Thursday, 10 December, 1998. Austin, Texas.
After having lugged some very heavy packs this summer, I was really looking forward to leaving the climbing gear behind. What no climbing gear? Yes, just a plain and simple backpack. Big Bend National Park, just a stone's throw from Mexico, seemed like a nice warm place to get in the backcountry.
The ranger issuing my backcountry permit didn't have very good information about the condition of the springs on my route. But she did recommend caching water at one place which was close to the road. After caching a gallon of water, I quickly packed, then headed out. I felt like I was floating, I've carried more gear for a day of climbing! My pack felt like it was in the low twenties.
The trail I'd selected was a thirty-two mile loop that I expected would take me three days. The first five miles of the trail are all uphill, but the trail was well constructed with nice switchbacks. At Boot Spring I'd planned on filling up my water bottles, since I'd only left with two liters. The spring wasn't flowing, but there were a couple pools of water. I really prefer to fill my bottles at flowing streams, so I continued hiking. My topo map showed that I should expect to cross several springs on my way down the next canyon.
Hiking down the canyon, I kept looking in every depression for a possible spring, but wasn't finding any. I hadn't started hiking until after lunch and it was getting to be late afternoon. I was starting to get a little worried about finding water. To be honest I was too preoccupied with looking for water and considering my options to really enjoy the scenery. At 4PM I'd hiked to the bottom of the canyon and had clearly passed all the springs indicated on the map. Hmmm, not good. I had a single liter of water. My two options were to spend the night on a single liter of water and hope I'd find water tomorrow. My water was cached about 15 miles away, which would make for a long day. The second option was to turn around and return the the previously dismissed springs.
I turned around. I was hoping to avoid hiking in the dark, and by luck the late sunset (after 6PM) gave me enough time to hike back up the trail to Boot Spring. At this point those pools of water were looking very good indeed. So I filled all my bottles and looked for a campsite.
Having packed as light as possible, there wasn't much to do once it was dark. I watched the full moon come up, then went to sleep. I'd stayed up to late, late 7PM!
In the morning I elected to hike a different loop, which would allow me to hike out today, rather than attempt the long loop with unknown water conditions. A day shorter than planned, but still a nice backpack.
Big Bend has one great thing that makes it a perfect backpacking spot -- hot springs! The hot springs are located on the banks of the Rio Grande. At this point the river is just over thirty feet wide, Mexico is really close!
The campsite at Big Bend has a critter which I hadn't seen before entering Texas -- the javalina. The Javalina is a small, wild pig. They root around the campsite with aplumb and obviously own the place. Signs warn about leaving food out, but they didn't get into my food containers.
A long drive put me in Austin. Before heading over to my friend Julie Fitzgerald's house, I wanted to checkin with the dive shop I was scheduled to take a scuba class with. They informed me that the class had been cancelled. Ah, thanks.
I greeted Julie, with "I need to use your phone." After calling every dive shop listed in the phone book, and there are quite a few, I found a place that would offer a private lesson for a reasonable price. So why all this fuss about learning to dive? I have an opportunity to dive in the Caribbean in January. Why learn to dive in Austin, Texas? It isn't even near the ocean! Austin has two things, its pretty warm in December and I have a friend who will let me crash on her couch there.
The classroom and pool training went pretty smoothly. The toughest part about the pool training was having to float for 10 minues. I *don't* float! My face is half underwater when holding my breath, I have to quickly gulp my next breath before sinking.
When I had arrived in Austin it was nice and sunny, a pleasant 70 degrees. By Wednesday, things had changed. Wednesday morning was my first day of diving in the lake. It was overcast and air temperatures were in the low fifties. We geared up and started walking down the stairs into the water. (The stairs go down 30 feet!) I could feel the water enter my booties, ooh, that's cold. As the water worked my way up my body, that's still cold! My instructor, Cynthia, said just up in and get it overwith. So I did. As I came up, I exclaimed, where are my glasses? I couldn't remember taking them off, and suddenly weren't on my face. So I got out and looked for them amongst our onland gear, while Cynthia dove to look for them. She finally found them. That was pretty stupid of me!
We descended down the stairs to deeper water. Immediately on descending, fish started circling around us. After demonstrating the necessary skills, it was time to feed the fishes. Cynthia had told me to bring hot dogs to feed the fish. I thought she was pulling my leg, but had brought them anyway. As soon as I had pulled out a hot dog for each of us, we were surrounded by perch, blue gills and large catfish circling us. Wow, this is cool!
After we'd feed the fishes, we swam around for a little. Visibility was only about ten feet or so, which for the lake is pretty good. In the gloom I could see a fin, and it belonged to something large, very large. I was getting a little scared at this point. Um, that lookes like a shark.
Duh, dummy it is! On closer inspection I realized that it was a metal cutout shark affixed to the bottom. Whew! Returning to the surface, we exited the water to review our next set of skills. In about two minutes I went from tollerably warm, to blue lips and chattering teeth. I wasn't too keen to go back into the water, but back in we went. The water at 69 degrees was definatly warmer and my teeth stopped chattering. After a few more skills we were done. Exiting the water we quickly shed our gear and retreated to the warm of my truck heater.
I have another set of dives scheduled for Saturday. I was scheduled for this morning, but we postponed the dives for better weather. I'm glad we did, since its cold and rainy today. I'm not optimistic that the water temperatures will improve, though. For my next dive I'm getting a hood and gloves. And if I can arrange it, I'm not getting out of the water between dives!