In the 4th day of our 2006 Big Bend trip, we went for a full day river rafting at Santa Elena Canyon section of Rio Grande.
As the river rafting outfitter was located 40 miles out of the park, we had to get up really early, ~ 5:30am, to be there for 7am shuttle to the "put-in" (where the river raft is put in the river). It was a clear and chilly morning. The sky was full of bright stars. The stars looked even bigger than what I saw at Rio Grande Village since this time I was a mile closer to the stars. (note: we stayed at Chisos mountain lodge that night, elevation ~ 8000ft)
Once we arrived at the "put-in", we were given life jackets and a safety lesson. There were total of 10 tourists, our family, my friend's family of five and a single young European man. We were divided into two rafts - my friend's family was on one and my family would ride with the European man.
The water was really good that year. The river was 9 feet deep. We started at a very wide section of Rio Grande. The water was slow and the ride was smooth. There were a lot vegetation's a long the river. As the river turns, we saw different rock formations on the cliffs we passed, green plants along the river, birds flying over head.
Fun and Exciting Ride
To make the river rafting more exciting in the smooth slow flowing river, the two rafts engaged in a bit race first - our guide instructed us to row with him and tried to pass the other raft, which was in front of us. When the guide of the other raft noticed our action, they started to accelerate. As we caught up with them, we started splashing water on them, and they fought back. The kids and adults alike, all were got very excited.
The river started to run faster as we were near the mouth of Santa Elena canyon - and the guide now got serious, preparing for the rocks and white water, no more joking around. Rockslide Rapid loomed ahead. That day, I estimate, the rapid was a level 3 river, and rafting passage was narrow. Our guide had to concentrate and use all the skills he had to maneuver our raft through the turbulent, and somewhat dangerous water, and the narrow passage. After we passed, our raft anchored at an eddy behind a big boulder, we got off the rafts to explore the rocky area in the river, and enjoy the white water from the safety of unshakable boulders.
Downstream from the rockslide rapids, there is a rocky beach. We stopped there for restroom break and for lunch. The guides were good rafters, and good cooks as well. The subway style food they prepared was delicious.
The rest of river the rafting was mostly in the canyon. The canyon walls on both sides of the river go straight up for hundreds of foot. Our guide described to us what it was like in the canyon in a full moon summer night - it sounds romantic and enchanting.
Interesting Young Men
The two young men who rode the raft with us were our guide and the European man. Our guide was a handsome white man with long blond hair, he was as white as I can imagine for a man. He was a college student, who travelled around the country during vacation seasons to work as river guide at various locations. He spoke softly, and very nice to everyone, especially easy on kids, and eager to please. He was apparently well prepared for the job - he was not only very good at rafting, he was also very knowledgeable about rocks, plants, the canyon, and big bend and surrounding area in general.
The European man was a well tanned handsome man. I guessed that he was in late 20s or early 30s. He told us that he quited his job to travel around the United States. An European, came to the states to visit Big Bend solo! He was truly an adventurer.
Santa Elena Canyon
In millions of years, the Rio Grande has carved through over 1500 feet of sheer limestone rock, creating Santa Elena Canyon. As we approached the canyon from upstream Rio Grande from west, we saw a chasm in a humongous rock. The river is narrowed quickly as we were about to enter the canyon, and it ran faster, changing from a level 1 (slow moving river) to a level 2 or 3 white water (fast moving river). The start of the canyon is really deep, rock walls hundred of foot tall, straight up, revealing only a narrow strip of blue sky, and soaring hawks over the top edge of the canyon.
Then gradually it widened, and the river became calm again until we reached rockslide rapids. Huge boulders were standing in the middle of the river, narrowing flow passage, accelerating the water. Rockslide Rapid was formed many years ago as the cliff face gave way choking the river with house-size boulders, it could be a class IV river, with adequate water. We explored the rockslide rapids area on the rocks a bit after we passed it in water.
After the rockslide rapids, there is a rocky beach, where we parked our rafts for relaxation and lunch. The canyon apparently is not a straight passage, time and again, it seemed that the river was blocked by huge rocks, but just made a sharp turn there.
Looking ahead, the river seemed to lead us to snow white clouds as we were about to exit the canyon. What a view. What an awesome ending to the river rafting.