The Rio Grande acts as the border between the US and Mexico. So, if we were to paddle down the middle of the river, we’d be straddling two countries at the same time, right? Great travelers on a grandiose quest, existing in two distinct parts of the world all at once … Right. So let’s do that.
We took our paddle boards into Big Bend National Park for an adventure on the Big River. Without a way to shuttle ourselves and the boards from put-in to take-out and vice versa (having only one Nico the Van), we decided to put in where we’d take out. You’re imaging us paddling in a circle. You’re not wrong.
The idea was that we’d paddle upstream for a couple of miles, into and through Santa Elena Canyon one direction, then turn around and leisurely ride the current back. It was going to be a “boomerang” trip, and it sounded easy enough in March at low water.
That was the idea.
The water of the Rio was beautiful – several shades of green and almost green but still yellow – from bank to bank, Texas into Mexico. The tall grasses lining the river’s curves bent gently into the warm sun, hugging the breeze. We dodged small rocks and a sandbar and a river snake, cruising on a silence interrupted only briefly when our own paddles would slap the water with a ragged, distracted stroke. We floated wide-eyed and awed at where we were, seemingly alone in the middle of the Rio Grande, dwarfed by rocky bluffs and vacillating between two countries; we laughed at the enormity of it and how, in that moment, it felt so simple.
We hit shallow water pretty quickly and were forced to portage our boards over the gravel bar, upstream. We did this six or seven or ei
ght more times so our fins wouldn’t drag and scrape and catch on river rocks and river bottom, throwing us forward with jarring force. It was … more than a little frustrating – the interruption, or the inconvenience. Or maybe it was just that the boards were heavy. But we joked about it: portaging on the Mexico side was like some daring escape, crossing the “raging” river on the run from the law, Lone Star cowboys chasing us down on horseback. We were like Bonnie and Clyde, only western. With life vests.
And then the wind came. Not a nice wind. Not a cooling wind on a hot summer day. Not the kind of wind that rustles the secrets from trees and spills their leaves in a grand autumn cascade. No. A strong, vicious headwind, mocking us for traveling up-river. We fought it. We pushed harder and harder against its malice, abs burning, hair whipping across our faces, into the mouth of the Santa Elena Canyon.
It was a struggle, but we’d made it. We were protected there, flanked by 1,500 foot canyon walls. We were surrounded by gray canyon shadows and the sound of the Rio’s chatter … and by the voice of other tourists yelling “SPRING BREAK!” so loudly it reverberated off the walls and into the water, creating its own waves. They’d reached the canyon on foot from a parking lot only 1.4 miles away.
When it was time to turn around and head downstream we snickered at the audacity of the wind who had casually changed directions. You can’t break us, wind, you feisty such-and-such! We have the current on our side – HaHA!
And we did. But the wind … she had the clouds on her team, and they turned
out to be the MVP.
As we paddled down the river against the wind (again), the smattering of clouds in front of us began to come together. Quickly.
They went from cordial to menacing in a matter of minutes as our frenemy, the wind, brought them closer, closer, closer – teaming up against us. We heard thunder, light but rolling, and our skin tingled. And then the sunshine turned to lightning – one flash, thunder CLAP, two flashes and a pause … CLAP – and our adrenaline spiked, pumped through or veins so we’d paddle faster FASTER harder HARDER! Dig in, DIG IN! We hugged the shoreline, river left, directingthe lightning to the trees rather than the paddles that felt giant in our hands.
You know how, when you’re in panic mode, your heart is beating so loudly in your ears all you can hear is its echo against your heaving, frazzled breath and you feel like you’re moving SO FAST but you’re not actually getting anywhere? It was like that.
We made it back to Nico, threw the boards,vests, paddles underneath and locked ourselves inside. Safe. It rained for all of ten minutes and then the sky cleared. We made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (crunchy peanut butter and raspberry jelly, if you’re curious), packed up and headed for our campsite laughing, cursing the wind