Jacob’s Well Inspires a Push To Protect the Underwater Cave and Springs

photo by David Baker

Groundwater Gusher
The mysterious power and irresistible draw of Jacob’s Well inspire a push to protect the underwater cave and springs.
By Joe Nick Patoski

At first sight, Jacob’s Well appears to be a deep, dark hole at the bottom of a pool of creek water — nothing more. Pay attention to how the hole, about 15 feet in diameter, has perpetually gushed pure artesian water out of the ground since before humans first wandered around this part of what is now known as the Hill Country, and it takes on deeper meaning. Listen to stories about it, and it becomes something much more than just a special natural place.

Spanish explorers described a head of water 4 to 6 feet high being pushed to the surface from far below. American Indians living in the area considered the place sacred. The name Jacob’s Well was supposedly inspired by a survivor of the Battle of San Jacinto, the decisive battle for Texas’ independence from Mexico, who first saw it while looking for a place to build a mill along the Blanco River and declared it “like unto a well in biblical times.”

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Local elders speak of leaping in as kids and being thrust back to the surface by the force of the flow. The location in the eastern Hill Country — the dry, rocky rise above the coastal prairie — makes it all the more remarkable. That a place like this exists in the 21st century, when half the springs documented in Texas in 1900 have gone dry and disappeared, is a miracle.

At least that’s how it seems whenever I’m gazing into the blue and green hues tinting the water and the limestone walls of what is the beginning of a giant underwater cave. Everything sparkles like magic, a phantasmagorical welcome to another world below.

Peer into its depths and it pulls you in.

That pretty much sums up David Baker’s life since May 1988. He had been in Austin working as a designer and carpenter on a theatrical production when he took a drive with his wife to the village of Wimberley, got directions, walked down a trail to the end of a limestone bluff and saw Jacob’s Well for the first time.

“The hair on my arm just stood up,” he says as he relates his first impression of the bubbling spring surrounded by elegant cypresses with a rough, rocky bluff rising above it. “I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I was so confident we were going to move here that I rented a storage locker.”

In a matter of months, Baker left a mountaintop home near Santa Cruz, Calif., in the redwoods, where on a clear day you could see the Pacific and the town of Monterey. He packed up his pregnant wife and his 9-month-old son, Jacob, and moved into a rock cottage a few short steps away from Jacob’s Well.

Fast-forward 23 years.

The sign in front of a former RV park reads “Welcome to Jacob’s Well Natural Area, the Jewel of the Hill Country.” A couple hundred yards past the sign, David Baker sits at a desk, typing at a computer, preparing a paper to protect the well he fell in love with. Baker’s office is neither bucolic nor picturesque, but rather chaotic. Baker fields calls, refers to charts and converses in geologist/hydrologist acronyms, citing DFCs (desired future conditions), ADRs, MAGs and GAMs as he talks about the Well’s past, present and future.

Baker toils in the trenches these days, working his way through a very thorny political process, having been schooled in contrarian water laws. Texas treats surface water such as lakes and streams as a common resource owned by all Texans, while groundwater such as Jacob’s Well is considered private property. The “rule of capture” states that the owner of surface property owns the water underground as long as it is not part of a subterranean stream.

Baker was in the minority voting bloc when the board of directors of the Hays Trinity Groundwater Conservation District, an entity he was instrumental in establishing, voted earlier this year to issue new pumping permits for a development and a golf course that Baker fears will hasten the Well’s demise. There is already an annual decline of two feet under current conditions, Baker pointed out during discussions before the vote.

Board President Jimmy Skipton, a developer and property rights advocate from Henly, responded, “That’s David’s opinion.” As an individual, Skipton has filed a lawsuit against Hays County for establishing development rules that require lot sizes to be at least six acres for homes dependent on individual water wells. Skipton wants to sell 1.5-acre lots on the 165 acres he would like to develop.

David Baker wants Jacob’s Well to continue being Jacob’s Well.

For natural places to remain natural, stewards like David Baker are required. Special places lack lobbyists, money to contribute to politicians and the legal tools to fend off forces that compromise their integrity and threaten their existence. The best hopes are advocates willing to devote time, money and research in order to preserve, protect and conserve places such as Jacob’s Well.

In the big picture of earth science, karst aquifers are rare and unique — spongy-looking hard limestone reservoirs hundreds of feet below the surface that filter water, hold water and produce water, pushing it above ground, as is the case of Jacob’s Well.

The Well feeds Cypress Creek and Blue Hole, the town park and swimming hole in Wimberley, before the water flows into the Blanco River about five miles downstream. The creek courses through scenic landscapes of twisted oak and gnarly scrub woodlands and abundant grasslands, bordered by high bluffs and hills beyond the drainage. The beauty is both surreal and exceptional. Endangered golden-cheeked warblers thrive in abundance here.

My introduction to Jacob’s Well came through Stephen Harrigan’s 1980 article for Texas Monthly magazine and his 1984 novel, Jacob’s Well, in which he tells the story of the Well and its attraction to scuba divers, and how several cave divers died in its chambers. I came away wondering what kind of place exerted that sort of fatal attraction.

Between 1960 and 1985, eight divers died in the Well, primarily because of the tight passageway between the third and fourth chamber, the quicksand-like sediment at the bottom of the third chamber that is easily stirred up and narcosis, a condition of confusion that can affect divers at depths greater than 100 feet. Don Dibble, a master scuba instructor and the owner of the Dive Shop in nearby San Marcos who almost lost his own life on a recovery dive on behalf of the San Marcos Area Recovery Team, wrote his own account of the Well’s allure for divers for Reader’s Digest.

photo by Jesse Cancelmo

I didn’t actually see the Well until the early 1990s after I moved into the Wimberley community and was invited to a festival at Baker’s Dancing Waters Inn.

When I finally saw it, I got it. Of the proverbial 1,100 springs that define the Texas Hill Country, this one was indeed special, exceptional and worth fighting for.

In 1996, Baker got serious about protecting Jacob’s Well when Wimberley residents began meeting to discuss formally incorporating the village. Baker was on the water and sewer committee. One consensus recommendation from the committee was the need to form a nonprofit land trust and water trust in the Wimberley Valley to ensure water quality and quantity, a critical element of Wimberley’s tourist economy. Working with Jack Hollon, whose family had donated ranchland to create Rancho El Cima for the Boy Scouts of Houston and who had seen the Blanco River go dry in the 1950s, landowner Johanna Smith, University of Texas history professor Patrick Cox and physician-nutritionist Dr. Philip Zyblot, Baker helped form the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association in December 1996.

photo by Jesse Cancelmo

The nonprofit organization began writing small grants and engaging in water quality monitoring, participating in the Texas Watch program. It also focused on ownership of Jacob’s Well, which had been divided into four major pieces, with more than 120 parcels in the 100-acre area around it.

“It was extremely fragmented,” Baker says. “We debated whether to buy land around the Well to get it under one owner or work on the surrounding watershed to protect the recharge. We decided we needed to get land around it for an educational center.”

In 2005, with financial help from the Save Our Springs Alliance in Austin, the group got a loan for $2 million to purchase 46 acres, including 100 percent of the well. The selling price was about $1.1 million less than the appraised price. The SOS Alliance put a conservation easement on most of the property to prohibit future development and to limit impervious cover such as asphalt and concrete to 6 percent. The Wimberley group had two years to pay back the loan.

In 2007, 69 percent of Hays County voters approved $30 million in bonds for open space. The Wimberley Valley Watershed Association hired the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and architects Lake/Flato to create a master plan with input from 30 residents. The group determined that environmental education, aquifer research and recreation were the top priorities.

The patchwork of acquisitions was completed in late December 2010 when developers of the mobile home park canceled plans to build a “green” development with 65 condominiums and a hotel on 15 acres adjacent to the Well and dropped a lawsuit against the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association over access issues and the perceived right to build a road through the property. Instead, the developers agreed to sell the land for $1.7 million. Hays County ponied up half the price and the Texas Nature Conservancy loaned the other half, citing the unique attributes and ecological significance of Jacob’s Well.

photo courtesy of David Baker

Humpty-Dumpty has been put back together again. Today, Hays County owns Jacob’s Well and 96 acres around it. The Wimberley Valley Watershed Association has a three-year contract with the county to manage the property and oversee education and public outreach.

