Big Bend National Park is bounded on its southern border by Texas and the Rio Grande, with Mexico on the other side. When I went to pick up a backcountry permit on New Year’s Eve, the ranger’s warning was stern: except to scout rapids or in the event of an emergency, landing on the right side was against the law. My girlfriend, Gillian, and I had planned a three-day, 33-mile canoe float through Boquillas Canyon, the farthest-flung and mellowest route in the park. Scouting rapids wasn’t on the menu. What was: the occasional Class II and plenty of time to lounge around looking at stars and drinking champagne. Winter is high season in Big Bend—if so remote a place can be said to have one—and warm days and solitude seemed like a recipe for an easy, romantic float.
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In the age of Donald Trump and El Chapo, you might expect a little more action along the border. At the put-in later that day, the river was unimpressive: maybe 15 feet across and waist deep. Mexican souvenir salesmen in beat-up metal rowboats appeared to cross at will, and soldiers fishing with sotol reeds wished us Happy New Year as we paddled by.
The first day passed without incident, and we celebrated the end of 2015 with a mug of bubbly and an early bedtime. But overnight the weather turned. An El Niño–fueled storm rolled in, and clouds settled around the top of the canyon. By the time we got going, the problem wasn’t the rain but the wind: the bend of the river and the sheer canyon walls conspired to funnel a gale against the direction we were trying to paddle. As we emerged from the protection of a narrow canyon, we were swept onto the right shore. A few attempts to remedy this made it clear we wouldn’t be going anywhere, so we pulled off to wait it out over the warmth of a fire. When Gillian stood up, she looked like Anderson Cooper reporting on an event that involved FEMA.
After an hour, we got back in the canoe and, following ten attempts and a couple of near dumps, managed to land on the American side. If we stopped paddling for a second, we moved backward—but we were able to make progress if we tucked in close to shore. A blue heron flew just ahead of us for hours, and morale improved markedly. The problem now was the distance left: we’d lost half a day. Our lazy float was starting to look like an epic mission, and we paddled hard for the rest of the trip, gnawing on energy bars in the canoe and pulling up to camp as night started to fall.
On our last day, we had 15 miles to cover. The great thing about river trips is that you can’t really get lost, and we knew we were looking for the only bridge for miles in any direction. We paddled more and more frantically through the empty landscape, and then it appeared. We were ten minutes early for our pickup, covered in mud, and starving. “Perfect timing!” the driver said.
In the end, our ordeal was romantic in its own way. We shared a sense of danger and had to huddle together for warmth. But next year we’re going to the Caribbean.
Access + Resources
When: Late October through March.
How: The closest airport is in Midland; from there it’s three hours by car to the park entrance near the tiny town of Terlingua.
Stay: Paddlers can camp anywhere on the American side of the river with a $12 backcounty permit, available at the ranger station at Panther Junction.
Eat: Rub shoulders with local river rats at La Kiva in Terlingua, just outside the park.