Borderland: Packrafting the Rio Grande

Photos and text by Colin Arisman

In January four friends and I set out on a weeklong, 83 mile journey by packraft down the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande. Just downstream of Big Bend National Park, this section of Wild & Scenic river is one of the most remote waterways in the lower 48, running through deep canyons that form the Mexico - Texas border.

Rio Grande Lower Canyons Put In

Phoenix was the meetup point for our crew. We packed into my buddies old 4 Runner with a weeks worth of gear and twelve hours later found ourselves in Big Bend National Park.

One reasons our crew was drawn to the Rio Grande was because we could float it in the middle of winter. Another motivation was to better understand the threat posed by Trump’s border wall to our wild public lands.

Packrafting Texas Rio Grande

None of us had ever visited the Rio Grande before and we didn’t know what to expect. The scenery blew us away from day one. This is deafeningly quiet country.

Packraft Reflection Rio Grande

Our first night out we huddled around the fire and looked up at an unbelievably clear night sky.

We slept under the stars and woke up covered in frost in the morning.

_DSC1057.jpg

By the end of day three we had left the open expanse of the desert flats and entered the canyon.

_DSC1283.jpg

We climbed up to the canyon rim at sunset to get a better perspective of the country.

_DSC1468.jpg
_DSC1470.jpg

The Rio Grande’s water quality is questionable at best. Despite the warnings we couldn’t resist cooking up a few catfish with our dinners.

There is nothing like settling into the pace of river life on a multi-day trip.

_DSC1748.jpg
_DSC2036.jpg
_DSC2052.jpg

We didn’t know what to expect of the rapids given the fear mongering tone of the guidebook. Generally, the river was flat and required consistent paddling to make our goal of ten miles a day. A few fun class II-III rapids spiced things up and kept us hungry for more.

By day 5 the canyon walls towered 1500 feet above us. The days passed easily as we gazed up at the humbling walls of rock.

_DSC2385.jpg

Sunset above camp on huge riverbend.

_DSC2534.jpg

In the mornings we explored side canyons above our camps. There is more country here than one could ever walk in a lifetime.

_DSC1726.jpg

Each day we found ourselves surrounded by wildlife including mule deer, bighorn sheep, javelina, coyotes and of course plentiful turtles.

_DSC2751.jpg

A whimsical evening around the campfire evolves after 7 days of detox from societal norms.

_DSC1151.jpg

The crew from left to right - Cali Caughie, Casey Gannon, Caitie Jackson, Seth Conde. (Colin Arisman behind the lens)