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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Goodbye Keith, Day 213

Keith Bowden shows his lighter side while checking out a dam, made out of rocks and broken cement, on the Rio Grande. Photo by: Colin McDonald

The last 120 miles of the Rio Grande, from Mission to Brownsville, are the loneliest, curviest, flattest miles of the river I have ever paddled. 

Combined with days of drizzle, cool weather, sketchy dams and camps accessible by climbing up muddy banks, there were multiple times I wanted to cry.

Not Keith Bowden. The only thing he said close to a complaint was when he asked me if I missed the Lower Canyons, a place where campsites are ranked on the temperature of the nearby hot springs and ease of exploring side canyons. We were ranking campsites by the amount of coyote scat, if there was anything to burn and consistency of the mud.

The only concern he expressed was when he had to put on his snow pants to stay warm during the day and his sleeping bag was wet. 

I would crawl into my tent to try to nap away the misery. Keith would stoke the fire and bring me a hot quesadilla. When things got really bad, he would tell stories of paddling on rivers out west and having his tent collapse under the weight of snow from a freak blizzard.

He cooked a pot of beans over the fire with untreated water from the Rio Grande. They were the best I have ever eaten.

It was a good thing, too, because he cooked enough to last for days. We ate them with tortillas for breakfast and dinner. Keith would then haul the pot, with its lid strapped on tight, and re-boil the leftovers at the next campsite. 

As for safety, I had never felt more secure on the river. 

Keith does not see a border; he sees a river. I started to see the same.

Keith’s love for Mexico and its people was shown daily as he joked with ranchers and fishermen we met. He asked them about the status of the local baseball teams and players he used to play with. He once pitched for a team in Laredo that was sponsored by the Gulf Cartel. He made friends with an opposing team that was threatening to beat him up by demonstrating his ability to recite the Mexican pledge of allegiance.

That was one of the scores of stories he shared as we made our way downriver. He turned what would have been a miserable paddle into one of the best yet.

I asked him to paddle all the way to the Gulf, a mere 50 miles away.

But Bowden is not a fan of crowds of any size.  Before my family and friends arrived to paddle the last reach, he politely thanked me for the trip and drove back home.

He had another float in the Lower Canyons waiting for him.

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 9:46 a.m. 25.94411 -97.56726
#2 11:09 a.m. 25.93712 -97.55579
#3 1:22 p.m. 25.91493 -97.53128
#4 2:06 p.m. 25.88664 -97.51776
#5 4:15 p.m. 25.89084 -97.49664


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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