February 28, 2008


I guess the title sums it up, this being our fourth journey to this land of extremes, located in the depths of the southern desert of Texas. You know from the moment you park your trailer at Cottonwood Campground amoung the local Javelinas, that you are in true wilderness.

We are hear primarily to bird, and every expectation was met, with numerous new species, and an excellent guided hike focusing on birding techniques for noticing and remembering details that most would miss. I think we racked up about 20 species on the 3 hour walk just in and around the campsite.

No trip to the Bend would be complete without a paddle on the Rio Grande. Our new friends Skye & Karen joined us, the girls opting for a hike up St Elena Canyon, while Skye & I took to the water. And from what I recall, we even may have had lunch in Mexico that day!

Next days activities included a hike up Grapevine Canyon, which we voted the most scenic in the Bend. Since Skye & Karen had the "kids" along, they rode comfortably in the "screen porch" backpack, sheltered from the heat and spiney cactus.

The long hike in rewarded us with picture perfect views of "Balance Rock", and the open canyon on the far side. The formations in this area were pushed up as a result of volcanic activity, and that, added to years of wind & rain erosion, produced these beautiful works of art.

A special treat on the way out was this gray fox skipping quickly up the rocks. He stoped just long enough to get a look at followers on the trail, posing for the camera.

A quick drive up the Chisos Basin provided this nice shot of a cactus wren, and some beautiful vews of "The Window" far to the west.

Seeing the Window out there reminded us to stop and make the Oak Canyon hike on the return to camp. This "unpublished" hike follows an old trail to a hidden waterfall on the backside of the Window. The cool and moist air allows for several rare species of ferns & flowers to grow, including this wild orchid.
The return to the truck was just prior to sunset. While taking this shot of our friends, I noticed those stunning red hues illuminating the walls of the now-distant canyon, signalling the end to a perfect day! Our final tribute to Big Bend this year was to do another overnight on the 4wd Rio Grande Rier Road. This rugged trek into past history is always a treat, revealing new ruins, graves, and views that somehow were missed last year.
Last year we stayed at the beautiful overlook at Loop Camp. With some different scenery in mind, we opted this time for Talley site 3 or 4 right along the River but closer to thw East end of the park. Along the way, we stopped at some familiar places, but made some new and interesting discoveries:

Arriving late at Talley, we were greeted by the lazy Rio Grande, which was much closer than at Loop, and hosting quite a number of ducks as the sun set.

Right after dark, the winds began to howl, forcing us to make our kitchen about 10 feet down within a ravine near the camp parking. Nothing like a wonderfully set table, a hot catered meal, and a good bottle of wine to end a great day in the desert!
The extreme quiet coupled with the cool air made for one of those deep sllep nights. Morning greeted us with a delayed sunrise due to the mountains in the east, and a heard of Mexican horses taking advantage of the rich grass on the other side of the River.

Our love for Big Bend continues to grow. While many view it as "just a desert", we enjoy the wide open spaces, rich history, lack of people & rules, and the endless possibilities for new discovery. We encourage you too to visit this best kept secret of southern Texas.

February 24, 2008

Rob Thomson's Guinness World Record Attempt

We were driving along Hwy 90 this morning from Seminole Canyon to Big Bend, TX when I noticed a lone skateboarder with a backpack scooting along. We just had to stop & check this out! We met Rob, who is on one serious world quest mission around the globe, on bicycle & skateboard (actually he said he wants to go back over the 7,000 miles already done on bike and redo it on skateboard!). Rob is from New Zealand. Read about his adventure at http://www.14degrees.org/

February 23, 2008

Paddling the Rio Grande

I had crossed the high bridge over the Pecos River many times on my way to Big Bend National Park. Every time I’d stop to look at the view from the top of the canyon and say that “someday” I’d like to paddle the Pecos canyon. Since Sam and I were doing our “someday” trips, we made a point of staying nearby on our way to Big Bend.

We opted on staying at Seminole Canyon State Park which is just a few minutes from the Pecos River. Our first night at the campground we met a couple – Skye and Karen, from California with 2 sea kayaks on top of their van. Seeing sea kayaks in the desert, we naturally had to talk to them to find out their story and if they’d be interested in paddling somewhere with us. After an evening of conversation and finding out common interests, we settled on doing a day paddle to Panther Cave on the Rio Grande rather than an overnight trip upstream on the Pecos.

The Pecos River put in is a busy boat ramp built by the National Park Service. We encountered many power boats at this ramp. Since the river was fairly wide where we paddled, they were not much of a problem compared to other places where we had paddled among power boats.

I had read on the internet of high winds that whipped through the canyons in the afternoon making paddling more strenuous, so we tried to leave earlier in the morning. Not long after we left, the winds kicked up but weren’t much of a concern since it was at our backs.

As we put in at the boat ramp, a large Canadian/old time looking canoe named the Ghost Shaman backed its way down the ramp. A man in tall leather boats, suspenders, a bandana around his neck and a wide brimmed hat jumped out of the truck. The boat had been built in Canada and had traversed some of the old fur trade route to Grand Portage in recent times. His name was Pecos Jack and he had been guiding trips on the Pecos and Rio Grande for 20 years. He and 3 others were going to make the same trip we were to Panther Cave. They sailed down the Rio Grande with the use of a large sail.

We passed steep canyon walls filled with caves of all sizes carved out by wind and water. We saw evidence of an old railroad or road bed that used to run along the canyon floor and above. The retaining walls were up high and the tunnels were now filled with water from the rising river as it backed up from the Amistad Dam.

What surprised us most of all was the Great Blue Heron rookery on one of these steep canyon walls. We were surprised to see so many Great Blues in the desert. Next, was that these long legged birds would build nests on the side of a steep cliff. Other birds that we saw were canyon wrens, white throated swifts, cormorants, gulls, terns, horned grebes and a variety of hawks and vultures.

Amistad National Recreation Area interprets some of the oldest and best preserved pictographs in North America. The section of river that we were traveling contained 2 of these archeological sites. One was Parida Cave, within a mile of the boat ramp. A boat ramp makes the cave accessible at higher lake levels. We did not stop at this cave but glanced inward as we floated downstream.

Pictographs are prehistoric rock paintings as opposed to petro-glyphs which are rock carvings. Pictographs were made from ground up minerals, animal fat and plant materials. Many of the pictographs found in the Amistad area resemble human and animal figures. Some believe the rock art represents a shamanistic tradition. The oldest were painted about 4,000 years ago.

Panther Cave, about 7 miles downstream from the boat ramp, is one of the largest rock art sites in the area. It is home to numerous human and animal figures. One figure that is over nine feet in length resembles a mountain lion – or panther. To protect the rock art, the whole site is fenced off but easily viewable from a walkway that is provided. It was definitely one of the best pictograph sites Sam and I had ever seen.

After a brief stop at the cave for viewing and lunch, we started making our way back upstream. By now the winds had kicked up quite a bit and of course were head on. There is no noticeable current in the river so we were strictly fighting the wind for pretty much the whole way back. As the river curved we did have brief breaks to rest. The Canadian canoe had left when we did but we left it behind about halfway back to the ramp.

By the time we made it back to the boat launch, we were all pretty much exhausted and sore. We all agreed that trip was well worth the effort. Next time through, I’m paddling up the Pecos canyon!