Monday, November 9, 2009

Rio Grande - Epilogue

Left click on any photo to enlarge.

We arose fairly early on Monday morning, determined to enjoy some of the Chisos Basin sites (and sights) before leaving for San Antonio. The Basin Loop Trail provided a perfect start to the day, and we were headed there by 7:00, just as the sun was rising. Despite Mike's misgivings about my shortcut to the trail, remembered from my honeymoon thirty-two years earlier, we located the trail just past the old stone cottages, which date from WPA days. The trail makes a loop of about 1.75 miles and connects the beginnings of the Pinnacles Trail (which is where we started) and the Laguna Meadows Trail. It gave us a good view of the Window (which is framed by Carter Peak on the left and Vernon Bailey Peak on the right), as seen above with Zoltan and Mike, and of the mountains which ring the Basin.

A Rufous-Sided Towhee entertained us for a while, or perhaps we were its morning diversion.

We spent a leisurely ninety minutes on the hike, and were rewarded towards the end with this view of the sun rising over Toll Mountain and Casa Grande behind us (note the shadows) and striking the Window and the Chihuahuan Desert beyond. The short hike left us ready for some food. The breakfast buffet at the Lodge Restaurant hit the spot, after which we packed our gear and checked out of the motel room.

We then drove down to the Basin Campground parking lot, and walked the short distance from the lot to the trailhead for the Window Trail. From there, the trail descends through Oak Creek Canyon, dropping about 450 feet in elevation over a distance of 2.2 miles to our destination - the pour-off at the Window. We started down the trail around 10:00. Here is Mike on the trail, with a century plant above him and Carter Peak in the background.

A colorful grasshopper along the trail. Where the dirt was softer on the trail, we saw tracks for a much larger animal, either a mountain lion or a black bear.

Above us were the moon, Vernon Bailey Peak, and a century plant.

Here we are at the end of the trail, with the narrow pour-off at the Window just a few steps behind us. It had taken us about an hour and a quarter to reach the Window. This is the sole drainage for all of the Chisos Basin. Although dry when we arrived, there are times when a waterfall will descend from here.

The view through the Window.

After spending about thirty minutes enjoying the view, occasional solitude (two fellows from Louisiana were there when we arrived, and a young German couple joined us after those two had left), and a snack, we headed back up the trail. As you can see from the photo above, the trail is very well maintained, particularly towards the end where it runs along (and sometimes in) Oak Creek.

There were occasional small pools of water, and even a few tiny waterfalls, along this bottom part of the trail.

About a quarter mile back up the Window Trail, the Oak Spring Trail branches off and climbs up the north side of the Window along the shoulder of Vernon Bailey Peak. I had started up this trail more than thirteen years earlier when I had last visited Big Bend with the family, but had turned back after just a few minutes because of wifely reminders about time constraints. Now I was determined to proceed at least far enough to catch a view of the desert floor beyond the Window, although I was under strict orders from Mike as to when his truck would be departing the Basin on its way back to San Antonio (hopefully with me in it). Since I didn't have a watch, I had to rely upon my wilderness experience and old Native American tricks to determine the time from the angle of the sun, the shadows on the distant mountain ranges, the grunting of javelinas, the scurrying of lizards, and the lack of moss on the desert plants. As a last resort, I instead went deep into my digital camera's settings to see the time and date, only to discover that it was thirteen months behind. So I hurried a little faster as I climbed up the Oak Spring Trail.

The view west as the trail curved around the shoulder of Vernon Bailey Peak was as nice as I had hoped.

With the Window directly below me to the left, the look south afforded me a view of the Mesa de Aguila and its counterpart on the Mexican side of the river, Sierra Ponce. It is across this uplifted fault block that the Rio Grande has carved the impressive Santa Elena Canyon. I believe that the mesa is the second-to-last, darker ridge line on the horizon, shown in these two photos. I also thought I spotted a gap in the mesa, the entrance to the canyon. That feature is not quite visible in the photos.

This is the view looking back to the east and into the Basin. The line running along the bottom of the photo from the left to the center is Oak Spring Trail. I had ventured off the trail to get as close as possible to a point directly above the Window.

As I climbed back up the Window Trail, I took this last photo of Casa Grande.

