Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park

Kayaking into the Great Unknown at Big Bend National Park

January 24, 2011, 10:59 am

f there's one thing you must remember about paddling your kayak in Big Bend National Park, it's to expect the unexpected.

I had expected heat during the day, freezing nights, a few ripples and rough turns with plenty of dense cane thickets, and an utter lack of people. But I hadn’t really anticipated wind.

I looked downstream across a broad stretch of water, and the gusts actually kicked up whitecaps. I pulled my kayak onto a sandbar, and sat down, facing upstream, eyes out of the dust.

For the last two hours, I'd been struggling through the storm, trying to remember some special paddling technique that would prove useful in strong headwinds. But abandoning the diagrams for reality, I knew I was just torturing my rotator cuffs. When the squalls blew me upstream, I decided to wait it out.

I had nothing but time. Three days before, I'd launched under perfect conditions near the downstream end of Santa Elena Canyon. While the majority of hikers and canoeists flocked to the dramatic mouth of the gorge, I pointed the nose of my kayak downstream to float approximately 85 miles of the Rio Grande through a section called the Great Unknown, and several canyons further on.

The river was just at the right level to keep things exciting without any danger of overturning in the rapids. I stayed mostly out of the dense cane thickets that choke some of the narrow bends and grow far over the water.

The trick is to lean into the vegetation, or else the current could flip a kayak or canoe. At that point, you just close your eyes and bite cane.