When Drew and I started brainstorming ideas for an August honeymoon, the first thing that came to mind was a multi-day paddling trip into the Copper Canyon region of northern Mexico. Monsoon rains come through the Sierra Madre del Norte every August, feeding the Urique River as it flows down through the Barranca del Cobre. Unfortunately for us, even the rainy season almost wasn't enough to bring the river up to a boatable level, making for an eventful trip.
Enroute to Creel
La Barranca del Cobre
The real adventure started in Creel, a high desert mining and tourist town in the state of Chihuahua. The area is pretty lawless and I felt like we'd stepped off the train into a wild west town of cowboys and drug cartels. Armed guards ride the train to protect the passengers from bandits, and from our upstairs window at La Casa Margarita hotel looking out over the town square, we half expected to see a shootout in the street.
Our first challenge was finding a taxi to the river. None of the drivers seemed to know of the remote put-in town of Siquirichi. It was even harder to convince them in broken Spanglish that it was a good idea to take a couple of gringos out there and drop us off. We finally found a taxi driver that was willing to make the trip, but he asked us to pay ahead of time so that we could drop the money off with his family on the way out of town. We're guessing he must have known something we didn't . . .
It wasn't until the taxi had left us at the put-in with our kayaks that we realized the river was dropping fast. We paddled as far as we could, but pretty soon the water was only up to our shoe laces and we had to wade down the riverbed with our kayaks floating behind us. After a couple kilometers, we took a break to reasses the situation. We started by rationing lunch in case our three day paddling trip turned into a week long kayak assisted canyoneering trip. We had experience with an epic high water multi-day trip, but now we were at the opposite end of the spectrum and stranded because of low water. Still, we were in the middle of nowhere Chihuahua and it appeared that the best way out of there was to continue downstream. Luckily, an afternoon thunderstorm was brewing overhead and the river was starting to narrow and drop into a deep gorge. We were able to get back in our boats and make some progress down into the bottom of an amazing slot canyon, Canon Siquirichi. We found a nice beach perched in a canyon bend and decided to make camp and pray for rain.
We were relieved to wake up to rain drops pounding on the tarp in the middle of the night, but the next morning we had just enough water to bounce down through a maze of giant boulder gardens. As we picked our way downstream, the amazing scenery made up for the lack of water, but I wouldn't say it was easy going. After a series of scenic canyons, the river opened back up again and we alternated between wading rapids, floating through pools, and soaking in riverside hotsprings. Threatening thunderclouds hung low overhead, but we didn't get much rain. By late afternoon we reached the landmark we had been searching for all day, the Gates of Urique. An unmistakable spine of large rock spires towered above both sides of the river. Then the water tumbled over a series of three sprawling bedrock ledges. It was a really unique place surrounded by crazy caves and rock formations, and we decided to call it a day on a pristine beach near the bottom of the third cascade.
The Gates of Urique
Looking at the map we were discouraged to find that we had barely made it halfway on the second day and there were about 15 km of class IV-V boulder gardens to navigate downstream. At this rate, it was going to take us FOREVER! Fortunately, as we started to fall asleep, the sky broke into a torrential downpour that didn't let up all night. By morning the Urique had risen 5,500 cfs and was running chocolate brown. Arroyos were pouring in from both sides of the canyon walls. We couldn't believe our luck as we packed up our boats and hit the river. Those 15 km of boulder gardens had changed from hell to heaven overnight and we appreciated every second of it for the next two days.
Cooling off in an arroyo
The takeout at Puente Umira
As luck would have it, our epic honeymoon adventure was a success after all. We made it to the takeout at Puente Umira with food to spare, caught the first bus back to Creel, and were enthusiatically greeted by our taxi driver in the town square. I guess he was relieved to see us return in one piece. Mission accomplished, we headed to the coast for some margaritas on the beach.
For more information about padding in this area, check out the guidebook Mexican Whitewater: Norte by Rocky Contos, available at www.sierrarios.org