Immigration, The Border, and My Kayak Trip on the Rio Grande

As Obama sends more National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexican border, Bryan Curtis floated the Rio Grande to see the immigration wars’ biggest flashpoint up close.

John Moore / Getty Images

I didn’t want to kayak the Rio Grande in the dark. Nor did Eric Ellman, my wise and imperturbable guide to the Mexican-American border river. “I’m very unexcited about the prospect,” Eric announced through clenched teeth.

The Department of Homeland Security made it unanimous. A pair of Border Patrol officers had rolled up in their SUV when they saw the three of us—me and Eric and Eric’s yellow mutt, Buster—preparing to launch two kayaks near the little South Texas town of Fronton. It was around 6:30 p.m. I was wearing loud swim trunks bought at the Barneys Warehouse Sale. The officers spoke in beseeching tones about the violence the drug war had inflicted on the Mexican side of the border: Five journalists had recently vanished in the nearby town of Reynosa. If we wanted to be safe, we should paddle the Rio Grande swiftly, bird-watch economically, and be out of the river and en route to a Tex-Mex joint before darkness fell.

The sun was gone by this point, the darkness around us complete. Eric was perhaps only 100 feet ahead of me, but I found I couldn’t see him at all.

Two hours later, Eric and I were stuck on the Rio Grande in the dark.

Back in New York City, boating the border had seemed like a fine journalistic experiment. I would go to Texas and kayak with Eric, the executive director of the preservation organization Los Caminos del Rio. We would point to Great Kiskadees and White-Collared Seedeaters and maybe a Black-Bellied Whistling Duck. The point of our river adventure would be to paint the U.S.-Mexican border as something more complex than what it had become lately in the American imagination: a region so awash in violence that Obama would send 1,200 National Guardsmen to police it; a Maginot Line against the ostentatious killings on the Mexican side; a thing to fear rather than a thing to understand. With any luck, Eric and I would see a small slice of the border as it really was.

Boating the border is generally legal. A few years ago, Ellman went to the Mexican consulate, and the staff consulted the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which was signed in 1848 at the end of the Mexican-American War. As a small solace to the defeated and humiliated Mexicans—who would cede to the United States most of what is now the American Southwest—the treaty said that the river would be shared by both countries. That effectively means an American kayaker is free to paddle the Rio Grande, and a Mexican kayaker can paddle it, too. These two amigos can even paddle side-by-side, so long as neither steps out on a foreign bank.

As soon as my kayak was in the water, I wanted to extract maximum value from the Treaty. I rowed straight across the river a few hundred feet toward Mexico and maneuvered my day-glo orange craft until it was mere inches away from the bank. Mexico, of course, looked exactly like the mess of the mesquite trees that I had just left. As I was craning my neck for a view, a stiff, upriver breeze nearly blew my reporter’s notebook out of my hand. I lunged to grab it, and my kayak shot forward into the muddy bank. So in clear violation of the 162-year-old treaty, I was on—actually, in—Mexican soil.

Eric and I paddled east, toward the city of Roma. We ignored the American side and cocked our heads to the right. For while the American bank is more carefully-tended (many tracts are owned by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service), the Mexican side offered wonders. Someone had built a warren of cement stairs and walkways leading down a slope to the river. We couldn’t see the house or warehouse at the top of the walkways, but it looked like a demented idea of waterfront property. Moments later, we came upon a bank that had been mowed like a putting green. Had cattle chewed down the grass or had it been groomed to be a staging area for moving contraband? Later: a tall, silo-like cement building, apparently used for irrigation. Still later: a trash dump that rose up between the Mexican trees like a giant anthill. I pulled out my camera and started clicking away. I heard Eric’s voice from downriver.

“Uh, Bryan,” he said, “you might not want to be taking pictures. I don’t want to be paranoid, but that guy was on a cell phone.”

Guy? Cell phone? Eric explained that he’d seen a man near the trash dump. The man was looking right at me and talking excitedly. “There are guys who scout the river, and they’re bound to be a little camera-shy,” Eric said.

We paddled quickly around the bend.

