Rio Grande SUP Expedition: 100 Miles in One Week

When preparing my trips I like to plan and research, but not to the point that I know too much and lose the adventure.....  I may have taken that theory a little too far this time.

T-Minus 60 days

Finding a worthy river:

For this year’s annual 100 mile, the Rio Grande caught my eye.  After seeing photos of towering canyons and long stretches of desert, with only the mountain ranges of Mexico on the horizon to the right and the endless plains of Big Bend National Park to the left, I knew this is where we had to go.

Finding Sponsors:

The search was on for the best gear.  I was lucky enough to be contacted by Hala Gear paddle boards and asked if I had a sponsor for this year’s trip.  Recently "single" I was ecstatic to get the opportunity to ride for such an incredible company. I knew their boards were solid because there were two of them on our previous 100 miler down the Guadalupe the year prior (#Tx100MileStand)

After a ton of correspondence we had the perfect gear team locked down.

T-Minus 30 days

After digging a little more, I couldn't seem to find a single documented paddle board trip of any kind on this stretch of river.  I started calling a few outfitters of the area explaining what I wanted to do, only I received negative feedback with comments such as "It's impossible" "You'll never make it" "Water is too low" "You're joking right?" and "The park service will never allow it."  That last one brought up a whole other issue.

I called the park service to ask about permits and the first guy I talked to didn't seem very optimistic.  He was telling me we would need to prove we could carry up to a gallon of water a day per person for every day on the permit because the water of the Rio is so polluted that it can't be filtered, and on top of that we would have to get permits for a couple extra days in case of emergencies.  After doing the math, I knew it was impossible to carry 9 gallons of water, totaling 75lbs, on top of all our gear and food for our plan of 7 days.  The research began for a product that would filter out heavy metals, pesticides and E.coli from sewage and livestock run off.

Through the beautiful world of social media I came across a product called PURINZE that seems to have been the only product on the market that could separate this kind of pollution from the actual H2O.  I called the park service back excited with what I had found, but this time I talked to another ranger.  Maria was a breath of fresh air.  Very knowledgeable, optimistic and excited about helping in any way she could.  Obviously this is someone who loves their job, park and river. After sending her the info on PURINIZE she said she would need to research it before granting a permit but that everything else seemed in order.  It must have passed with flying colors because she contacted me after a few days to give me the green light.


T-Minus 14 days

The crew had already changed 4 times over the last month; from friends having emergencies or work related issues keeping them from going, to others wanting to jump on board.

The final crew would be myself along with Nigel Stevens from San Antonio TX, Questor Supnu, Davis Caldwell, Grant Hardin and Daniel Diaz from Denver CO.  All I can say is, Solid Team!   Between the six of us we have years of outdoor experience ranging from world travelers, back country guiding, surfers, snow boarders, scuba divers, back packers, wilderness first responder, climbers and on and on… but most importantly, paddle boarders!  We weren’t the only ones on this journey because, by using Spot Tracker, people interested in our progress were able to follow along our entire adventure!

Zero Hour

Picking up the rental van with my oversized and overzealous military trailer in tow, we dropped by the San Antonio airport to pick up the Colorado boys.  We then set off for the 9 hour drive to the Terlingua Ghost town for our last night in civilization.

Day 1 - The Beginning

Due park office hours, I was unable to pick up permits the day before forcing me to make the 30 minute drive into Big Bend National park headquarters.

By the time I made it back and hooked the trailer back up it was already pushing 11am and, as if that wasn't enough, I got lost trying to find our put-in spot which made it nearly 1pm by the time we actually hit the water.

Giddy as a bunch of school girls we charged into the unknown!  All of us stoked to see what was around the first big bend, but when we did, it wasn't what we were hoping for.  We had been watching the water levels drop over the months leading up the trip but were optimistically hoping for a miracle, considering the rest of Texas was under water and flooding.  The CFS (cubic feet per second) was at 19 the day we dropped in.  We had even brought our PFDs, helmets, throw lines and leashes in anticipation for a flash flood that ended up being used as pillows, soup bowls and tow lines to drag boards over miles of exposed boulders.  It seemed as if the portages were never ending.  Every couple hundred feet introduced a new, beautifully wonderful stretch of large boulders just dying to rip our SUPs to shreds. The saying that day was "If all or any of our boards make it out of this alive it'll be a miracle".  

