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And there we were… huddled behind a gigantic boulder, shivering, wet, and terrified. This was sure to be the end. It was unbelievable how quickly the status of our trip had changed. One moment we were experiencing a blissful July 4th afternoon on the Rio Grande, the next we were sitting silently imagining the tragic headlines that might follow our demise: “8 Lake|Flato Employees Die a Catastrophic Death at Big Bend.” Or at least I was. Why I am just now recounting our story is due to the fact that it has taken me this long to process everything that happened. And also I’ve been really busy. So here it is. It all started in the Chisos Basin. Twelve coworkers and friends and myself, including Steven, Pavan, Ben, Clay, Sarah, Josh N, Hayley and Corey, arrived the night prior to our fiasco to spend the evening in the most popular campground at Big Bend during the summertime. We hiked the Lost Mines Trail, ate deluxe burger meals at the dining hall, and spent the evening drinking beers gazing up at the constellations. -Too good to be true, maybe?- PHOTO BY PAVAN IYER PHOTO BY BEN HARTIGAN The next morning was followed by an equally smooth series of events. The plan was to canoe up the Rio Grande stream, camp on the bank, and then ride the current back to the drop point the next morning. This was all made possible by the fact that during the summer the river is generally lower, and the current is slow enough to paddle upstream. After signing a waiver and acknowledging the dangers of canoeing in the canyon, and the possibility of rain and what to do in the event (simply pitching camp 5’ above water level to be safe) we were ready to go. We dropped off at the mouth of the Santa Elena Canyon, and began our journey between the massive 1,500’ cliff sides, Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose… -oh, the naivety!- PHOTO BY BEN HARTIGAN The day was spent leisurely hopping from Texas to Mexico, taking dips in the water, snacking, laughing… It was a perfect temperature – about 85 degrees. As we finished up an exploratory detour down Fern Canyon, we noticed an amazing slot canyon right in the face of one of Mexico’s cliffs. It was completely dried up. The objective of our trip was to make it to a specific formation on the river called Rock Slide. If we wanted to arrive there before 5:00, we had to keep going unfortunately. MAP PROVIDED BY TEXAS PARKS AND WILDLIFE WEBSITE AND MODIFIED BY ME As we turned a bend and proceeded onward, we noticed some dark storm clouds brewing in the distance. We knew a rain was a possibility considering the forecast for the day, but we knew what to do in the event of rain, according to our crash course in river safety! To be on the safe side, we pitched camp immediately. The site was perfect: 70' of dry, cracked clay separated us and the stream, and it was high enough in case the water rose quickly. PHOTO BY SARAH DEDE PHOTO BY SARAH DEDE Ben claimed a great spot to pitch his tent, right amongst a cluster of boulders. Everyone else did the same. Just as we finished pitching our tents, the rain began. -perfect timing!- PHOTO BY SARAH DEDE We sat in the doorways of our tents, watching the storm, eating snacks and relaxing. The wind began to pick up speed, and the rain followed suit. -Maybe we should bring the canoes in in case the water starts to rise- We all agreed in unison and made our way towards the bank to bring the canoes close to the cliff side. We had some trouble on the way out there, however, because the 70’ of dry, cracked clay between us and the river very quickly became 70’ of slippery, suction-ey mud – many of us kept losing our shoes in this endeavor. -Not to worry! Soon the storm will pass and we can continue our explorations.- As a group of us pulled 4 out of the 5 canoes to safety and proceeded to retrieve the 5th, a gust of wind swept through the canyon and sent our 5th canoe flying through the air, about 10 feet, toppling over towards the river and eventually landing in it. Josh and Clay fumbled towards the river, and like lifeguards saving a child, jumped after the canoe without hesitation into the stream that was rapidly increasing current. It all happened so quickly we didn’t even get a chance to tell them that this maneuver wasn’t a good idea. Luckily the canoe had traveled just far enough that it was retrievable, and Clay and Josh returned unscathed. -Phew!- We hastily moved our runaway canoe to the cliff side and just as we brushed our shoulders off for handing that situation like professionals, we heard Josh yell. He was standing in the middle of the bank, facing us and looking up at the top of the Cliffside behind us. “AWAY FROM THE CLIFF, NOW!” His expression and tone were serious, grave, and ultimately extremely convincing because Josh never speaks like this. Without question, we hustled towards the center of the canyon as best we could considering the condition of the now slippery clay beneath us. Josh saw the whole thing. What had happened was a boulder, curiously not unlike the boulders we pitched our camp amongst just half an hour before, had tumbled off the700 foot cliff and, coincidentally, landed right next to Ben’s tent that he had just evacuated, seconds before. We literally had just run for our lives. As we huddled in the center of the canyon, shivering, we discussed what to do from there.
- The water was rising and the current was increasing, so we couldn’t remain in the center of the canyon for long
- The cliff was falling, so we couldn’t be next to it or at the campsite