The best way to describe the water was like chocolate milk. I was waist deep in it, wading through the long grasses that looked like snakes clinging to the shore. Thick clay lined the river bottom, suctioning my feet with each step.
My kayak floated in front of me at chest level, packed full of dry bags that contained our food, tents and canned wine for our big adventure down the Rio Grande. There were six of us submerged in this water with one simple plan: to spend the next three days floating thirty-three miles through Boquillas Canyon in Big Bend National Park.
I first caught wind of this kayaking trip a couple months earlier when an email popped up in my inbox from my friend, Andy. Andy is a schemer, a true people lover and world-renowned fun-maker. I don’t have much kayaking experience except paddling around lakes in Washington but I felt comfortable saying yes to his invite because he’s guided many trips in the past.
Before I knew it, October was here and my friends and I had made it to the middle of nowhere town that is Marathon, Texas. The six of us met in this hot little west Texas town before heading into Big Bend. We drove deep into the night and early morning before parking in a questionable camping spot. We slept for only a few hours before getting up, packing the boats and carrying them down to our chocolate milk river.
As soon as we hit the water, it felt like freedom. The current swept us down around the bend and into the mouth of the canyon. The Rio Grande was so wide and strong that I felt weightless as we floated into unknown territory along the U.S.-Mexico border.
It was a relief knowing our end point was dozens of miles away and we had the next three days to enjoy each other and the unique desert landscape in the park. My only responsibilities from here on out were to stay afloat and avoid getting fried by the sun.
I grew up in the thick forests of the Pacific Northwest and had never been much farther south than Oregon, so Big Bend was a visual treat.
We floated down the river for hours a day, the invisible currents pulling us left, right, forwards and backwards. The canyon walls enclosed us in a tall rocky tunnel sprinkled with sparse trees, smooth clay-like mud and the occasional vulture or group of wild horses.
At times the air was still and the grasses were so tall and thick, I wondered who or what could be hiding in them, watching us play and waiting for us to pass.
Boquillas Canyon is one of those places you imagine has never seen humans before because everything is wild and undisturbed, as nature should be. As we paddled I watched the shore and admired the lack of campfire rings, spray paint tags and Starbucks. Instead, the muddy shoreline was littered with tiny bird footprints and desert wild flowers.
In three days we saw four other people, all floating in the same inflatable raft and taking in the sights just like us. We paddled sometimes, laughed often and stopped to eat whenever our stomachs demanded. At times we would all hold onto each other’s boats and let the river carry us slowly downstream.
I imagined us looking like an odd, giant white flower to the birds and planes that flew above. During this downtime we worried less about paddling and more about telling stories, drinking canned wine and poking fun at our weird life jacket tan lines. We talked about jobs, podcasts, politics and dreams for the upcoming months. We tossed wine cans with paddles and chased kaleidoscopes of yellow butterflies until we realized it was time to split off and keep moving. These are some of my favorite memories in the canyon.
By early evening, as the shadows grew larger on the canyon walls, we kept our eyes peeled for a flat place to camp. Tents were set up, food was cooking and there was usually a little time for exploring before it got too dark. Luckily emails, work meetings and Stranger Things marathons couldn’t occupy our time in the canyon, so we chose to fill it with good questions and conversations, childish games and moon gazing.
At one point Andy even decided to float down the river on an inflatable mattress dressed as Santa Claus. We made sure to join him the second time around. When people talk about “simpler times,” they’re talking about days like these on the Rio Grande.
With no phone to distract me, I paid closer attention to bugs, birds and blades of grass. The glow of our backlit screens was replaced by the glow of the moon.
I don’t often enough make space to connect offline with others or myself. Sure, a lazy night at home can sound relaxing but I’m usually guilty of falling into the lure of Instagram, Facebook and Netfllix. None of these leave me feeling enriched.
I’m most satisfied when I feel connected with people and I think that can only happen when we’re all unplugged. Spending three days along the wifi-free shores of Boquillas Canyon was so uplifting and encouraging that I physically felt lighter. With no phone to distract me, I paid closer attention to bugs, birds and blades of grass. The glow of our backlit screens was replaced by the glow of the moon.
Big Bend National Park is definitely far out there but has a truly unique and beautiful landscape that everyone should get lost in, given the chance. For me, this trip drove home the importance of disconnecting from technology and making the deliberate decision to “hang up and hang out.”
I look forward to times when my friends and I can set down our phones, sit with each other and have real conversations. Even if we have to drive to south Texas to do it.
Photos (C) 2016 Adam Wells & Greg Balkin
For general information about visiting, hiking and camping in Big Bend, visit their page on the National Park Service website.
To find out more about access to Boquillas Canyon and river conditions, Southwest Paddler has a pretty detailed description about the run, permits, etc. For our trip, we put in within the park but the take out is actually downstream from the park boundaries, at Heath Canyon Ranch (careful, the owner Fred is a character):
We used Oru Kayaks for our trip down the Rio Grande.
Steph Wright is a writer and social media marketer living in Seattle. Find her on Instagram.