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Springs and the River

Canoeing the spring-fed waters of the Rio Grande’s Lower Canyons.

By E. Dan Klepper

“Hardly had we begun to enjoy the pleasing sensation of drifting down the stream when a roaring noise was heard ahead,” reported geologist Robert T. Hill during his 1899 survey of the state’s Rio Grande canyons. “This came from seething and dangerous torrents of water foaming over huge rounded boulders of volcanic rock which everywhere form the bottom of the river.”

Hill, the first scientist to successfully navigate the deep gorges of the Texas river wilderness, included in his survey the notorious segment known today as the Lower Canyons, and published a record of his expedition. More than 100 years after Hill’s run, this riparian no-man’s land continues to be the most uninhabited and inaccessible stretch of backcountry in the state. The Lower Canyons, located in the remote regions of the southwest Texas desert, were just part of the 350-mile Rio Grande corridor that Hill ultimately surveyed. His journey began at the mouth of the Rio Concho and ended at the limestone bluffs below the courthouse of Langtry’s Judge Roy Bean. He made his run with five companions including his 19-year-old nephew Prentice, a local trapper named James MacMahon, a cook and two extra boatmen “of great strength, inured to hardships, skilled with oar and gun, and capable of unlimited endurance.” Together, they rowed three wooden boats loaded with surveying equipment, guns, ammunition, food stores and bedrolls down the orneriest waterway in West Texas.

“Reaching these rapids,” Hill continued, “we had to get out of the boats and wade beside them, pushing them off or over stones, or holding them back by the stern-lines. This process had to be repeated many times a day for the entire distance, and, as a consequence, all hands were constantly wet. The swift current and uncertain footing of the hidden rocks make them very dangerous. A loss of balance or a fall meant almost certain death.”

The geologist Hill may have been exaggerating a bit for the benefit of his readership in this account of the survey, published in a 1901 issue of Century Magazine. Death is a guarantee at some point in life, but in terms of an expedition down the Rio Grande’s Lower Canyons, it remains only a possibility, not a certainty. However, the rest of Hill’s description rings true. After seven days of canoeing this remote stretch, the four members of a more recent survey team — James Mueller, professor of biology at Sul Ross State University, Mueller’s students Aaron Sides and Anne Marie Hilscher, and this writer — had waded, lined, swamped and strong-armed two canoes loaded with an assortment of scientific equipment and gear through 12 rapids over 60-plus miles in which all hands were indeed constantly wet.

The Lower Canyons, a segment of river from the abandoned border town of La Linda downriver to the takeout at Dryden Crossing, is part of the federally designated Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River corridor. Negotiating this particular stretch requires the same kind of preparedness and fortitude necessary to run the upper canyons of the river’s Texas section but with a stronger commitment. Once entering the canyons, the trip demands a minimum of a week’s time regardless of the weather, boat damage, loss of gear, lack of food or medical emergencies. But perhaps what elevates the Lower Canyons above all else as the greatest of the river’s challenges is simply its abundance of water.

Unlike the upriver canyons where drought and excessive pumping can cause dramatic declines in flow, the Lower Canyons are constantly refreshed by a plentitude of underground springs. Water percolates through the vast rock layers, known as formations, beneath desert scrub, vegas and mesas that extend for miles on either side of the river’s course. This subterranean draw gravitates downwards, as does the geography, towards the massive land drainage that is the Rio Grande. Springs appear along the river’s edge, often in the shadow of thick stands of chattering cane, running flush as if poured from a bucket. Other springs chew through muddy yellow sands, leaving a chum line of crusting calcium, algae and fern spore. Some springs appear to guzzle forth from solid rock, carving serpentine channels into the limestone before joining the river’s course. By far the oddest and sometimes most disconcerting indications of excessive water flow are the fresh springs that belch up from the belly of the river. These erupt in bubbly spans the size of pancakes and skillets. Others boil up with a kettle drum radius and in certain light their disturbing characteristics make navigation a challenge. The canoeist must distinguish between these mid-river springs, which a boat can pass lightly over without incident, and the gentle whiffles made by the multitude of submerged boulders lurking like killer hippos just under the surface. It is a navigation decision that, when poorly made, often results in extremely undesirable consequences.

Stretching away from this watery bounty lie other deep-rutted canyons, aligned in intersecting degrees to the river, with names like Panther, Washboard, Bear and Palmas, and some with no names at all. These arteries to the Rio Grande are scarred by draining stormwaters and spring flows of their own. Many begin in giant pouroffs, dropping into deep natural wells called tinajas that have been scoured into the rock by a continuous drilling of water power. These remarkable water features maintain life in the desert, their bluff faces shielding their water stores from the evaporative effects of the sun with constant shadow, providing year-round drinking for wildlife unwilling or unable to find their way to the river proper.

Whenever water is available on the surface of a vast, inhospitable desert, a remarkable catalogue of wildlife takes advantage of it. Mueller, like Hill, had been contracted by a department of the federal government to survey aspects of this rugged corridor. But while Hill’s responsibilities were strictly geological, Mueller was charged with determining just what exactly that catalogue of wildlife included. Fortunately, Mueller and company had one overriding advantage that Hill did not — a topographic map of the river course. The Mueller expedition’s purpose was to perform an in-depth survey of the mammal population of the Lower Canyons, one of several taking place during the project, and its members came well-equipped to accommodate the task.

