Marfa High School students share laughs and appreciation for nature on Rio Grande river trip

Marfa High School students Taylynn Licon, Tony Saenz and Tenessa Hinojos navigate the waters of the Rio Grande River on a recent canoe trip with teacher Elizabeth Donaldson’s science classes.

PRESIDIO COUNTY — Marfa High School students zipped up life vests, grabbed paddles and hopped aboard canoes to brave the Rio Grande river this past week. The group of 13 students, mostly from Elizabeth Donaldson’s environmental systems class, participated in a canoe trip through the River Rangers program, an environmental stewardship initiative of the Big Bend Conservation Alliance (BBCA). 

Led by river guides from Far West Texas Outfitters, teams of two paddled — with varying proficiency — down a short stretch of the Rio Grande, sometimes meeting banks overgrown with river cane and rocks with the bows of their boats or stopping to free vessels stuck in  too-shallow waters. 

Elvira Hermosillo, BBCA programs manager, said the goal of the program is to foster a connection between local students, who have often never been on the river or to visit the area’s state or national parks, and the outdoors. 

“I think it’s really neat that we can give them that opportunity when maybe their families can’t, whether they can’t afford it, or it’s just something that they don’t do, or are not interested in doing,” said Hermosillo. 

Marfa High School senior Andru Bentley and Big Bend Conservation Alliance Programs Manager Elvira Hermosillo conduct water quality testing on the Rio Grande River last week.

The brief yet lively journey began at La Cuesta campground just off of River Road and included a break for lunch — sandwiches, spicy chips and pickles — underneath the shade of Dark Canyon before the take-out point at Madera Canyon. 

“It was an amazing first-time experience, and the view of the environment was like no other,” said senior Joel Martinez. “I had a great time with many laughs along the way. The most challenging part of the trip was learning to paddle and steer the boat.” 

Started by the late Presidio High School teacher Patt Sims in 2007, the River Rangers program has been under the management of BBCA for the past couple of years. Recently, it has expanded from a sole focus on water conservation to include a variety of educational experiences at local parks. This year, Marfa and Terlingua school districts joined Presidio ISD in the initiative for the first time.

By introducing kids to guest speakers like park rangers and river guides, River Rangers helps expose students to career opportunities in environmental fields that they may not have been aware of otherwise, said Hermosillo. 

Getting out of the classroom and into nature — feeling the flow of the river, observing wildlife and taking in towering canyons — has a lasting impact on the students, she said. 

“They’re not just on the riverbank looking at [the river] go by, they get to go in there and get in the water, they get to touch it, they get to experience the different depths and how it changes,” said Hermosillo. 

Elizabeth Donaldson –– who has been taking her students on outdoor excursions to the Big Bend for over 10 years –– took the opportunity to point out the difference between native and invasive river cane, one of many environmental lessons along the trip.

“Canoeing on the river with students is always the highlight of my year,” said Donaldson. “Using the space as an outdoor classroom is not only effective but creates an experience for the students that they carry with them forever. I want learning and science to be something students enjoy and can look back fondly upon.”

Tony Saenz and Tenessa Hinojos race to the put out point on a recent Rio Grande canoe trip with Marfa High School science teacher Elizabeth Donaldson’s classes.

Donaldson said working with BBCA has taken the burden of planning such trips off of her plate, and the river trip as well as a previous hike on the Hoodoos Trail in Big Bend Ranch State Park — both which involved water quality testing for pH, oxygen and indicators of pollution — help students appreciate the beauty of the region they are growing up in. 

“Most of them have never been in a canoe or have never been to the state park,” said Donaldson. 

After the river trip, many students shared with The Big Bend Sentinel — whether it was their first time in a canoe or not — that they had an incredible time and were eager to return. 

“Being on the river and enjoying nature was really relaxing and stress relieving,” said Marisa Hernandez. “I would love to go again and do more things on the river.” 

Hernandez and boating partner Tenessa Hinojos were, at times, caught in some precarious situations, soliciting bouts of uncontrollable laughter. Hinojos could often be heard shouting “put it in reverse,” to Hernandez, who was in charge of steering. 

Donaldson and art teacher Adele Powers sang river tunes, including Alan Jackson’s famed “Chattahoochee,” a cappella while they paddled along in their shared canoe. Students Piper Donaldson and Jack Marquez did manage to flip their canoe and fall into the river along the way, but didn’t let the incident dampen their spirits. 

It was an amazing experience canoeing on a river for the first time,” said Marquez. “The scenery of the mountains from the water was incredible, and the whole trip was a lot of fun.”