Do you have fun when outdoor excursions go perfectly according to plan? Sure you do. But then again…in my experience, somehow the spirit of adventure and opportunities for growth only really enter the scene when conditions are less than idyllic.
In early February of 2020 I embarked on a 4-day canoe trip on the Rio Grande, starting in Big Bend National Park, Texas. My fellow adventurers were Chris, Nicole, and Eric. The four of us were very comfortable with each other but had never traveled together before, let alone on an expedition. That said, we were all what one might call ‘outdoorsy’.
I had worked in the outdoor industry for most of the last 6 years, embracing such opportunities as guiding multi-day sea kayaking trips in WA, leading 2-week sailing expeditions for teenagers with Outward Bound, and a summer teaching the arts of camp-stove cooking and two-wheeled biking to 3-4 year olds with Avid4 Adventure. Eric’s professional career was based on boats, Nicole loved to hike, and Chris ran an environmental non-profit that focused on offering inner-city children opportunities in nature. When it comes to specifically canoeing experience though, collectively we did not boast the most impressive credentials. I had embarked on casual paddles of an hour or so in length, 2-3 times over the last decade; Nicole had even less expertise, and Eric paddled a 100-mile section of the Rio Grande as part of a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) course…11 years prior.
On an interpersonal level, the four of us had never done more than a day hike in each other’s company, so I wasn’t sure what issues might arise around tasks like meal prep, cleaning duties, and handling of the much-feared ‘wag bag’ (Leave No Trace Principle 3 - Dispose of Waste Properly - manifests in an unconventional way on the river. It is illegal to dig a hole for your poop along the Rio Grande, so you have to purchase bags that you either hold open, or prop open inside a 5 gallon bucket and use as your toilet for ‘# 2’– oh so glamorous). Yet, our trip began without an inkling of a hitch. The weather was beautiful, the water was cool, the steep canyon walls and accompanying high-rise caves were awe-inspiring.
We took breaks to explore slot canyons and after the first afternoon we had the entire 35-mile stretch to ourselves. Eric and Chris offered Nicole and I enough paddling tips that we moved through the shallow water quite comfortably and we had all taken responsibility for planning different meals, so we shared the cooking and cleaning tasks without a problem.
As you can probably guess, the whole trip wasn’t so rosy. On the morning of Day 3 we awoke to a rather strong sustained breeze (coming from the direction we were headed) and cloudy skies. As we ate our oatmeal and packed up camp, there was no sign of either one clearing. After checking our position on the map, we figured that in order to be able to reach our pick-up location by noon the next day, we needed to make significant distance: in the neighborhood of 9 miles. Our route took us outside the boundaries of Big Bend National Park and into public land where camping options were fewer and farther between. After paddling for several hours into the headwind, the cloudy skies turned into a light drizzle, which then developed into full-fledged rain. We ate lunch in a grassy field that offered a little shelter from the wind. As it often does, food lifted our ever-so-slightly dampened spirits (we even discovered an unopened can of olives - jackpot!).
Unfortunately, after lunch our cheery outlooks fogged. Upon leaving the conspicuous canyon walls of the Park, we entered a flat expanse of land, flanked on both sides by high river banks covered in bushes, making it impossible to tell where we were on the topographic map charting our route. Around 3pm we grew concerned, cold, and cranky. If we couldn’t pinpoint our location we risked coming upon the last rapid of our section unprepared. Finally, we spotted a sign of civilization: a small water tower. I climbed it in the hopes of obtaining a vantage point that could help us discern our whereabouts and thankfully, a few rungs from the top I spotted a private ranch that was indeed marked on our map.
Our next hurdle was finding a place to camp. By then we had paddled well over the 9 mile target, darkness was impending, and hangry-ness looming. Chris and Nicole pulled up on a potentially promising riverbank to bushwhack into the thicket in search of flat, clear ground while Eric and I went further down the river in search of the same. Unfortunately, in our one-track mindset, we neglected to tell the ‘bushwhack team’ that we were going to scout ahead and would come back to tell them what we found. This brought unnecessary stress and unease on Nicole in particular when she realized we had seemingly disappeared.
As it happened, Eric and I discovered a great spot immediately before the last set of rapids, but when he paddled back to inform Chris and Nicole, our lack of communication with them caused emotions to boil over. By the time we all convened at our new camp, rain was descending in huge drops. We set up our tents in silence and ate dinner in a notably tense atmosphere; our arduous day had taken a toll.
The next morning the skies had cleared, and we watched a beautiful sunrise on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande as we air-dried our soggy gear. Eric and I reiterated apologies about the night before, the last leg of the river went smoothly, and the trip ended on a high note.
At that point we felt like we had accomplished more than navigating a river. We braved the weather and acknowledged oversights. The adverse conditions we faced provided opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them. In the future, in addition to following Leave No Trace Principle 1 - Plan Ahead and Prepare and being as prepared as possible for my trip, I will remember the undue stress that was caused by my lack of communication on this river expedition, and I will know to take the extra seconds to share every plan with my group. If we had smooth sailing the whole week I would not have benefited from such a lesson. That is the key to growth: obstacles must be present in order to learn from your experiences; those obstacles tend to stay hidden when everything goes exactly as planned.
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