The canoes were loaded with 100 Sherman traps (aluminum boxes with spring-trap doors designed to live-capture small critters), mist nets (tennis court-sized spans of black netting for snagging bats), three sets of metal poles and rebar to accommodate the nets, an Anabat bat detector (a device that can detect and record the echolocations of bats), a laptop computer and its outboard-motor-sized battery, two motion-sensing cameras and t-bar mounts, a port-a-can, plenty of food, a kitchen, tents, bedrolls and personal gear. The boats floated, in the best of circumstances, just a few inches above the waterline. Confronting the Lower Canyon’s class II, III, and IV rapids in these load conditions required caution and good judgment. Typically, an overabundance of caution prevailed whenever judgment faltered. At least most of the time.

Hill first reported that “a striking feature” of canyon life was, at times, the absence of animals. “There was little sign of bird, rabbit, wolf, squirrel or other animal, so common upon the uplands above. The only indigenous creature we saw was a small specimen of bat, new and unknown to me, which fluttered about at night.” But with the aid of the Anabat bat detector, the Mueller expedition recorded thousands of “hits” whenever the instrument was activated, indicating a night sky full of mammals despite the January chill.

As Hill’s company flowed deeper into the Lower Canyons, however, “evidence of animal life, hitherto so rare, now began to appear. A lizard was noted, and two immense ravens, half hopping, half flying, defied us to shoot them. Everywhere along the muddy banks, beaver slides were found, and the willows had been cut — or chewed — by them. Three deer were also seen, while now and then, a covey of blue quail scrambled up the stony banks and scattered in the cactus-scrub. Only one who is accustomed to the animal life of the desert can imagine the joy with which we greeted these lowly friends.”

For the Mueller expedition, the occasional javelina could always be counted on to appear, as could rock squirrels, bats, mule deer, ringtails, turtles, 16 species of birds and traces of a few descendants of Hill’s beavers. But hopes of recording the presence of charismatic megafauna like mountain lions or the rare jaguarundi along the Lower Canyon corridor were left to the motion-detecting cameras posted along the route.

Perhaps the true citizens of the Lower Canyons are the humble, seed-eating tribes of rodents, including pocket mice, kangaroo rats, cactus mice and cotton rats, that cumulatively make up the enormous order Rodentia. As the bulk of the Mueller trapping illustrated, these denizens of the desert waterworld occupy every nook and cranny available in a stratum of landscape that begins at river’s edge and continues up the canyon grade and out. Without them, the canyons would be the barren rocks that Hill first imagined them to be rather than a courseway of teeming life. They are the sowers and tillers of the desert canyon landscape, caching and spreading seeds, consuming life’s kernels and, perhaps more importantly, being consumed by larger and more dynamic species. Their contributions, not to mention their quick-footedness and painful bite, are to be appreciated and admired, and a closer scrutiny of their character often revealed the true nature of a canyon’s wildness and its ability to delight.

Unlike the members of Mueller’s crew, Hill had little time to contemplate the canyons’ offerings. But one particular aspect proved too compelling for Hill to decline an indulgence — the warmth of the canyons’ hot springs. “Shortly after making the turn to the east,” Hill explained, “and in the depths of a beautifully terraced canyon, we came upon another copious hot spring running out of the bluff upon a low bench, where it made a large, clear pool of water. We reached this place one Sunday noon. The sight of this natural bath of warm water was tempting to tired and dirty men, and here we made our first and only stop for recreation. After lunch, most of the party proceeded to the warm pool, and, stripping, we literally soaked for hours in its delightful waters, stopping occasionally to soap and scrub our linens.”

This tranquil restorative for Hill, as well as for a few members of the Mueller expedition, belied the chaotic machinations of the hot springs’ geothermal origins. Far beneath the earth’s crust lies molten rock churning as if caught in a hellish blender. This intense furnace transmits energy up through layers of solid rock to meet and greet and then heat, deeply penetrating water stores below the riverbed. Due to convection, this superheated water is driven upwards, heating more rocks and water as it moves through a Homerian labyrinth of underground cracks and fissures. The many hot springs of the Lower Canyons occur whenever this water ultimately breaks the surface.

It is perhaps mythology, after all, that best defines the Lower Canyons, with its odyssey of subterranean mysteries and its Promethean challenges. Even Hill saw it in the landscape and was awed by the overwhelming force of water and its ability to shape all things. “Still lower down the river this region becomes more weird,” exclaimed Hill, referring to the “great bluffs” and “many fantastic” curving forms he witnessed from his boat. “One of these, 200 feet high, stands out conspicuously from its surroundings, an almost perfect reproduction of the Egyptian Sphinx.” As Hill floated farther down into the Lower Canyons, he noted that the rocks of the canyon walls “are broken into beautiful pointed salients and vertical columns. Wonderful indeed are the remarkable forms of rock sculpture. Among these was a vast cylindrical tower like the imaginary pictures of Babel, standing outward of the cliff-line and rising, through perspective, far above.”

For centuries, the Lower Canyons have suffered the relentless pulverizing, wearing down and carving by water as it pours from the skies and runs aground from within the rock itself. It is a slow and methodical process, one that is imperceptible on the human time scale. But it can also be as sudden as the blink of an eye. Catastrophic floods routinely scour the canyons’ corridor, obliterating everything in the water’s rushing pathway.

The Mueller expedition began its last night in the canyons by tossing camp along a comfortable, relatively flat spot. The place, called Bone Watering in the irony of the desert’s own mythology, was a thick sandbar bluff 12 feet or so above the river’s edge. The power of the canyons’ water held sway over the quiet evening, culminating in an acute realization that with one swift deluge the expedition’s accomplishments, indeed a century of human effort all along this river corridor, and most remarkable of all the very ground beneath them, could be swept up and lost at a moment’s notice, then catapulted downriver all the way to the sea.

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