A Roadrunner scurried along in front of me as I walked through the campground after leaving the Window Trail.

When I reached the campground parking lot a good half hour before the deadline, I discovered that Mike and Zoltan had already retrieved the boat trailer from where we had left it at the Lodge and were ready to head home. Their patience was most admirable.

Note: For an additional 20 photos of our last day in Big Bend, click on this link to my Flickr page, then select "Slideshow."

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Rio Grande - Day 3

Although the sky had started to look somewhat threatening the night before, we awoke to another beautiful day on Sunday morning. And with my tent positioned properly with regard to the primary snorers, I had slept well - even without my earplugs.

Eddie finds a way to stir his morning coffee as Cynthia, Zoltan, and Sandra take notes.

Even the groover was set up with its own view of the river. One of the great advantages of using an outfitter was not having to worry about who would have the honor of carrying this precious cargo. That was especially important to those of us in canoes, as we are the usual nominees, at least in the eyes of the haughty kayakers.

We were headed downstream by around 9:30 in the morning. Our plan was to arrive at La Linda by noon and have lunch there while we waited for the shuttle to arrive.

Sandra and her over-sized load leading the pack. One of the first signs of "civilization" we had seen in two full days were these remains of an abandoned mining operation, including a cable spanning the river with this bucket resting on the Mexican side.

Three kayakers drafting a cliff face.

These tumbleweeds showed how high the water level had been a few weeks earlier.

Zoltan shows off his bent-shaft paddle.

With the sound of rapids ahead, Susan attaches her spray skirt.

I think Zoltan was trying to raise the river level before running the Pillow Rock rapid.

This long ridge accompanied us almost all of the way to La Linda.

Mike enjoying the scenery.

We crossed under the now-closed bridge at La Linda and arrived at the takeout safe and (mostly) sound.

While our guides prepared another nice lunch, we enjoyed a few cold ones and posed for this group photo sans Mike, who was behind the lens.

River Report: The water level was just about right for an easy paddling trip. The river moved along pretty well, and the few rapids were easily navigated. On only a few occasions was it necessary to get out of the canoe and drag it for a few yards to deeper water. Based on the USGS gauge at Boquillas campground, the river was running at about 265 cfs when we launched late Friday morning. It declined steadily over the next two days, and the rate was about 235 cfs at Boquillas when we reached La Linda. Just three days before we put in at Rio Grande Village, the river had peaked at 860 cfs. A week before that, it was at least twice that. There had been some substantial releases from the Luis Leon Reservoir on the Rio Conchos in Mexico.

The shuttle returned us to Terlingua. Except for Cynthia, Susan, and Sandra, who departed from La Linda in Cynthia's vehicle, which had been driven along with the shuttle bus to La Linda, and headed straight back to San Antonio and Austin. From Terlingua, Eddie and Joline departed for San Antonio in his truck. Unlike the others, Mike, Zoltan, and I were determined to spend another night in Big Bend. We had reservations for a motel room at the Chisos Mountains Lodge in the Chisos Basin.

The three of us drove in Mike's truck, towing my trailer loaded with two canoes and three kayaks. Why so many boats? Joline had brought two kayaks, a smaller one in case we ended up paddling through Santa Elena Canyon as originally planned, and the longer one actually used for our Boquillas Canyon trip. And we were also carrying my Dagger Delta kayak, which Sandra had borrowed for the trip.

The photo above is of Casa Grande viewed from the west through The Window, taken at about 5:30 p.m. from Highway 118/385 as we drove from Terlingua towards Basin Junction.

We reached the Basin right at sunset, around 6:00 p.m. We pulled over for a few minutes to look up at Casa Grande (photo to right) and then, just a minute later, admired the colorful sunset as viewed down through The Window.

After checking in at the Lodge, we drew straws to see who would get to go first for what we had been looking forward to all day - a warm shower. Although I went last, there was still plenty of hot water. After finishing our last beers, we enjoyed a nice dinner at the Lodge Restaurant. Then it was off to sleep. I volunteered for the roll-away bed, which was a mistake, as the floor would have been better. Although I was serenaded by Zoltan's wall-shaking bass and Mike's vibrant and equally loud baritone, the snoring in stereo did not prevent me from getting a good night's sleep. I must have been really tired.

