If you want to float the Rio Grande through Santa Elena Canyon, the place to put in is Lajitas. If you ever saw the movie ‘Lonesome Dove,’ you’ve got a pretty good idea what Lajitas looks like, except without Robert Duval. It’s not a large town, but it does have a really fine hotel called the Lajitas Resort & Spa. Unfortunately the golf course washed away a few years ago when the river came down, but they’re working on that.
The boys and I had less than a case of bottled water for our trip, so I decided we needed some more. We found a store in Lajitas and bought four gallons of water, and went looking for ice. We walked into the lobby of the hotel and asked where we could get some, and the receptionist said, “I’ll get you some. How much do you need?” I allowed a couple of bags should do, and she disappeared. She came back in a few minutes and gave me two bags of ice. I offered to pay her, but she declined.
In retrospect, I guess she thought we were actually staying at the Lajitas Resort & Spa, and therefore gave me the ice. Also in retrospect, I probably should have told her we were not guests. In which case, we probably could not have gotten the ice at all, which is why I didn’t tell her we weren’t guests. But I did say thank you. Twice.
While we were putting our boats in the river, just north of the hotel, a large group of Boy Scouts showed up to put in. I estimated there were about 4786 of them. They had a dozen canoes, and barely enough gear to outfit Patton’s Third Army. We hurriedly loaded our boats and pushed off, with my wife promising she would pick us up the next day a mile south of the canyon. I was skeptical. She looked quite relieved to be getting rid of us.
The boys all chose to float in kayaks, Paden in a Cobra sit-on-top, and Courtland and Leret in Old Town Loons. I recently bought an Old Town solo canoe from my friend, Rich Shoemaker, so I took that. Naturally, since the boys’ kayaks had little room for gear, I ended up carrying most of our stuff. And we had almost as much as the Boy Scouts. It was all Courtland and I could do to lift my boat, and Courtland said he expected it to sink as soon as we put it in the water. It didn’t, but I think a few more pounds would have done it. I determined to carefully watch out for icebergs.
About a mile from the put-in we came to the first actual rapids, where the river made a sharp right turn at a rock wall. The boys all got through fine, but I managed to turn over and had, in the vernacular, a ‘garage sale.’ The boys helped me gather my stuff from the river that hadn’t been tied down, but I lost all four gallons of the water I had just bought in Lajitas. Which left us with less than a case of water. I told the boys not to worry, as I had brought along some water purification tablets. They looked at the muddy river, looked back at me, and shook their heads.
Somewhere along the way a group outfitted, and guided, by Far Flung Adventures passed us. There were four people in two canoes, plus a guide in one canoe loaded up with all the gear. It’s difficult to paddle a loaded two-man canoe alone, so what the guides do is stand up in their boats and pass people like me, who can’t keep a canoe afloat sitting down, in order to embarrass us. It works pretty well.
Later we saw the same group, stopped on a rocky bank, having their luncheon. They had chairs and two tables, complete with tablecloths, and what looked like a really nice feed going on. The boys asked me what we were having for dinner, and I gave them some jerky. They looked at me, again, the way they did when I told them about the water purification tablets.
We got to our campsite, at the entrance to the canyon, about mid afternoon, and laid our tent and other gear out to dry. Most of it blew away periodically, and we had to chase it down and bring it back. When we set up the tent we had to put large rocks inside in the corners, or else it would have blown away. With us in it.
Fires were prohibited, (no permits) so we used a Coleman stove to heat water and make our supper – Mountain House freeze-dried beef stew and chicken teriyaki. That stuff is not bad, even without a tablecloth. As we ate our supper and stared at the walls of Santa Elena Canyon looming above us, I wondered about Rockpile Rapids, and whether any of us would survive the next day. And then the wind died when it got dark and we were getting ready for bed, and I wondered if any of us would survive the night. The gnats came in clouds, and it looked like they all had little bibs tied around their necks.
We took refuge in our tent, which was approximately 450 degrees inside, and tried to get some rest. If the river didn’t come down and wash us away, and if bandits didn’t carry us off during the night, we were hitting the canyon in the morning.
At least, when I turned my boat over, I hadn’t lost the River Potty . . .
Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and public speaker who knows just enough Spanish to order huevos rancheros. Write to him at PO Box 1600, Mason, Texas 76856 or firstname.lastname@example.org