Slowly but surely, the surrounding landscape is returning to its natural state. Through better understanding of how the land and water are interconnected deep underground, people are beginning to appreciate the critical role we play in this system and how easily we can disrupt the balance that has made nature’s abundance such a critical key to human growth and progress.

But that is not enough.

The “rule of capture” property right accepts the Texas Supreme Court’s judgment made in 1908 that groundwater is too “mysterious and occult” to regulate like a river, lake or stream. Looking down into Jacob’s Well, I can understand the judges making that sort of determination.

But our understanding of groundwater has improved considerably over the past century. We know how it works, how it moves, where it starts and where it stops.

Through Baker’s initiatives, scuba divers and dye tests, we know that Jacob’s Well is connected to the Edwards Aquifer near San Antonio and to Barton Springs in Austin, that the actual well is at least 5,550 feet long as mapped by divers for the United States Geological Survey (the first- or second-longest underwater cave in Texas, depending on the latest measurements of Phantom Cave near San Solomon Springs in West Texas), that the water emerges from the Cow Creek Limestone formation and that pumping from some of the larger of the 6,600 wells in western Hays County reduces the flow of Jacob’s Well.

The Well stopped flowing twice — in the summer of 2000 for the first time ever and during the drought of 2008 when 42 wells in the county and nearby Onion Creek went dry. The Well survived the historic drought of the 1950s but may not be able to endure the population boom in Hays County and the surrounding Hill Country.

Education is the best hope.

“It’s so neat to watch people react to it,” Baker said. “It’s the mystery. This hole in the ground. Nobody knew how deep it was. It was intriguing watching people relate to it. Some would be afraid. ‘That’s where the divers drowned.’

“Some look at it as sacred. I feel that way about it: Here’s the earth, giving water, the one thing besides air we need to live, it’s doing it every day, it’s done it for millions of years, it’s a miracle. It was also chaotic. Nobody really was responsible. I kind of started to become somewhat of a policeman, which wasn’t a pretty job. But someone needed to take responsibility for managing this resource.”

Receiving the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s Texas Environmental Excellence Award for 2011 has helped validate his work. Baker prefers another standard of measure: “If the well’s flowing, the water’s still clean so we can drink it and our kids can still swim in it, we get an ‘A.’ If the water’s polluted or quits flowing, we’ve failed.”

He acknowledges he’s in a race against competing interests and that the deck may be stacked against him.

“Sometimes I do feel it’s not going to work out, that it’s too late. But then I see all these people who get it. That’s when I realize that we can do it.”

As if on cue, a women’s hiking club from Canyon Lake arrives and Baker delivers an informal talk about the Well and shows hydrological charts, historical photographs and underwater video before sending the group on the path down to Jacob’s Well. (Free public tours of the Well are conducted at 10 a.m. on Saturdays.)

I’m not sure who walked away happier from the visit — the hikers or Baker.

“I found something bigger than myself,” he told me. “It gave me a purpose for my life the past 22 years to create something that would be here after I’m gone that I could share with the community.”

And now they come — to see, to study, to experience and even to jump in. If Baker gets enough people to do that, they just might save Jacob’s Well for this century and even beyond.

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Book signing at Book People, Sat, June 25

Join me at Book People Saturday, June 25 at 5 pm for a talk and book signing for “Generations on the Land: A Conservation Legacy” published by Texas A&M Press.

603 N. Lamar, Austin TX 78703

Open daily, 9am to 11pm Call us at (512) 472-5050
Start: 06/25/2011 5:00 pm

Author and journalist JOE NICK will speak about and sign his new book, Generations on the Land: A Conservation Legacy.

Each year, Sand County Foundation’s prestigious Leopold Conservation Award recognizes families for leadership in voluntary conservation and ethical land management. In Generations on the Land: A Conservation Legacy, veteran author and journalist Joe Nick Patoski visits eight of the award-winning families, presenting warm, heartfelt conversations about the families, their beloved land, and a vision for a healthier world.

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Water Policy in Texas Legislature Rode on One Word

from the Friday, June 10 issue of the Texas Tribune/New York Times

photo by Betsy Blaney, Associated Press

by Joe Nick Patoski

With the Big Dry upon us, the longstanding fight over the water percolating under the surface in Texas’ 9 major and 20 minor aquifers was bound to get contentious before the end of the 82nd legislative session. And it did, at least for a while, because of a single word.

Expanded coverage of Texas is produced by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit news organization. To join the conversation about this article, go to texastribune.org.

The Republican majority’s agenda for the session included numerous expressions of fealty to property rights. Among them was Senate Bill 332, which affirms groundwater as property right courtesy of the “rule of capture,” a quirky Texas law that gives landowners ownership of the water below the surface of their property. When he introduced the bill, Senator Troy Fraser, Republican of Horseshoe Bay and chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, described groundwater as a “vested” property right.

That modifier threatened to upend a delicate balance between landowners and the 97 local groundwater conservation districts charged with regulating the below-the-surface reservoirs of water that supply more than 60 percent of what the state needs. As written, groundwater as a “vested” property right would have trumped the ability of groundwater districts to protect a shared resource.

Texas is the only Western state that regulates its groundwater through the rule of capture, which was adopted from English common law when Texas became an independent republic in 1836. The rule (also called the Rule of the Biggest Pump) was first upheld by the Texas Supreme Court in the landmark Houston & Texas Central Railroad Co. v. East decision in 1904 and was most recently reasserted in 1999, after property owners in Henderson County unsuccessfully sued the neighboring Ozarka Water Company for pumping 90,000 gallons of groundwater a day, severely affecting the water table.

Mindful that an individual could create quite a mess by invoking the rule of capture but not inclined to do away with a historic property right, the Texas Legislature tweaked the rule in 1949 with Chapter 36 of the Texas Water Code, which allowed for the creation of groundwater districts, the preferred method to regulate groundwater use in a specific area.

To many property owners, though, such districts have not provided enough protection.

“Water planning needs to start where the first drop of rain falls on the ground,” said David K. Langford, a former vice president of the Texas Wildlife Association and the owner of a 13,000-acre Hill Country ranch that has been in his family for seven generations.

Mr. Langford supported S.B. 332 because, he said, it would allow him to conserve the groundwater on the ranch. “Conservation needs to have the same weight as users do,” he said. “We asked to re-establish the property right so conservation would have as much standing as a developer who buys a ranch next door to build a golf-course community.”

As the session wore on, Mr. Fraser’s House colleagues stripped the word “vested” from the bill, disappointing advocates of property rights but melting away opposition from groundwater districts.

“ ‘Vested’ would have created a constitutionally protected property right, making a statute of common law,” said Gregory M. Ellis, the former head of the Edwards Aquifer Authority and now a lawyer who represents several groundwater districts. “The threat would not have been to groundwater districts but to the water supply itself. Every landowner would be entitled to as many wells as they wanted, and they could pump as much as they wanted.”

Once the new law takes effect, Mr. Ellis said, “the districts can manage with more flexibility around the demand and have the tools they need to get the job done.”

Except for S.B. 332, the 82nd session was remarkable for being unremarkable when it came to water, one of the most crucial issues that the state will have to grapple with over the next century. In particular, Mr. Ellis admitted disappointment that the Legislature did not take on the bigger challenge inevitably facing Texas groundwater conservation districts and all of Texas: rising demand and declining supply.

“Eventually, a district will either have to stop issuing permits or reduce pumping to accommodate new permits,” he said.

Unfortunately, Mr. Ellis added, legislation “doesn’t create more groundwater.”

Only rain can do that. Until that happens, all that water users, sellers, property owners, state legislators and the 97 groundwater conservation districts across Texas can do is conserve, hope, pray and watch the skies overhead.

Joe Nick Patoski has written about water policy for Texas Monthly and Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine.

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After Fire, Wind and Drought, Something Good Will Follow

from the Friday, April 29 edition of the New York Times and Texas Tribune:

 

 

 

photo by Alberto Tomas (Beto) Halpern/Associated Press

 

Wildfires overran parts of Fort Davis, Tex., in early April, destroying more than 60 homes in West Texas and killing livestock and horses.

By JOE NICK PATOSKI
Published: April 28, 2011

These are strange days in Texas. A severe drought gripping the entire state, unseasonably high temperatures, unusually low humidity and exceptionally gusty winds have created a perfect storm for wildfires, which have erupted statewide like never before. Horrible images of homes burned to the ground, property destroyed, and livestock, wildlife and human fatalities are impossible to escape.
The Texas Tribune

Expanded coverage of Texas is produced by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit news organization. To join the conversation about this article, go to texastribune.org.