* * * * *

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Eric, who is 52, has a shaved head and a super-skinny frame and vibrates with such intensity that when I first met him, last summer, I took him for 20 years younger. A New York native, Eric first came south to the border in 1986, amid reports of violence like the ones that have lately filled the newspapers. (The day we were on the river, an American couple was murdered in their car in Juarez while their infant daughter cried in the backseat, a killing brazen enough to draw a response from Barack Obama.) Then, as now, Eric ignored the dire warnings. He rode across Mexico in a bike and, in 1990, published a travelogue. “I wrote it in large part because I wanted people to not be afraid of Mexico,” Eric told me. “Gringos were scared to go there. And they still are.”

When Eric became the executive director of Los Caminos Del Rio, he faced two problems. One was the stigma of the border: it was, in the description of author Gloria Anzaldúa, “ una herida abierta”—an open wound—“where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.” Lately, the Mexican drug war had made it seem like the Third World was on the brink of swallowing the First. Eric’s second problem was that Texas’s Rio Grande Valley didn’t have much of a legal river-running culture. There was a saying ascribed to local mothers, “ ¡No te metas en el agua, hijo!” which means, “Don’t play in the water, son!” Nobody seemed to want to canoe.

But as we paddled the Rio Grande in the fading daylight, it seemed wonderfully apolitical. With no U.S. border wall here, with no signs of human life or traffic noise, we could have been in any national park. The river is slow-moving here—not interesting for white-water aficionados, but perfect for family paddling. Eric’s plan was to throw what he dubbed a “Woodstock on the Water.” You would have American kayakers racing Mexican kayakers through border towns like Granjeno. You would have an annual Rio Fest, a prototype of which Los Caminos threw in 2008, with bands and food stands and crowds on the both sides of the Rio Grande. An American could wade over to the Mexican side and buy food from a vendor on the bank, and vice versa, carefully conforming to the Treaty. Eric called it “peace, love, and paddling.”

The nagging terror of living near the border has hardly dimmed Eric’s enthusiasm. In fact, we were late getting to the river because we had gone on an expedition to score lunch and get Eric’s teeth cleaned in Mexico. My unskilled paddling—which when combined with the Barneys’s swim trunks made me a look like I had wandered away from a cruise ship docked near Galveston—ate away more precious minutes. After a time, I stopped scribbling in my notebook and looked up. The sun was nearly gone.

We began to paddle quickly. Buster stood on the bow of Eric’s raft and thrust his ears out wide, like twin sails. In the gloom, we saw a deflated yellow and purple raft in the reeds on the American side of the river—a sign, no doubt, of a recent nocturnal push across the river. Four or five cormorants left a tree on the American bank and swooped out over our heads, dark shapes against the purple sky.

Ahead we saw an island in the river. The Rio Grande split into two channels, and we rowed to port and took the American side. The sun had disappeared by this point, the darkness around us complete. We were drifting slowly forward as in a dream, with faraway Tejano music filling the air. Eric was perhaps only 100 feet ahead of me. But his presence was signaled only by the sound of his paddle slicing through the water and his occasional dry apercu. “I don’t want to encourage reckless indiscretion,” Eric said. Eric had never been on the river at night.

In the dark, the Rio Grande took on a wholly different character. It looked terrifying—wider and deeper. The banks on the American side, where we knew we had safe passage, looked uninviting—covered with a wall of forbidding plants. It turns out that you can see one part of the Rio Grande during the day—the parts with the cormorants and the Great Kiskadees and the Woodstock on the Water. But there is another part of the Rio Grande that can only be grasped at night. With our long immigration stalemate, it is currently, and perhaps eternally, a nocturnal river.

After paddling further into darkness, we finally saw the arcing lights of the international bridge, set high in the sky and connecting the towns of Roma, in Texas, and Miguel Alemán, in Mexico. That was our takeout point. We hopped out of our canoes, and within seconds, another Border Patrol agent materialized out of the trees, no doubt radioed by his compatriots about two gringos who may need to be fished out of the river. Under the agent’s gentle questioning, I explained that I was a journalist, and that despite the antic state of our trip—despite the foray into night-kayaking—the border seemed more interesting, and more complex, than it appeared in a Fox News segment. Eric and I had not fully grasped the border, but it was a start.

Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. His story about his grandfather’s softball career is in The Best American Sports Writing of 2009.