Next day, I was at the airport early to confer with the pilots.
“Can we fly today?” I anxiously asked them.
“No, Senor,” they say, “The weather is still crappy (my word), maybe tomorrow.”
Again, I have my four passengers with me all day, and have to provide them with meals and another night’s lodging; cash flow was getting low. As we continue to sightsee around town, I was extremely fearful of what might be happening out at the river.
On the morning of the third day, I again was at the airport early to get the pilot’s assessment of the weather, and to ascertain if we were going to fly that day.
“Yes, Senor,” they replied, “the weather is good, and we’ll fly as soon as you’re ready.”
By 9:00 a.m., we were in the air for the hour-and-a-half flight to the airstrip at Tres Nacion. We arrived just in time. The guides and passengers were beside themselves with worry and anxiety as to what might have happened to us.
Added to their worry was the deteriorating situation in the village, which consisted of just a few families, but unbeknownst to me just a short distance from the homes of the villagers was a Mexican Army outpost staffed by personnel who were army grunts, low men on the totem pole, lacking in civility and social mores. They had wandered over from their compound to see what was happening at the river. The guides told me they were intimidating to the female passengers, and on more than one occasion had fired their automatic weapons into the air. It was a destabilizing and desperate situation for them
Not knowing if I would ever show up, and desperate to be away from the soldiers, the guides had inflated the large rubber raft, the same type used on the Colorado River, and were in the process of moving it down the steep embankment to the river. They had re-assembled the large wooden rowing frame, but hadn’t figured out how to affix it, or the wooden floor, to the rubber tubes. However, given time, they would have come up with some arrangement of the components, right or wrong, and it was their intent to depart down the river without me and the other four passengers.
Had they succeeded, the five of us would have had no way to catch up with them and would have had to return to San Cristobal. The guides, with the eight passengers, would have been on their own, on a river they knew nothing about, not knowing where to camp, not knowing where they were in relation to the canyon with the rapids, or where they were in relation to the takeout point at Tenosique. Had they succeeded in getting away from the village at Tres Nacion, I shutter even now, forty years later, thinking of the horrific logistic complications that would have ensued if we hadn’t arrived when we did and prevented their departure.
I assured the guides and passengers that everything was under control, and we would be away from the village within an hour. The driver for the truck and trailer departed with the pilots who flew back to San Cristobal. As anticipated, we left the village within the hour and began motoring down the river, all relieved to be away from the village and the intimidating soldiers.
The boat we were traveling on was one I built myself using war surplus bridge building pontoons left over from the Korean and/or Vietnam wars. These were twenty-two-foot long inflatable rubber tubes, with four air chambers rounded on one end and upturned on the other end. To build a temporary bridge using these tubes, the Army Engineers would butt two of these tubes together, with the upturned noses jutting out from either end, that now had an overall length of forty-four feet. These expanded tubes would be placed side by side until they spanned the river, and would be held in place by stout cables that passed through steel rings attached to the snouts of each tube. Steel planking would be laid over these tubes forming a roadway, across which tanks and other military vehicles would cross.
It took five 22-foot tubes to build such a boat, using a center tube and two outside tubes lashed together on each side of the center tube. The center tube, like all the tubes, has four air chambers separated by interior bulkheads. To make room for cargo space and to provide a place to attach an outboard engine, two chambers of the center tube were removed, leaving a space that I replaced with a plywood floor, suspended by chains attached to the wooden rowing frame that was strapped to the top of the tubes using D-rings and nylon webbing. A motor mount was attached to the back of the boat where the center tube would have been, and a twenty-horsepower Mercury engine provided propulsion and steering for the boat.
It was a good rig and a solid one, having seen much action on the Colorado River running the rapids through Cataract Canyon. It had sufficient room for all the food supplies and camping gear, gas and spare engines for a seven-day trip, plus sufficient room for the fourteen passengers to spread out and relax while traveling downriver. I was comfortable with the boat and had confidence that it would see us safely through the voyage.
Within a few miles, we came to a large sand island in the middle of the river, on which I chose to camp for the night. It had been a rough three days for all of us and I was anxious to have everyone relax, enjoy the journey on a beautiful river in a very exotic setting, and take pleasure in a sumptuous meal that I began to prepare as soon as the boat was unloaded. As I began the meal preparation, I was immediately faced with one very serious shortcoming that I had never even considered when planning the trip – firewood.