A Better Presa Canyon Experience

Dr. Stephen L. Black leads the Ancient Southwest Texas archaeological project in the Lower Pecos.

Dr. Stephen L. Black leads the Ancient Southwest Texas archaeological project in the Lower Pecos.

Some of you may remember my whine about hiking Presa Canyon in Seminole Canyon State Park last November (see Nov. 2013, Hiking Presa Canyon). I lost five toenails on that one, and very nearly suffered heat stroke.  My husband Steve took a similar hike last Sunday, with considerably better results. In fact he thoroughly enjoyed it.

It was the same canyon, same terrain, but with a few notable differences. First, it was 65 degrees F instead of 95  F last year when I went.  Since stone canyons heat up like ovens when the sun hits them, this difference was huge. No heat stroke for Steve and his companions.  This time of year in the Lower Pecos the weather is variable, and you have to be prepared for anything. I’ve been there in March when it was 95, and I’ve been there in March when it snowed. Luck of the draw on that one.

The second difference was that Steve is in much better physical condition than I was when I went.

Steve gives the Bobcat wave.

Steve gives the Bobcat wave.

After all, he’s been hiking up and down canyons everyday for the past two months. That strengthens the quads, folks. Very useful when climbing over boulders. Now, he did have knee surgery last year, but he did his physical therapy and recovered fully.  I on the other hand, lackadaisically went to the gym twice a week and moaned every time I had to do a leg lift. It shows. I’m still bad.

The third big difference was that Steve and his pals got a kindly rancher to pick them up after six hours, instead of hiking the complete eight-hour trip!  What I wouldn’t have given for a pickup outta there!  I would’ve called EMS for a helicopter ride out except that A) there’s no cell service down in a canyon [yes, my lovelies], and B) it would’ve cost $1500.00.  So I opted to keep walking. But I thought about it!

Because of his better preparation and more hospitable situation, Steve really didn’t suffer.  He slept

Steve Black overlooking the Pecos River in New Mexico.

Steve Black overlooking the Pecos River in New Mexico.

well that night, but he didn’t hurt all over.  I slept 12 hours the night after my hike!  My body needed that much to recover. After all, I’d pushed these old bones pretty hard for a city slicker, which I am but wish I weren’t.

The beauty of the canyon was there for both of us, however, and any of you who make the trip. The cry of the birds, the flower hanging precariously from the stone, the buckeye trees in bloom. And of course the rock art. Because there is rock art, we  fool ourselves into thinking that’s what we go to see, that that’s the reason for going. But it’s not.  The canyon itself is the reason. Just to be there, in the air, surrounded by astounding beauty, as the hawks fly overhead.

Hiking Presa Canyon

Now that cooler weather has arrived, some of you may be thinking of hiking in the desert and canyons of the Lower Pecos region of south Texas. Wonderful idea!  I had the privilege of taking the guided hike to Presa Canyon last spring.  The temperature was only forecast to be 95 degrees Farenheit, so the tour was a go. If it’s more than 100 F, they don’t take groups into the canyon, for good reason.  I promised you then that I would write more about it ( see my post of March 18, 2013), but it has taken me awhile to get up the guts.

Rock Art in Black Cave

Rock Art in Black Cave

The hike was about eight hours, four hours in to Black Cave, and four hours out.  Information from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department describes the hike as “extremely strenuous” due to “rough terrain,’ and suggests that hikers have “experience in backcountry hiking skills.”

I had been hiking in the Lower Pecos for 20 years or so, and I said to myself, “well, it’s ALL rough terrain,” so I thought I could  do this. I made my reservation and paid my fee at Seminole Canyon State Park. Everything started fine, a lovely walk though a beautiful place. I felt good.

But when we turned down Presa Canyon itself, the nice flat canyon floor became a jumble of stones ranging in size from an Easter ham to a small Volkswagen. I wish I had thought to take a photo, but I was concentrating too hard on where to put my next footstep. Over and over again. For about six hours.

We reached Black Cave about noon, had our lunch, and studied the enigmatic rock art to be found there. Then we headed back. Four hours of watching where I put my foot, step by step, in exquisite torture.  I hurt the whole way back. Every time I put my foot down for the next step, my toe hit the end of my boot, which hit the rock. Ouch!  In addition to several blisters, I eventually lost five toenails.  I wish I had a picture of that purple horror, too, to scare you straight. Fortunately for you, I don’t.

You see, I made some poor choices about this hike. Like the socks I chose. And how much I carried on my back.  And,

Deer head skeleton under blooming Mexican buckeye tree in Presa Canyon

Deer head skeleton under blooming Mexican buckeye tree in Presa Canyon

knowing what I know now, I should have invested in different hiking boots. Even my wide-brimmed straw hat that I thought was great, turned out to snag on every limb and thorn along the way.

