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!