Unfortunately, the greatest chronicler of such dire conditions — the person everyone in Texas turned to for perspective — is no longer with us to make sense of it all. It’s fair to ask, rhetorically: What would Elmer Kelton say?

Mr. Kelton was the farm and ranch editor for The San Angelo Standard-Times from 1948 to 1963. He was also the longtime associate editor of Livestock Weekly and the author of several dozen western novels. His finest work, “The Time It Never Rained,” published in 1973, focused on the historic seven-year drought of the 1950s as told through Charlie Flagg, the hard-headed, independent-minded protagonist.

If anyone knew about drought, wildfires and making a living from running livestock on the range west of the 98th meridian, it was Mr. Kelton. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2009. But his son, Steve Kelton, is alive and well and living in San Angelo.

Steve Kelton, who now edits Livestock Weekly, remembers clearly that his father considered the period of time spent covering the 1950s drought for the San Angelo newspaper the most traumatic in his life. “I’d long since run out of new ways to say ‘dry,’ ” the father had told the son.

What would the elder Mr. Kelton write about today’s news? That there is an upside — a silver lining. “Dad was always a firm believer that nothing was black and white, nothing was all good or all bad,” Steve Kelton said.

“Fire can be good for brush control, if it’s a good, hot fire; these should be pretty effective in that regard,” he said in droll understatement, referring to the so-called Wildcat fires that have raged over 159,000 acres north of San Angelo in the west-central part of the state, threatening to engulf the towns of Robert Lee, Tennyson and Bronte.

Indeed, for all its obvious negatives, fire was part of the life cycle of the arid western range long before humans settled the region and tried to tame the land, instinctively suppressing wildfires whenever possible. Today, when conditions are right, many landowners intentionally burn their property because, as Steve Kelton noted, “it will improve things.”

He cited the destruction of nuisance species like prickly pear, mesquite and ashe juniper — a k a cedar — and brushy undercover that compete with native grasses. “There are a lot of caveats to that,” Mr. Kelton added. “You have to have rain, but if it comes all at once, you lose all the topsoil.”

But if the rain falls gradually, the first land that will green up and spring back to life is that which burned. “A really hot fire brings out woody vegetation that deer, birds, and even goats and sheep like to eat,” Mr. Kelton said. “Their seed needs fire to germinate.”

He made the same observation about the Texas rangeland that critics have made about forest management in the American West: the human tendency to suppress fire at first sight has created a buildup of dry tinder that makes any wildfire that manages to break out “bigger than they ought to be,” Mr. Kelton said. “But we also have the technology and the people on the ground to fight them, so we’ve got a trade-off.

“During the 1990s and the early 2000s, we went 13 years with a really severe drought out here,” he said. “Then it rained.” The country was left so depleted, he said, that there were no cattle or sheep left to eat the grasses that sprang up; so in 2006, the worst year for wildfires in Texas on record until this year, “when it burned, it burned extra hot.”

Despite the horrific loss of property, livestock and wildlife this year, the longer view finds something to look forward to in the wake of the destruction.

“This is survivor country,” Mr. Kelton said. “It puts on its best clothes when it rains after a long drought.”

Joe Nick Patoski is the author of “Generations on the Land: A Conservation Legacy” (Texas A&M Press).

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Guad is Great

Guadalupe River
High Season: A cold Guadalupe means rapid transit. Photograph by Woody Welch

Guad is Great

Texas Monthly
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
December 2001

When the weather turns cold, the drunken hordes leave the lower Guadalupe, and the river is an answer to a paddler’s prayer.

Ah, the Challenge of running white-water rapids, of dipping a fly in swift streams rife with rainbow and brown trout, the exhilaration of being in a wild place when there’s a chill in the air: These are a few of my favorite things. Every summer, I pine for the Rockies or somewhere else in the great American West. But over the past couple of years, I’ve discovered that I don’t have to wait until June or travel a thousand miles to be on a great Western river. In stead, I just wait till Labor Day has passed and head for the Lower Guadalupe. You heard me right. The same stretch of river that is notorious for drawing hundreds of thousands of tubers and floaters, especially on summer holiday weekends, becomes a wilderness experience from September to March. Gone is the horde that has given the stretch of river between Canyon Lake and New Braunfels the unsavory reputation as a floating party of drunks and litterbugs. By the autumnal equinox, everything has changed. The beer cans have been cleaned up. The few people still hanging around the river are a friendlier bunch. Wildlife comes out of hiding. And the 23 miles or so of river below Canyon Dam, ending in Gruene a couple of miles from Interstate 35, become some of the most accessible wilderness in Texas.

The recreational stretch begins just below the dam at the Horseshoe Falls fishing area. Five miles downstream is the put-in point at FM 306 for all-day paddle trips. The next nine and a half miles are prime fishing territory known as the Trophy Zone, which is stocked by a nonprofit group called Trout Unlimited and Texas Parks and Wildlife. The Trophy Zone ends at a bridge known as Second Crossing, and the river runs pretty flat for the next three miles down to First Crossing. Here begins my favorite part of the river.

My thing is kayaking, and there’s no more reliable white water in the state than the five-mile run from First Crossing down to Gruene. Five major rapids will test any paddler’s skills-whether with a canoe, a raft, or a kayak. Huaco Falls and Slumber Falls have nasty hydraulics guaranteed to tump inexperienced boaters. Slant is ideal for practicing wave surfing. Clutter requires the most technical skill; miss your slot and have a close encounter with Mr. Tree. Gruene Rapids, with a standing wave waiting to launch your boat and grab some air, offers enough tossing and turning to end a trip on an upbeat note.

The ride can be mild to wild. It all depends on how much water is being released from Canyon Dam, measured by the cubic-feet-per-second (CFS) reading at the Sattler measuring station, which is maintained by the United States Geological Survey; this number can be found on the USGS Web site, tx.water.usgs.gov. In winter the CFS tends to stay higher, meaning faster, whiter water. If the CFS is at 300, decent paddling is assured. A reading of anywhere between 500 and 800 CFS promises close to ideal conditions, with enough force and waves to make a paddle challenging. When the CFS cranks above 1,000, bigger rafts become the norm as the Guad turns into wicked big water, helmet required. The hole at Huaco swallows boats. Numerous standing waves appear in unexpected places. The take-out at Gruene becomes a very tricky proposition. The reward is a river run as wild as just about any in the beloved Rockies.

Of course, there is the chill factor to contend with, but it’s not really all that bad. Coming off the bottom of Canyon Lake, the water checks out at a bracing 54 to 60 degrees, which makes wearing a wet suit a good idea. But considering that the average high air temperature in January and February on the Guadalupe ranges from the low to mid sixties, the weather is similar to that of Idaho or Alberta around Memorial Day.

To do the run from First Crossing to Gruene, I usually park at Rockin ‘R’ River Rides, a river concession at Gruene that remains open year-round, and pay for a shuttle ride up to First Crossing ($10 per person, including your boat). Or I arrange shuttles with my paddling pals, paying $5 to park at Rockin ‘R’s Camp Huaco Springs upstream. For a full day’s paddle, camp or park and put in at Whitewater Sports, at the FM 306 bridge, the area known as Fifth Crossing-the larger the crossing number, the farther upstream you are. The trip is scenic but lacks the action of the stretch below First Crossing and requires portaging around a couple of small dams.

For fishing, head upstream to the Trophy Zone, a stretch of river that marks the best trout fishing in Texas. The Lower Guadalupe is the only river in the state that supports a year-round trout population-a man-made happenstance that is the result of the release of cold bottom water. After years of stocking, the Guadalupe now has the potential to mature into a world-class fishery. The state-record rainbow trout (8.24 pounds) and brown trout (7.12 pounds) came from the Lower Guad. The miracle miles are around River Road Camp, Cedar Bluff Campground, and Camp Beans, at Third Crossing. At some of these sites you have to pay to get access to the water for fishing. Most fishing is done on a catch-and-release basis, though some visitors take home their daily limit: one fish at least eighteen inches long and caught on an artificial lure. Outside the Trophy Zone, fishermen may keep five trout per day with no restrictions on size or bait.

