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The Rio Grande from Eagle Pass to Laredo

Eagle Pass to Laredo’s Colombia Bridge
When discussing the Rio Grande as a paddling destination in Texas it is almost universally about those reaches between Presidio and Dryden known as the Upper, Middle and Lower Canyons that flow into, through and just below Big Bend National Park. But, the Rio Grande is actually much longer along the Texas-Mexico border, and one particular reach of over 120 miles is the one from Eagle Pass / Piedras Negras down to Laredo / Nuevo Laredo. The following article is about that flatwater reach that is starting to gain public awareness as a paddling destination that can be enjoyed by almost anybody without the need for intermediate or advanced paddling skills. - Publisher

With the longest drought in memory not letting up, rivers around Texas drying up, and paddling destinations to the north frozen up, what do you call the discovery of more than a hundred miles of unexplored Class 1 river, 3 hours drive from San Antonio?

A miracle, right?

How about "the Rio Grande"? Yeah, THAT Rio Grande. The same river too often associated with illegal immigration, smuggling -- and now Mexico’s drug war -- might be the most under-appreciated paddling destination in the country. I say that after five years devoted to paddling precisely where the national news media would lead you to believe you shouldn’t go. I’ve introduced over 3,000 people to the unheralded pleasures of the river, mostly just upstream from McAllen/Reynosa and Laredo/Nuevo Laredo.

STEER at Flat Rock on the Lower Rio Grande
STEER at Flat Rock on the Lower Rio Grande

But even me, the world’s biggest promoter of paddling on the Rio Grande, is taken aback by Eagle Pass’s river. One hundred miles upstream from my base in Laredo, the current is faster, the water is clearer and the countryside more varied than I’m used to.

And there’s a casino. Just downstream from the neon-lights of the Kickapoo Nation’s Lucky Eagle, we drop our boats in the water. My friend Kaj’s little sit-on-top he picked up for $60 at a Corpus Christi garage sale, and my fire-engine red 19’ long barge of a sea kayak from Perception. With cargo bays fore and aft, and plenty of space for storage on deck, it’s our mother ship for this 92-mile scouting trip.

A flat stretch above a diversion dam gives us time to adjust our loads and fine tune our seats. We pass a ranch, wave to the field hands. Beyond the 5’ tall dam the water flows shallow and swift between long ribs of limestone. There’s no turning back as we’re swept around the bend.

The gradient is consistent. The current doesn’t slacken. Our descent is painless. We study the birds and banks of carrizo cane that distinguish the U.S. shore from the woods on the Mexican side. Compared to McAllen and Mission where the principal attraction is a Class II/III rapid below Anzalduas Dam, this feels like a free-flowing river, not the glorified irrigation ditch and flood conveyance much of it resembles 200 miles downstream.

Hidalgo on day two is the only community town we’ll pass through. Before we get there we run into a group of immigrants about to cross. "Are you Border Patrol?", asks the ferryman in charge. He doesn’t see many, I think. We exchange pleasantries and float on by.

A broad grassy park signals Hidalgo. Kaj stays with the boats and chats with folks. Technically if you set foot in Mexico you have to re-enter through an official border crossing. But the temptation to get a cold six-pack and fresh veggies is strong. I walk up neat streets past solid homes. No litter. The cleanlines and order suggest that residents enjoy and respect thei town and their river.

Temptation strikes again on day #3. Paddle past sunset to join friends for Thanksgiving back in Laredo? Or make our own version on a cliff with a river view? Thanksgiving comes every year. No telling when we’ll float this way again. We build a fire, break out fishing tackle and wait for the moon to rise.

McNaboe Park Access in Laredo
McNaboe Park Access in Laredo

***

Article written and submitted by Eric Ellman. Eric is the Executive Director of the Laredo-based Big River Foundation. The Foundation’s work in coordination with U.S. and Mexican municipalities to "take back" the Rio Grande with bi-national canoe and kayak events will be featured in the March, 2012 issue of Canoe and Kayak Magazine.

Before You Go

Here's a quick run-down of the issues confronting anyone wanting to explore America's 4th longest and most underutilized river.

