Words by Alan Kesselheim // Photos by Marypat Zitzer
“You’re paddling the Great Unknown,” the shuttle driver tells us on the way to the put-in at Colorado Canyon on the Rio Grande. “Those open stretches between the canyons—nobody goes out there. And who knows what surprises the floods left.”
We don’t tell him that the last time we were here, 14 years ago, the unknowns were greater, and the odds of making it through more daunting.
Back then, Eli and Sawyer were 2 and 3, and Marypat was seven months pregnant with Ruby. She gave new meaning to Big Bend every time she tried to tie her shoe. We had arrived after four days of driving from Montana, stuffed into an overloaded ’87 Subaru wagon with a canoe strapped overhead, toys and river gear exploding out like bomb debris every time the doors opened.
We then crammed everything—two adults, two marginally potty-trained toddlers, gear and food for two weeks—into a 17-foot canoe and set off downriver. I have no idea how we pulled it off, or what possessed us to try in the first place.
Each of the kids has a river they experienced from the womb, as Ruby did the Rio Grande in 1995. In 1991, Marypat was pregnant with Eli on the Kazan River running through Canada’s Nunavut Territory. The next summer, when Eli was 9 months old, we paddled 600 miles on the Yellowstone River with Sawyer as a fetal stowaway. As each of the kids reaches 13, we’ve made a tradition of returning to their river as a family to mark the transition to adulthood.
Now it’s Ruby’s turn, the final chapter in a coming-of-age story that encompasses four years and three of the continent’s great rivers. She was 10 when this all started on Eli’s 40-day epic down the Kazan. The next summer she paddled the entire Yellowstone and spent a week in the Wyoming mountains hiking to its headwaters. Now she’s 13, Sawyer, 16, and Eli, 17. The Great Unknown lies ahead.
THIS TIME, THE BOMB DEBRIS EXPLODES out of our tired Honda minivan: camp chairs, a foot pump, food barrels, drybags, a fire pan.The Rio Grande runs past at 100 yards, green and cold. The signs of recent, unprecedented flooding manifest in the ripped-out boat ramp, the non-existent outhouse, the muddy boulder field across which we have to schlep all this stuff.
Maybe it’s the chaotic scene, or the thought of all that has brought us here, but the memories start to kaleidoscope for me, crystallizing and dissolving. All of the put-ins through the years—the gravel bars on the Yellowstone, the muddy banks of the Yukon, boat ramps on the Salmon and Colorado and Green, a rocky lakeshore in Northern Saskatchewan. Huddling under tarps, holding babies through hailstorms. The canoe festooned with drying cloth diapers. Waiting out a snowstorm at a Snake River put-in where Ruby locked our keys in the car. Sawyer falling out of a tree and impaling his neck on a sharp stick along the Marias River, four miles from the nearest dirt road.
My memories stretch back before the kids, when Marypat and I cemented our partnership on the rivers of the Far North. Rivers are how we fell in love. They run through our lives more prominently than jobs or street addresses. Because of that, each child has a birth river. Because of that, for better or worse, rivers became our legacy to them.
Ruby is tall for her age, robust and strong. It’s only by virtue of her toughness and attitude that we’ve managed to pull these trips off. Not every 10-year-old could have handled a summer of wind and cold and bugs on the tundra. Ruby thrived on it. She played air guitar in her polka-dot raincoat by the fire during a storm. She swam in every frigid lake, exposed to clouds of black flies. The next year, on Sawyer’s trip, she carried a full backpack for a week to climb Younts Peak at the headwaters of the Yellowstone.
Our first night on the Rio Grande, Ruby cajoles the boys into swimming across to some cliffs for an adventure. They spider around barefoot on the river-polished rocks. A canyon wren calls. Three days earlier we had driven away from Montana in 20-below cold, the bowline of our canoe a frozen knot that didn’t thaw until Denver. Now, they come chattering up in swimsuits to huddle around the fire pan. We cook our first dinner on driftwood flames with the short day disappearing over Mexican cliffs.
In 1995, on the first family descent through Big Bend, the Rio Grande was a bare trickle. The river doesn’t make it past El Paso most years, sucked dry along the gauntlet through Colorado and New Mexico. In the ’90s the region had been in the grip of a decade-long drought.
This time we follow the wake of fall flooding that roared out of northern Mexico and hurtled through the canyons 30 feet up the walls. Riverside roadways are still coated with mud. Tamarisk and cane thickets have been ripped out or buried under yards of sediment. The river has only been open to canoes for a week.
It takes about three days for River Time to click in. Three days of handling the “wall shots” the river is notorious for, of camping on beds of shale, of watching peregrine falcons and of acclimating to shorts and T-shirts and the purling sound of the current through the long nights.
