The crispness of the 24 degree morning air made the brewing of hot coffee more a necessity than a treat in the moonlit dawn. We scraped frost from all of the exposed gear, ate hot instant oatmeal, and set out to discover what the mystique of the Devil's River is.
The first day's goal was a 15 mile run to the new state park at the Dolan Creek Ranch. We knew that was a long paddle, but we were hardly prepared for the strenuousness of the paddle. Shallow shoals and rock gardens with narrow channels, ledges, and lame stands of tall grass made the first mile difficult. A deep, long pool followed in which no current was perceptible. A gentle wind blowing upstream, into our face, made the paddling an effort. The lake-like pool ended after about 3/4 mile, only to be followed by more shoals and "grass gardens". These shallow, narrow channels made for very slow going. We often had to step out of the boat to pull the boat over a ledge or a rock accumulation. This continued for about 1 mile until we came to another deep pool.
The repetition of this pattern of shallow shoals, ledges, grass gardens, and narrow channels continued for the whole day on this upper stretch of the river. All told there were 15 pool sections in the first 12 miles of the river. Each pool was preceeded by a long section of shoals and grass garden channels with some degree of drop. The major difficulty was that none of the "drop" sections allowed for a clean run, some boat dragging was necessary. And, that was exhausting. The wind-in-the-face lake paddling was no help either!
On the first day, we unpinned one boat trapped on a rock in a swift, but narrow channel. One dangerous low water crossing with powerful suck-holes was lined. By 6:00 PM the sun was fading away when we pulled up at a creek outlet that I believed to be Mile 15. In the morning we were to survey the terrain and find out that it was only mile 12.5 - we had only done 12.5 miles in 8.5 hours of paddling, i.e, 1.5 mph!
The fatigue of the first day was somewhat ameliorated by the rib-eye steaks and baked potatoes that J. J. cooked over the open fire. The wine also helped. We had unknowingly set up camp in Sycamore Canyon, on the old jeep trail that was the only flat spot around. A gentle spring gave us fresh water as it slowly poured from the rock cliff. As J. J. and I hiked in the early morning of the second day after a luxurious breakfast of fresh eggs and ham, we realized that the topography did not fit the mile 15 site - it did fit the mile 12.5 location.
Fearing the violation of trespass for which the Devil's River has a bad reputation, J. J. and I begrudgingly convinced a relaxing Leonard that we had to move on down to the "real" state park site, some 23 miles downstream.
We lined a 4 foot drop just below Sycamore Canyon and paddled two long pools, separated by a shallows and a three drop ledge before we came to the first excitement of discovery. Just beyond three very high volume springs coming from the base of the cliff on river left there was a cave about 20 feet above the river. It was slightly obscured by a tree growing in front of the entrance, but was easily accessible to us all. Definitely fire-blackened and inhabited in both the recent and distant past, the cave contained slick rocks associated with the skinning and tanning of animals and a historic petroglyph "ROBE".
We set up our layover base camp a half mile down from the cave at the edge of the state property near Blue Spring, another high volume spring flowing out of the rocks near river level. Good sites on the flat rock legdes are plentiful. Also, there are plenty of large tie-down rocks available since your stakes will not penetrate the rock base! Thank heavens or those Therma-Rest pads!
For the next two days the weather was very mild with a persistent southerly breeze. We spent the layover day hiking the Dolan Creek Ranch and locating four archeological sites: two caves, one shelter, and a set of pictograph panels.
A late afternoon shower was the inspiration for one of the best tarp setups I have ever seen. Two canoes were stacked on each other and one side of the tarp was tied to the thwarts of the lower boat in about four places. This made a solid, wind-proof side to the shelter. The other sides were tied securely to fixed points, such as the bow of the third canoe and a bush. A large log was placed in the center. We enjoyed a nice fire to the outside of the enclosure that, with a reflector set up, gave warmth into the shelter. A warm and comfortable dinner was had despite the inclement conditions!
On Tuesday a thick fog settled over the river as we ate breakfast and broke camp. The temperature was 54 degrees. We approached the famous Dolan Falls by 9:00 AM still somewhat in fog. A hostile landowner lives on river right, so we pulled over about 30 yards above the falls on river left. The approach to the falls is dangerous and the swift currents could easily pull one into the falls, so be careful. We unloaded each of the three boats and portaged the falls on the rocks of the left bank. We completed the portage in 1 hour 15 minutes.
Again, the familiar pattern of pool and grass-choked boulder gardens reappeared. At one point, the river seemed to go to the right. However, because the water is so slack, we did not see the small ( 3 feet wide ) chute on river left that drained into the true river course. We had to scout and back track to find our way!