Parks and Wildlife will stock trout in the river on December 13 and 28, January 10 and 24, and April 4 and will arrange for free access for fishing at Camp Beans, Camp Huaco Springs, and the area directly below the dam through April 2002. Trout Unlimited stocks from November to February. The organization also leases land in the Trophy Zone; to gain access to the riverbank, you must acquire a $40 Trout Unlimited membership and pay an $85 access-orientation fee. TU is the big dog on the river, politically speaking, with the legal clout and the financial muscle to get the attention of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, which wants to draw more water from Canyon Lake to sell to San Antonio, a proposal that also incurred heated opposition from paddlers, recreation-oriented businesses, and Canyon Lake residents.

The Lower Guad in winter is not the exclusive off-season domain of paddlers and anglers. The winding River Road, no longer choked with traffic, actually becomes pleasant as a biking route. Campgrounds can be parklike in their solitude. The wildlife viewing is splendid. It’s a bad day on the river when I don’t see a great blue heron emerging from the brush along the riverbank to lumber through the sky. Kingfishers are almost as ubiquitous as the turtles that return to sunbathe on the rocks. Winter residents include large contingents of hawks and eagles that ride the updrafts and soar along the cliffs with the turkey buzzards. Ospreys were prevalent a couple of months ago. The Lower Guad is on a major migratory route, and I’ve had the good luck to witness massive flyovers of hummingbirds and monarch butterflies this autumn. Even if the trees have dropped their leaves, the steep canyons and sheer limestone cliffs are some of the most scenic vistas found in the Hill Country this side of Enchanted Rock. A pretty fair tradeoff, I’d say, for the occasional shiver.

Camping: At Fifth Crossing, Whitewater Sports (830-964-3800); at Third Crossing, Cedar Bluff Campground (830-964-3639), River Road Camp (830-625-5004), and Camp Beans (830-964-2484); at First Crossing, Camp Huaco Springs (call Rockin ‘R’ River Rides, 830-629-9999 or 1-800-55-FLOAT).

Outfitters and guides: Whitewater Sports and Rockin ‘R’ River Rides (see Camping, above) for parking, shuttles, guide services, and rentals of canoes, kayaks, and inflatable rafts; Gruene Outfitters (1629 Hunter Road, New Braunfels, 830-625-4440 or 888-477-3474) for fly-fishing gear and guide recommendations.

Fishing: Valid Texas fishing license ($19) required along with a Texas Parks and Wildlife trout stamp ($7); Trout Unlimited national and local membership required ($40), plus $85 access fee and completion of the lease orientation class; Captain Scott Graham, a past president of the Guadalupe chapter of Trout Unlimited, offers guided trips through Guadalupe and Beyond Fly Fishing Adventures (877-898-7688).


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Water Foul

Caddo Lake
It’s not just for the birds. An egret hunts on the surface of the lake.

Water Foul

Texas Monthly
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
October 2002

To the city of Marshall, Caddo Lake is a profit center, a reservoir from which millions of gallons can be pumped each day and put up for sale. To the people of Uncertain, Karnack, and other communities nearby, it’s an ecological jewel, a symbol of our natural heritage – and depleting it for a few quick bucks is an unforgivable affront to nature.

On a blazing hot morning in June, I got lost paddling a kayak in the swampy backwaters of Caddo Lake. This is not a difficult thing to do. The greenish-brown water is so dense that you can’t see the bottom. The surface is covered with an iridescent lime-green coating of duckweed and water lilies. The shoreline is barely discernible, and any view beyond is blotted out by an impenetrable thicket of sweet gum, ash, pine, oak, and tupelo. The heavy, dank stillness that’s a defining feature of these parts only adds to the disorienting sense that you’ve entered another world. Earlier in the day, when the British-born president of the local chamber of commerce told me with a straight face that she wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see a dinosaur rise up out of the murk, I found myself nodding in agreement.

Eventually, five men in a spacious pontoon boat pulled up alongside me and offered me a lift. When I saw the ice chest full of beer, sodas, and water, I hopped aboard; typical Caddo Lake hospitality, I thought. But then I found out that they had set out to find me-that they knew who I was and why I had come to this remote area of northeast Texas. I was curious about news reports of an impending threat to the wellbeing of the lake, which is the only naturally formed lake in the state and the biggest in the South. The City of Marshall, with the state’s blessing, planned to capture water from Big Cypress Bayou, the primary source of Caddo, and sell it to a willing buyer. Those plans had been thwarted by the “lake people,” an unlikely coalition of bubbas in overalls, urban dropouts, and other novice ecowarriors, but only temporarily. The threat was still real, and that’s what the men in the boat wanted to show me.

At the helm was Ken Shaw, a retired manager at International Paper who lives on the lake and sits on the board of the Cypress Valley Navigation District, which maintains the markers that show the way through the network of sloughs and keeps them open. Riding shotgun was Jack Canson, a public relations consultant who spent several decades in Austin and Los Angeles before coming home to Marshall. His boyhood buddy taking photographs from the boat’s bow, Ron Munden, had recently moved back to Marshall after living in Northern California, where he designed software for the Navy. Next to Munden was Barry Benniek, a Houston native who runs the Pine Needle Lodge on the lake’s isolated northwestern shore. Manning the binoculars was Tom Walker, who grew up near the western shore and now works as a librarian at Texas State Technical College’s Marshall campus. As we puttered along in a shallow part of the lake, Walker pointed out places with colorful names Whangdoodle Pass, Death Hole, Old Folks Playground-and Shaw engaged his depth finder, calling out readings: “Four feet. Four feet. Five feet. Six feet. Four feet.” At Kitchens Creek, we cruised past two john-boats occupied by elderly black fishermen picking up bream. “By summer’s end,” Shaw said, “most of these routes will be impassable.”

Shady Glade Marina, Uncertain
A pier at Shady Glade Marina in Uncertain.

They’ll all be impassable, the men told me, if Marshall prevails. In addition to the 5 to 7 million gallons that it already draws out of the bayou daily for residential use, the city of 23,000 can, according to the permit approved by the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (TNRCC), pipe out several million more gallons each day and sell them, even in drought conditions. Only when Caddo drops seven and a half feet below the spillway at Mooringsport, Louisiana, would an “emergency situation” be declared, at which point any water taken would have to be replaced. “By that time,” Bennick explained, “there’ll be no lake left.”

“Or alligators,” Walker chimed in. “Or snapping turtles. Or fish.”

If this has a familiar ring, it should. Across Texas, the war over water is all anyone wants to talk about these days. In El Paso and the Panhandle, water marketers like developer Woody Hunt and corporate raider Boone Pickens are plotting ways to move the suddenly precious commodity from rural areas to thirsty cities. In San Antonio golf course developments and booming bedroom communities are competing with recreational interests and small towns to the north for water from Canyon Lake and the Guadalupe River. Along the border, farmers are squabbling with their counterparts in the Mexican state of Chihuahua for their fair share of water from the Rio Grande Basin. And on and on. Court dockets are backlogged with water-related suits (you might say they’re waterlogged). Candidates for high office speechify about the problem but offer no real solutions. Lobbyists stuff their pockets in anticipation of a legislative session in which water will be on the agenda yet again, one of the most serious long-term issues facing Texas and Texans.

At first glance, the Caddo conflagration looks a lot like the others. In the eyes of the state, it’s not so much an ecological jewel or a symbol of our natural heritage as a reservoir, a storage facility that can be drained at will. That mind-set explains why, although the lake belongs to all Texans, it’s perfectly legal for a city like Marshall to profit from it. But in fact, there are two things that distinguish this fight. One is the involvement of folks with pockets deep enough to make the playing field level. Chief among them is Don Henley, the drummer for the rock and roll band the Eagles, who was raised nearby, in Linden. In the past decade Henley has donated more than $1.6 million to the Caddo Lake Institute, a nascent research and educational facility, partly to pay legal fees associated with court fights on behalf of Caddo. You may remember that a few years back, Henley’s passion was saving Walden Pond, the Massachusetts stomping ground of Henry David Thoreau, from the clutches of developers. Well, his latest cause celebrity is Caddo, where he caught his first fish as a boy.

The other thing is that the locals have decided, to borrow a phrase, that they’re mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore-a point that was brought home to me after a couple of hours on the lake, when the pontoon boat docked by the grocery in the tiny town of Uncertain. Behind the counter was Betty Holder, Uncertain’s mayor, who greeted each of us with a very certain hug. The diminutive Miss Betty, an area resident for thirty years, reiterated Shaw’s calculation of how much Caddo can stand to lose. “They’ll leave us with nothing but a mud hole,” she said. “People can’t imagine Marshall being so simpleminded. The only good thing coming out of there is Highway 43.”