About the same time clocks lose hold, the Rio Grande slicks our three boats into the abrupt maw of Santa Elena Canyon and accelerates them toward Rock Slide Rapid. The day goes cool and shady. It smells of rock. The Rio Grande pillows around corners, smacks into walls, drives deep under sheer cliffs. The sky is a slit of washed-out blue. Rock Slide is a random obstacle course created by huge boulders breaking off the canyon walls and plummeting directly into the river. Around a corner it confronts us. The river appears completely blocked with van-sized rocks. Our unanimous reaction is to back-paddle. We pull in and scramble down through a slope of boulders littered with flood debris.
At high flows, Rock Slide is a maelstrom of water equal to anything in the Grand Canyon. At this level it is entirely doable, but deceptively tricky. The crux comes at the beginning, where the river piles through two narrow gaps—Texas Gate and Mexican Gate. The Texas side is plugged solid with flood junk. We stand directly above the Mexican Gate, studying the tight move to slip into the eddy. I think briefly about lining the boats, but it looks messy.
“I think you guys should take both canoes down,” Ruby says to Marypat and I.
“I’ll see how you do before I take the ducky,” Sawyer agrees.
Eli positions himself on a low rock where he might reach out and snag our stern if we miss our move. Marypat and I rock-hop back to the boats, checking our markers as we go. Our run in the old Dagger Legend is clean. We ferry smoothly away from current sucking under the mid-channel boulders and ease into the eddy as easily as if we’re parking in a driveway. The second run is a different story. Halfway down, the river shunts us into the wrong eddy. We reenter the flow, manage to survive the crux, then slam bow-first into a rock as we horse the boat into the proper eddy. Sawyer follows in the ducky like a champ.
The rest of the rapid is magical—current eddies and tongues through the thicket of rock. We slip the canoes through tight passages, ferry in and out of pools, linger in the maze, thinking about the mud- thick roar of flood or the wallop of a rock the size of our living room landing in the river from a thousand feet up.
Some places deserve the word sublime.
ON THE LONGEST NIGHT OF THE YEAR we honor the pagan impulse and set candles adrift in front of camp at the mouth of Fern Canyon, a picturesque tributary slot coming into Santa Elena Canyon. It’s warm out, the night black as a cave.
“C’mon you guys,” Marypat coaxes the boys into a huddle. They trudge over, acquiescing to another of mom’s quirky activities. “We each have a candle. We make a wish and set them in the river, see whose lasts the longest.”
Once it becomes a competition, the kids’ interest ratchets up a notch. We each ponder a wish, light a candle, and set it in the river. They bob in the still water, jostling against each other. Then Sawyer’s zooms off upstream in a micro-eddy. Eli’s follows. Ruby’s candle edges into the main current, sets sail down river, into a big eddy on a curve, where it circulates and explores little crannies. The spark of light is sharp in the night.
The boys’ candles wink out. Marypat’s and mine flicker and die. Ruby’s lasts and lasts. Marypat gets pulled into the metaphor of Ruby’s light, starts cheering it on. Little waves rock the candle, it flickers, nearly goes out, comes back. Marypat cheers. It burns on, moving erratically.
Eli gets bored, threatens to chuck a rock at it. “Don’t you dare!” Marypat says. Finally the light takes off, bobbing and winking away from us. Marypat walks next to Ruby back to the tent, holding her arm tight to her side.
We lie together on the sand, our family, under the warm darkness. To be honest, Marypat’s and my own selfishness has driven the enterprise as much as anything. It is what we do, so it is what our children do. Selfish or not, it has gathered its own momentum and has become a matter of pride and accomplishment for us all.
I can’t sleep. I think about how each of the kids identified themselves at a young age. Before they could talk or walk I knew on some essential level who they were–Eli’s confident poise, Sawyer’s intuitive wisdom, Ruby’s bright spirit–as I held them and sang them to sleep. But then the layers built up like tree rings, based on teachers, friends, social temptations, romance, accidents. So that Eli is a kid who wants a muscle car and could thrive in a big city. Sawyer has the goofy sense of humor and the disposition for horrendous accidents. Ruby is driven to cram experiences into life and will, by God, get it done before bedtime. We are only tangentially responsible. There is so much we don’t know.
And yet, we do know this. We have these islands of time together on the currents of North America, together in tents under night skies, or discussing rapids on riverbanks, or huddled over maps, dodging weather, striking fires. Time together during which we become trip peers more than parents and children.
What it means, how it will all work out, who they will become—well, that’s still a crapshoot.
THE GREAT UNKNOWN, even after the floods, turns out to be just that: formidable only because no one goes there. It’s nothing more or less than a river winding through open Chihuahuan desert with a massive scarp of limestone rising into Mexico and volcanic rock jutting everywhere in Texas–Mule Ears, Cerro Castellan, Elephant Tusk. Days under warm skies, in wind, around the fire pan with doves cooing in the darkness. Too bad for the tourists who can only afford a day of spectacle in the canyons and for whom River Time is as foreign as Farsi.
