I thought I’d open this blog with the account of a canoe trip that I took with author Jerry Craven late last spring. The two of us did a sixty-two mile stretch of the Colorado River between San Saba and Lake Buchanan. It was a four-day trip in all. I’ve done a lot of canoeing, and I’ve been on a bunch of rivers all over the world. But for my money, that stretch of the Colorado through the Texas Hill Country measures up to any stretch of river, anywhere.
Day 1: Tuesday, May 15th
I sat at the entrance to Black Rock Park on the southwest shore of Lake Buchanan in my Xterra with my green Pelican Colorado canoe on top for about fifteen minutes before I caught sight of Jerry’s bright red Ford truck with the red camper. He pulled up, and after sharing a thumbs-up and a big grin, it was time to drop the truck off at the take-out point.
We drove down FM 261 to CR 2241, which we took to the lakeside town of Tow (which rhymes with cow), then headed to the public boat ramp there; but the lake was so low the ramp was a quarter mile short of the water. Not wanting to lug the loaded canoe a quarter mile through the false willow and the mud, we drove back to a little drive-in grocery/fishing tackle store in Tow and while Jerry bought my fishing license, we got directions to the free LCRA boat ramp at Cedar Point off CR 3014. At the concrete boat ramp, we loaded Jerry’s gear into the Xterra, parked the bright red truck where it would be plainly visible from the lake, and drove away toward the put-in point at the Highway 16 Bridge over the Colorado River between San Saba and Goldthwaite.
We took CR 2241 to Highway 29 and then in Llano we headed north on Highway 16 to San Saba. We stopped off at Larry’s Corner Café on Highway 190 just west of Hwy 16 in San Saba for a lunch of soft tacos made with homemade tortillas and fresh ingredients—the best I’ve had in years. The nice ladies at Larry’s chitchatted with us in Spanish while they filled our tacos with meat and pico de gallo and various other choice fixings, including lots of homemade hotsauce. I had the salsa más caliente, which was savory and spicy enough to leave my lips burning despite the frosty RC Cola I had with lunch. Jerry had the salsa media caliente, which was also fresh and delicious.
After Larry’s, we headed north on Hwy 16 to the put-in point. The bridge is long and narrow and spans both the Colorado River and the low-lying floodplain on both sides. River access is on the north side of the bridge. A huge privately-owned pecan orchard blocks boat access on the west side of Hwy 16. For public river access, the only option is the dirt road on the east side of the highway. The road winds underneath the bridge and up to the river’s edge, which is thickly lined with trees, underbrush, and fire ant beds. We parked the Xterra between two cement bridge columns and scouted the put-in possibilities. They did not look promising. The bank slanted steeply down into the muddy water at about a seventy-five degree angle. Coastal Bermuda and fire ants at the top of the bank gave way to slick mud and murky water at the bottom. The trees that lined the bank only gave us two possible approaches, of which we decided on the one to the left of the bridge—the difference being a small oak near the top of the slope that we figured to use as a leverage point to slowly lower the canoe. As a further complicating factor, the lack of a real shoreline meant that we would have to load the canoe before we lowered it into the river.
We walked back up to the Xterra and packed our gear into the canoe. I have a large cooler that fits snugly into my canoe just aft of the middle seat—so snugly, in fact, that the canoe must be tipped upside-down for the cooler to budge. This has proved to be a handy feature on previous trips (a nasty spill on a Class Three rapid on the Beaver River leaps to mind), and it proved handy again as we lowered the canoe down the steep bank into the high and murky waters of the Colorado. But first things first. We packed the cooler full of food and drink and wedged it into its spot amidships, then packed the rest of the supplies—purified water, camping and fishing gear, camera gear, writing stuff, and our personals—in around it. Finally, we dragged the loaded canoe through the undergrowth and fire ants to the riverbank.