Betty Holder
Betty Holder, the mayor of Uncertain.

Her feistiness turned to elegance when she spoke of the lake. “We have something here. We didn’t buy it. We didn’t make it. The good Lord gave it to us. We’re just trying to take care of it, and we won’t give up. We’re going to win. When people around here band together, we pull in the same direction.”

ONCE YOU’VE SET EYES ON CADDO LAKE, IT’S DIFFICULT NOT TO GET emotional about it one way or another. No other body of water in Texas remotely resembles it. If you stand on its banks, which are lined with stately bald cypresses draped with Spanish moss, and gaze on the still water, you’ll either scream, turn around, and never come back again or you’ll get hooked for life.

By day, distant culls of Acadian flycatchers, northern parula, Prothonotary warblers, and cardinals echo through the forest along with the buzz and hum and splish and splash of the natural world, and you might spy a yellow-crowned night heron plucking its breakfast out of the water or a great blue heron lumbering in flight above the canopy like a pterodactyl. By night, bullfrogs work themselves into a whooping frenzy, almost drowning out the whir of crickets and locusts and the occasional hoot of barred owls. In the summer Neotropical songbirds are drawn to the lake; in the winter it’s wood ducks and bald eagles. Year-round, alligators, snakes, and lizards thrive here. “Remember the year when people were wondering where all of the frogs had gone?” Bennick once asked me. “We knew where they were.”

The ethereal, primordial lake of today wasn’t always thus. When the Caddoan people, a relatively sophisticated civilization that embraced farming and a highly organized, complex society. set down roots in the area 10,000 years ago, it was just a rivet No one knows for sure when the lake was formed. Indian lore speaks of a big shake from the Great Spirit, implicating the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812. It could just as well have been the Great Red River Raft, an eighty- to one-hundred-fifty-mile logjam of red cedar, cottonwood, and cypress so thick that you could literally walk across it. By 1856, the raft had backed up to the Big Cypress Bayou tributary, effectively creating Caddo Lake and making the upstream town of Jefferson Texas’ main riverport. The lake became permanent when a dam was built at its eastern end in Mooringsport, south of Shreveport, in 1914.

Ever since there was a Caddo Lake, hunting and fishing have been popular, but its recreational potential wasn’t fully realized until the state’s oldest continually operated hunting and fishing club, the Dallas Caddo Club, was established in 1906 on its southern shores. A flyin fishing resort even operated briefly in Uncertain, which was incorporated in 1961 to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages. But Caddo’s popularity had already peaked; over time, jet-skiers, cigarette boats, and the high-dollar bass-fishing crowd were lured to the wider-open waters of new lakes like Sam Rayburn, Toledo Bend, and Lake 0′ the Pines. Promoters continued to hatch big ideas for Caddo, the last a half-cocked attempt ten years ago to build a barge canal. Otherwise, the lake is about as off the beaten path as you can get. In 1993 the Nature Conservancy purchased seven thousand acres on the northern banks of the lake and turned them over to Texas Parks and Wildlife, which designated them a wildlife management area.

Ed Smith
Ed Smith, the mayor of Marshall.

Most visitors today frequent the state park or the fifty or so bed-and-breakfasts around Uncertain and the neighboring town of Karnack, the birthplace of Lady Bird Johnson. They may drop a line or dip a paddle, but mostly they come to sit and contemplate in one of the most picturesque spots in Texas.

“I INHERITED THIS PROBLEM,” ED SMITH SAYS WITH A LONG SIGH. The affable mayor of Marshall, who runs a petroleum exploration company when he’s not doing the public’s business, is a fourth generation local for whom fishing in Caddo is a treasured boyhood memory. But the problem he’s referring to isn’t the city’s plans. It’s the behavior of the lake people. “I tried to work with them,” he says. “I hope the ability to reason has not gone out the window.”

As far as Smith and the city were concerned, the deal was going to be a no-brainer, an economic-development project that required little more than moving water in exchange for a big, fat check. The potential buyer came on line a year and a half ago: New Orleans-based Entergy Corporation, which needed water to cool its power plant under construction near Marshall and was willing to pay $600,000 for it annually. But immediately the lake coalition attacked the deal. First it demanded a guarantee from Marshall that any water taken from Caddo during dry spells would be replaced with water from Lake 0′ the Pines. Marshall officials agreed in principle but disagreed about who would determine when water replacement should start. Then the coalition attempted to contest Marshall’s permit or, at the very least, bring the matter before a public hearing. The TNRCC shut them down on both counts-a decision that drew fire in a rare public fashion from Parks and Wildlife, who warned that drawing down lake levels would result in a severe loss of habitat in the adjacent wildlife management area. The back and forth continued until May, when Entergy executives decided they’d had enough, pulled out of the agreement with Marshall, and resolved to buy the city of Longview’s treated wastewater instead. (Even though Entergy is out of the picture, the Caddo coalition is now contesting the permit in a Travis County court.)

The turn of events greatly pleased Henley, who has been back in East Texas over the past few months tending a sick relative. “There are too many people interested in using up the lake’s resources without fully understanding, or caring about, the health of the ecosystem,” he wrote me in an e-mail. “They just take and take without putting anything back. Fortunately, true stewardship traditions exist within the lake communities. We decided to make significant investments in those communities to help them move beyond the meaningless lip service of those who say they love Caddo Lake but do nothing about the risks to it. We wanted to give the people who truly care the means to take action-to make reasonable demands on the state and federal agencies that should be intervening to reverse the lake’s decline.”

That wish is seconded by Dallas oilman Albert Huddleston, whose political leanings, it should be noted, are at the opposite end of the spectrum from Henley’s. A longtime contributor to Governor Rick Perry’s campaigns, Huddleston has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money into defending Caddo Lake. “I believe in both economic prosperity and environmental awareness,” Huddleston told me by telephone from Peru, just hours after he’d climbed down from Machu Picchu, “but sucking water out of Caddo Lake and destroying that fragile ecosystem is no different than sticking a pipe in the Alamo and selling it brick by brick.”

Albert Huddleston
Albert Huddleston has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into defending Caddo Lake.

Henley’s and Huddleston’s money has bought, among other things, the expertise of Dwight Shellman, who is the founding director of the Caddo Lake Institute. Henley met the slight, 68-year-old attorney in the late eighties in Shellman’s hometown of Aspen, Colorado, where he had a reputation for bringing together apolitical factions of the community to beat back excessive urban expansion. The rock star thought Caddo could use a guy like Shellman and paid his way to Texas, where his first act, in 1993, was to negotiate the lake’s designation as a Ramsar site, the thirteenth wetlands in the U.S. said to be internationally important according to criteria adopted at a global ecological convention in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971.

At Shellman’s behest, the institute initially focused on education, developing wetlands science programs for the Marshall public schools as well as East Texas Baptist University and Wiley College, also in Marshall. He made headway with the colleges, using the resources of their science and biology departments for research. But the public school program was scuttled in 1998 after an instructor on a field trip realized that Marshall’s sewer main was on the verge of collapse. Instead of being rewarded for reporting her discovery to the city, she was reprimanded, and eventually she resigned and moved elsewhere to teach. “I realized then that the environmental education of teachers and students in a place like Caddo Lake was a poor investment because these were people who were ready to leave town,” Shellman says. It was then that he shifted the institute’s focus to promoting activism within the lake communities. “The people closest to the landscape are the ones who have the greatest awareness,” he says. He set out to find common ground among the institute, the Caddo Lake Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, the Greater Caddo Lake Association, and the town of Uncertain and held meetings, under the fancy, official-sounding name of the Caddo Lake Ramsar Wetlands Clearinghouse, at which the locals were taught how to play the game. Judging by the outcome of the Entergy deal, it worked, and the lake people are grateful. “Dwight is a real sweetheart,” coos Robin

Holder, a burly, bearded lake guide who is married to Uncertain’s mayor.

The mayor of Marshall, not surprisingly, has a less charitable view of Shellman’s efforts. As much as Ed Smith says serenely that the city may simply find another buyer for the water, his displeasure with the other side shows. “It’s not about the power plant anymore,” Smith says. “Sometimes I think they’d like to see the bayou as a national park or a wildlife refuge. You have to question if their aim is to get Marshall out of it altogether.”

