Five days on the Pecos River

West Texas paddle trip turns up canyons, rapids, gorgeous scenery — and leeches

Paddlers gear up for the day after camping on the riverbanks during a five-day trip on the Pecos River. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

Paddlers gear up for the day after camping on the riverbanks during a five-day trip on the Pecos River. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

No one warned me about the leeches.

But here I stand, dozens of the slimy, slightly-larger-than-rice-size beasts clinging to my calves as I stagger through the rocks, trying to herd my 12-foot plastic kayak around boulders and down a rapid on the Lower Pecos River.

I brush them off — they haven’t sunk their itsy-bitsy teeth into me just yet — and hop into my bright red boat before nosing it back into the swirling water. A few minutes later I’m safely through the rapid and face-first into the reeds, which are thick with spiders.

This is bliss!

Collis Williams, Colleen Gilbreath and Colton Moore play on the Pecos River. The Pecos runs for more than 900 miles from eastern New Mexico through West Texas. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

Collis Williams, Colleen Gilbreath and Colton Moore play on the Pecos River. The Pecos runs for more than 900 miles from eastern New Mexico through West Texas. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

The sun sets during a five-day paddle trip on the Pecos River in April. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

The sun sets during a five-day paddle trip on the Pecos River in April. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

Before I finish this journey, I’ll watch a herd of audad clatter its way up a cliff, pitch my tent on a rocky riverbank for four consecutive nights and splash mud off my face in a spring-fed shower crafted by Mother Nature from a sofa-size mass of moss clinging to a ledge. I’ll also swim in turquoise blue pools, listen to owls hoot through the night and tiptoe across a slab of rock the size of a football field that is covered with petroglyphs.

I’ve wanted to make this trip since last spring, when I spent four days paddling the Devils River. The Pecos, which runs for more than 900 miles from eastern New Mexico through West Texas, is more remote and challenging than the Devils, though, and requires a five- or six-day commitment.

Most folks who paddle the Pecos put in at Pandale and take out at the High Bridge 60 miles later, after a notoriously unpleasant 10-mile slog through dead water into a head wind at the end. There’s no public takeout between the two points, so the only way to shorten the trip is to get permission from a landowner to access private property.

Visions of riding a ribbon of blue down an ever-narrowing canyon, I pulled my plastic kayak from its hanging spot. (I figured it would be easier to navigate than my 17-foot aluminum canoe, since flow is unusually low this year.) Then I rounded up four friends, plus Oso, the world’s best river dog, who navigates rapids from his perch on the bow of Houston Dobbins’ kayak like a seasoned pro.

Collis Williams holds onto his boat after rolling while going through the rapids at Painted Canyon on the Pecos River. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

Collis Williams holds onto his boat after rolling while going through the rapids at Painted Canyon on the Pecos River. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

Colleen Gilbreath eats fresh mango during a lunch break on the Pecos River. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

Colleen Gilbreath eats fresh mango during a lunch break on the Pecos River. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

We meet up in Comstock, where Dobbins lives, not far from the river. He has arranged a shuttle to the put-in and secures permission from landowners to visit a few choice properties along the way. He also secured permission for us to leave a vehicle at a point 10 miles upstream from the High Bridge, saving us that slog, and somehow has gathered up enough locally made pecan brittle, wine, corn chips and coffee to feed an army.

“Nothing here is hard, but you need to be comfortable camping outdoors and going with the flow."
Collis Williams, 47, of Austin

We have nothing but miles of gleaming pool-and-drop river and canyon in our future.

“You get in the Pecos and you’re in another world,” Jack Johnson, an archaeologist with the National Park Service who lives in Comstock, tells me when I phone him up for advice before we depart. “It’s like it all condenses down — the canyon walls on one side, the strip of blue water, and the canyon walls on the other side.”

Johnson reminds me that basic paddling skills are necessary to safely make the trip. There’s no cell service on the river, and if you get injured, help is a long way off. While most of the rapids are doable for moderately experienced paddlers, the last one at Painted Canyon is rated a Class III. Bring a spare paddle, patch kit and first aid kit, plus a satellite communications device. Keep an eye on the weather, too. Flash flooding on the Pecos is a real danger — just check YouTube for validation. And tuck a copy of “The Lower Pecos River” by Louis F. Aulbach into a waterproof bag for the journey.

“Remember, there’s no shame in lining a boat down a rapid,” Johnson says as a final note.

Colton Moore fills a water bottle from a spring that’s flowing from a sofa-size mass of algae and ferns. The spring is located in a privately owned canyon on the Pecos River, but the group had permission to visit the site. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

Colton Moore fills a water bottle from a spring that’s flowing from a sofa-size mass of algae and ferns. The spring is located in a privately owned canyon on the Pecos River, but the group had permission to visit the site. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

Colton Moore and Collis Williams try to determine the depth of a pool of water inside a rocky amphitheater on private property along the Pecos River. The group had permission to visit the site. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

Colton Moore and Collis Williams try to determine the depth of a pool of water inside a rocky amphitheater on private property along the Pecos River. The group had permission to visit the site. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

Now I’m gazing up at the canyon walls, thinking about the people who lived here thousands of years ago. Water rushes down this river so violently during floods that it’s carved what looks like a giant, cresting ocean wave along its edges. The area is known for the pictographs and petroglyphs painted by ancient people. (It’s all located on private property, so resist the temptation to visit unless you have permission.)

