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Ahead of us lay a two-week journey, 149 miles down the glittering Rio Grande, past canyons and cliffs, and through the heart of the Chihuahuan desert. In order to abide by constantly changing park regulations, our gap year group split into two. For the first few days Ruby and Lillian led Luke, Sadie, Emmett N, and Aislyn, while Tricia led Lael, Harry, Sam, Emmett M-F and Kiely. The former group set off in two loaded tandem canoes and two solo canoes, getting a feel for paddling again and hitting a few class 1-2 rapids before camping near Closed Canyon. We spent a layover day soaking up the southwestern sun, unwinding from the long road trip, and exploring the surrounding cliffs. It was an incredible feeling to reach the top of the canyon and look down at the green ribbon far below, no longer roaring so loudly. We hiked a nearby hillside to look north, taking in a landscape of jagged peaks and Dr. Seuss-like plants.

Finally on the Rio Grande

Tricia’s group stayed at Contrabando Campground for another day, going for a 6-mile desert hike before putting in on the river the next morning. The two groups leap frogged back and forth past a series of class 2-3 rapids (filling a few boats in the process) and tuning ourselves to the rhythm and flow of the water. Life quickly became simplified: We’d rise with the sun for yoga before breakfast and packing camp, followed by spending the day on the river, sharing stories with canoe partners and marveling at geometric rock faces and wild horses, clay swallows’ nests and riverside vegetation. After camp set up, cooks would start a fire in the summer stove while the rest of the group took time to rest, journal or explore the surrounding area.

Some expedition food highlights:

  • Ruby and Lil whipped up some delicious bean and veggie chili and dutch oven cornbread with homemade tortillas, lime and honey butter!
  • There was so much melty butter that Tricia’s group got creative and used leftovers powdered sugar to make frosting, then dipped chocolate covered pretzels in their concoction
  • Aislyn made bakery-quality jam and chocolate turnovers
  • Tapatío hot sauce on everything (and Emmett N’s dehydrated hot peppers)
  • This group LOVES soup

On day five we entered Santa Elena Canyon, said to be one of the most beautiful sections of the Rio Grande. There we hit our only class 4 rapid, the Rockslide. More of a labyrinth than a rapid, it involved navigating our heavy boats around an array of boulders and through fast-moving water. With clear communication and a planned line, everyone made it through smoothly. Now we could fully admire the 1500ft. cliffs blocking out much of the sky. The two groups camped across from one another near a side canyon that we set out to explore. With Emmett N leading the way, we bouldered our way up a long, dried river bed, past pot holes, swirling rock formations and caves. We soon found out why it was called Fern Canyon – there was a pristine stream percolating through the rocks, with delicate ferns and moss growing from between the cracks.

Here we go!

Day six brought a switch of instructors, Ruby and Lillian’s group going with Tricia and vice versa. We spent the next few days further setting into life on the river. This section of paddling culminated in a night paddle under the Milky Way. There was no moon, but the stars alone were enough to illuminate the silvery water as we glided around each bend, jumping at the occasional beaver-slap (or was it the Yucca Man?!).

Sunset on the Rio

The final five nights of our journey down the Rio were spent without instructors and this group solo was a major highlight of the expedition. We trusted ourselves and one another to efficiently set up and take down camp, cook delicious meals and achieve our daily mileage and academics – with plenty of time left to truly soak in our surroundings. We decided as a group to layover outside of Mariscal Canyon and spent the day swimming, crafting, hiking/bushwhacking, and playing some intense rounds of cards around the fire. There was lots of laughter and no instructors meant pancakes for dinner! During evening meetings we asked deep questions of one another, and the vulnerability and realness helped us to understand and love everyone in the group more fully, as well as become more comfortable sharing even the hardest parts of our individual stories.

On the last night of the group solo Sam, Luke and Sadie explored Puerto Rico Canyon using the machete to hack through the forest of thorns between our campsite and the mouth of the side canyon. We walked along the river bed, through passageways of rock that looked as if they were human built. We climbed up a rockslide to a gigantic wind cave, a gaping hole in the side of the cliff. As we walked back it became steadily darker and a canoe rescue by headlamp was needed to ferry us back to camp.

We came back together with the instructors for our final night on the Rio, debriefing our solo and cooking some amazing hot-sauce topped man n’ cheese and melty brownies. With the river in our hearts and souls, we are off to the Arizona Trail!