On muggy Tuesday night in August, about seventy people are congregated inside the community center in Karnack, just down the road from Uncertain, for a clearinghouse meeting. It’s TMDL Night, as in total maximum daily loads, the maximum tolerance levels of air and water pollution as allowed by the state. For three hours, the talk focuses on nutrient loads, dissolved oxygen solids, and airborne mercury contamination. Shellman, who moderates the discussion, explains that if the TNRCC would formally establish a TMDL limit for the lake, it might prevent even more pollution and maybe even speed up the lake’s recovery. But for that to happen, the TNRCC has to designate Caddo as a high priority, rather than its current medium ranking, and the Legislature would have to fund a TMDL program. The process is simple, he says. “You determine what’s contributing to the problem, find the total load, and then find the rate that it’s deposited. The goal is to restrict input from the source.” Translation: You figure out who’s polluting the lake and get them to stop.

Presentations made in the Karnack ball by Roy Darville, the chairman of the biology department at East Texas Baptist, and Henry Bradbury, a freelance environmental manager in Dallas, both members of the clearinghouse’s scientific advisory board, underscore the lake’s failing health. Five years of water-quality data indicate a severe loss of oxygen, in an area that already has a high level of acid rain-thanks to coal-fired power plants in East Texas-and the presence of mercury contamination throughout the Cypress River Basin’s food chain at levels high enough to warn pregnant women and infants against eating fish caught in the lake.

The responsibility for combating those problems, Shellman tells the group, rests with them. They appear to be happy to step up. Armed with scientific data, fluent in regulatory legalese, they discuss existing power plants in East Texas that are already polluting, how to build alliances with people on the Louisiana side of Caddo (one third of the lake’s 25,000 acres are over the border), how to make a formal presentation to the city of Marshall, and how to beef up Caddo tourism-for instance, qualifying it for a “Keep Texas Wild” specialty license plate, which at the moment features only bluebonnets and the horny toad.

The message is clear: It’s their show, not Shellman’s, Henley’s, or anyone else’s. “I’ve learned that these citizens don’t normally participate in the political process,” Shellman says. “They’re like most Texans who own property. They want to live within their boundaries and be left alone. But if you rile them up, watch out.”


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Undammed and Unforgiving

Dolan Falls - The Devils River
Dolan Falls at dusk. Photograph by Wyman Meinzer

Undammed and Unforgiving

Texas Parks & Wildlife
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
July 2002
Photography by Wyman Meinzer

You know how songs get stuck in your head?

There’s one written by the great Texas composer Billy Joe Shaver called “The Devil Made Me Do It the First Time” that wouldn’t go away while I was on the Devils River. The diablo connection was probably how it burrowed into my brain in the first place, but the story line was the gnawing part. The singer blames all his troubles on Satan the first time around, but says “The second time I did it on my own.”

Billy Joe had the river and me down cold.

My first time down the Devils was easy to explain. I’d only been hearing about it for the past 30 years. It was the great, lost Hill Country river, a spring-fed jewel on the western edge of the Edwards Plateau, running swift and fast through that vague badlands where Tamaulipan scrub — also known as South Texas brush country — fades into the Chihuahuan Desert, from somewhere between Ozona and Sonora down to just above Del Rio, where it dissolves into Lake Amistad. Its almost-Caribbean hue was striking, as pretty pale as a summer sky. The translucent water brimmed with smallmouth bass you could follow with your eyes, the clarity was so sharp.

The Devils lives up to its name. It is almost impossible to see, landlocked by sprawling ranches whose owners have been known to vigorously file trespassing charges and sometimes take even more extreme measures to discourage river use by outsiders. It is wild, empty country. Spotting wild turkeys is easier than spotting another human. Doing most of the floatable part of the river takes two days, requiring 15 miles of paddling on one stretch. There is no room for accidents. Rescues are out of the question. Once you get on, there is no turning back.

When I moved near the Blanco, a river that has become sacred in my life, the Devils always loomed. Half the time I’d talk to people about “my” river, the Devils came up, usually in the context of local river folks pointing out that the Blanco is the second-cleanest river in Texas.

“And what might be the cleanest?” I’d inevitably ask, never challenging the veracity of the claim.

The Devils.

My love of the Blanco, that “cleanest” superlative, and a developing obsession in paddling down rivers, beginning in an inflatable Sevylor and presently in a Yahoo sit-on-top kayak, led to the conclusion that if I really wanted to know what everyone was talking about, I’d have to get on the Devils.

That was easier said than done. Not only is the river in a very remote, lightly populated part of the state, the environment is particularly harsh, and the flow tenuous at best. It is reputed to be a homewrecker and heartbreaker that could tear lifelong friendships asunder. Too hot to run in the summer, and too cold to endure in the winter, it is best attempted in fall or spring. If one could get on the river at all, that is.

Map - The Devils River

In a state where property owners have historically clashed with recreational river users, the Devils is arguably the most hostile. “You didn’t just risk getting shot, you might be held under fire for six hours,” one retired boater claimed, in relating what happened to him 20 years ago shortly after he put in at Baker’s Crossing and got separated from his canoe. Even touching the bank can get one arrested for trespassing. Ranchers like to invoke the Spanish Land Grant version of property rights, which accords ownership of a river to include its bottom.

Until 1988, paddling was downright impossible if you couldn’t do 25 miles in a single day. That’s the year the Finegans sold the Dolan Creek Ranch to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which designated the land as a state natural area with virtually no park infrastructure. That made it possible to run the upper 15.5-mile part of Devils from Baker’s Crossing — still a physically exhausting challenge — and legally pull out to sleep, then do 9.5 miles to the takeout, where fishing guide Gerald Bailey operates a shuttle service.

I managed to complete the run in two days, but only after hours of pulling my boat over shallow stretches, getting lost in jungles of river cane, running aground on the coarse, exceptionally abrasive limestone lurking just below the water’s surface, and paddling into relentless headwinds that kicked up waves in my face. Heeding the retired boater’s advice, on the few occasions I actually did touch a bank, it was of an island in the middle of the river. I felt a sense of satisfaction completing the journey, even while I was convinced I’d joined the silent majority whose first time on the Devils was their last. Maybe I’d run it again, I told myself, but only after an extended period of heavy rain, when the Pafford gauge was reading at least 500 cubic feet per second, twice the normal flow.

Less than six months later, I went back on my word. Somehow, my memory had erased all the nightmarish particulars of the first trip. I forgot sleeping for 12 hours straight at the end of the first day’s paddle because I was too exhausted to do anything else.

That’s the only excuse I can offer for returning to Baker’s Crossing in early March to do it again. This time, the flow is the same, give or take 20 cfs, from the previous October. And if conditions aren’t ideal, the one thing I recall from the first trip was, there is no such thing as an ideal day on the Devils. You work with what you get. At least overnight temperatures aren’t dropping into the teens, as they had two days earlier. Even Mary Hughey is reassuring. “The Devils River and kayakers get along just fine,” she tells me as she collects the camping fee from Joe Hauer and me at Baker’s Crossing. Canoes might drag the whole 15 miles down to the state natural area. But not shallow-drafting kayaks.

Hughey is the matron at Baker’s Crossing, the owner of the two-story mansion set by the banks of the tree-lined river and the surrounding campgrounds. A sweet lady who is training her 2-year-old grandson, Casey, for a career in the hospitality industry, she makes it plain to each and every boater camping out to be on the river by nine in the morning, or she’ll make darn sure they will. She gets enough heat from landowners downstream for letting people on to the river in the first place, she says, and she doesn’t need any more grief.

She also raises a warning flag. While talking about lack of rain, a common topic of conversation west of the 98th meridian, I mention the 10-year drought.

“Ten years?” she says. “It’s more like a 30-year drought. The river hasn’t really run since the ’70s.” She isn’t kidding. Thirty years ago, the headwaters of the Devils were generally recognized as being near Juno, 10 miles up the highway. These days, it barely holds a flow at Baker’s, though there is enough moving water to lull me to sleep the instant I climb into my sleeping bag.

We are on the river before eight the following morning, and reality rears its ugly head within 10 minutes, when the little riffle I ride disappears in a pool of gravel. Scrunch. I get up and pull; the first of more drags than I care to count. Somewhere in that first hour, I check the new seat I’d hooked onto my boat for back support and realize the zip pocket behind the seat is not watertight, but in fact self-baling. The topo maps I’d downloaded have turned to mush. I’ve left my river guidebooks in the car.