Later that day, it may have been because I was a little delirious from dragging my 100lb SUP over 10 ton boulders, I thought it would be a rad idea to try my newly healed hand on a little free solo climbing because of a crazy looking overhang I saw.   A few moves up I reached for a decent hand hold when my foothold suddenly broke underneath me (probably due to all the brownies) and sent me flying horizontal.  Luckily the big man upstairs was looking out cause my recently absent grip strength returned in rare form.  Grant may have the fastest fingers in the west when he caught this shot of me almost ending the trip before it started. 

After a gnarly grueling first day we settled in for camp and, once we had our fill of Chili with Mac and Beef Stroganoff, our spirits were high again.  We broke out the GPS and did a little triangulation.  With a coin flip and some lying we decided we had gone maybe 8 miles, well below our goal of 20-25 a day.  The reality set in that breaking our own record for TX self-support distance wasn't going to happen.  We had a little pow-wow and settled on the 100 mile mark instead of the 130 we were gunning for.

Day 2 - Santa Elena Canyon

We all got up to watch the sunrise over our epic camp site wondering if the entire trip was going to be the same as that first day.

After breakfast and a little chit chat I started to feel a little funny.  All I could think was maybe I had taken an unintentional swig of polluted river water while taking a dip or soaking my busted toe... Either way we set off to see what The Rio had in mind for us.

After a few hours of the same ol' brutal portages we came up to an amazing site; the mouth of Santa Elena canyon. It's hard to describe the awe that this place brought. Canyon walls rising up to 1500' from the water’s edge with smaller slot canyons wondering off to the unknown every so often. Like climbers in a new rock gym we couldn't stay focused. Stopping every thousand feet to try our hand at some more deep water soloing.

Highlight of the day was a simple thing, lunch in a cave in Mexico.

With the Jetboils steaming and snacks being handed round, accompanied with some good jams on the speakers, it was my favorite lunch break to date.

We forged on fighting our way through "Rock Slide Rapids" and continued on past "Smugglers Cave". 

We knew we were getting close to the end of the canyon when we started seeing tourist filing in on a small path to our left, and the wind had kicked up to 25+ mph after being funneled in from the desert plains.  We came out of the canyon a little beat and by this time my stomach bug was in full swing.  We had a few chats and took some photos with some tourist before pushing on to our goal for the day at mile marker 26. 

This was the first night we had to figure out water to PURINIZE ratios and it had to have been quite the funny sight; six guys delusional from two hard days of portages and paddling trying to "math". 

Dumbfounded by the night sky and most amazing stars we had ever seen kept most of us from getting a full night’s sleep.

Day 3 & 4 - The Great Unknown

We are now entering the land of scorching days and freezing nights, high head winds and a quick-sand like river beds. This is a place where crazy alligator gars jump on your board, abruptly letting you know that you're not alone in The Great Unknown.  Long, wide and extremely shallow, we drug our boards behind us mile after mile and crankily dubbed the trip the '100 Mile SUP Assisted Hike'.  As bad as it seemed we were a solid group and nothing was going to bring us down. With a smile on our faces we forged on for two long days of no break from the sun.


Day 5 - Mariscal

Five days in I woke up feeling the worst I had yet.  I was sick as a dog and feeling maybe 40% after not eating for 3 days straight and burning the kind of calories we were.  The trip was finally taking its toll.  I was weak and unable to keep up with the group, stopping for the occasional shade under the river-cane while fighting off biting horse flies and using my SeatoSummit drybag as a pillow.  It was quite the miserable morning.  Remember when I said I don't like to plan or research too much?  Boom!  Out of nowhere we were in a huge canyon I didn't know of with deep water, shade from the 1000ft cliffs and a steady wind at our backs.  Feeling alive again I couldn't help but join the guys for a little more DWS (deep water soloing).