Legality

The right to paddle the Rio Grande is enshrined in Article VII of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ("said boundary shall be free and common to the vessels and citizens of both countries"). In other words, citizens of both countries have full rights to use the entire width of the river. As a boater, you are not required to observe an imaginary line down the middle of the channel. Mexican immigration couldn't care less whether you enter their country informally. But if you do, U.S. Customs requires you to return through an official port of entry. You've been informed. Now you're on your honor.

Security

With what's in the news, it's no surprise that security issues come to people's minds when considering a paddle trip on the Rio Grande. And while Mexico's U.S.-sponsored war on the drug cartels has resulted in an estimated 40,000 deaths in the last four years, Mexico -- at least compared to other Latin American countries -- is relatively safe. The rate of violent crime in Mexico is lower than any of its Central American neighbors (the perennial gringo haven of Costa Rica included). And U.S. border cities including Brownsville, McAllen, Laredo and El Paso are among the safest in the country.

(USA Today Story)

But how about the river that separates the two countries? The Lower Rio Grande might be the world's most closely watched river. Border Patrol agents monitor it by air, land and sea, and use a sophisticated array of remote surveillance equipment to cover where they can't go. River outfitters in the Laredo/Nvo. Laredo and McAllen/Reynosa stretches have logged over 3,000 incident-free customer days since beginning operations in 2007. Perhaps it's because of the border patrol presence. Perhaps it's because most illegal activity occurs at night. But when I see people on the river they are generally U.S. Border Patrol or Mexican fishermen. In both cases, we smile and paddle on.

A Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Paddle Trail is being planned for the Laredo area. The informational kiosk there will include the suggestion that paddlers call the local Border Patrol sector and advise their Public Information Officer that you're entering the river. Call them again when you exit. (Though they'll probably be there when you pull out; chances are they've been watching you all along).

In the Eagle Pass area, the Border Patrol number to advise them of your plans on the river is: 830-758-4000. In the Laredo Sector, the number to call is: 956-764-3800

Water Quality

The Rio Grande's historically bad water quality began to improve after 1993 and passage of the North American Free Trade Act. Environmentalists wouldn't abide by NAFTA until side body agencies to address the impacts of all the anticipated development were created. BECC (the Border Environment Cooperation Commission), based in Juarez, and NADBank (the North American Development Bank), based in San Antonio, design and finance environmental infrastructure for the Border. Joint U.S. - Mexican financing has built billions of dollars of wastewater infrastructure in virtually every city along the Rio Grande. Raw sewage discharges have been reduced dramatically. Hot spots remain at some of the larger cities (Nuevo Laredo most notably), but the vast majority of the Rio Grande is bacteriologically safe for full contact sports. On my recent trip between Eagle Pass and Laredo we used no filters or chemicals but simply raised a pot of river water to a boil for cooking and drinking.

Access

Ah, now we've found a challenge. But isn't it always with Texas rivers? Access to the Rio Grande is as limited as it is in any state where nearly all land is in private hands. If you're up for a 4-day float though, no problem. Simply put in at the Lucky Eagle casino in Eagle Pass. The easiest takeout is at the Colombia Bridge, about 20 miles upstream from Laredo. To get to the water exit into the parking lot just before the bridge and watch for a dirt road on your right. It will take you about 1/2 mile down to a gate that protects a city water intake. If you're up for another day's paddling, it's 24 miles to the World Trade Bridge, and 33 miles to Laredo's Bridge #1, Dos Laredos Park and a ramp that Border Patrol uses for their air boats.

Easiest way to see for yourself

Still got your doubts? Want to stick your toe in the water before committing to a four-day run? The City of Laredo is working with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to designate a 4-mile long Paddle Trail beginning at the city's Father McNaboe Park off of Mines Road. Turn for the river at Rancho Viejo and follow it to the end. You'll find a staircase already built. You can leave a car there, and another 4 miles south at Markley Lane. Border Patrol cruise both places constantly. Your things are safe.

Local Outfitters

Big River Outfitters based in Laredo can provide information, rentals or assistance with drivearounds. Call 956-236-4985, or visit their website at Big River Outfitters for more information.

Read previous "On the Water" Feature Stories
[ Surviving Hypothermia ] [ Rescues in Hydraulic Currents ]
[ Texas Water Safari ] Wilderness Tripping Protocols ] [ Dangers of Low-Water Bridges ]


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