After our biking leg of expedition, we posted up at Grassy Banks Campsite beside the Rio Grande to swap our gear with the Gap Year Group. We prepared for our two weeks on the river, and said goodbye to Jackie and Magda and the Gap Year students.
Finally, on November 20th, the first group put on the river, entering a landscape of green water and folliage juxtaposed with the dry, sandy canyons that towered over us. We paddled through Colorado Canyon and got a feel for the water before the sun fell beyond the cliffs. We set up camp inside Closed Canyon. Soon, we began to understand and enjoy living simply on the river, eating good meals, bathing in its rushing current, and hearing its whoosh whoosh and roar past us as we slept each night.
Our following days were spent paddling under the hot sun and big sky. We studied the river’s hydrology, learning how to read its currents and recalling paddling skills from our first expedition many months before. When we put on the water, the river was releasing at 750CFS, which allowed us to run class II+ rapids. But each day, the flow decreased and the river changed. (By the end of our trip the flow had reduced to as low as 150CFS in certain areas) We found ourselves working hard at times to dodge protruding rocks in shallow areas. When we took time to relax and let the lazy parts of the Rio Grande carry us, we read together and soaked up the hot sun, gunnaled-up in canoe flotillas.
We started our trip reading Canyons, by Gary Paulson, opening up our minds to the different energies of the canyons that surrounded us. On our fourth day of paddling, with our skills refreshed and gear strapped down tightly, we nagivated our biggest paddling challenge yet: the Rock Slide rapid. It is rated a class IV at high water levels, and sits at the entrance to Santa Elena Canyon. The rapid is characterized by its garden of boulders, tricky squeezes and strong eddie lines, ready to flip any boat that dares run through it. We scouted from river right before running a route the locals call “Texas Gate.” Each boat made it through safe and sound, with confidence and maybe a bump or two. Following the rapid, we were met with the most beautiful canyon any of us had ever seen. Santa Elena Canyon loomed above us like the skyscrapers of a big city. Its massive cliffs stood fifteen hundred feet tall. After a few miles exploring the expanse of weathered rock walls, we pulled off to set up camp beside Fern Canyon. With our systems in place, we were able to set up a “sexy” camp quickly, allowing us to spend our afternoon making leather journal bags. We ate a good dinner that night and slept on the tall grass of the warm canyon.
The next morning, we ate breakfast and hiked into Fern Canyon with just our sleeping bags, water bottles and journals. We were each placed apart from one another and left with a blessing. We were going to spend the next 24 hours solo in the canyon. Some of us spent the time writing, meditating, stacking rocks and sleeping; some didn’t sleep at all. We were held by the canyon walls, the bats and the shadows. There, while we fasted, we reflected on our experiences. The following morning we were pulled from our spots, refreshed and ready to face the river once again. We explored the caves of Fern Canyon and exited the rocky ravine for a Thanksgiving morning feast, ending our 24-hour fast. We paddled out of the massive, winding canyon and spent that night expressing gratitude and sharing another filling meal.
The following day we paddled a long stretch of “the great unknown,” a seldom traveled section of river. As evening fell, we pulled off to a rocky shore for dinner. The sun set and moon began to rise, and we repacked the kitchen. We loaded back into our canoes and paddled under the bright moonlight. It was a late night, full of laughter and a real change in our collective perspective. Without daylight, we had to feel instead of see the river to follow its curves. After nine miles in the dark, we made it to our camp.
Our instructors left us again the next morning for another solo, this time with the agreement that we would meet them down the river the next morning. After finishing our assigned academic work—studying the flora and fauna around the river—we bathed in the water and the sun and relaxed together. We had a good night: full stomachs, shooting stars, and connection around the fire.
We left early the next morning and paddled with the sunrise. As the desert woke up, the sun lit the river on fire; steam rose off its calm green waters and through it, we watched the dark beige mesas in the distance turn pink. We made good time, and decided to make the morning special and stop paddling to float together. We met up with Ruby, Tricia and Lillian later that morning and paddled to our next camp.
After debriefing our successful solo, our instructor team decided to send us off on a two-day solo trip down the river. We woke up the next morning and said our third round of goodbyes to them. We paddled through San Vicente Canyon and on to our next campsite. By this point, we had become a community of students with the skills to live and thrive on the river together in the absence of the instructors.
We spent the next night and morning at the “horse with the jingly bell camp,” making good meals of lentils, cake and oatmeal. We ate well on the river, and filled our meals with attention, taste and love.
The next morning we paddled to the hot springs and bathed in steaming hot water that pours into the river. It was a full day of soaking up—maybe a little too much—sun. We traveled through Boquillas Canyon, exploring its cliffs and bends while watching turtles dive off cliffs into the water. We camped in Puerto Rico Canyon that night, deepening in our small group and enjoying a windy night together. We finished our solo the next morning after a truly special experience: we were a bunch of smelly teenagers traveling down the river together; we trusted each other with our lives; and we lived in beautiful places.
We met up with the instructors that morning and paddled out of the canyon to our final campsite. We looked back over our experiences that night, recalling each and every momemt and meal. We thought about all that we had gained. We shared appreciations and love for our expereinces and each other. The next morning we paddled to our take-out and packed the van for the 2100 mile journey home. We left the river full of love and light, closer to ourselves, each other and the land than ever before.