Being that we were all climbers by the time we came out of the canyon there were two bruised heels (myself and Davis), one broken toe (Grant) and a bunch of sore necks from staring upwards and dreaming of climbing the perfect cracks that reached to the heavens.   Once we came out of the canyon we found a pretty sweet spot just past all the chard fields from where the park service had been burning the invasive river-cane.  At this point we were under the impression that we only had 15 miles to go, so the plan was to take it easy for the next two days and then have a beer in Mexico on day 7.

Day 6 - Hot Springs and Stealth Paddle

Day 6 began late and slow because the water filter kept clogging due to the amount of dirty water we had filtered up to this point.  Finally on the water we set off rolling away from the canyon that was so refreshing the day before. 

Not long after we started we came up on a crew contracted by the park service to spray that cane with herbicide then burn it.  We asked about how far we were from the first take out (thinking our take out was the only one) and they said about 15 miles.  Considering we had 2 days left we thought it would be a perfect day to screw off and just play for once.

Halfway through the day we came up on another small canyon with perfect climbing condition.  Grant and Davis had stayed behind with my sick ass to keep me company while I struggled to keep up.  We caught up with Q that was climbing alone and said Nigel and Dan had gone ahead and mentioned something about "a cold beer sounds really good right about now!"  We climbed for a couple of hours then decided to try and catch up with the other guys and find the famous Hot Spring on the Rio.  We paddled and paddled and paddled but never could seem to catch up.  Right at dark we rolled up on a nicely manicured beach type area with palm trees in the back ground (not a normal sight for this area) and decided to go explore.  

We found the remnants of what looked like an old post with a general store, a house and what looked like a small hotel.  Taking into consideration that the dark was closing in, we had to decide whether to set up camp or just keep pushing on through the night till we could find the rest of our party.  The choice was obvious, and since it was Q's birthday there was no way we were stopping.  With headlamps on and the four of us crashing into each other at every portage, we finally came up on THE hot spring.  What was once thought to be a healing hot spring had old walls built up around it turning it into a natural 10x10 hot tub.  Fighting the pain from our sunburns and cut up legs, we slipped in for a much needed "healing" break. 

We pushed on to what turned out to be the best moments of the trip.  We came into another canyon that none of us had previously known about called the Hot Springs Canyon.  Killing the headlamps we slowly drifted through the canyon in the pitch black.  The stars were so bright that they reflected off the water as bright as they were in the sky giving the illusion of no horizon.  It was like we were paddling through space.  In total silence, minus the soft paddle strokes on the water, we were only able to use the silhouette of the canyon walls as reference we cruised like river astronauts through another universe which can only be described as unreal!  After slamming into our first boulders and shallow water in hours, we came back to the reality that we had still not found Nigel and Dan and knew we needed to push on.

As the cold began to settle in and slowly became unbearable, we found a small boat ramp that we thought maybe our final destination of Rio Grande Village camp grounds, but when we walked up to the top there were no lights or signs of the guys. Thinking we hadn't made it yet we charged on into the night.  A few miles later we rolled up on a giant bridge stretching across the river with a watch tower on each side.  We could even see the flash lights of the border patrol agents paroling their perspective sides. Not wanting to walk up on expecting agents at 2am we decided it was best to just hunker down for the night, light a fire and get warm.  Delusional and exhausted from paddling 17 hours straight we celebrated the last moments awake of Q's birthday with some awesome Mountain House freeze dried ice-cream sandwiches as his birthday cake and nothing else could've hit the spot better.

Day 7 - WTF?

The next morning the four of us woke up to a little bit of a surprise;  we were camped in the middle of a Mexican town (Boquillas)! There was no bridge, no watch towers or border patrol agents with AR-15s, just common folk waking up for work and wondering what these four crazy gringos were doing camped down on the river.  Finally realizing what we did we knew we had to paddle back up river of what we know now was 2 miles.

After a brutal upriver battle we saw the beautiful sight of Nigel and Dan waiting for us on shore with a Canyon Cooler full of beer and snacks.  Through a little miscommunication, they had actually decided to crush it and make the finish line on day 6, but being who we are none of us heard it.  That day we found ourselves at the park store with the raddest clerk ever that sold us over $450 of junk food (no joke, $450 bucks!) and even let us sit in her walk-in beer freezer to cool off. 

Article written for Boarders Mag.

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