Santa Elena Canyon contains some strange optical illusions you’ll probably never see anywhere else, except maybe in old Star Trek reruns. It also contains very high rock walls, over 1000 feet in places, so if you’re claustrophobic you might want to avoid the area entirely. Plus there is always the chance that illegal aliens will come along and beam you into their flying saucer and make you mop their poopdeck. But that is a small price to pay for the pleasure of getting to paddle until your arms feel like rubber, sweat until your boat has more water in it than the river, and provide high-protein food for the swarms of poor, starving gnats that live along the river.
The boys and I never saw any aliens, illegal or otherwise, which was kind of a disappointment. When you go to Mexico you expect to see foreigners. All we saw along the Rio Grande was three horses, two American and one Mexican. We could tell what nationality they were by which side of the river they were on.
The optical illusions I mentioned were kind of weird. At one place in the canyon, the sheer rock walls look like they were made from huge stone blocks, and the seams between the blocks slope upwards as they go downriver. The walls dominate the canyon, so the river appears to be sloping steeply downward. It’s very strange, and the appearance that you’re falling downriver doesn’t go away, even after you figure out why it looks that way.
Toward the end of the Santa Elena Canyon a small canyon branches off on the Mexico side of the river. It’s called Fern Canyon, and is a popular hiking spot, for some reason. The boys and I decided to check it out, since our backsides were getting numb anyway.
Fern Canyon is very narrow, with a small stream running down the middle of it, so that you have to walk in the water in places. About 100 yards from its entrance the stream splashes down through a steep hole in some rocks. This is called the ‘Birth Canal.’ We were reliably informed that tourons like us are required to crawl up through this hole. The water was cold and we got pretty muddy and wet. The only purpose this served, I think, was to entertain the people who told us we needed to crawl through it.
Fern Canyon is rather pretty, and is hikable for about a mile, which we did not do because the boys were bored with it. So we went back through the Birth Canal and floated on down the canyon.
One of the interesting things about Santa Elena is that there is no question where it starts and ends. The entrance suddenly rises up around the river in almost vertical walls, and the exit drops the same way. And once away from the shade of the high walls, paddling the river gets hot in a hurry.
There is a takeout just past the canyon exit, of which we were unaware, so we had to paddle another mile to where my wife was planning to meet us. Unfortunately she wasn’t there yet, so we had to sit around and watch the Boy Scouts, all 783 of them, empty their boats and load them on trailers. The only consolation was that most of them looked like they were in worse shape than we were.
When my wife picked us up we decided to check out some of Rio Grande National Park, seeing as how we had already been required to pay for a permit anyway. On the way to Rio Grande Valley my wife started reading a brochure she’d picked up. It said to watch out for mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and javelina. Because they’re dangerous.
The brochure said a park visitor once noticed a guided nature hike about to leave a camping area and asked if she could join it. She was told she could, but dogs were not allowed. The lady had a poodle on a leash. The weather was cool, so she tied the poodle to a picnic table in some shade, left it some water, and went on the hike.
When the group got back to the camping area they found that a javelina had just finished eating the poodle. This javelina must have had a poodle-eating permit, because there was no mention in the brochure of it being given a ticket.
Anyway, this was distressing, until one of the boys pointed out that we don’t have a poodle. We have a German shepherd. My wife checked the brochure again, and there was no mention of a German shepherd being eaten by a javelina. So that was good.
Finally it was time to come home, so we went back to Big Bend River Tours and returned the River Potty. We hadn’t used it, so we asked the ‘Mr. Haney’ lady if we could get a refund on the cleaning fee. She said, “No.”
Big Bend National Park is really a beautiful, rugged, enchanting place, and I highly recommend it. When you go, be sure to get a permit. For everything. And don’t forget, this being Big Bend National Park, you need a permit for having permits . . .
Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and public speaker who is saving up for his own personal River Potty. Write to him at PO Box 1600, Mason, Tx 76856 or firstname.lastname@example.org