Another mistake was thinking I was really healthy enough to be doing this in the first place. There is a reason I was dragging at the end.  Heat, exertion, and high blood pressure.  Rock canyons become radiant stone ovens by afternoon on hot days. There was a time or two during the hike I thought I might pass out from heat stroke. I drank a lot of water, but high blood pressure gets you in the end.  I thought I was OK before I started, then Val asked me, “is your blood pressure under control in normal conditions?”  “Yes,” I said. “Well,” she said,  stating the obvious,”these are not normal conditions.” Oh. I get it now.

Fortunately, I made some good choices too. Like being reasonably fit. And taking extra moleskin along to bind those blisters. And taking my trusty hiking poles. And freezing a couple of bottles of water the night before–they were sure good in the heat of the afternoon. I even had some to share, which was good because somebody else ended up carrying my pack most of the way out.  Thank you, whoever you are.  Sorry I don’t know your name. You were galloping along so easily, and I was so far behind.

So, here’s my list of must-haves if you take this hike:

Sunscreen, of course

Chapstick

Bandana wrapped around small frozen bottle of water–wet the bandana down and wrap it around your neck in the afternoon to chill down

Baseball-style hat, possibly with neck protection

Black Cave

Black Cave

Moleskin and knife or small scissors

wool hiking socks

good fitting hiking boots

hiking poles (optional for the young and agile)

easy lunch that does not need refrigeration, like peanut butter sandwiches

one or two pieces of fruit like apple or orange for snack

Gatorade

trailmix

camera ( I only took my iphone camera because it was light.  But you may want higher resolution photos)

Bandaids (you never know when you might need first aid)

Be careful, and watch where you put your feet and hands.  Rattlers, you know. Just remember that a rescue crew would have to walk in and out four hours each way too.  I asked the designated first aid specialist with us , a big former Army type, if he would carry me out if I broke my leg.  “Yes,” he said,” but I don’t bring anesthetic.  You would hurt like hell.”  Go safely, my friends.

Presa Canyon

Rock Art in Presa Canyon

Rock Art in Presa Canyon

This is the first of several articles this week live from the Pecos Experience at the Shumla School, west of Del Rio, Texas.  I arrived Friday night so I could hike Presa Canyon Saturday, courtesy of the Texas Parks and Wildlife and Seminole Canyon State Park.

Black Cave

Black Cave

I had been warned that this was an “extremely strenuous” hike, and that warning is correct. I was so tired that I came back to camp and took a two hour nap, ate dinner, then slept another 12 hours. Got up today, had coffee, took a nap, and will go to be early tonight too.  I am sore in so many places!  But I made it in and out, and therein lies the tale.

The only way to see Presa Canyon is to join one of these tours that only go in cool months.  There were about 23 in our group, along with two guides from the Rock Art Foundation.  It is about four hours in to Black Cave, our final destination, and four hours out. We were lucky because there was a breeze and the temperature only reached the low 90s, even though the stone canyon was like a radiant oven.

This hike feels like it is mano a mano with nature. At least that’s what it feels like to an old woman like me. There are numerous boulder fields that must be climbed and gotten down from, and lots of thorny brush to push through. My mind was completely focused on where to put my next step so I wouldn’t sprain an ankle. That and drinking enough water so I wouldn’t get heat stroke.

I hadn’t slept a wink the night before because my monkey mind kept saying “heat stroke, rattlesnake, sprained ankle” like an evil mantra over and over. We did not see a single snake, although I am sure they saw us, and no one got overheated or injured. The buzzards didn’t circle, so you know we made it out alive!

Figures in Black Cave

Figures in Black Cave

When we could look up, we  got to see some wonderful rock art. Our destination was Black Cave, which contains a panel of quite vivid art.  The panel seems to be made up of several separate elements rather than being one continuous composition. But that’s just how it looks. Who knows what it really means?

Figures in Black Cave

Figures in Black Cave

The air was intoxicating with the sweetness of blackbrush, huisache and Mexican buckeye trees in mad bloom. More than one person commented that they felt like they were being seduced by the fragrance so as not to pay attention to the thorns and rocks that were brushing us and trying to grab our boots. Yes, it was another trick to get us.

We thought about the people who once lived here and made these paintings. How did they do it? The figures in Black Cave are very high up the wall. No one could have reached that high, so they had to have used some sort of scaffold. The paint is still vivid

Huisache ("we-sache")

Huisache (“we-sache”)

today, 4000 years at after it was applied, at least. How did they make such a paint? My house paint certainly won’t last that long. How did they even walk through the canyon? They didn’t have high-tech hiking boots and camel-backs. How did they carry water? What did they think about?  What did they mean to tell us with these figures?

Those are the questions that drew me here. Ones I’ll be exploring this week. I hope you will stay tuned for more!