In October 2021, I was on the Rio Grande when it flooded in the middle of the night. When we had launched five days earlier, the lack of water had worried me. This canoe trip through Boquillas Canyon was the final guiding commitment of my 2021 season. It was a field course specific to that river and landscape, centered around the literature, poetry, and ecology of the borderlands. For six days, we would work on writing and paddle tandem canoes along an unseasonably shallow river. The Chihuahuan Desert was—and is—in a state of drought, the worst period of desiccation in 1200 years.
I’d received nervous messages from participants asking how the lack of water in the Rio Grande would affect our trip. They were anxious at the prospect of dragging their canoes over cobble bars when the water ran out. I assured them that adapting to water levels was as much a part of river adventures as Dutch oven cooking or fireside whiskey.
Like most big rivers in the American Southwest, the Rio Grande begins with snow. It flows from the 14,000-foot peaks of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains and travels south through New Mexico and on toward Texas, where it veers south and east. From El Paso to its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico, the Rio Grande forms the political border between the US and Mexico. That border extends to the thalweg, the middle of the deepest part of the river.
The modern narrative of the Rio Grande is controlled by old numbers and old borders. Its story is as complex as the Colorado’s: a cycle of ambitious management decisions, their associated consequences, and compensatory reactions to those consequences define the last 200 years.
Borders and boundaries complicate things; data and division lead to the unnatural compartmentalization of rivers and ecosystems. The fluidity of wild water challenges our attempts at organization. As we continue to learn about the aftermath of our management schemes, we see that control leads to imbalance, which leads to perpetual, expensive feats of compensation.
Those first three days we scraped our canoes over cobbles, on a thread of green water between the limestone walls of the canyon, and through brambles of mesquite and giant river cane. We exited Boquillas on day four, emerging into an exposed and limitless expanse of desert. Our fifth day was punishingly hot, and the forecast offered no hint of relief.
We made it to a place called Adams Ranch, within three miles of the take-out. We pulled over on the Texas side early in the afternoon. Our clients began a lovely trend of hiking upstream, then floating past camp on their Paco pads. Others curled up beneath the waterside willows to write, chatted, or napped until the sun sank low in the sky.
As dusk approached, a dense canvas of clouds replaced the evening stars. Two storms collided above our camp and electrified the air. There had been no rain in the forecast, and yet, a surprise deluge drenched the landscape at 8 pm; lightning burned a circle into the sky above our camp. It rained, hard, for maybe an hour and with such vigor that the water came at us in two directions: forcefully from above and then deflected up again by the parched earth beneath us. Our clients burrowed into their tents and squealed each time the sky flashed. My two colleagues and I watched the river for a long while, speculating that it would have to rise by an unfathomable volume to threaten our beach and our boats.
Staring out across the river toward Mexico, toward the Sierra del Carmen, we finished our burritos and split our last warm Lone Star Lager. Bobski, a dear friend of twenty-some years, and our other guide, Sierra, made a joke about the delicious Dutch oven brownies that no one was going to eat. We moved the kitchen—and dessert—up the beach a little. Bobski said he’d set up his bivy sack near the boats. I said I’d listen for his holler in the night in case something was to happen.
When we went to bed, we estimated the river was running at 40 or 50 CFS, the same miserably low flow we’d scraped along with all week. When I awoke to Bobski shouting my name a couple of hours later, the river had pulsed to almost 10,000 CFS. A second pulse in the small, cold hours before daybreak would send the river level to nearly 20,000 CFS.
We talk about river management with a collection of words that begin with D: dams, diversions, dikes, dredging. Drought plays a huge role. As do decisions made long ago, by long-deceased policymakers. Management is affected by other elements, too: creatures listed under the Endangered Species Act and states’ obligation to protect them, Wild & Scenic Rivers designation, relations with international neighbors, impacts on Indigenous sovereignty, power generation, recreation, and, of course, and most of all, agriculture.