My first trip in October was with David Hollingsworth, who’d run the Devils before and brought along his GPS to pinpoint our location. This time, I am the experienced one, and now I have nothing — no map, no printed material, no help, since only a handful of people live along the river — nothing but my obviously defective memory. I calm down by reminding myself I’ve done this before. It is only two days. Heck, I could go without water for that long if I really had to. And we had plenty of water, trail mix and nutrition bars stuffed into our drybags. I decide doing it without any navigational aid would be liberating, with the understanding that mistakes would be unforgiven.

Hauer doesn’t believe me when I tell him it will take the full day to get down to the state natural area. Like me on any first time on a river, he keeps thinking the takeout is just around the next bend.

“Patience,” I counsel.

As long as I maintain a steady stroke, I can savor the sweet bliss of floating through a genuine wilderness practically devoid of power lines, roads or human presence — save for the occasional hunting shack. In Texas, no less. The views are sublime: a flock of mallards skittering off the water, coots diving, a killdeer swooping just above the water line, hawks surfing thermals high above, a great blue heron lumbering out of the river cane. A bass spooks from under a shallow shelf, tail flopping above the surface, startled by my intrusion. On almost every cliff overlooking the water, I see caves and overhangs, the types that provided nomadic people over the previous 6,ooo years with shelter and access to the other basic necessities of water and food nearby. There are more pictographs in the Devils, Pecos and Rio Grande watersheds than anywhere else on earth, save for the south of France.

Rushing Water - The Devils River
Rushing water on the Devils. Photograph by Wyman Meinzer

My soundtrack is the steady splish-splish of every stroke, accompanied by distant squawks, chirps and screes, the occasional soft flutter of flapping wings, the intermittent whooshes of wind, and that Billy Joe Shaver song. It is a splendid river. More than once, I find myself on a tight rapid or in a gin-clear pool shaded by nearby groves of pecans and oaks, thinking I was back on the Blanco, more than 200 miles east. The cliffs, the outcroppings and the massive limestone the river cuts through brought Big Bend closer than it really is. Life is distilled to the sweet essence of river, land and sky. But I cannot get lost in the moment. After all, this is the Devils. You never know when the water will run out, or where the next crusty rock is crouching just under the surface, ready to snag an unwary boat. On some rocks, I recognize the distinctive blue streaks of my kayak, skid mark souvenirs from my first trip.

It is not difficult to focus on the dry, desiccated landscape and imagine something that during a much wetter period resembled the Hill Country. The first European to note the Devils’ existence, the Spaniard Gaspar Casta–o de Sosa, was not exactly impressed. He named it the Laxas, which translates as “feeble” or “slack.” Explorers and travelers who followed him held it in higher regard, naming it the San Pedro, and often lingering longer than planned, since it was the last rest stop before striking out west across the desert. St. Pete struck Texas Ranger Jack Hays as an uninspired name for the river when he came upon it in the 1840s, before he moved on to California. He reckoned the Devils would be a more suitable title. A military camp had been established on the river after the Mexican War. Another Texas Ranger, Capt. Pat Dolan, arrived to clear the region of outlaws in 1870, early enough to have his name attached to the falls.

That made it safe for E.K. Fawcett who, along with a group of friends, left his mark inside a cave above Dolan Falls on July 24, 1883. As the Devils’ first settler, Fawcett started grazing sheep by the falls, and others followed with goats and cattle. Eventually the grasses in the watershed were worn down to the nub, leaving rocks, prickly pear, cedar, mesquite and the occasional lechuguilla. The browsing down explained why I heard but a single calf on the trip. Not much is left for today’s livestock to eat.

Gary Garrett, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist who has studied the Devils extensively, confirms that the river is relatively unpolluted and undammed – less than 2 percent of all American rivers remain free of such impoundments, and the upper part of the Devils is the only free-running river left in Texas – and one of the most pristine in the southwestern United States. But he also makes clear that, like every river in Texas, the Devils has been impacted plenty. Its flow has declined steadily. Chloride, phosphate, cadmium, lead and mercury have been found in concentrations high enough to be potentially dangerous for aquatic life and human health. The Rio Grande cutthroat trout, once native to the region, disappeared long ago. The smallmouth bass, which attracts fishermen from all over Texas, is an exotic introduced to the river and, with the cessation of the practice of stocking exotics in the Devils, the smallmouths are just holding on, making the practice of catch-and-release on the river crucial to their survival. Garrett suspects the smallmouth and other exotics, including carp, black bullhead and blue tilapia, maybe contributing to the threatened status 0f the native Devils River minnow.

But Garrett also gives me hope. “Stewardship is at a higher level here than on other Texas rivers, and property owners are utilizing TPWD resources to learn sound land and water management practices,” he says. The big ranches are staying big, thanks to attorneys and doctors who want to keep it that way, buying big chunks of real estate. The Nature Conservancy bought 10,000 acres within the watershed, including Dolan Falls in 1991, and has brokered sales of another 35,000 acres with conservation easements, meaning the land will remain undeveloped forever.

I arrive at the state natural area 15 minutes ahead of Hauer. Usually it’s the other way around. For all the exertion, we haven’t averaged even two miles an hour. Back home we could do twice that distance in less time. But we aren’t back home. We are on the Devils. And it has beaten us down bad. By the time Hauer crawls onto the rock shelf, he is declaring his fealty to the San Marcos River. Why come all this way to be brutalized? He is asleep before the sun goes down. I stay awake to watch the last light of day fade to dark while a couple of bats flutter erratically overhead. The last calls of a lonely mallard pierce the night. It is warm enough to sleep out without a tent, and cool enough to snuggle into a sleeping bag. I don’t care whether the wind whips up or if it drizzles before dawn. I am too wasted.

The second day begins with a short, less -than-a-mile paddle from the state natural area to the juncture where Dolan Creek, the most abundant of 32 tributaries, meets the Devils. The meager flow builds into a churning and hissing torrent, climaxing at Dolan Falls. Water gushes through four chutes carved from solid rock, adorned with maidenhair fern. I’d seen a similar setting once before, at the Narrows on the Blanco. And like the Narrows, running one of those chutes likely would have terminal results. We scout and ponder, craning our necks, and decide to portage, following the metal arrows on the rocks on the left bank.

Dolan Creek’s recharge makes the last nine miles a pleasure. Rapids carry the boats instead of stopping them. Picking a path through the reeds becomes a game of chance. Pick the right chute and get easy passage. Pick wrong, get out and drag. I even find a couple of spots where I can point my boat upstream and surf.

Although we’ve seen a scattering of trailers and cabins, one two-story structure high on a ridge above the eastern bank that looks like a hotel or a resort is the first real sign of civilization, other than all the posted No Trespassing signs. It is tobacco lawyer John Eddie Williams’ Rio Vista Ranch, I later learn.

We find Gerald Bailey’s place with no problem. His hillside home is marked by a canoe jutting into the air. Gerald is out guiding a fishing trip, his wife tells us, but Don Kelley will be over in a minute to drive us back. Don, one of the few other full-time residents of the Blue Sage subdivision, used to be a hunter and a fisherman when he first visited the Devils, but since he moved to a house overlooking the river from a high bluff, he says he’s become a naturalist out of necessity. “You can’t do much of anything if you live here, other than be a screwaround, because it’s so remote and far away from everything,” he says while he ties down our boats and loads us into his Suburban.

I happily pay Kelley $150 to shuttle us back to Baker’s once I see what passes for roads on the Blue Sage subdivision and knowing the next takeout is another 20 miles downstream on a part of the river that is more like a dammed-up lake. It takes an hour to drive the 14 miles out to U.S. Highway 277, and almost another two hours back to either the natural area or Baker’s.

We talk about wild turkeys. I’ve seen more on the Devils than anywhere in my life. We talk about how rocks seem to hold heat in this part of Texas longer than anywhere else, how untamed the river gets when it does flood, and how the same landowners with the hostile reputations are actually protecting the river and the caves and pictographs by discouraging tourists. I marvel how I hadn’t seen a piece of trash anywhere on the entire trip.

We talk about rain, and how it almost never does in these parts.

Hauer figures he left at least $100 worth of his Perception’s bottom on the caustic limestone in the river. His first time on the Devils may be his last. Me, once again I swear on a stack of Bibles that I won’t do it again until there’s been a really, really big dump in its watershed, which may not happen again in my lifetime.