The trip comes with highlights aplenty.

We’ve been paddling about 10 miles a day, pulling off on rocky banks to camp at night. The canyon narrows as you go, like a closing curtain. The two fishermen in our group have caught so many fish (and tossed them back) that they’ve lost count, and the rapids feel like the water flume ride at Six Flags on steroids.

We’re up and out of our boats frequently to navigate rocks and shallow stretches, and on the third day we tow our boats through a long, bony section of narrow limestone channels called “the flutes.” That stretch serves as a reminder of why it’s important to pack light. Bring only what you absolutely need, including tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, food, headlamp, pot, stove, a few toiletries and a single change of clothing.

“Don’t pack stuff you don’t want to drag down the water,” says Collis Williams, 47, of Austin, who is part of our group. “Nothing here is hard, but you need to be comfortable camping outdoors and going with the flow. It shouldn’t be your first camping trip.”

The water in the Pecos is alkaline, so most people bring some water with them (I brought 3 gallons) and supplement it with water drawn and filtered from the periodic springs along the way. Expect strong head winds and scratchy reed chutes, marauding raccoons and the occasional deer, audad and skunk. We camp on a horse-poop-adorned stretch of rocky bank one night, and I wake up in the dark to a pony stamping its leg next to my tent.

And yes, one of our kayaks sprang a leak — but the guys patched it in about 20 minutes one afternoon.

Houston Dobbins tows his boat ― and his dog Oso ― down the Pecos River. Flow was low in April, so the paddlers had to pull their boats in shallow stretches. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

Houston Dobbins tows his boat ― and his dog Oso ― down the Pecos River. Flow was low in April, so the paddlers had to pull their boats in shallow stretches. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

The sun sets on the Pecos River. Basic paddling skills are necessary to safely make a trip on the river; there’s no cell service, and if you get injured, help is a long way off. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

The sun sets on the Pecos River. Basic paddling skills are necessary to safely make a trip on the river; there’s no cell service, and if you get injured, help is a long way off. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

For five days, though, we haven’t seen another soul — except for the couple from J&P Bar and Grill in Comstock, who show up (by pre-arrangement) with a giant skillet to cook chicken tacos for us at a fishing camp where we have permission to stop one night. We precede the meal with a hike up a canyon to marvel at a hidden pool of emerald-green water in a curved rock amphitheater, then return to the beach to sip cold beer and talk about our trip so far.

“No society, no internet, no nothing. Just me and the rocks and the water,” Colton Moore, 28, of Sonora, says as the sky changes color and a chill settles in. “This trip in particular, the clarity of the water, too. It’s unreal, like a freaking aquarium.”

I sleep in a tent and Dobbins just lays down an air mattress, but Moore and his girlfriend, Colleen Gilbreath, 26, of Tolar, have been stringing their hammock from rocks most nights. That’s been a highlight for them.

“I liked all the unexpected things. It wasn’t just, ‘Paddle down a river.’ It was a bunch of hidden stuff along the way,” Gilbreath says.

On our last night, a cold front blows in. We wake up to gunmetal gray skies, much colder temperatures and wind in our faces. We load up our kayaks and start pulling. The rapids are bigger on this last stretch, too, and the rocks are slick with leeches.

The owners of J&P Bar and Grill in Comstock met the group on the last night of the five-day paddling trip and cooked chicken tacos for them. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

The owners of J&P Bar and Grill in Comstock met the group on the last night of the five-day paddling trip and cooked chicken tacos for them. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

Oso, the world's best river dog, rests in his owner's boat during a five-day trip down the Pecos River. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

Oso, the world's best river dog, rests in his owner's boat during a five-day trip down the Pecos River. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

By the time we reach Painted Canyon, where the biggest rapids await, I’m shivering like a wet Chihuahua. We pull off, build a fire between some waist-high fins of limestone, dry our clothes and thaw our toes, then scout the river ahead of us.

Then, one by one, we climb back into our boats. Dobbins and Moore navigate cleanly, but Gilbreath gets hung up for a few minutes. When Williams hits the bottom half of the rapid, his boat flips, dumping him unceremoniously into the river.

“I liked all the unexpected things. It wasn’t just, ‘Paddle down a river.’ It was a bunch of hidden stuff along the way.”
Colleen Gilbreath, 26, of Tolar

That does it for me. They’re all more skilled than I am. I remember Johnson’s advice and decide to enlist Dobbins to take my boat through. I hike around with my camera gear to make sure it doesn’t get dunked.

Then it’s back on the river, into a serene stretch of deep water and charcoal- and bone-colored canyon walls that seem to want to hold us here. It’s midafternoon when we pull ashore for the last time.

One of my river sandals has exploded, I’ve busted a pair of sunglasses, and we all crawl out of the river with some degree of sunburn — all signs of a successful river trip.

Colleen Gilbreath and Colton Moore relax in a hammock during a five-day paddle trip on the Pecos River. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

Colleen Gilbreath and Colton Moore relax in a hammock during a five-day paddle trip on the Pecos River. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

A cactus blooms along the Pecos River in April. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

A cactus blooms along the Pecos River in April. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman