austin. I grew up the youngest of three boys and trailed my center brother by seven years and my eldest by eight. I’ve heard tales and seen photographs of some canoe journeys that my dad and brothers took in Central Texas and Arkansas, however by the point I’d have been extra than simply whiny deadweight, such excursions had, sadly, come to an finish. 

This previous spring, I made a decision sufficient was sufficient. The time to embark upon an epic Rio Grande canoe journey by way of Santa Elena and the opposite towering canyons of Huge Bend had lastly arrived. The lengthy wait was over—or so I believed.

Contemplating my lack of actual expertise, coupled with my lack of a canoe, I made a decision to hunt knowledgeable clothes shop. However after inserting a couple of calls in March, I shortly realized that the present drought is very extreme within the Huge Bend area. The Rio Grande is struggling extraordinarily low flows and has utterly dried up in some areas. A number of of the guides I spoke with had begun limiting their outings to day journeys. 

A tip from a colleague led me to Mike Naccarato, at Far West Texas Outfitters. He had guided with one other Huge Bend–space service till March of 2021, when he set out on his personal, catering to smaller teams, providing top-notch eating choices, and offering custom-made experiences. Naccarato stated he was sport to take me on a visit. On the cellphone, we went over varied choices, with the river’s present situations entrance of thoughts. There have been actually no good choices within the Higher Canyons, in Huge Bend Ranch State Park nor in Huge Bend Nationwide Park, he stated. The Nice Unknown, a stretch within the nationwide park, was out. And Santa Elena Canyon, the preferred journey, a bucket-list vacation spot for a lot of canoeists and one which usually presents robust boomerang choices, was additionally out. It was so dry after we spoke that it was principally extra of a hike than a ship journey. 

However all was not misplaced. If we began a bit farther downstream, the place springs feed the Rio Grande, rising its circulation, we may do something from a four-day Boquillas Canyon run to the extra intense Decrease Canyons journey, thought-about probably the greatest canoe excursions within the U.S. The latter would require a seven- to ten-day dedication, so we determined to paddle simply the primary leg, a two-day, eleven-mile section that might take us by way of the majestic Temple Canyon. 

Naccarato packing up before hitting the water.
Naccarato packing up earlier than hitting the water.{Photograph} by Nick Simonite

Early on a stunning mid-April morning, close to the historic Gage Lodge, in tiny Marathon, Naccarato pulled up in his white four-door Toyota Tundra, loaded with two canoes, paddles and different gear, provisions, and a sackful of breakfast tacos. I’d enticed a buddy, Mark Harris, a former journal colleague, to affix me. He’d by no means made the journey both, so it didn’t take an excessive amount of arm-twisting to influence him.  

Mark and I introduced solely sleeping baggage, sunscreen, garments, and booze and beer. Naccarato took care of the remaining, together with dry sacks, meals, ice, water, and soft inflatable sleeping pads. He additionally packed a three-person tent, however due to the favorable climate forecast—clear with lows within the higher 50s—he didn’t suppose we’d want it. 

After driving south for about an hour from Marathon, we arrived at our put-in at Heath Canyon Ranch. Proper throughout the river, in Mexico, is La Linda, a ghost city comprising only a few deteriorating buildings—together with
a stark white church. Connecting the 2 international locations is a one-lane bridge in-built 1964 by Dow Chemical, which operated mines within the space. These shut down within the eighties, and the bridge was closed in 1997. On the Mexican aspect of the Rio Grande was a small encampment of parents having fun with the river—fishing, swimming, and boating. We waved at each other as our trio shoved off in our two canoes. Naccarato led, and Mark and I adopted behind. “I’m educated in wilderness superior first support,” our information stated reassuringly. “However we’re a protracted f—ing means from wherever, so don’t get damage.” I may have sworn I heard banjo music, however perhaps it was simply the wind.