Note: For another fifteen photos of Day 3, click on this link to my Flickr page, then select "Slideshow."

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Rio Grande - Day 2 - Later

Note: Left click on any photo to enlarge.

From Rabbit Ears, we continued on downstream for a little over two hours. Along the way, we exited Boquillas Canyon. Here is my last photo in the canyon.

We arrived at our campsite, this time on the Mexican side of the river, around 4:00. The river distance covered by us on this day was about 11 miles, leaving us with only about 8 miles to paddle on Sunday to the takeout at La Linda.

Susan and I took a short hike up above the river before dinner. This photo shows a mountain which had been part of the scenery ever since we left the canyon. Susan claimed that it looked like an elephant's head, with the small gap at the top defining the space between its ears. I guess you had to be there.

I'm not sure, but the sunlit gap in the mountains may well be the exit from Boquillas Canyon we had passed through earlier.

I'll refrain from any comparisons.

Joline, Zoltan, Eddie, Cynthia, Sandra, Susan, and Mike, a/k/a The Magnificent Seven, enjoy our dinner of shrimp fettucini alfredo. We were really roughing it.

The sun set behind the Sierra del Carmen.

Note: For seven additional photos of Saturday afternoon, click here and then select "Slideshow."

Rio Grande - Day 2 - Rabbit Ears

We beached our boats on the Mexican bank at around 11:00, across the river from the distinctive rock formation that gives this post its title. The Mexican side featured a broad, flat area, perfect for a lunch stop. But before eating, we had some exploring to do.

Since it would be impolite, we won't mention how the group left me behind while I retrieved my camera from the canoe, or how Eddie (who decided to stay with the boats) pointed me in the wrong direction as I hurried after them. Suffice it to say that my scramble up a steep hill, and then back down when I finally spotted the correct path, featured some close encounters with cacti and other sharply pointed flora which didn't seem to share my difficulties with the loose footing and dislodged rocks. Once safely down, I snapped this photo of the river and, in the background, Zoltan's canoe tethered to our trusty Dagger Dimension.

At least Joline waited for me at the entrance to the narrow side canyon into which the others had disappeared. She helped boost me up the narrow funnel-like opening in the rocks which led up into the canyon proper. The rock surface had been made smooth and slick over the ages by water racing through the canyon to join the Rio Grande. Joline had hiked up this canyon on a previous trip, and decided to head back down to the boats so that she and Eddie could trade tall tales about river trips and dance steps.

The view looking out of the canyon entrance back towards the Rio Grande and the sunlit cliffs on the U. S. side of the river.

I finally caught up with the rest of the group as they were working their way up some boulders blocking the stream bed. Mike was able to negotiate the obstruction thanks to much "helpful" advice from Susan. Sandra posed for a shot in one of the more open areas of the narrow canyon.

Cynthia tries unsuccessfully to keep her distance from Zoltan and Mike.

The paddlers climb another obstruction.

A female Monarch butterfly was kind enough to pose for a picture.

The walls of the canyon rose up steeply on each side.

Deep shadows alternated with intense sunlight.

After about 45 minutes of hiking into the canyon, Prester signaled that it was time to turn around and head back down to the river for lunch. It would have been nice to continue up the narrow, dry stream bed to see if and how it climbs up to the mesas it drains. Maybe next time.

Mike showing off his battle scars from the rocky climb and descent.

The setting really lent itself to vertical shots.

Cynthia and Mike cautiously descended the rocks where I had caught up with the group on the way up into the canyon.

Sandra made a leap of faith. Then Mike got to instruct Susan - a real role reversal - as Yvette kept a careful eye on her charges.

Susan seemed to enjoy the spectacle. Mike held the way open for the group, but Sandra apparently was not overly impressed.

It took us about thirty minutes from our turnaround point back to the canyon entrance (or exit).

One last look back into the canyon, and a shot of me at the entrance.

Looking back towards the canyon entrance.

The view back upstream from our lunch spot.

Yvette and Prester clean up the "kitchen" after another great meal, while others take photos or wander around aimlessly.

Joline and Sandra led the way as we got back onto the river.

Rabbit Ears towered silently over us as we paddled past. How many visitors had these rocks watched glide by in the past?

Note: For an additional 49 photos of our stop at Rabbit Ears, click on this link to my Flickr page.