This is from a river trip I (Dirk) did in November of 2004 in the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande. The trip was for Adventure Club San Antonio, which was my business at the time. It is a trip report written by our friend Marc McCord with Southwest Paddler. We decided to repost it here as a guest post. It’s been retold countless times for over a decade now and is worth sharing. What a crazy trip!
We departed San Antonio at around 9 am on Friday, November 12, 2004, and headed west for our rendezvous with Mike Scott at Scott Shuttle Service in Marathon. Arriving at around 3:30 p.m., we picked up our shuttle drivers and headed south for the Heath Canyon Ranch off FM 2627, stopping at the Stillwell Store to pick up our permit, use a flush toilet for the last time in ten days, resupply our ice and make all final preparations for the trip of a lifetime. By about 6 p.m., we had set up our camp and begun to cook our dinner, then sat around our campfire and discussed the coming days’ events. Our group consisted of 12 paddlers in 9 canoes and a solo expedition kayak. Members of the group included Kelly Covington, Fred Frazier, Tommy Walden, Scott Dillon, Lee Florian, Randy Barcalow, Anthony Berry, Tony Rico, Shannon Theriot, Spanky (last name unknown), Dirk Davidek and myself. Fred, Spanky, Tommy, Dirk and I all have substantial experience on whitewater rivers and wilderness trips. The others had varying degrees of experience, but were eager for a very special adventure, and everybody proved to be equal to the task. Group dynamics were excellent, with everybody contributing whenever was needed to make it a great experience.
On Saturday morning it was very cool and damp, but not raining. The wind was moderately fierce, and made for hard paddling, especially for those with less experience. My whitewater canoe felt like a fully loaded barge, but it responded fairly well under the circumstances. However, we got started a little later than planned (that happens with those not really ready for wilderness trips) and did not reach our first planned campsite, but we found a suitable place to stay the night on the Mexican side. We ran a few small rapids, but nothing of any consequence. Sunday brought less wind, but more moisture in the air, and it started to rain a little near the end of the day. Being behind from our first day, we again did not make it to our intended campsite, but we found “Dead Cow Campground” on the Texas side (so named because of the dead cow carcass and hide that was about 25 feet from my tent.) My greatest fear was that the guy snoring in the tent closest to mine would awaken the cow. We cooked up one of Charlie Goff’s briskets and served it with potato salad, barbeque baked beans and whole wheat rolls.
Monday morning was quite cool and moist with just a light rain, and we made up our minds to get back on schedule so we paddled all the way to Hot Springs Rapid (Class III to IV) at about 40 miles, one of the three major drops on the 83.5 miles of our trip. On this day and in low water conditions the rapid was a solid Class III, but fairly easy to negotiate. I was running safety sweep, which means that I was the last boat in the group, but when we approached the rapid I was elected to run first to show everybody the line. It was a very exciting ride, after which I got the pleasure of taking Scott’s boat down because he doubted his skill to successfully negotiate the run. Little did he know what awaited downriver about 15 miles! I nearly got to run a third boat, but Lee beat me to it, running Anthony and Randy’s boat. He did not want me having all the fun! Dirk paddled Tony and Shannon’s boat after running his own through the rapid.
We camped on Monday night at Hot Springs Rapid on the Mexican side, and enjoyed the warm waters and a bath after three days. We dined on Dinner Bell Ranch jalapeno sausage, new potatoes, red beans and rice and garlic bread. The skies opened up on us on Monday night and continued until about 1 p.m. on Tuesday after raining very hard all night and most of Tuesday morning. The water rose about a foot overnight, and continued to rise at a rate of about a foot per hour for several hours. We were trapped by fast rising water and it scared the crap out of many of the lesser paddlers (well, okay, it scared the crap out of me, too!) We ended up camping in Mexico for five nights while waiting for the water to stop rising.
For the first three days at Hot Springs we did not know that we were sharing the springs with two water mocassins and some watersnakes. They never bothered us, and we only saw them by accident. When I tried to get close enough to photograph them they scattered and hid in rocks. They must have seen that woman with the club in the B.C. comic strip, because they definitely avoided any human contact. We saw numerous birds, a few bighorn sheep and some cows, but little else in the way of animal life. Our four days and five nights at Hot Springs were one major party. When the skies were clear we had a beautiful, star-filled ceiling accentuated by a half moon. Unfortunately, about half our nights had cloudy skies that obscured the heavens.
On Wednesday afternoon, I conducted an impromptu safety class to orient everybody to the correct procedures for self rescue and rope rescue techniques. It was obvious that such awareness would probably be needed for the rest of the trip. We continued to watch the river flow, dropping a little then rising again throughout Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. By Saturday morning we knew that we had to go. We still had over half our trip to run and only a day and a half in which to do about the same distance we covered in the first three days. It appeared that the rise was over, though the river was a raging torrent. The Rio Grande Village gauge read 2.3 feet when we departed Heath Canyon Ranch on Saturday morning, but it was at about 12.5 feet at both Rio Grande Village and Dryden Pass on Friday, then 7.5 feet at Rio Grande Village and 13.26 feet at Dryden when we left Hot Springs. My GPS tracked us at nearly 9 mph when we first launched, and I was not even paddling.
