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I am currently an avid whitewater paddler and adventurer who is living in Texas for a year while attending school. Now, Texas is not exactly known for its whitewater paddling, but while I’m here I absolutely plan to get the best of what’s around! In Texas, that seems to be the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande. Located in Far West Texas, these canyon walls rise up 1,700 feet out of the river, which serves as the border between the United States and Mexico.
The logistics for the trip provided a stressful challenge. First, during the summer, daytime temperatures soar to 120 degrees and only cool to around 100 at night. This is the Chihuahuan Desert after all! Hence, the best time to run the canyons is during the winter, conveniently timed with my Christmas break. Tragically, epic snowfall hit Colorado this season, so I failed in my attempt to recruit fellow boaters to make the journey. I have run much harder runs solo – Gore, Bailey, Clear Creek – but I had never spent anywhere near a week solo. The trip is 84 miles and I figured if I pushed the pace, six days would suffice.
Second on my list of concerns was personal security. As everyone is aware, Juarez, 200 miles to the northeast has become somewhat of a war zone between drug cartels. I tried to get as much information as possible. The shuttle driver said the Lower Canyons were safe, the locals I met in the bar said I was likely to get abducted and ransomed for $300, and the Boarder Patrol declared it illegal for river trips to camp in Mexico. However, the voice I chose to hear was that of the park ranger, Jim, at the Big Bend National Park ranger station where I obtained my permit. He said that this was possibly the most remote area south of Canada. There are no roads into the canyons for a hundred miles. Jim thought there was zero chance of me seeing anyone, much less someone that would want to tango. I did consider bringing a handgun because everyone in Texas seems to have a spare or two, but changed my mind after finding out that possession of a gun in Mexico is a felony. As scary as cartels are, Mexican prisons sound worse!
My trip randomly started at the Famous Burro bar in Marathon, Texas. If you head to the area, I highly recommend a stop at this joint. After locking the bar doors and extinguishing the ‘Open’ fluorescence at 2am, we proceeded to keep the bar rockin’ until after 4am. I picked up my shuttle driver at 8am and proceeded to the Rio!
There is something glorious about setting off into the river at the beginning of an adventure. The first floating strokes are freedom in its finest. Gliding into the unknown. For me, I get a bit of relief. All of the planning is done, the trip is actually happening. Nothing to do now but breathe.
By the end of that first day, I knew what it was to exist in Far West Texas. Not being a cowboy, I made the mistake of bringing nice Patagonia fleece as my only pants. The enormous thistles protruding from every branch, brush and ground cover attacked. Hailing from Colorado, I had never known why cowboys insisted on wearing boots and jeans year-round. Leaving the jeans at home is a mistake I’ll never make twice in the vast emptiness of longhorn country.
Through the ensuing week, I figured out a lot about the southern desert. One aspect that I completely lucked out on was my choice boat, the Jackson Kayak Journey. I had originally planned to paddle my creekboat, which would have been completely out of its element. At the last minute, Duane from T G Canoes and Kayaks in San Marcos, TX, came through with a 14 foot Journey! I was especially thrilled because my comfort level and gear storage had just doubled or tripled! The Journey is really well considered. With two dry hatches, I was able to bring all of my creature comforts and extra food. I didn’t travel light and the boat easily contained food for 9 days, a Crazy Creek chair, a backpacking stove with 3 extra fuel containers, a large 0 degree sleeping bag, extra hiking shoes, three 24-ounce six packs of Budweiser American Ale, an aluminum fire pan and four gallons of water in addition to lots of extra emergency winter clothes! Countless class II-III rapids with the occasional class IV only minimally infiltrated the dry hatches with some moisture. In fact the dry storage was so good, I only put my sleeping bag and emergency clothes into a dry bag. Everything else including food, stove and sleeping pad remained plenty dry under the hatches without the protection of a dry bag. The mesh on top kept my necessities at hand, which allowed me to make long distances without breaking. The insulated beverage holder was the perfect size to keep my Nalgene with hot cocoa warm and a quick snack accessible.
Having never been in a touring boat, I couldn’t believe how fast the Journey ate flat water. The Journey I had didn’t include the optional Smart Track Rudder, but the hull design had no problems staying straight and speedy. I was also impressed with the ability of the Journey to navigate whitewater. The boat amazingly boofed tight class IV slots and sailed smooth through mandatory low-water, mid-rapid ferries. After paddling a creek boat for hundreds of days in the last few years, the edge turning naturally felt slow, but was good enough to comfortably run technical class III whitewater. The Journey has exceptional primary stability and I never once had to brace in the whitewater. After paddling for a week, it was clear that the plastic would live up to Jackson’s high expectations for durability. Every evening, I would pull the loaded boat up onto my usually rocky campsite and after six days the plastic still looked new. I even challenged the Journey with low water boulder gardens, but I have no doubt that that Jackson Kayak will find it easy to stand behind the lifetime warranty because it will be near impossible to break a Journey. After all, it has the same plastic as the whitewater kayak lineup!
Even though I measure in at 6‘2” with size 11 feet, the Journey kept me comfortable enough to paddle 6-8 hours per day for nearly a week! I added two shims to both hip pads to keep me in solid contact with the boat. One recommendation that I would have for future Journey’ers is to add a Jackson Kayak Sweet Cheeks seat pad. The included seat is plenty comfortable for a couple days, but after a week I was definitely regretting that I forgot my Sweet Cheeks at home. The cockpit fits a standard XL whitewater spray skirt rand, yet provided plenty of room to stretch my legs while keeping a dry bag with a camera, hat, sunglasses, map and GPS between my legs. I was even able to store hiking shoes and two water bottles in front of the foot pegs. Paddling my creeker would have been a complete suffer-fest, but the Journey kept me smiling for 84 solid miles!
My main reason for desert expeditions is to explore all of the little slot canyons that meet the main flow. From the great Deer Creek, the minute Matkatamiba, or the dangerous uranium mines of Hey Joe, slot canyons always have amazingly different personalities. The lower canyons of the Rio Grande have some standouts. The mouth of Many Tinaja Canyon shocked me because of how many cougar prints littered the soft sand as the drainage spread into the Rio. I could clearly see a set of rabbit prints cross half-way across the sand and then disappear as a set of cougar prints over-took the rabbit prints from behind. Hopefully, the lion wouldn’t be hungry as I pushed up the drainage yelling, “Here Cougar!” Not far up, the slot looked to end in an enormous tinaja, which most kayakers would refer to as a pot-hole or hollowed out area at the base of a sandstone waterfall. Luckily, nature provided an enormous tree climbing adventure to access the upper canyon…
Later in the day I found myself in Big Thicket Voyagers slot. The highlight was a gargantuan double entrance cave that had been inhabited by arrowhead chipping Native Americans. There remains ancient evidence from their work with stone blades on animal hides.
After hot muggy hikes, the Rio Grande offered up a beautiful hot springs teeming with minnows. At the springs campsite, I had my closest animal encounter when a skunk ambled right up to me while I was star gazing. After a tense few minutes, I managed to convince the white stripe to leave without me needing a tomato soup bath. However, the best company I had on the trip were the turtles. They were everywhere, around every bend, in every rocky piece of sunshine. I named them Yurtle.
Solo kayaking is not for everyone. It significantly increases the consequences of the slightest mistake. But there is a certain awareness, a heightened acuity of the senses that comes with a solo experience. A bit of clarity that emerges out of the chaos of life.

Special thanks to Jackson Kayaks, Marty, Duane and especially T G Canoe and Kayak!