Many people outside of Texas would be surprised to hear the word “whitewater” associated with our state, but actually we do have some. It’s just that, for the most part, the only rivers with a predictable flow are relatively tame Class II’s. In particular, the San Marcos and the Comal always have water in them, because they are fed by huge springs, and the Upper Guadalupe (some of which could rightfully be called Class II+ or III- at certain levels) can retain flow for weeks after a heavy rain. The Lower Guadalupe is dam-controlled, so the flow is determined by how much water is in Canyon Lake. Even during a drought, the Army Corps is required to release about 50 cubic feet per second (cfs) to keep the Matagorda Bay estuary healthy, but the kayaking doesn’t really become decent until you have at least 10 times that. During the summer, the Lower Guad is choked with tubers, who prefer “recreational flows” of between 200 and 800 cfs. 2003 and 2004 were good years for the Guadalupe, due to the El Niño. In June of 2004, there was even enough rain above Canyon Lake that the Corps had to release at full capacity (5000 cfs) for about a week, and the tubing outfitters switched briefly to running guided raft trips. I had the pleasure of being on one of those trips, from the top of the “Horseshoe” down to Gilligan’s Island.
Apart from that, if you want to paddle any serious whitewater (Class III-IV) in Texas, you have to wait for a river like the Pedernales or Barton Creek or the San Gabriel to accumulate enough runoff that the water starts to flow instead of soaking into the swiss-cheese limestone, then you have to hope that the river stops rising before it picks up any significant debris, then you have to run it during the few hours before it falls. It’s a game of timing, since it never fails that a river will start running right at dark and stop before dawn, or it will flow in the middle of the day and be done by the time you can get out of work.
In recent years, I have paddled several Class II sections of the Guadalupe in rented kayaks and canoes, mostly from Bergheim to the state park, from U.S. 281 to Rebecca Creek Road, and on the Lower Guad near Gruene and near Fourth Crossing. I’ve also tubed the river on numerous occasions (including a few days before the infamous July 4 Flood of 2002.) In January of this year, I finally decided to buy a kayak of my own. I was looking heavily at recreational boats and really leaning toward one in the 9-foot range, partly for maneuverability but mostly because my garage is only 10 feet wide. I wasn’t having much luck finding a boat that size, however, until I stumbled upon one advertised online, for sale at a store in The Woodlands (north of Houston.) On paper, it looked like just what I wanted, so on a rainy Saturday in February, I made the 3-hour drive to The Woodlands to have a look at it. If it worked out, I was planning to haul the kayak up to East Texas, meet my dad at The Farm (the family’s weekend place), and run the 10-mile section of the Neches River above Highway 7.
There is some back story to our desire to run that stretch of river. An outdoors/social club to which I’ve belonged for about 5 years hosted most of the afore-mentioned kayaking events and was largely responsible for cultivating my interest in the sport. During the last weekend of March, 2003, a group from the club descended upon East Texas to see how the “other half” lived, and in addition to camping, they decided to canoe a stretch of the Neches River. I had spent Friday evening with my parents at The Farm and had brought my dad, a life-long canoeist armed with a wealth of first-hand knowledge about East Texas streams, with me on Saturday. Due to being slightly “under the weather” from the previous night’s festivities, the group was slow to roust and didn’t actually make it over to the Highway 7 boat ramp until 1 PM, at which point we learned that it was going to be an 18-mile trip. Dad immediately grew concerned and suggested doing the 10-mile run upstream of the highway instead, but the group leader seemed to think that this wouldn’t be challenging enough. Even though the Neches was at bank-full stage (close to the maximum velocity for that particular river), we still had to really hoof it to paddle 18 miles before it got dark at 6:30. Our boat was the second to take out, but because the outfitter only had limited room for passengers, the stragglers had to wait quite a while as she drove us back around to the put-in via Lufkin. The story goes that the boats behind us pulled out and noticed immediately that they were on the county line and that there were three liquor stores just up the hill. The night was chilly, so they bought a friendly hobo a six pack in exchange for sharing his fire.
That’s a rather roundabout way of getting to the point that Dad and I had, since then, been curious about that 10-mile stretch of river above Highway 7. He had just bought a 12-foot Ocean recreational kayak, and that gave me the incentive to buy a boat of my own so we could both try them out on the Neches. Now we’re back to that rainy Saturday in February, when I drove all the way to The Woodlands to look at the boat I had found online. Unfortunately the shop had no way of demoing the boat except to strap it to the top of my car with foam blocks, send me a mile down the road to Lake Woodlands, let me unload it and paddle around the lake on my own, then trust that I’d bring it back. I went through that entire process with the 9-foot boat, but it just seemed really tippy, even on flat water. I brought it back and explained that the length was an important factor, so they pointed me to a Cobra Escape, which the salesman assured me was also a 9-foot boat (actually it was 10.) I strapped it to my roof rack, took the jog up to Lake Woodlands, unloaded the boat, and paddled around for a bit. It seemed to be reasonably stable. I had never heard of Cobra kayaks before, but the boat seemed to have what I needed, and I had a strong inclination to buy something, because I wanted to paddle the Neches the next day. I bought the Cobra and gear and paid for the shop to install a hatch for me, then we secured it firmly to my roof, and I took off up I-45 toward The Farm.