The Temple Canyon run is a part of a 191-mile stretch of Rio Grande that holds the federal “Wild and Scenic River” designation, the one portion of the state’s roughly 185,000 miles of rivers so honored. Though typically overshadowed by the likes of Santa Elena Canyon, Temple is a phenomenal tour stuffed with pure wonders. Naccarato has not too long ago turned to this journey as a stable two- or three-day possibility for purchasers. 

One upside to the present low flows is that the water—the place there’s water—is way clearer than the Rio Grande’s standard butterscotch brown. This struck me after I first glimpsed the river, earlier than we launched. In opposition to the never-ending panorama of desert browns, its teal-green hue was welcoming, the water glowing and refreshingly cool underneath the rising and warming solar. 

Earlier than lengthy, we had been making our means by way of the excessive partitions of Heath Canyon, which introduced these long-ago photographs vividly to life: the sheer canyons; the craggy, mountainous terrain; the lechuguilla, ocotillo, sotol, yucca, and different Chihuahuan Desert flora. It was all there, unchanged.

Quickly we had been meandering by way of Horse Canyon. Alongside each banks, we noticed occasional indicators of feral horses and burros. Every now and then, we’d hear loud braying. Naccarato instructed us that burros had come proper as much as him at campsites. He wasn’t positive in the event that they had been simply curious or had develop into accustomed to snacks from river campers. 

The tempo was unhurried and stress-free. After a pair hours extra of paddling and floating and gawking on the magnificence, we stopped for a relaxation and a few lunch. Naccarato unpacked a small kitchen and set out a formidable unfold that included hummus and crackers, olives, a charcuterie-and-cheese board, sandwich fixin’s, and tangerines. 

Along with his spectacular lamb chop sideburns and an array of wildly diverse tattoos (together with the Main League Baseball brand on his thigh and the identify “Taylor Swift” in script over his coronary heart), Naccarato, who performed drums in Austin bands in his youthful years, appears the a part of a river information. He additionally boasts in depth back-of-house restaurant expertise and honed his cooking abilities when he co-owned a meals trailer that specialised in cheeseburgers and veggie burgers. 

In 2018 he mixed his canoeing and culinary skills for none apart from Anthony Bourdain, whom Naccarato accompanied on a visit along with his earlier employer by way of Santa Elena Canyon simply months earlier than the celebrated chef’s demise. “Thanks for exhibiting me this ludicrously wonderful place,” Bourdain would inform his guides on one of the final episodes of his standard tv present, Anthony Bourdain: Elements Unknown

As we proceeded, a slight headwind greeted us. Earlier than lengthy, we paddled by way of Driftwood Canyon, the place a powerful gust despatched a blinding however blessedly transient sandstorm throughout the river from the Mexican aspect. Such is paddling once you’re paddling by way of the desert. Apart from that short-lived squall, the wind wasn’t ever a lot of a difficulty. So untaxing was the physicality, in actual fact, that I’d sometimes catch Mark sitting for prolonged stretches along with his paddle throughout his lap, arms clasped behind his head, showing gobsmacked by the surroundings. “Hey, Cleopatra,” I barked at one level, after I felt that the meditative trance had gone on lengthy sufficient. “This barge ain’t gonna energy itself. Let’s get that paddle moist, huh!” 

The Rio Grande near Temple Canyon.
The Rio Grande close to Temple Canyon.{Photograph} by Nick Simonite

By mid-afternoon we’d reached the realm for which our run was named: Temple Canyon, so anointed by Robert T. Hill, the daddy of Texas geology, on his 1899 expedition down the Rio Grande. The limestone formation on the Mexican aspect resembles, with a bit creativeness, a temple of some kind perched atop the cliffs above. We discovered a sandbar immediately beneath it and arrange camp there. It was good: stunning, nicely shaded by the tall cliff on the U.S. aspect with water deep sufficient for a refreshing dip. Firewood was plentiful, although we saved our camp blaze small and contained inside an outdated fridge drawer Naccarato makes use of to attenuate the danger of sparks igniting the drought-ravaged brush round us (and for simple cleanup). 

