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BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK, Texas – On the banks of the Rio Grande where the river has carved steep canyons through the mountains of the Chihuahuan Desert dozens of miles from any civilization, Chef Francois Maeder is whipping up white chocolate mousse.
"A lot of people think when you go camping you should have hot dogs and beans," Maeder says.
Luscious food and white-linen dining takes a backseat only to the spectacular desert terrain and star-filled night skies at one of the most remote and least visited national parks in the continental United States.
For 24 years now, Swiss-born Maeder has taken his San Antonio restaurant's gourmet kitchen on the road — and on the river.
Maeder, 64, prepares and serves exquisite meals on raft trips along the Rio Grande through Big Bend National Park, an 801,163-acre wilderness some 700 miles west of Houston.
The park gets its name from the sharp 118-mile-long northeastern arc taken by the river that forms an 889-mile border separating Texas from Mexico. At more than 1,200 square miles, Big Bend, a national park since 1944, is the 15th largest in the national park system. Its river, desert and mountain environment make it home to more types of birds, bats and cacti than any other U.S. national park. Its location, more than two hours south of the nearest interstate highway, keeps the crowds down and makes Big Bend a destination rather than a casual stop on the way to somewhere else.
About a half-dozen times a year, during the cooler spring and fall, Maeder and guides from Far Flung Outdoor Center, an outfitter from nearby Terlingua, pack a portable kitchen and coolers filled with fixings for breakfasts, salads, dinners and desserts for gourmet river trips aboard 16-foot inflatable rafts through the canyons.
Valynda Henington, co-owner of Far Flung, which has been leading trips through the isolated area for decades, describes them as "scenic float trips."
The outfitter offers more rugged, intense and longer adventures along the Rio Grande, which includes portions federally designated as Wild and Scenic River, meaning it's nearly inaccessible, primitive and free of development.
The gourmet trips, however, "bring us a clientele that wouldn't come in normally," Henington said.
"A lifetime experience for me," Tim Tritch, 56, who works for a paint manufacturing firm in Dallas, said of his recent voyage.
"It's like being on a three-day cruise with a very small group of people ... pursuing what they like to enjoy," Tritch's wife, Amy, 43, said.
"Float and bloat!" Patrick Harris, 45, the guide team leader, hollers as a March trip through Heath and Temple Canyons gets under way opposite the ghostly and apparently abandoned village of La Linda, Mexico.
Up to four passengers ride in rafts piloted by a Far Flung guide for trips that typically cover about a dozen miles. Most of the time on the river comes before the intense afternoon heat, where temperatures even in early spring can reach 100 degrees. The trip leader selects a riverbank campsite for two-person tents. The latter half of the day is for cooling off in the clear river, taking a siesta or exploring the desert.
"We're trying to make it an experience where you don't have to do anything unless you want to," guide Jenny Schooler, 29, a North Carolina native who's been with Far Flung for 16 months, said.
As the sun begins to drop behind the mountains and the scorching heat abates, dinner is a several hours-long experience. Under an open-sided portable white tent softly lit with a string of tiny battery-powered lights, appetizers like pate, truffles and cognac and smoked salmon with cream cheese begin the evening's feast, followed by fresh spinach pasta, salad and New Zealand rack of lamb. Dessert is white chocolate mousse with Irish cream, freshly whipped in the desert.
A typical second-day dinner includes Texas Gulf shrimp, ricotta tortellini with cream and garlic sauce, charbroiled steelhead trout and Muscovy duck breast in wine and mushroom sauce. For dessert, raspberry mousse.
Breakfasts are omelets made to order or eggs benedict. Lunch is a deli-style buffet.
"We try stuff people like," says Maeder. "A lot of cooks make it too complicated. I've seen recipes with 25 or 30 ingredients. It's not necessary. I believe in keeping it simple."
He brings the food from San Antonio, where he owns a restaurant called Crumpets, and works off a shopping list.
"Sometimes you forget something," he acknowledges. "You improvise."
Maeder arrived in Texas in 1977, from Montreal, after working in Asia and Europe. He took his first Rio Grande trip in 1987 with his teenage stepson, fell in love with the place and convinced the folks who ran Far Flung to try offering a trip that featured fine dining. That was 160 trips ago for Maeder, who rows his own raft.
Despite the generally tame nature of the gourmet trips, which generally attract from eight to more than two dozen guests, the desert can be daunting. It's not unprecedented for a scorpion to crawl into a tent. Wild burros howl in the night. Maeder has stories of trips marked by tennis ball-size hail, flash floods, dramatic temperature swings and unexpected visitors to tent sites.
"You look up at a horse," he said, recounting one nighttime episode.
Despite drug violence in Mexico border towns and controversy over undocumented immigrants crossing the border, Maeder said none of his trips has encountered trouble. "We're five hours away by car," he said, pointing toward the canyon wall on the Mexican side of the river. "Once in a while you'll see a rancher on a horse, looking for cattle or goats."
The specific canyon for a trip depends on the depth of the Rio Grande, water-depleted in many spots by drought. No rain fell in the Big Bend from September 2010 through March of this year, making trips unsuitable for rafts through Santa Elena Canyon and its 1,500-foot-high limestone cliffs.
More than a century ago, long before dams far upstream harnessed the Rio Grande and slowed the flow of water, running the river was a death-defying experience. When government boundary surveyors in 1852 launched an empty wooden boat into Santa Elena Canyon, it exited as broken planks and splinters. The first successful trip wasn't documented until 1882.
The Rio Grande through Heath and Temple Canyons, off the northeast edge of the park, is fed in part by springs, accounting for an increased water flow. And while the canyons lack the tunnel-like sensation of Santa Elena, they are no less impressive.
"It's an experience we'll never forget," said Rosie Wilson, 58, of San Antonio, who made a recent trip with her husband, Grant. "The night sky. My goodness! It's so beautiful and it's here every night and we get to see it."
If You Go
FAR FLUNG OUTDOOR CENTER: http://ffoc.net/index.php . Gourmet trips are $775 per person plus Texas sales tax of 7.75 percent. A 10 percent gratuity for the raft guide is suggested.
BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK: http://www.nps.gov/bibe/index.htm .
GETTING THERE: Fly to Midland, then drive 242 miles; from El Paso, 329 miles; from San Antonio, 406 miles.
ACCOMMODATIONS: For lodging before tour departures: No chain motels operate within at least two hours of the park. Far Flung has several 400-square-foot casitas that can accommodate up to four people, $125 per night although rates vary by season. A few other motels are nearby in Terlingua. The Chisos Mountain Lodge, operated by Forever Resorts, Inc., is in Big Bend National Park's Chisos Basin at 5,400 feet elevation and nearly an hour drive from Terlingua.. The lodge offers a variety of rooms and cottages, plus a gift shop and dining room.