The Rio Grande is disappearing. Demand for water is growing as snow packs shrink, rain patterns shift and average temperatures rise faster than they ever have in the past 11,000 years.Read more
Jack Skiles, 83, has taken boats down the Rio Grande since he was 10 years old. It was something his father liked to do. It’s now a family tradition that spans four generations.
“The first boats were just homemade water boats,” Skiles said. “People would be just amazed I was floating ... It was considered dangerous. And in wooden boats it probably was.”
After World War II, Skiles moved on to rubber rafts and eventually plastic canoes and metal skiffs.
This weekend he did his first-ever fully catered raft trip, a three-day float through Santa Elena Canyon with his two sons and daughter.
Skiles never seems to think the river is too dangerous. He grew up in Langtry on the banks of the river. When he was 10, the International Boundary and Water Commission paid him to take a weekly sample from the Rio Grande. When the river was flooding above 10 feet, he would get paid to take a sample every hour. He was paid $1 for each sample.
“That was big money back then,” he said.
So when the river flooded, he could be found perched in a cable car above the churning Rio Grande. He spent his time flipping through catalogs and making paper airplanes until it was time to lower another sample jar.
To understand such risk tolerance, it is helpful to know Skiles’ family history and Langtry. His grandfather came out to the Rio Grande in 1905 to work as a cowboy on both sides of the river. It was a time when revolution in Mexico was going strong and being heavily armed was part of the job description.
This was right after the era of Judge Roy Bean, who dubbed himself the “law west of the Pecos.” Bean developed a national reputation for hosting illegal championship boxing matches and threatening to hang people for minor crimes, all while running a popular saloon in Langtry beside the railroad tracks.
Skiles is an expert on Bean and the region. He wrote a book about both called “Judge Roy Bean Country” and is working on finishing a second.
But that recent history is relatively banal in comparison to the violence and challenges of living in this region before modern settlement.
Skiles’ house sits above a cliff that is home to caves that have sheltered people for more than 12,000 years. It is home to the largest buffalo jump in North America. Buried across his backyard is the complicated story — told in bones, ash layers, flood deposits and pollen counts — of people who lived with mammoths, saber-tooth cats and camels.
Some time between 25 and 30 years old, Skiles realized that he and the other people collecting arrowheads and artifacts from the caves were making it more difficult to understand the full picture of how these people lived and what happened to them.
He stopped digging and started to partner with archeologists. The site now attracts researchers from universities across Texas and as far away as Scotland who come to piece together the clues. There are more than 25 Ph.D.s working with data from the site.
We arrived at Skiles’ place as a cold front was pushing the temperature below 40 degrees. Our hands and minds became progressively less useful as the temperature dropped and we worked in the mud to unload the canoe.
The temperatures have not risen and my brain is still struggling with the concept of 12,000 years. We are going to stay here a day with the hope the temperature warms up a bit and we can gain a bit more perspective.
Skiles understands. It takes a while to really appreciate the Rio Grande.
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As they travel, Colin and Erich are taking water samples for the following periodic water quality tests. In partnership with The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment’s Texas Stream Team Program at Texas State University, the results will be added to a public database it helps maintain for research and monitoring water quality.
While making his way to the Gulf of Mexico, Colin will be periodically activating a device that uses satellite technology to share his current location. Use this map to see where he traveled on this day.
|Check-In||Time of Check-In (CST)||Latitude||Longitude|
To report on and understand the haphazard irrigation system the Rio Grande has become and the changes it is going through, Colin decided the best approach would be to travel the length of the Rio Grande by foot and small boat.
He knew it would give him a unique perspective on a river that few understand. It did require many long days of moving slowly and camping on muddy riverbanks, but Colin likes that sort of thing.
The benefit was it provided access to people who wanted to share their stories and experiences with the Rio Grande. Via Facebook and chance encounters, Colin made instant friends who opened their homes. They provided help from loaning their trucks to their cell phone contact lists to help tell the story of the Rio Grande.
The trip would not have been possible without their help, along with the dedicated assistance of David Lozano, Jason Jones and Daniel Dibona, who drove thousands of miles to get people and boats in place.