The first thing I noticed was the noise. I mean, you expect there to be some wind noise when you’re hauling an upside-down 9-foot green plastic banana on your roof, but this thing hummed like a Cessna preparing for takeoff. It was loud. I was doing a good job of ignoring it, though, because I really wanted to be a kayak owner, and I was going to make this boat work if it killed me.
It very nearly did. The rain that I had driven through on the way to Houston was actually an Arctic cold front, and that night, the temperature dropped below freezing. Dad and I awoke on Sunday morning to find icicles clinging to the pipe rack of his truck. “You sure you still want to do this?” he asked. “Yeah, we have wetsuits. We’ll be fine.” I replied.
We took the back way to the put-in, which involved navigating a dirt road and crossing a wooden bridge perched 30 feet above the river– a bridge with no guardrails, I might add. Mom had followed us down there so she could set shuttle and then head back to Beaumont. She stopped before crossing the bridge, but Dad gunned it across. Looking back, he scratched his head and said, “You know, if I had seen that sheet of ice on the bridge, I probably wouldn’t have just done that.” We got out to unload our boats, which now had icicles to match the ones on his pipe rack. I waited with the gear while he and Mom shuttled his truck down to the takeout. Upon returning, we suited up, and Mom took one last photo for the coroner. Dad got in his boat to paddle around a bit, and I did likewise.
My boat flipped literally the instant I sat in it, spilling me unceremoniously into the murky water. Given that this was a freak cold snap, the water temperature was probably only in the 40’s, but the air temperature was still below freezing. In any case, it was decidedly unpleasant. I fished my boat and myself out of the river to reset. “You sure you still want to do this?” Dad asked. “Yeah, the wetsuit seems to be working. I’ll be fine.” I replied.
Mom headed for the coast, and we set off down the river. I noticed immediately that I had to really engage the thigh straps in order to keep the boat from keeling over in the current, yet it did fine in flat water, as I had observed on Lake Woodlands the day before. I was having to continuously put each gloved hand in my mouth in succession to keep them from going completely numb. At somewhere near what we figured was the halfway point, I got out to pee, and in the process of taking off enough of my wetsuit to make that happen, I started shivering and couldn’t stop. I ate a couple of sandwiches that we had packed, which raised my core temperature a bit, and Dad tried in vain to build a fire with the wet wood. Ultimately we figured that there was nothing for it except to get moving again. We started downriver and were at the takeout inside of an hour. We probably made the entire 10-mile run in 2 1/2 hours, including the stop. We were paddling as fast as we could.
I got into Dad’s truck and cranked the heat to full blast. Steam started rising off of my body as we made our way back to The Farm to recover.
Flash forward to a week later. It was another rainy day in the Hill Country, and I rode with my friend Chris up to Dallas so he could purchase a gently-used whitewater kayak from an instructor in that area. The next day was sunny and 70 degrees, so he wanted to try out his new boat on the Comal with his girlfriend Sally and with Other Chris, who had just bought an identical boat. After a rocky start that included flipping the Cobra in the Tube Chute, I started to figure out how to handle it in swift water, but it was still really tippy unless I engaged the thigh straps.
Flash forward to a few weeks ago– the Sunday after Old Settler’s Music Festival, when the rivers were still at drought level. Chris, Other Chris, Sally, and I ran the San Marcos from City Park down to Pecan Park. There is a small waterfall just upstream of Thompson’s Island, a pretty typical 3-foot drop that you see on many Hill Country rivers. We stopped and ran the drop a few times for fun– it took me three tries to figure out how to run it without flipping the Cobra over at the bottom (I was the only one not in a whitewater boat.) After we’d had our fun, we continued downstream.
Just upstream from the confluence with the Blanco, I started to notice that my boat was performing oddly. It was becoming harder to paddle, and the nose was starting to rise up. Sure enough, my hull was taking on water, and unfortunately, this was the worst possible place on the river for that to happen. The section of the San Marcos just above the confluence is kind of like the Neches– flat water with fairly steep, muddy cut banks and no good places to pull ashore. I tried to keep paddling, hoping to make the wide gravel bar opposite the confluence, but it got so bad that my kayak was literally riding at a 45-degree angle relative to the water. Chris and Sally couldn’t stop laughing. We found a pecan tree that was growing out of the middle of the river in such a way that we could climb onto the roots and use them as leverage to drain the boat. However, in the process of draining the boat, Chris accidentally dropped the drain plug into the river. We were able to get the water out of the boat, but I had to pull ashore and drain it again about every 1/4 to 1/2 mile. If I had gone farther than that, the hole that was the erstwhile home of the now-scuttled drain plug would have gone below the waterline, and I would have been literally sunk.