We had been contained in the Black Hole Wildlife Administration Space, house to one of many state’s profitable desert bighorn sheep restoration projects. We spied some tracks, however Naccarato suspected they belonged to aoudads, ruminants that had been introduced from North Africa to zoos and exotic-game ranches in Texas and let free to flourish within the wild. Naccarato instructed of seeing them simply scale sheer cliffs. He additionally talked about that when climbing, they’ll typically set off a rockslide. I appeared straight up, then on the scattered rocks round us, and scratched my chin. Naccarato talked about {that a} pal of his had as soon as narrowly escaped such a slide. I appeared up once more.

Quickly, with a chilly beer in hand, I had moved on from darkish ideas of being pummeled to demise by falling boulders. The tenting situations had been superb, the setting was postcard good, and the corporate was good. Naccarato had arrange a latrine, began a hearth, and begun prepping dinner. The night time’s menu would come with grilled ribeye with spicy chimichurri sauce (which he ready on the spot), mushrooms, potatoes accented with sprigs of charred rosemary, and grilled asparagus zested with fire-roasted lemon. It was scrumptious. 

Because the solar set within the west, it majestically lit up the temple. We sat beneath it across the hearth on the riverbank, soaking it in, sipping tequila, and speaking. This journey had actually formed up, I believed. I used to be completely happy that I hadn’t been deterred by the dire studies I’d obtained after I made these preliminary calls. Ultimately, we lay our heads down on our pillows beneath a transparent sky (no tent required) and a vibrant gibbous moon that left the canyon nicely illuminated. I by no means even unpacked a flashlight. However for braying burros off within the distance, the night time was quiet. No rocks fell on us, and there weren’t even any bugs to talk of. Out right here in the midst of nowhere, underneath the temple on this stunning night time, I counted myself blessed.

Naccarato cooks breakfast before Day 2 on the river.
Naccarato cooks breakfast earlier than returning to the river.{Photograph} by Nick Simonite

The following morning, within the depths of the canyon, the unrelenting desert solar by no means blasted us immediately. The air was cool however not chilly, and earlier than I used to be out of my sleeping bag, I’d heard Naccarato rekindling the hearth and getting ready breakfast: cowboy espresso, eggs scrambled with potatoes and onion and cheese, crispy bacon, heat tortillas, sliced mango, and tangerines. After breakfast a wild turkey devoured a greeting from throughout the river. I took an eye-opening dip within the chilly water after which packed up. We launched the canoes for a three-hour paddle previous Bourland Canyon to our rendezvous with Naccarato’s shuttle driver on the Maravillas Creek take-out. 

The situations had been once more superb, and the going was straightforward. We noticed a couple of of the turtles often known as Huge Bend sliders, heard extra burros, and encountered nary one other human.

Quickly, we’d loaded up and loved a lunch of cheese, charcuterie, sandwiches, and fruit on the tailgate of the truck. After which we had been rumbling up the tough gravel street out of Black Hole and again to the place we’d put in. The journey was solely about twenty miles, but it surely took a stable hour due to the tough terrain. Again in Marathon, we thanked Naccarato for a splendid journey and stated our farewells. We checked into the luxurious Gage Lodge and headed for its swimming pool after which its White Buffalo Bar. We’d return to Austin the next day, however the journey, in fact, has stayed in my ideas. 

The seeds that had been planted in my boyhood by these timeless images of faraway West Texas within the halls of my dad’s legislation agency had been mendacity dormant for many years. Now they’ve lastly germinated. I’m as sure that I’ll be again for future river journeys to different elements of the Huge Bend space as I’m hopeful that the unrelenting drought will lastly launch its stranglehold and that there’ll as soon as once more be water to paddle on the attractive Rio Grande. Who cares if it’s muddy?

This text initially appeared within the July 2022 subject of Texas Month-to-month with the headline “A Grande Journey.” Subscribe today.

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