How Do You Paddle a Disappearing River?

I had barely unbuckled my seatbelt and was already wondering if I had driven six hours across Texas for nothing. A once-in-a-lifetime river adventure had seemingly evaporated with some disappointing news.

The Rio Grande in a section of the Temple Canyon route, outside Big Bend National Park in Texas, in March. The river’s depleting water has made finding sections deep enough to paddle increasingly challenging.Credit…Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The New York Times

It was the promise of a four-day, 33-mile canoe journey in Big Bend National Park, snaking through awe-inspiring canyons on a mighty river, that had lured me across the state. My partner’s brother, Michael Stangl, an occasional guide with Hidden Dagger Adventures, had offered to take me on the Rio Grande, one of the country’s longest rivers, which stretches from central Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico. I had only previously visited Big Bend on foot, and I was excited to see it from the water.

The moment I pulled into Michael’s driveway in Alpine, Texas, after driving there from Austin last April, he told me: We wouldn’t be going through the park anymore.

“Unless you want to go hiking with a canoe, we should run a different part of the river,” he said. Having just returned from that segment of the river — between Rio Grande Village, a small campground within Big Bend, and Heath Canyon Ranch, just outside the park — he said it had been “more work than fun,” and that he had been dragging the canoe for a quarter of a mile at a time over nearly dry riverbeds.

Previous water levels etched in rocks on the Temple Canyon route.Credit…Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The New York Times
Rocks and shells on the dry banks.Credit…Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The New York Times

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