I slipped and slithered down first, guiding the canoe with one hand and clutching coastal Bermuda with the other as Jerry stood at the top of the bank and used the aftline to hold the canoe steady. Once the back of the canoe came even with the oak, Jerry wrapped the aftline around the trunk of the tree and slowly paid out rope as I slid into the cool murky river, my water sandals sinking into the muddy bottom and the water rising to my chest. I could not see even an inch below the surface as I guided the prow of the boat into the water. The steep angle meant that I had to lift the prow to keep it from shipping water, a feat complicated by the muddy bottom and the depth of the water near the bank. But Jerry was a wonder, paying out the aftline slowly, and I managed to heft the canoe up over my head and slowly edge away from the bank with the front of the boat. The water rose to my chin and my feet sank deeper into the mud, making it very interesting for a long moment, until the angle of descent was sufficient for the boat to float on its own.
I released the prow, pulled the canoe out into the current, and hauled myself up onto the back seat. Then, dangling a leg over each side, I swung around to pick up Jerry. The bank was now thoroughly slippery from myself and the canoe sliding down through the mud and Jerry was forced to make an acrobatic descent into the front seat of the canoe. Finally, I backed us away from the bank and we were off. It was 1:30 p.m. and we were headed downriver in the strong sun, the current carrying us quickly past the deep green pecans, oaks, cottonwoods, willows, ashes, and elms that lined the high banks on either side of us. There was no roar of cars, no hint of human activity of any sort. The only sounds were Jerry’s and my paddles, our muted conversation as we savored a celebratory beverage, and the lilting song of the cardinals that flashed red among the deep green leaves. From time to time we startled a gar that would splash indignantly and disappear as we glided by. We floated and paddled, riffling over a couple of Class One and Class Two rapids, and the river slowly changed—widening a bit as the banks fell gradually until they were no more than three feet high on either side. We passed creeks now and then that spilled more muddy water into the already muddy Colorado. The river appeared to be high and slowly falling. Grasses on both banks showed signs of having been recently underwater, and fresh driftwood had been deposited a good foot above the current river level.
We stopped to fish awhile on a sandy gravel spit a couple of hours after we put in, but the water was too murky for our bass rigs and we had no luck. While we were casting and reeling in, casting and reeling in, a rancher in a big blue Ford truck cruised slowly by at the top of the opposite bank and checked us out. Apparently he decided we were okay, and kept moving. Aside from each other, this was the only other human we saw on the river all day. At around 6 p.m. we saw our first cliff—sixty feet high and made up of what looked to be granite—on the left bank of the river and decided to set up camp on an island of sand and gravel directly across from the cliff. It was a perfect site, with the island sloping gently up from the river to a height of around four feet, and the high spot covered with lush coastal Bermuda grass that would cushion our tentsite nicely. We pulled out and unloaded. Then, after helping me pitch the tent, Jerry tried to catch some fish for dinner while I set up camp. But despite that fact that he worked a series of topwater and subsurface lures like a pro, the fish were having none of it. I finished setting up camp and gathered driftwood—the shallow strait separating our island from the mainland was no more than three feet wide—and by the time I had the fire going, Jerry had decided to give up on fishing. I’d set up the campstove, but we decided to stick with sandwiches and chips for the evening. We had discovered a green plastic chair, completely intact, in some driftwood as we beached the canoe and we set that up near the fire. We also found an empty golf bag in the channel that separated the island from the bank. We had a good time speculating about how the chair and golf bag had come to rest on this small island in the Colorado. After a good dose of smoky campfire and long glances up at the stars—not to mention a couple more celebratory beverages—our theories got interesting indeed, involving a shady character named Frankie the Snake and a great deal of midnight mayhem.
We stayed up late listening to the sound of the river rushing by and looking up at the lush carpet of stars that spread out above our heads. The evening was perfect. And it came to me, as I sat around the campfire trading Frankie the Snake tales with a very good friend, that a life which does not include such moments is an empty life indeed.
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