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Undammed and Unforgiving

A veteran paddler takes a second chance on the last wild river.

By Joe Nick Patoski

Water. Oil pales beside it, and the value of the land itself is measured by it. Texas differs little from many western lakes in this regard. Water not only has been the definer of our natural setting but the great limiter of growth and development.

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.

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 6,000 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.

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 Castaño 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, may be contributing to the threatened status of 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.

The Rights to Know

    Questions often arise about river access and the rights of river users. Because the laws are sometimes unclear, conflicts can occur between river users and landowners whose lands are adjacent to the river.

    Early Spanish and Mexican law established that perennial streams were retained by the sovereign (governing body). Then in 1837, the Republic of Texas adopted the 30-foot rule. Under this law, the Republic claimed all streambeds with an average width of 30 feet from the mouth upstream. As long as the stream averages 30 feet wide from its mouth upstream, it is considered “navigable by law.” Even if the river is dry, it is still considered navigable if it meets the 30-foot rule.

    The issue is further complicated when landowners own the land under a stream. While most navigable streambeds are the property of the state, private landowners may own some streambeds in navigable streams. However, even when the streambed is privately owned, if the stream or river is “navigable by law,” the public is granted rights by state legislation (Small Act) to conduct lawful activities in the stream, such as wading, canoeing, walking, camping, fishing and others.

    Because streams meander and fluctuate with flow, the boundary between the navigable stream and private lands is often difficult to identify. In 1920, the U.S. Supreme Court defined this boundary as the “gradient boundary.” While this boundary is difficult or almost impossible to identify without a licensed surveyor, it is a point on the bank that is halfway up the “lowest qualifying bank” and includes the entire low-flow bottom channel.

    While major streams are navigable and are clearly reserved for public uses, conflicts often occur on smaller tributaries that are narrow and contain less flow. When boating on streams that may be private, it is important to check with local authorities to determine the status of the stream. Use of non-navigable streams is trespassing. A determination of whether a stream is navigable is the responsibility of the Texas General Land Office, which can be reached at (512) 463-5001.

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

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