While standing at the mouth of the magnificent canyon, it occurred to me that I should rent a raft and see the length of it. If the drunk and disorderly guys I was picking up could do it, how difficult could it be?
Raft Rental Man suggested I try Colorado Canyon first, since I had no river experience worth counting. I pitched the idea to two friends who worked with me in Lajitas and had followed me into trouble before. They went for it.
It was a stunning early-summer day when we started, bright sun and not a cloud in the sky. We entered Colorado Canyon with a raft full of excitement, lunch, water, sodas, and a bottle of wine. We were not stupid and had no intention of getting drunk. That was the only lesson we didn’t have to learn that day.
Lesson Number One: the “weatherman” knows nothing and is not to be trusted. Just because the day starts in a glorious show of everything that is perfect about weather doesn’t mean it will stay that way. Anything can happen between the start and close of any given day in Texas.
Lesson Number Two: Keep your shoes on.
Lesson Number Three: No two river trips are alike.
Lesson Number Four: Nothing in the Big Bend is as it seems—not distances, not weather, not anything.
Colorado Canyon is not stunning in the way of Santa Elena Canyon but is worth seeing in its own right. The walls are a deep reddish-brown; hence the Spanish name “colorado.” A few wildflowers still bloomed, and we marveled at the cacti hanging off the rough rock walls. We floated along, laughing and enjoying another day in paradise, and we suspected nothing.
As we exited the canyon we saw a hazy, cloudy “thing” coming upriver. Nina yelled, “Oh no! Get to shore! Get to shore!” She was raised in Big Bend Country and understood. Lee and I only went along with her because of the panic in her voice. The sky was still a perfect blue above us.
As we scrambled to shore the air got cold. We were barefoot in bathing suits. We got the raft situated on the bank and Nina started to explain, but a hurricane-force wind hit us. It knocked us down. The heavy raft with a cooler full of ice flew away and out of sight. With it went our long-sleeved shirts, all our gear, and our shoes.
“Lie flat, lie flat!” Nina screamed, but I was already face-down in a narrow arroyo that was beginning to trickle with muddy water. I knew I should move but that wasn’t happening. I clung to the wet ground and hoped to live to tell about it.
Lee yelled my name and I answered but after that, all we could hear was the screaming of the wind. I was from Florida and I’d never been through a hurricane like that. But I’d never weathered one outdoors, either—or on the ground, in a bathing suit, with stinging hail pounding down. After the hail came torrential rain. And then, as though removed by magic, the storm yanked the screeching wind upriver and they disappeared.
We stood and looked around in the wary way of survivors, located each other, hugged, and marveled at being alive. Accept for the eerie calm, the scattered debris, a missing raft, and my battered friends, the whole thing could’ve been imagined.
We were fortunate that Panther Canyon (a huge arroyo) was not running. We’d been lying at the place where it empties into the Rio Grande. The danger of being there hadn’t occurred to us because of the terror of the storm.
We had to walk out barefoot. It was a long and painful Lesson Two. When we finally arrived at Highway 170 no traffic was moving. We had no choice but to trudge up Big Hill with cut, scratched, bleeding feet. We must have looked like refugees by the time the highway maintenance crew stopped for us at the top of the mountain. By then the sun was shining. Everything about the scene spread before us belied what had happened at the mouth of Colorado Canyon.
I was sure Raft Rental Man would not believe our wild tale, but he smiled and shrugged as though it was no big deal. We said we’d pay for the raft, but he said, “Aw, it’ll turn up.” And it did, a week later, far from where we’d last seen it. The ice chest, clothes, and shoes were never located.
Since then I’ve had more river adventures than I can count, but I’ve never forgotten the Colorado Canyon Hurricane. And I always wore my shoes.