Disappearing Rio Grande

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Why Follow the Rio Grande

by Colin McDonald | Feb. 11, 2015

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.

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More rocks than water, Day 172

Colin McDonald walks the canoe down the Rio Grande. For most of the morning, there was not enough water to float the canoe with anyone in it. Photo by: Mike Kane

Limestone and low water make for a long day.   

The river was so shallow, it was faster for one person to walk the riverbank or wade the river while the other paddled or towed the canoe. 

 It also helped ease the frustration from running into rocks. When there were two of us, it always seemed to be the other guy’s fault when the boat crunched into the limestone bedrock that lines the river.  

We started at 7:30 a.m. and did not see anyone all day. Every time we heard a branch snap as a horse or pig moved through the cane, we imagined drug smugglers breaking through. Not being able to move quickly on the river made us feel vulnerable. 

We were behind schedule and trying to make as many miles as we could. We had no idea where we would stay for the night.   

By 4:30 in the afternoon, we had covered 20 miles and our nerves were shot. It was a combination of exhaustion from moving all day, imagining worst-case scenarios and trying not to break our ankles as we slipped over the slime covered rocks.   

We found a small trail leading through the cane on the Texas bank. Mike investigated. It was the second trail of the day we had followed that led to a dirt road that seemed to lead nowhere.  

We started to accept the idea that we would set up our tents in the cane. I found a Border Patrol boat launch a quarter mile away with a little patch of grass that provided slightly better accommodations. Mike called the local border patrol office to ask if we could camp there. He was told to watch out for ticks.   

Morale was low.   

Then two agents showed up. They knew the local landowners, Tony and Catherine Castaneda, and paid Tony a visit to tell him what we were up to.   

Tony is the retired police chief from Eagle Pass and was full of stories about drug runners, Jesus statues floating down the river and adventures in Big Bend.   

He loves the Rio Grande and in less than 10 minutes we were loading our gear into the back of a Border Patrol truck so it could be hauled to his house.   

Tony and Catherine’s hospitality quickly went from letting us set up our tents in the back yard to hot showers, use of the spare bedroom and taking us out to dinner.  

Catherine’s first act when she met us was to offer us a drink.       

“Don’t drink the water,” Tony said. “But drink tequila.”  

It was a good day.

To comment on this post or ask a question, please visit the expedition's Facebook page.

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
#1 7:17 a.m. 29.15601 -100.75681
#2 10:01 a.m. 29.11514 -100.69308
#3 12:08 p.m. 29.08218 -100.66629
#4 2:18 p.m. 29.00004 -100.64859
#5 3:02 p.m. 28.96592 -100.64658
#6 5:20 p.m. 28.9257 -100.63327


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.


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