The volume of flow in the river seemed to double in this section below Dolan Creek, and the blind cruising through the grass gardens became more perilous. It is impossible to see where the swiftly moving channels go as they wind, diverge, and converge trough the high grass. At the entry into a grass garden at mile 17.75, we decided to scout the channel because the roar of the current was greater than usual. Fortunately for us, we discovered that the main channel wound through the grass for 10 yards or so, then it dropped over a fall of about 15 feet, making a sharp left hand turn into a wide chute of smooth rock which flowed over and down six major drops before settling into another long, deep pool. We lined the rapid on the right, dragging the boats through the grass to a small channel and lining them easily over the seven drops using the strong eddies along the right bank. It was a good spot to stop and have lunch.
Because of the higher volume in this section of the river, more of the rapids were runnable. Three good class II rapids are in the section of mile 19 and mile 24. The long pools were still hard paddling because of the prevaling upstream wind. We reached the confluence of the Dry Devil's River ( mile 24 ) about 4:00 PM. The goal of Turkey Bluff, one mile below us, was reached after running the low water crossing on the far right and lining the rapid below the confluence. Here, again, a shallow, grass-choked boulder garden terminated in a three foot pour off. Leonard and I lined the short side on river right. J. J. fought his way to the left side through many tight channels only to nearly pin on a terminal rock below the last drop.
This "short" day brought us 10 miles in 6.5 hours of paddling - again, an average of 1.5 mph. Our camp in this area, which has many resort houses, is on river left in a cane shrouded point of grass just to the north of Turkey Bluff. In the morning, the clouds threatened rain, but we were spared all but a fine mist and heavy fog. It was 60 degrees at 7:00 AM. The river appears to enter a more canyon-like section here as the cliffs rise higher and the river narrows into a "gorge" with a higher gradient than before. For four miles the flow was with us. The rapids were minor, but exciting and runnable. The river was deep as well. It felt good to finally make some good time on the river. At one point, we saw a porcupine on the river bank paying no mind at all to the paddlers who jumped out to take his picture. What does a porcupine have to worry about?
Near Dead Man's Creek ( mile 28.5 ) we again encountered some houses and development. The river bed widened and shallowed out into the famous fluted channels similar to the Pecos River. It was slow going, again! We pulled over on river right at the bend in the river at mile 29.5 to find a shelter high in a drainage. After a quick lunch, J. J. and I climbed into an oval cave with a significant fire-blackened ceiling and a grey ash talus that was littered with lithic fragments! It appeared to be relatively untouched although a beer can nearby suggests that some recent visitors have been by.
The river deteriorated in the remaining three miles to a shallow river bed of fluted channels and grass-choked chutes. Just keeping together and in sight of each other was a major chore. We spent a lot of time getting in and out of the boat, pushing and shoving. It was an exhausting section of the river. At 3:00 PM we came to the weir dam. The current flowed over the dam on river right and we ran the shallow flow without a problem. We camped on river left on the rock slab shore. The 70 degree sunshine enabled us to get all of our gear dry, including our weary feet! We had paddled 7.75 miles in 4.5 hours - a fast 1.7 mph!
On Thursday morning we ate breakfast just as the front blew through, shifting the wind to the north and dropping a light rain on our dry tents. We packed up and again got wet pulling the boats over the remaining mile of shallow ledges and flutes to the pick up point where Manuel and Inez Hardwick met us at exactly 10:00 AM. The dropping temperatures and 25 mph winds reminded us that the river never gives up! We were glad to be in a warm truck and back on the road home.
The Devil's River is a different river - pure, clear, and spring-fed. We put in at 380 cfs. That is not enough for the upper part to be enjoyable. More water would make the lower part more difficult. This is a "wet" trip - you will be in an out of your boat and usually wet to your waist because of the shallows, the lining, or the portages. We paddled 32.75 miles over four days, yet we spent a total of 215 hours actually paddling ( excluding lunch and hiking ) That is a very slow 1.5 mph on a river where we had hoped to make between 2 and 3 mph! The exertion was more than we bargained for, and, as a result, we did not do as much hiking and off-river exploration as we would have liked. Of course, the landowner trespass problem makes this a problem, too. But, we did accomplish our goal of gathering basic river running information about the river. The Devil's River is an untarnished jewel in the wild resources of Texas. If it is difficult river to run, then it is also relatively pristine. Perhaps the development of recreation along the river can be done in such a way as to protect its special quality for it is certainly a special river.
This article was originally published in the Houston Canoe Club Newsletter, March, 1989.
All material printed on this page
and this web site is copyrighted. All rights reserved.
Copyright by Louis F. Aulbach, 2001, 2004