The drone was more than 1,000 feet away and still 350 feet up when the controller announced that the battery had reached critically low levels and it was landing. My first thought was that maybe I could retrieve it if it didn't make it back to me. I continued to hold the right stick all the forward as I quickly crossed the two-lane highway to get a better view and immediately realized that retrieval would be very unlikely if it went down in the narrow canyon just 30 yards from the shoulder. The battery was down to ten percent when the drone suddenly appeared above me, red lights flashing as it descended. I considered bringing it down on the blacktop, but thought better of it. It would be a shame for the drone to make it all the way back home then get run over after landing safely. So I set it down back on the other side of the road in the gravel. It almost flipped over backwards as the rear props dug into the dirt before the motors shut down. Even after it came to rest, the red lights continued flashing until I shut it off, but my heart was still pounding for several minutes. With the drone safely packed away, the next question was if I was able to capture any good images on the flight.
I found out about Tule Canyon because of the quarantine. The first week that the kids were out of school we spent an afternoon in Palo Duro Canyon hiking and exploring the caves. We planned to visit Caprock Canyons State Park a couple of weeks later on Good Friday, but the governor closed the state parks. So we started looking for alternatives. First we visited Buffalo Lake, a National Wildlife Refuge in a nice but not spectacular canyon. It was uncrowded and a nice place to get outdoors, but after going there a couple of times we were looking for somewhere else to explore.
I was vaguely aware of Tule Canyon and knew that Lake MacKenzie was there along with a formation known as "Cathedral Rock." A quick google search left me with more questions with some mentions of "The Narrows," then I stumbled across Dan Flores' surely hyperbolic prose describing the Narrows of Tule Canyon as "a Great Plains version of Yosemite." Then I was intrigued.
Surprisingly, I found almost nothing in addition to Flores' book that mentions Tule Canyon other than a 1915 publication from the University of Texas on the "Geology and Underground Waters of the Northern Llano Estacado" by Charles Baker that features a couple of black and white photographs of the Narrows (and is otherwise very interesting-my Ph.D. thesis was also on the underground waters of the Llano Estacado).
Flores describes the Narrows as "the most dramatic wilderness of the Caprock Canyonlands," a gorge 700 feet in depth, but less than a half-mile wide at the top and only about 75 feet wide at the bottom where the red-brown sandstone walls drop vertically down to the stream." By contrast, the section of the canyon crossed by the highway is merely "a kind of miniature West Texas Monument Valley." He says that while hiking through Tule Canyon, he had the most deeply felt sense of true exploration he has experienced, moreso than in the wilds of Wyoming, Montana, or Utah. I wondered how this "explorer's paradise" could be so close to my home and yet be unheard of.
We drove down to Lake MacKenzie on a Saturday evening. It was a beautiful spring day in the Texas Panhandle with only about a 10 to 20 mph breeze from the southwest. There were some isolated storm clouds scattered around but the skies above us were mostly clear. We hiked around the east side of the lake for a while which gave us a good idea of just how rugged these canyons are-my wife ordered our 9-year old daughter to stay well back from the edge of the cliffs that dropped down towards the water.
From looking at the topo map and aerial photos, I realized that the Narrows were only a mile or so from the state highway that crosses the canyon. With any luck, I would be able to fly the drone over and at least get a closer view of the canyon than what was available online. I took off about an hour before sunset, so the light cast wonderful shadows across the canyon. Shortly after taking off, the controller issued a stern warning about high winds with an admonishment to "land immediately" or some such nonsense. I dismissed the warning and switched over to Sport mode to get there quicker.
It took only a few minutes to travel about a mile northwest until I was flying over the canyon proper. The scenery looked stunning even on my tiny phone screen. I captured photos from several angles and continued flying farther away. Thinking ahead, I planned to bring the drone back when the battery reached 60 percent knowing it would take a lot longer to come back flying into the wind. The problem with that plan was that the scenery kept getting better.
I decided I needed to get one large panorama photo before heading back. I used the automated function to let the drone capture a 7x3 multi-row panorama. By the time it finished, I think the battery had dipped below 50 percent, so I began heading back. There were still a few more images I just had to stop and grab, then the low battery warning sternly reminded me that it was time to go. I started heading back and almost immediately the battery hit 20 percent and the drone switched into Return to Home mode automatically. As I watched the distance reading on the controller tick down far too slowly, I decided to risk Sport mode so that it might move faster. Heading into the southwest wind, the drone topped out at 20 mph-half of the normal speed-but soon I could hear it in the distance. When it finally touched down on the other side of the road, the battery was at 8 percent.
Looking at these photos and having conducted some more research on this incredible landscape, I am truly amazed at how secret this place has remained. From what I have learned, Tule Canyon was originally acquired by Col. Charles Goodnight himself and became part of the massive JA Ranch; the current family purchased it from JA almost 70 years ago. Flores later argued that Tule Canyon, "the stunner of the High Plains," should belong to the people of Texas; I hope that someday it will. And now having glimpsed the beauty and wildness of the place through these photographs, I think I understand a little bit the empty wilderness of "mysterious, unimaginable Tule Canyon."
P.S. I have two large prints (and several not-so-large) of my photos hanging in my office, and this is one of them: a 40-inch wide metal print of the panorama cropped at almost 3 to 1. It is only 14 inches tall, and it needs to be at least twice that to convey a sense of the true depth of this canyon. Unfortunately, I have neither the wall space nor wallet thickness for an 80-inch print!