Then again, that’s what I said the last time around. Before Billy Joe Shaver started rumbling around in my head.

[More about Water]

[Additional information on river laws can be found on Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Website at www.tpwd.state.tx.us/texaswater/rivers]


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Texas Water Safari

Texas Water Safari: 260 miles of rowing your boat

The Dallas Morning News
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
June 27, 2003

SAN MARCOS – To finish the Texas Water Safari, you have to paddle nonstop in a canoe or kayak for 260 miles from Aquarena Center in San Marcos (where Ralph the Diving Pig once performed) down the San Marcos and Guadalupe rivers to the flagpole at Bayfront Park in Seadrift, Texas.The safari, which was run earlier this month for the 41st year, is called "The World’s Toughest Boat Race." That’s justified by the distance; the rules (you must finish in 100 hours, and team captains supplying crews can provide only water and ice); the stamina (visualize sleep deprivation); and physical demands (millions of paddle strokes).

With more than 300 people racing solo or in teams of up to six people, the safari is also the Texas equivalent of climbing Mount Everest en masse.

Those who complete the race talk in glowing terms about the murky hell, riddled with snakes, fire ants and alligators awaiting them. They speak of the "Gnarly 40" – 40 miles of tree-clogged river channel between Staples and Palmetto State Park – as if it were a ride at Schlitterbahn. They wax nostalgic recounting trips down Hallucination Alley, which is wherever you get so tired you start seeing things.

They sure aren’t in it for the money. Complete the race in 100 hours or less, and you get a patch and a plaque. Be the first across the finish line, and a crowd of maybe 60 will be cheering.

Outside the norm

The Parkers of Tyler don’t appear too outside the norm – other than Marvin Parker, 53, and his brother Charles, 50, having matching gray beards long enough to give ZZ Top a run for the razor.

Then Luke, Marvin’s 16-year-old son, breaks into a goofy grin and says it: "We’re crazy."

Luke and Marvin won the parent-child division in 2001, the first year Luke raced. Last year, they were blown out when the legendary Mynars fielded a father-son team.

"It’s mostly mental," Marvin says. "Keep your mind right, and you’ll make it."

"That’s all I heard about it when I was a kid," Luke says. "How people start hallucinating after a while. That got me worried."

Are the stories true? "Well, I saw myself one time on the banks looking at me," Luke says. "That was scary."

"I saw a solid cement wall the first year," volunteers Marvin. "I was thinking if it didn’t go away, we were going over the dam. But it went away."

A few feet from the registration table, two novices, Julie Basham of Coppell and Ann Best of Houston, sort protein powder, coffee crystals, and some strange stuff called Gu. They declare they’re up for the challenge.

"We’re both 40," says Ms. Best, a marketer for Hewlett-Packard. "I’ve always wanted to do the safari. I just needed a victim to do it with me." She found one in Ms. Basham, her kayak class teacher. In the span of a few months, Ms. Basham had divorced, lost her job and lost her father.

"He’s riding with us," says Ms. Basham, reaching into their canoe and fetching a green pill bottle from a Styrofoam holder. "This is Dad – his ashes, actually. I’m going to spread them at Seadrift. Before he died, he said he wanted to watch me finish."

The two women have paddled 87 miles straight, practicing for the event – long enough for Ms. Best to have seen E.T. going through Hallucination Alley. Two hundred sixty miles is another matter.

Ms. Basham calculates 78 hours to finish.

"Maybe 80," Ms. Best hedges.

"Seventy-eight hours," Ms. Basham says emphatically, splashing bottled water on Ms. Best and soaking her SpongeBob T-shirt.

Adventure in life

Since 1992, save for one year, a Mynar or three have been in the winning boat. The patriarch, Joe Mynar, 55, a stout, steely-eyed truck driver from Kopperl, owns the Texas Water Safari, having racked up 14 wins.

"There’s not much adventure in life these days," he says. "Everything’s pretty much programmed. But for a few days, it’s you, your team, your boat and the river."

This year, Joe’s son, Brian, who lives in Abbott, and Joe’s brother, Fred, who lives in San Marcos, are racing in another boat.

Joe’s crew includes John Dunn, 36, a fire ant researcher and ex-paramedic from Austin who has racked up nine wins paddling with Mr. Mynar, along with Tom Goynes, 52, of San Marcos, a seven-time safari winner, and Bucky Chatham, 60, of Seadrift, a retired shrimper with cancer.

"He had surgery in November and wants to run the safari one more time," Joe Mynar says in a low voice, out of earshot of Mr. Chatham. "We just want to make sure we get him to the finish line."

The last two times a Mynar didn’t win, John Bugge, 52, did. The plumbing contractor from Bryan holds the record for finishing the safari – 25 times. This year, he’s paddling tandem with his granddaughter, Jessica, 9, the youngest entrant in the 2003 race.

Asked to explain why she’s going, the freckle-faced brunette giggles and shrieks, "For fun!" then grabs the hand of her sister, Cecili, 3, and runs off.

"We’ve done the San Marcos River maybe four times and almost all of the Guadalupe," Mr. Bugge says. "She’s practiced running logjams, riding currents, going through stuff in the middle of the night, sleeping, eating and relieving herself. She’s already decided she wants to go solo next year." Before she goes solo, though, they’ll have to finish together this year, he says.

Mr. Bugge’s goal is 55 hours in their 21-foot hybrid boat, if all goes according to plan.

"She doesn’t believe me when I tell her how hard it’s going to be," he says. "But if she finishes, she’ll know more than most adults know."

Donna Bugge, John’s wife, admits some friends think they’re crazy for letting Jessica race. "Then again, they think we’re crazy anyhow," she says.

More intense

This year’s celebrity, Ian Adamson, 38, is a professional adventure racer from Sydney, Australia, who’s won the Eco-Challenge four times.

Paddling with his friend West Hansen, 41, a broad-shouldered barn builder from Austin, Mr. Adamson compares the safari to a single leg of an Eco-Challenge. "But this is more intense. To me, this is the best boat race I’ve ever run, starting in a clear freshwater spring and a tight channel and winding up in swamps with alligators and the coast. The barbecue at the end of the race certainly is unique."

Mr. Hansen estimates 40 hours. "If we get rain, maybe 38. At least in these conditions, we shouldn’t break the boat in half again."

Again?

Nearby, Elmer Haby, 48, inspects his 10-foot Minnow kayak. The Devine resident completed the safari with a partner 18 years ago. Now he’s ready to try it alone. "I’d like to finish under 100 hours," he allows as he lights up a cigarette.

He knows his boat is not made for long distances, and his friends have been second-guessing him, saying things such as, "Are you out of your mind?"

"Probably," he says. "But I won’t know until I try."

John Mark Harras’ blue button-down Oxford shirt, rattlesnake pantyhose and straw cowboy hat stand out in the crowd. He’s a "Cowboy," one of a six-man crew known for its over-the-top behavior. Mr. Harras, 44, of Houston, bubbles enthusiasm as he recounts throwing up during races ("You just keep paddling"), getting a fishhook stuck in his ear, and seeing things in Hallucination Alley.

"I used to race with a woman," Mr. Harras says. "One year, she pointed to the riverbank and said, ‘See that giant priest up there, praying for our sins?’ I looked. It wasn’t a priest. It was a great big Quaker Oats box."

The results

Fred and Brian Mynar and their crew, dressed in matching white hats and white shirts and paddling with military precision, were the first to Seadrift, arriving in the Sunday evening twilight, 36 hours and 15 minutes after departure.

John Mark Harras and his Cowboys were second in 40 hours, 4 minutes. Bucky Chatham came home to Seadrift with Joe Mynar’s crew in 42 hours, 35 minutes.

Jessica and John Bugge made it in 51 hours and 23 minutes. Luke and Marvin Parker clocked in at 61 hours, 43 minutes. Ann Best, Julie Basham and Julie’s father’s ashes finished in 79 hours, 29 minutes. Elmer Haby dropped out before the first checkpoint at Staples Dam, 16 miles from the start.

One racer suffered a snakebite, though he didn’t realize it until 80 miles later. Heat exhaustion, dehydration and hypothermia sent several to hospitals. A thunderstorm over San Antonio Bay swamped four boats. Sane or insane, most will be back in the safari race for more next year.

Because it’s there.


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