I took the boat into the local Cobra dealer a few days later, and he discovered that one of the scupper holes in the cockpit (scupper holes are what make the kayak “self-bailing”) had developed a crack along its entire vertical axis. He thoroughly epoxied and heat sealed the crack and replaced the drain plug. The repair seems to be holding fine on flat water (i.e. Town Lake), but I don’t trust it on Hill Country rivers anymore. Cobra seems to have designed the boat with relatively thin plastic to make it lightweight, and it was probably never intended for use in rocky environments. Furthermore, as I learn more about kayaks, I am beginning to understand that the Cobra’s hull is not really designed for river running. It seems like more of a near-shore ocean kayak, which I guess explains why no one sells them in the Hill Country.
The upshot of this is that I’m in the market for a kayak again.
A week later, while I was at JazzFest, an epic storm dumped on the Pedernales River basin. Chris and Other Chris and Kyle (another local whitewater kayaker) ran the Pedernales as it was on its way down (still thousands of cfs) and claimed that it was the best river they’d ever run. They also ran the San Gabriel at 5000 cfs, which was apparently terrifying. We had another epic rain last Thursday and Friday, so everything was flowing by Saturday, and they had hoped to run the Pedernales again (and I had hoped to run it for the first time.) Unfortunately, however, the Pedernales was too high to be safe, so Chris and Other Chris decided to run Bull Creek instead.
Everyone except Chris used creek boats (I was borrowing Chris’ creek boat), which are designed for navigating steep, narrow creeks in mountainous areas. The boats are 8.5-foot sit-insides with relatively flat bottoms and rounded ends, so they can turn within their own radius but are also much more stable and buoyant than a regular whitewater boat. Supposedly you can float one in an inch of water (with no one sitting in it, that is.)
Bull Creek is a small stream in Northwest Austin that drains into the Colorado River. It normally flows only in winter (much like Barton Creek), but after a rainfall, it can generate some Class II and Class III features. We caught it on the way down, when it was flowing only about 100-200 cfs or so, but that flow was channelized into a relatively narrow streambed, often bounded by a cliff on one side and thick vegetation on the other. Also, what the guidebook neglected to mention was that there are apparently multiple sewer plants that dump into Bull Creek somewhere upstream. Most sewer plants are not designed to handle rainfall runoff events, and these are no exception. The stench was nowhere near as foul as raw sewage, but that characteristic smell (which I know all too well– water and waste treatment is kind of the family business) was definitely present and accounted for.
By the time we discovered any of this, we were already committed to the run, so the three of us were being extra careful to avoid flipping over and swimming in the muck. Chris was ultimately the only one who flipped. Bull Creek has a lot of dangling vines and branches (“strainers”), some of them river-wide, and one of these sets of vines pinned Chris’ boat and forced him to eject. He swam ashore with no problem (it was only a few feet away), but he couldn’t find his paddle. Yes, he was quite literally “up S*** Creek without a paddle.” We thankfully found it tangled in the vines, hidden under some debris. We finished the run in about an hour, disinfected everything we could, and swore “never again.”
The Upper Guadalupe was running at about 400 cfs that afternoon, which is an ideal recreational flow for that river, so we decided to run the stretch from U.S. 281 to Rebecca Creek. The water had about the turbidity of chocolate milk, but it seemed to mainly be from the typical mud, fertilizer, and pasture pastries that wash into the river during a heavy rain. No smell of sewage this time. Everything was going well until we hit Rust Falls (the last drop before the takeout.) Rust Falls is kind of a weird drop. The falls form a large V shape with the opening of the V facing downstream, but since the falls are also on a sharp bend in the river, it appears from upstream as if the falls are flowing toward you. Most rec. boaters run the ledges at the far right, well away from the V-notch, and at higher levels, a gradual slope opens up on the left (but not at 400 cfs.)
Since the water was low enough that the V-notch wasn’t creating any significant recirculation, we opted to run it. Chris went over first … and completely disappeared. Other Chris and I were holding short above the falls, starting to get worried, then about 10 seconds later, we saw Chris swimming below the falls without his boat. We assumed that he’d flipped and performed a wet exit, but we couldn’t see his boat floating downstream. “Where’s the boat?” we asked ourselves. Other Chris decided to go ahead and run the falls so he could help Chris down below. When he was halfway over the lip, I heard him yell, “There it is!” Apparently he’d hit the boat on the way down, which was fortunate, because we might not have found it otherwise. Chris’ boat had lodged vertically in the V-notch in such a way that the chocolate milk was completely covering it up. The amount of water going through the V-notch was nothing we hadn’t seen before, but the little 6-foot playboat just happened to be the right size to get pinned in the notch, and the water just happened to be chocolatey enough to make it hard to see. We tied our rescue ropes off to a nearby tree and spent 20-30 minutes dislodging the boat.
Yesterday, we ran the San Marcos from Pecan Park to Martindale with surprisingly little drama (and relatively clean water.) It was running at about 330 cfs, with the Blanco contributing about 2/3 of that flow.
EDITOR’S NOTE: I ultimately bought the boat that Chris pinned in Rust Falls, and I paddled it until 2013.