(CNN) — It’s late afternoon in Santa Elena Canyon — a 19-mile gorge that separates Big Bend National Park in West Texas and three national parks in Mexico –, and we’re setting up camp along a remote stretch of the Rio Grande.
We came across two other canoe groups this morning, but they were day-trippers. The only ones staying over on this night in early 2021 are me, my daughter Shannon, and river guide Mike Gamboni. Call it extreme social distancing.
As we sit around the campfire that night, another thought occurs. Despite all the talk over the past few years about blocking off the Mexican border, here’s a stretch that will likely never see a wall, fence, barbed wire, or any other kind of man-made barrier.
Not because of the river. Heck, the Rio Grande is shallow enough to walk across, especially during the low-water winter season. What makes Santa Elena so formidable are natural walls that tower around 1,500 feet on both sides of the river, rising straight up to a height more significant than the roof of One World Trade Center in New York City. Santa Elena Canyon’s walls tower around 1,500 feet on both sides of the Rio Grande River.
A person would have to be an El Capitan-level rock climber to scale these walls. “If you could actually climb them,” says Gamboni. “These walls are limestone, not granite like Yosemite. Soft, unstable, too risky for climbing.”
Unless evolution has blessed you with specific adaptations. Back on the river the following day, we come across a herd of aoudad sheep gingerly scampering across a cliff on the Texas side. Natural climbers don’t seem to have the slightest problem navigating the steep terrain, not even the youngest ones.
Unlike the aoudad, most creatures aren’t equipped to master or even overcome the canyon’s vertical reaches. That’s not to say that Santa Elena is void of other wildlife. Our canoes drifted beneath peregrine falcons riding thermals high above the canyon and past Big Bend slider turtles on half-submerged stones and driftwood. Experienced paddlers can easily navigate the river on their own. But a guide adds local knowledge to the trip.