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River Ranger

Marcos Paredes calls the spring-fed stretch of the Rio Grande home.

By Barbara Rodriguez

Marcos Paredes is a man who isn’t afraid of getting wet — or even of getting thrashed in a hail storm. There may even be a part of him that enjoys it. The National Park Service Ranger believes that our isolation from the weather is one of the reasons we have grown less observant of the natural world. It is, he thinks, possible to be too protected from the environment. So, if in the course of patrolling his 245-mile stretch of the Rio Grande, he dives into the river seeking protection from hail that could beat the hat off his head, he considers it more than part of his job — it’s almost an honor to do something day in and out that requires that level of being in the moment. At the very least, it makes a good story around the campfire.

There have been a lot of campfires and as many stories in the 20 years the District Ranger has patrolled the southern boundary of Big Bend National Park from Lajitas to the Terrell/Val Verde County line. Some of the accounts involve capital A adventures: daring river rescues of men washed from horseback while fording the river, eye-to-eye encounters with snakes, skirmishes with saltcedar and canoes lost to flash floods. (The last story he won’t confirm. “I would never admit doing that — if I had done it, I’d deny it. Lose your boat,” he almost chortles, “that would be embarrassing.” His repressed laughter rumbles like thunder as he concedes, “If you do anything long enough, everything will happen to you.”)

It’s apparent Paredes loves his work. What most delights him, he says, is that his “typical day is not typical.” The oldest of 13 children, he bounced from Eagle Pass to Arizona, spending many hours of his formative years on the back of his Uncle Ray’s tractor. It is an experience he credits with opening his eyes to the rhythms of the natural world. And while it may seem ironic that the boy whose teacher labeled him “incorrigible” (Paredes looked it up and thought it was apt) grew up to work for a federal bureaucracy, the ranger who now prefers to think of himself as “independent,” considers the river his employer. “The river has given me my livelihood,” he says. “I owe the river a lot. I work for the Rio Grande first, and then I work for the National Park Service.”

Under the ranger’s auspices is the spring-fed stretch of the Rio Grande that’s been designated Wild and Scenic and his duties are often set by the river’s needs. He is deeply involved in resource management projects but when asked to describe what he does, the man who can tell you the date he saw his first turkey buzzard this spring, calls himself a “paid observer.” He downplays the more dramatic days and describes his life as one of simple satisfaction where his part as facilitator and witness to more quiet triumphs — increasing numbers of slider turtles and river mussels in the lower canyons, efforts to reintroduce blue suckers and Rio Grande silvery minnows — make the greatest stories of all.

Paredes, 49, worked as a river and horse trail guide in West Virginia, Mexico and Guatemala before settling in at Big Bend. And while he spends a great portion of his time on the river, he can also spend long days in the saddle rounding up trespassing stock. When he’s not on horseback, he’s most likely paddling a canoe — or aboard a hover craft. His day ends, more or less, when the sun sets. As he says, “I don’t come in till I can’t see anymore.” Some mornings he rises as early as 5 a.m. because the predawn hours can be his most satisfying. “My favorite time of day is just before the sun comes up — a brand new day nobody has screwed up. Sometimes it takes a while for that to happen; sometimes you get through the whole day and everything is just fine.”

When Paredes is on river patrol, he spends three to 10 days in a canoe; days spent watching the banks, the water, the horizons and the air. It is not a solitary job. “I am always spending days in the back country with people who are specialists in their field. The people I get to hang around with have taught me more than I ever learned in my formal education,” says Paredes, who is remarkably knowledgeable about Rio Grande flora and fauna. “I think that’s one of the great benefits of what I do. The people who enjoy doing the same kinds of things I do are the people that I get to hang around with.”

Who he hangs with is easy; where he likes to hang is a more difficult question. “You know people are always asking me ‘Which is your favorite canyon?’ or ‘What’s your favorite place?’ I have seven sisters and that is like asking ‘Which of your sisters is your favorite?’ If I have to answer, I’d say I like the lower canyons mostly because more is better and there are more of the lower canyons than anything else. It’s way out there … it is a place where you can travel and not run into other folks sometimes for the whole trip.”

“I think there’s very little wilderness left in the world now. All we can hope for is the illusion of wilderness and that’s what you get out there — the illusion of wilderness.”

That isn’t to say he’s not optimistic about the future of the Rio Grande: “One of the things I’ve been trying to do … rather than focus on the negative … I’ve been trying to show folks that along the Wild and Scenic, we’ve got a chunk of river that’s about as healthy as you could hope to find anywhere. And we should really concentrate on preserving that. I am optimistic. I think that every day more and more people are becoming aware of what we’re doing to this river and what needs to be done to protect it.”

When it comes to activism, Paredes not only talks the talk, he walks the walk. He has been involved in the Forgotten River Action Committee since its founding and also sits on the Texas Rivers Conservation Advisory Board for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Closer to home, he serves on the board of the Terlingua Fire and DMS and is active in private efforts to stop proposed low-grade coal mining in the area. Then there’s the home he and his wife have been building for eight years and the Little League Park he hopes to see finished soon.

“I don’t have any spare time. That’s by design. Why would you have spare time? You make sure you fill it with something.”

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