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Down the River Without a Canoe - Part 3
Wednesday, April 8, 2009 • Posted April 8, 2009

The tent the boys and I used on our Rio Grande River trip was given to us several years ago, brand new in the box. It was a lousy tent, its finest attribute that it wasn’t too big. So when Robert, one of the guides taking some Boy Scouts down the river, came over to our camp to visit, I made a trade with him for our tent. I told him if he would take it down, he could have it. Rio Grande River guides must not be too smart, because he agreed.

My evident benevolence produced the desired side effect – Robert offered to give us some of the Boy Scouts’ water, since we were getting low. They had brought enough water with them so that, should the river dry up, they could empty their jugs into the riverbed and float right on down. So I filled eight of our empty bottles, and the Scouts apparently never missed it.

Anyway, getting rid of the tent lightened the load in my canoe, which boosted my confidence to the point where I figured I had about a fifty-fifty chance of surviving Rockpile Rapids, about a mile into Santa Elena Canyon. It also made packing our gear a little quicker, and we were hoping to get started before the Boy Scouts, who had camped just up the river from us. Unfortunately, those Scouts were early risers, and some of them floated by as we were putting in.

We caught up with them just inside the canyon, though, at the first little set of rapids, where they had stopped to line their canoes from the bank, to keep from turning them over. The rapids weren’t bad at all, but the Scouts were probably deterred by the sight of an aluminum canoe, broached on a rock, in the middle of the stream.

This particular canoe had floated by the previous afternoon, just after we arrived at our campsite. It was one of four boats, two aluminum and two fiberglass, which contained approximately six women and two men, none of whom appeared to have ever seen a paddle before, much less worn a life jacket. If they had, they probably would not have attempted to run Santa Elena Canyon in aluminum or fiberglass boats, which tend to get eaten by rocks. Exhibit A sat in the middle of the river with a bunch of Scouts staring at it.

We passed the Scouts and paddled further into the canyon, and before long we caught up with the mostly female group. We tried to ask them about their lost boat, but none of them spoke any English. They had evidently decided to leave the boat, and some of their gear, and keep going.

Later that day we saw them again. They had doubled up, and as three of the women floated by in one of the fiberglass canoes, we saw that the gal in the middle was reaching over the side of the boat, holding a large patch of duct tape over a hole in the fiberglass. We offered them some more duct tape, but they declined. We never saw them again. Assuming they didn’t sink, that poor girl must have held her hand on that hole for at least seven miles. Bless her heart.

But when we passed those folks the first time we still had not reached Rockpile. The walls of the canyon, standing 1000 feet above, seem to hem the river in, and it has to fight its way down the riverbed among boulders, sandbars, and logjams. There were several sets of rapids in the first mile of canyon, so by the time I got to Rockpile, I had lost sight of the boys. I had wanted to go through it together, but the river dictated otherwise.

And actually, Rockpile wasn’t as bad as I expected. It consists of huge boulders strewn haphazardly in the riverbed, causing unreadable hydraulics in the water. Well, unreadable to me. I tried to keep my canoe pointed downstream, but I was pretty much swept along wherever the river wanted to take me. I ran part of the rapids backwards, and shipped a lot of water, but made it through without turning over, which was a total surprise.

Courtland, however, wasn’t so lucky. I caught up with him about three quarters of the way though, where he had turned over and was trying to keep his kayak from floating away without him. We found a sandbar and got our boats emptied and squared away, and hurried to catch up with the other two boys.

They had made it through Rockpile with no problems, and while I was happy we had all survived, it almost seemed anti-climactic. I had expected Rockpile to be a nightmare, but it wasn’t so bad. I was still feeling a little cheated a mile further down, when I tried to paddle through another simple little rapid with a ninety degree turn in it, and had another garage sale.

But I didn’t lose the River Potty . . .

Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and public speaker who hopes to make it out of the canyon next week. Write to him at PO Box 1600, Mason, Texas 76856 or jeep@verizon.net

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