Then, we came to Upper Madison Falls Rapid, normally a Class III drop that escalates to Class IV in high water conditions. On Saturday, it was a solid Class IV+, and there was nowhere to stop and scout, line the boats through the rapid or portage, so our ONLY option was to suck it up and run it. Being the safety boat, I did not get to witness all the carnage in front of me. I saw the guy directly in front of me flip, then I saw every other boat in our group upside down with paddlers in the very fast current swimming for their lives and trying to recover their boats. Everybody said that the third wave (of 22 total) flipped them. The waves were 6-7 feet tall and coming from all directions. I made it through the third one, but the fourth turned me sideways and the fifth flipped me like a piece of paper. I honestly thought that we had all paddled our last river.
The first guy to flip was Freddie who managed to get his boat upright and climb back inside, then proceeded to help others recover. A few had chosen bad lines that, fortunately, took them to the Mexican bank, and they were able to get out of the river in about a half mile. I was running close to the Texas wall and got angled toward the middle, so I swam about two miles or more before I could recover and get back into my swamped canoe, at which time I had to start bailing and pumping to get water out so I could control it. I had already swam Upper and Lower Madison Falls and was about to enter another less intense rapid full of water and completely out of control. I ended up about 3+ miles downriver and more than a mile further than anybody else.
Kelly abandoned his boat to fight his way back upstream through the reeds, cactus and brush to help out Spanky, who had a painter wrapped around both feet with no one else upstream. Spanky and Shannon eventually were able to get to their feet on a reed island and then get back to their boats. When Kelly was reunited with his boat where Lee and Dirk had coralled it, he saw it as a brand new boat because he was sure his was history. Everybody recovered and we only lost a couple of paddles plus a few inconsequential things, but Freddie, and who helped almost everybody else recover, got to the side and had a major heart attack. We were about 25 miles from our take-out with no way to call for help and no way for help to arrive.
Some fishermen downstream from us saw some gear floating downriver and boarded a jet-drive powered jonboat to see if anybody needed help. I was safely out of the river with all my gear and clothing, standing on a solid rock slab, so I sent them upriver to check on everybody else. A little later, they returned with Freddie and Shannon heading for our take-out. Shannon is a veterinarian and is skilled in First Aid and CPR. She was also scared, so she went with him and helped get him to the hospital in Fort Stockton. They could not possibly have had better timing, as we had not seen another sign of human life in 8 days. Their presence saved many hours in getting Freddie to the hospital. Eventually, the others came down to where I was and we pitched camp on a bluff overlooking the river, then hastily cooked a meal while drying off and changing into warm, dry clothing.
On Sunday morning we still had about 24-25 miles left to cover that day, and it included a couple of serious rapids, though none nearly like what was behind us. The water had dropped about 7-8 feet overnight where we were camped, but we still had a great current and it was plenty deep. Our first major obstacle was the Class III Panther Rapid less than two miles below our camp. Some of the paddlers were very concerned after what had transpired the previous day. We pulled over to scout the drop and ended up stepping into quicksand that sucked us down about three feet. We were able to help each other out of it, but were muddy from top to bottom, and had to go back through it after scouting the rapid from a high bluff on the Texas side. All the others chose the less arduous left channel along the Texas wall, but I really wanted to wash off the mud so I chose the right side line along the Mexican wall and had a wild ride that was plenty wet, but I came out nearly clean.
The day was cool and overcast when we started, but it warmed up by late morning and I was shedding protective clothing. We had some very tired and scared paddlers in the group who had to be shepherded downriver, frequently somewhat sternly. I kept telling one guy that he just had to forget the pain, suck it up and paddle like his life depended upon it. San Francisco Rapid (Class II to III), about 6 miles below Panther Rapid, was the last of the major drops we would encounter and everybody made it relatively easily. We made it to Dryden Pass in about 5 hours and found our vehicles, one with a flat tire on our trailer. We unloaded boats, slogged our way through deep Rio Grande Mud (with apologizes to ZZ Top) to carry boats and gear up a steep hill, loaded everything, cleaned up a little and changed into dry clothing for our return trip home.
It turned out that Freddie had two blocked arteries and they could not perform surgery on him in Fort Stockton. With bad weather they could not airlift him to Odessa, so they had to drive him there in an ambulance. By the time we got off the river he was out of surgery and recovery, and wanting to go home, but they kept him for a few days. He is now home and recovering nicely. Shannon was in a motel room in Sanderson, so we went there to get her and called the hospital to check on Freddie. His wife was already in Odessa, and he could not leave, so we found a place to eat, then hit the road for home.
This was the very best river trip I have ever taken, and had it not been for Freddie’s heart attack it would have been perfect. Everybody said that, despite the thrills, spills and scares, they would like to do it again! A state trooper in our group actually told me that he would rather be in a gunfight than to ever run the Lower Canyons again (he has since changed his mind, hopefully on BOTH accounts.) It put serious fear in him even though he was uninjured and lost nothing. It was his first wilderness trip, but he now says that he is ready to do it again.
For me, all that was missing was a hot bodied woman to keep me warm on those cold, rainy days and nights. We ate Charlie Goff’s mesquite smoked peppered bacon every morning, and had some of his brisket, pit ham and jalapeno sausage for four dinners. On the other nights we had beef and chicken fajitas, pot roast, grilled chicken breasts and ribeye steaks, each with plenty of vegetables and trimmings. I may have actually gained weight on this trip. Hopefully, I will have another opportunity to run this most excellent trip again soon. A few of us are already discussing a 30-day trip of about 285 miles from Presidio above Colorado Canyon down to Langtry below the Lower Canyons. As far as I am concerned, that is just about the only way we will ever top this trip. It was truly an incredible ride!
Thanks to our paddling buddy Marc McCord for helping plan a great trip, for writing about it, and for allowing us to share it here.