“Big Bend is a place where the rainbows wait for rain, the river is kept in a stone box, and the mountains run away at night to play with other mountains.” – attributed to a Mexican vaquero. At 6:30 camp begins to stir as people wake up, stretch a bit, and get ready for the day. The sky is barely beginning to light up, and the moon is about to set. Down here in the canyon, it will be a while before we feel the sun’s warmth, but as we circle up on the beach to check in before launching, we can see sunlight strike the top of a canyon wall, turning it to gold, and the song of a canyon wren floats down in spiral notes that seem to land softly in the river. The memories of a great horned owl hooting, and of a 5am donkey’s braying fade as we consider the current where we’ll be launching our boats, and don sunscreen for the day.
It’s the Southwest Semester’s first section of travel, in the second half of February, on the Rio Grande in Big Bend, Texas. We are fully engaged in a desert expedition skills practicum, camping and travelling in canoes on the border, where river right is Mexico and river left is the United States. Here is a smattering of camp skills: choosing a five star location for our portable toilet system (downwind of camp, nowhere near the kitchen, a spot with a nice view – and don’t forget to set up the two-paddle system to ensure privacy); using a bowline to tie up the canoes on shore in case the river rises or the wind gets strong enough to blow them away; the elegant use of an MSR whisperlite stove to make delicious dinners; knowing where and when to find sunshine, shade, or shelter from the wind; knowing which bushes and trees are suitable to hang your clothing on and which will shred them (to be safe, stick with the creosote bush, tamarisk, or a willow. The acacia, mesquites, palo verde, and pretty much everything else are thorny); best tent or tarp location (in a grove of sweet acacia, which just now is a-bloom with lovely fluffy sweet-smelling yellow flowers and is attracting a hum of happy bees). All excellent camp skills, these. And I haven’t mentioned keeping camp organized, so everyone knows where to find a library book, an extra Ziploc bag, some duct tape, or the cooking supplies; and things don’t blow away in the spring winds.
Then there are the river travel skills. First of all is learning how to tear your gaze away from the high canyon walls, from the far off edge of the Sierra del Carmen or the jagged mountainous distant landscape of the Chisos, from the emerging wildflowers and the beaver sign. There’s a river to pay attention to, here! The sunlight glancing off the water is dazzling, the sound of the water moving around rocks and past cliff edges is mesmerizing. The water is low, and when the ripples are close together you can see there’s a gravel bar. Can you find the deep water channel that will float a fully loaded canoe? A smooth glassy rounded surface means a rock underneath; a line of waves at a regular interval is a deep water channel. The line between the downstream current and the eddy requires attention; if we don’t pay attention to this line it can catch us off guard and flip a canoe.
Once you understand what you are looking at, you can start to practice the paddling skills. Steer the canoe around obstacles, sideslip, slow down, speed up, set an angle to catch an eddy, get momentum to peel out, use a ferry angle to cross the river. Use core muscles for power, face your paddle, use torso rotation, talk to your partner. You have a lot of strokes at your command: forward, draw, pry, duffek, forward and reverse sweep, J-stroke, back stroke. These are the ingredients for successful maneuvers. The river is full of tricks, and her most common trick is the wall shot. The river makes a sharp turn; on the inside of the turn is a shallow gravel bar. On the outside of the turn, the current all slams into a wall, or perhaps slides underneath overhanging river cane. Can you cut the turn close enough, hit the line just right, and have enough forward power that you miss the wall without spinning into the eddy? Only if you line up just right and paddle really hard and don’t give up! If you hit the wall, lean hard into it, or it will flip you. If it’s river cane, don’t let it grab your hat or sunglasses, and for goodness’ sake, lean toward it, not away from it!
We travel together in a long line of canoes, each boat keeping a judicious distance between themselves and the boat ahead of them. Watch for signals, read the water, note the ducks, phoebes, swallows, and swifts keeping us company. People sing together in the boats, and talk, and consider which way to go and how to avoid obstacles. There’s a lot of problem solving going on. This is a perfect setting to learn about small group dynamics, another course we are immersed in during this time in Big Bend. We create intentional norms around expedition behavior, learn how to give and receive feedback, and study the group as a system. We look at leadership and decision making models, and practice the skills we learn. We consider the social identity we each bring to the group, and the implications these carry with them. We study conflict management and power in groups; there is a lot of introspection that goes along with this. We all have default ways of responding to power and to conflict; the goal is to become aware and intentional, and to gain tools for being constructive group members.
The river is a timeless travel corridor as we paddle through Big Bend. People have sought water, respite, and comfortable camping along these shores for thousands of years. At night we gather around a warm campfire, as people have done in small groups since the beginning of our time on this Earth. We paddle into Mariscal Canyon, through the jumbled Rockpile Rapids where the river disappears amid enormous boulders, through the Tight Squeeze, which affords a narrow channel just wide enough for a canoe; then out into the open lands where distant views open up. San Vicente Canyon, little Hot Springs Canyon, small rapids and fast water riffles; then the rose and orange glow of the Sierra del Carmen as we approach magnificent Boquillas Canyon. The side canyons, the Lizard Rock and Rabbit Ears, are unforgettable features of this immense canyon that cuts through the northern portion of the Sierra Madre. We continue downriver, leave Boquillas behind, and the river winds its way out of Big Bend National Park. It’s almost time to take out and head north and west to the next phase of the Southwest Semester. It’s been a good time on the river. One last swim, a final campfire, just a few more miles. Our gear is covered with Rio Grande mud, and it will take days to get the sand out of our shoes. We have been touched by the river, the canyons, the sun, by the enormous west Texas sky, and by each other. Onward to the next phase, but perhaps each of us carrying a piece of Big Bend in our hearts.