Like all rivers do before they’re dammed, the Rio Grande once enjoyed a natural flood regime, a pattern of high and low flows that regulated its processes and maintained biodiversity within its ecosystems. High water pulses scoured the landscape, hydrating Cottonwood stands, redistributing sediment, and recharging habitat.
Channelization of the Rio Grande has led to dried-up meanders and oxbows, which were important ranges for the endangered silvery minnow, a little fish that statistically only reproduces during the high-water pulses of springtime. Floods are disturbance events. Like forest fires, they strike our human sensibilities as catastrophic but are critical components of natural cycles. By controlling or changing flood regimes, we set off a cascade of downstream effects, and we find ourselves chasing our tails in a cycle of loss and recovery.
Bobski’s voice cut through the dark. After one short shout, nothing more followed. Everything seemed still: no rain and no movement or rustling from the tents around me. Bobski and Sierra were at the river and the two canoes farthest downstream were full of water, threatening to rip free from the rest of the fleet. I hustled to shuttle the remaining pieces of the kitchen onto a grassy bench, then grabbed hold of Sierra’s boat, the one that was filling fastest. I tried to steady it while she and Bobski wrangled the salvageable gear from her canoe. “We should be wearing life jackets,” Sierra said.
We could not see around the corner, and the water swept around our little peninsula with tremendous speed. An entire Cottonwood floated past at a disturbing clip. Any of this detritus could rip our boats free and, with us in the water struggling to steady them, we’d likely go, too. Sierra’s boat eventually swamped, and we couldn’t hold it any longer. We lost it to the darkness.
After a few minutes of holding the second canoe, I began losing my grip on the line and my boots’ grip in the muck. I looked at my trembling forearms and wished they were stronger. “Hold what you got, Chandra,” Bobski said as he wrestled with the canoe. He waded out farther to shuttle stranded, soaking gear to Sierra, who had by this time smartly put on a PFD. A few more moments of futile struggle and this boat tore free, as well.
Bobski and I began toiling with the remaining boats. I fished my PFD from the back of one. He maneuvered his way around the upstream edge of the peninsula to re-tie the remaining canoes while I scooped out mud and water and threw gear to shore. He tethered the boats individually to strong willows. We pulled the gear up over the bench and saw that the clients were all safe. A shallow current of water, maybe two or three inches deep, swirled where our tents and dinner circle had been. Sierra and I shuttled the rest of the gear to the new camp, to high ground.
We stared out at the river. A big, red empty canoe floated past. According to our improvised gauge, a stick planted vertically in the muck, the water seemed to be dropping. The rain had stopped hours ago; the sky was peaceful.
From the dry camp, I collected my sleeping bag, pad and a rig bag. Sierra said she’d stay with the people, up high, so I headed back across the channel, which was by now just a slick of mud with the dropping water, to the remaining boats. Bobski and I made little nests in the lumpy grass near the canoes. I said I’d try to stay awake.
Maybe twenty minutes later, at perhaps 2:00 am, my eyes flashed open. I’d fallen asleep, and while I dozed the water had risen again, but this surge was different. I’d felt it seeping up through the ground I was sleeping on. My glasses were still on my face, as was my headlamp, and it took only a moment to realize what was happening: that shallow, mucky channel between us and the shore had become the river.
Bobski and I were now on two small islands, the whole of the Rio Grande coursing between us. A new river channel, maybe 100 yards across, separated us from the rest of the camp. The thicket of mesquite just downstream was halfway submerged. I tried to pull the canoes up but there was no more high ground. The earth I stood upon squirted water when I moved. I tossed my sleeping bag and pad into a canoe. I put on my PFD.
“Bobski, wake up. We’re on islands.”
And our islands were shrinking. “We don’t have any time,” I said. I hollered Sierra’s name across the river. Then Bobski did. Then we both did.
In short, staccato syllables, Bobski said, “Grab those canoes. We’ll tow them across.” I knew there was no way I was going to paddle a canoe with another in tow. The current was too strong. The mesquite thicket below was too dangerous. And I’m not good at canoeing.