A week in, on a long stretch of river, a pair of red-tailed hawks clatter out of the underbrush and fly downriver. One of them roosts again. We paddle close. It takes off and lands again. We play tag for a mile. Later, Marypat coasts under a great-horned owl roosting on an overhanging branch. A pigeon hawk dives and circles above it. The owl hunches, implacable, below the hectoring falcon while Marypat drifts beneath clicking pictures. These things come only by being out day after day, bend after bend, watching, getting right with a place.
We have Christmas morning on a mid- river island with the border drawn down the middle. It’s cold. Mist steams off the water. The sun washes across the desert, we indulge another cup of hot coffee, open a few gifts– who needs Santa?
More canyons come to us. Mariscal, Boquillas, San Vicente, where the river slides through portals of rock. Where rapids full of boulders spike the days. Where Ruby gets pinned against a boulder in the ducky in Tight Squeeze Rapid and has to swim. Where black vultures perch on the rims and wild donkeys bray up the side canyons and tarantulas the size of mice lurk on trails.
In one of those Mexican side canyons we conduct Ruby’s coming-of-age ceremony. It’s a place we recognize. Half a mile up, a huge boulder teeters on a tripod of rocks. We have an old picture of the boys sitting under that same boulder with plenty of headroom. This time they can barely get under it. Nearby a slit of limestone is carved in the bottom of the canyon floor. It’s a cool, shady alley. I run my hand over rock as sensuous as skin. A small pool shimmers in the shadows. Ruby stands in the center, straddling the pool. Marypat casts the circle. Each of us takes a compass direction. We honor Mother Earth, honor the elements, honor this girl. Marypat gives her a bracelet with her name and her birth river inscribed. The final bracelet. Ruby slips it on. The boys each glance at theirs.
We’ve had three of these ceremonies—on a sand spit on Ennadai Lake, on a gravel bar along the Yellowstone, and here in this unvisited Mexican pocket of rock. My attitude has evolved from one of awkward acceptance of a contrived ritual to one of genuine reverence.
Our culture has come so far from honoring the earth that we have no idea how to do it anymore. We have to make it up, like new pilgrims. We jostle in together, take Ruby into an embrace of bare arms and sunburn, river grit and bad hair. It feels lonely and strong, meek and empowered, solemn and elated.
DAY BY DAY OUR TOWN PERSONALITIES peel away like snake skins. River miles whisper into our wakes. Montana, the economic meltdown, school and work, recede to another dimension. The kids reclaim their kinship. They swim rapids, clamber barefoot along a canyon ledge to a cave, give each other backrubs. It used to be that we had to entertain them in camp. Now we have to call them for dinner.
At the hot springs above Rio Grande Village we meet a man with a salt-and- pepper beard down to his chest. He fills us in on local history while we soak off the layers of river and camp grit. His nickname is Peanut. He makes his living selling roasted peanuts in Maine every summer, and spends his winters lounging in Big Bend.
Eli is starting to think about college. On his map of future possibilities it strikes me as a good thing to have a landmark named Peanut who has navigated his way to live free of debt and to make his seasonal pilgrimage to a place that has grabbed hold of him. What’s a 401(k) when you have a hot spring to soak in, a desert oasis to park your rig, and a river-running past?
In two weeks we never use the rain fly on our tent. I wake on the last river day to a planet resisting dawn. My family slumbers around me. An owl calls. The Kazan, the Yellowstone, the Rio Grande braid in and out of my sleepy thoughts. Musk ox, agates, alpine meadows, bald eagles, the roar of whitewater. Ruby diving off a rock, Eli whittling a stick, Marypat baking bannock, Sawyer pointing out a jaeger.
I catch myself thinking ahead to future trips. My images don’t have the kids in them, just Marypat and I in a tandem canoe. I turn away mentally. It is too hard with the three of them breathing next to me, and with the emotions that rise at the thought.
Our takeout is at the abandoned mining town of La Linda. A barricaded, fenced highway bridge symbolizes our international neighborliness. Across the river the buildings sit quiet. Mexico spreads off in a tawny sweep the size of the horizon.
We disassemble boats, dry things out, repack for the road. The shuttle will pick us up at dawn. When night comes, Marypat pulls out another set of floating candles. No one says a thing. This time there is no competitive atmosphere, no reluctance to participate, only a mute recognition of closing. We huddle around a match and set candles in the river.
The candles immediately set off in smooth current. Five of them, river-bound stars, bob in a loose constellation towards the river bend. They slip around the corner out of sight, still twinkling, into the next long stretch of Unknown.
—C&K Editor-at-Large Alan Kesselheim is author of Let Them Paddle: Coming of Age on the Water. He lives and writes in Bozeman, Montana.