at the time it seemed bizarre, but the U.S. War Department had a
logical enough idea: Why not mount horse soldiers on camels?
After all, a camel could go a lot longer without water than a horse.
True, soldiers charging on camels might not be as intimidating as
a wave of saber-brandishing, blue-coated troopers astride galloping
horses, but for getting from Point A to B in the desert Southwest,
camels would be highly efficient. Too, they could carry more supplies
The Army acquired 33 camels from the Middle East and shipped the
animals and their North African handlers to the Texas port of Indianola.
In 1859, a Cavalry camel caravan traversed the Big
Bend as the military continued the experimentation it had begun
two years earlier. Their route included moving through a feature
now known as Dog Canyon, though given its history it seems like
Camel Canyon would be more appropriate and alliterative.
Each camel carried more than 400 pounds of equipment, went up to
72 hours without water, and enjoyed eating the ever-present creosote
bush that no other stock would touch.
As a modern interpretive marker in Big Bend National Park explains,
in summarizing the camel's performance in the Big Bend, Lt. Edward
L. Hartz said they effortlessly crossed terrain of the "most difficult
nature" while covering 20 to 34 miles a day.
years ago, by accident, an acquaintance and I decided to do what
the soldiers on camels had done-hike Dog Canyon. My original plan
had been to walk the two-mile Grapevine Hill Trail west of the Panther
Junction visitor's center, but a heavy rain in that part of the
park the day before had left the trail temporarily closed.
At the visitor's center, I asked a yucca-thin, old-hippie-looking
park ranger if he could recommend any short trails not impacted
by the recent rain.
"Dog Canyon," he said right away. "It's only a little over four
miles and easy. It's only called moderate because once you get in
Nine-Mile Draw, it's rocky."
He provided a one-sheet map of the trail, which begins 22.5 miles
north of Panther Junction. Once we got to the trail head,
we parked, smeared on sunscreen and packed two 16-ounce bottles
of water each. We set out about 12:30 p.m. The temperature was around
90, relatively cool for mid-day in the Chihuahua Desert low country
in early summer.
I was doing fine, but we had barely gone a half-mile of the 1.5
miles to the cut off to the canyon when my fellow hiker-hefty and
not in great shape-said he couldn't go any farther. I knew I couldn't
carry him out if he got in trouble, so I didn't try to convince
him otherwise. Since I had already started on my first bottle of
water, he graciously gave me both of his and headed back to the
The trail to the canyon is "cairned." That means that every so often,
there' a pile of rocks to mark the route. If you see one pile on
your left, the next pile should be on your right and so on. The
trail crossed white, dusty hardpan dotted with an occasional cactus,
including the strong-spiked variety known as the horse-crippler.
Patches of grass and brush with rising yucca stalks completed the
The rock piles are a low-impact way to guide hikers, but I somehow
managed to get off course by mistaking a left-side rock pile for
When I finally figured that out, which cost me some distance, time
and water, I had to cut through shin-high grass to get back to the
trail, hitting the cover with my walking stick to ward off any rattlers
that might be lurking there waiting for lunch to wander by. Not
being able to see where I was stepping had me spooked so I jumped
the last foot or so to get back on the trail. I landed too hard
on my left foot, which was already a little sore. Now it hurt worse
and I was walking with a decided limp.
As I continued to navigate the rock piles, it was getting hotter.
I was hitting the water regularly and before long I had finished
the second of my four bottles.
I finally reached the Y where the trail turns east up Nine-Mile
Draw to Dog Canyon. The draw proved much more interesting than
the trail. But the walking was harder. Now I was alternately walking
over gravelly sand still moist from the previous day's rain or large
beds of water-smoothed rocks of all shapes and numerous colors ranging
from pebbles to basketball-size. Interesting geology, but I was
now significantly hotter, thirstier and more tired than I had expected
Still not to the canyon, I decided to take a break. I picked a shady
spot against the bank of the draw, took off my fanny pack, hat,
bandana, and sunglasses and sat down in some still runoff-moist
sand. I ate some trail mix and drank some water. After about five
minutes, feeling better, I got up and started out again.
As I approached the entrance to the canyon, a party of young hikers
from Angelo State University passed me on their way out. The professor
leading the students stopped to ask if I was by myself and I said
yes, that my erstwhile co-hiker had turned back and was waiting
in my vehicle. I had decided to go it alone, I said. "Bravo!" he
said, moving on.
Finally, I reached the deepest part of the canyon. With high rock
on either side, it would have been a great place for an ambush back
in the day. But heat, fatigue and a low water supply were now my
enemies, not renegade Apaches or Mexican bandits. Still, I kept
going toward the eastern mouth of the canyon before finally deciding
I had gone far enough. When I got to the highest wall, which also
made for the most shade, I again took a break to eat more trail
mix and down more water.
Now, I had less than one bottle to make it back on and began to
realize that when saavy desert hikers say you should always take
more water than you think you'll need, they know what they're talking
about. I should have rested longer, but I knew if I sat too long,
which is what I felt like-even lying down sounded good-it might
cause my fellow traveler to think I was in trouble. Which I was
about to be.
Hiking the Dog Canyon, Part II