“I can’t do it.” We were both quiet for a moment.
“Okay. We’ll go together. Hop in.”
I thought about grabbing my sleep kit. I looked back to see water seeping up and around the edges of the rig bag, also still on my island. It was too late for all of that. We were abandoning a burning house.
I grabbed a paddle and as soon as I felt the current catch the bow I began to take strokes. A clump of cane broadsided our boat and my blind, panicked paddling made it impossible for Bobski to establish a proper angle. Eventually, he yelled at me to be calm, and by that point, we were, as if by magic, across the river and in the eddy.
And then it dawned on me that the SAT phone was in the rig bag which was now underwater—but I had an InReach.
I walked up to the high camp—shaking, freezing, flooded with adrenaline—and found my InReach. The instructors on the course took an inventory of drinking water: we had none. We had, though, saved the Dutch oven brownies. I encouraged the clients to go back to bed and stay asleep as long as possible, to postpone thirst and their eventual realization that our drinking water was gone.
As Bobski watched the water swallow the tops of the willows, the canoes anchored below their trembling tops, Sierra and I spoke about priorities. Procurement of drinking water had to come first, and then an evacuation. And then, quietly through the dark, our writing instructor, Paco, said, “I have the cell number for Bonnie and Billy Pat McKinney. I think we might be on their land.”
We were camped at the end of a whisper of a cross-desert road, which meant that someone had vehicle access to this place. The 27,000-acre Adams Ranch is managed by Billy Pat McKinney; his wife Bonnie is its wildlife coordinator. Paco had interviewed her two months prior, when he was in Big Bend researching an article for Audubon Magazine. Bonnie McKinney would just happen to be up that night, smoking cigarettes and doing crosswords at 4 am when I messaged her from the InReach.
For due diligence, I sent an additional message to my partner Nate, at home in Montana, emphasizing our lack of drinking water and giving him Bonnie’s number in case my message to her didn’t go through. In another hour, I received a message that Nate had gotten ahold of Bonnie and she had our coordinates. Then another from Bonnie: “We know where you are. We will bring you water.”
Drinking water from the McKinneys arrived at 7 am, just as the rising sun illuminated the vastness of the flooded Rio Grande. Meandering chocolate channels extended in every direction; tall birds silhouetted against the sunrise. And then the morning unfolded with the surrealism of a dream.
We spotted two NPS river rangers on the water with two volunteers in canoes. They came ashore and stood with us for a long while, watching our four abandoned canoes as they shifted around in the big current, 200 yards from shore, still miraculously affixed to the strong submerged willows. One of the boats, we’d learn later, had filled with mud and dove deep, sacrificing itself to create a critical eddy in which the others took refuge.
The McKinneys came back a couple hours later with a train of off-road vehicles. As she pulled up in her big white Dodge, Bonnie took a drag of her cigarette, leaned out the window, and said in a perfect Texas drawl, “The cavalry has arrived.” A cavalry, indeed: two vintage Jeeps, two Dodge Rams equipped with safari platforms, and a side-by-side. We loaded up all that we had: one canoe, tents, some various kitchen pieces, and half a pan of Dutch oven brownies.
Between those two pulses—and despite all that we lost—we witnessed the latent power of a river so mightily controlled and overly appropriated that, for much of the year now, it runs completely dry in some reaches. We were reminded that, despite our best efforts to tame big rivers, the water will eventually rise, and that when it does, it reminds us we are but terrestrial animals, dependent and small and ephemeral.
In my work, I spend a lot of days living outside. My colleagues and I take great care to curate what approximates a safe and comfortable river experience for our clients, but the fact remains that we are always at the whim of elemental forces. It is a gift to be reminded of the dynamism and unmatched power of water, to feel that power viscerally, at the core of our human bodies.
Editor’s Note: To learn more about floods and why they are critical to healthy ecological systems, check out these resources: