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March 2009 cover image of Pedernales Falls State Park

Texas Reader: Paddling the Guad

Biologist captures the magic of a beloved river.

By E. Dan Klepper

Wayne H. McAlister, biologist and retired environmental education specialist who penned the informative and entertaining Life on Matagorda Island (Texas A&M University Press), has created another fact-filled adventure for Texas readers. His recently published Paddling the Guadalupe is a 300-plus-page love letter encapsulating McAlister’s 40-year romance with a canoe and the Guadalupe River. Paddling should please historians, water critter buffs and literati alike with its deep research of the Hill Country past, endless minutiae of riverine entomology and a purling of phrasework that could only have arisen from the heart of a poet.

“My notebook is filled with trivia that evoke vivid memories,” McAlister writes of his river sojourns. “It is early and we are traveling directly into the sun. Everything ahead is edged in dazzling red light. A flaming gossamer banner of spiderweb streams from Martha’s hat, and undulates and snaps in ethereal silence directly in front of my nose. I am running blindly, directly into the liquid fire of dawn, with the blazing lash in my face and each paddle stroke emitting a shower of sparks. I feel the hand of Icarus on my shoulder, the tug of Phlegethon from below. Then we make the bend, the sun swings behind me and the entire world takes on a reduced radiance.”

The occasional paddler who has canoed or kayaked the dawn can relate, if not to the classic references then to the transcendent nature of morning light on water. But McAlister has made a life of following the river’s muse, and in this volume, he explains through anecdote and analysis just exactly why.

“One of my first revelations was how provincial my knowledge of the river really was. I could speak with authority about the suck holes, pecan bottoms, wildlife, and river folks past and present, but for no more than a mile up and downstream of my house. Yet rivers have beginnings and midsections and ends. They have watersheds, tributaries, geological histories, hydrological constraints, and lots of human stories. Books helped, but still left large gaps. To comprehend the Guadalupe River, to get a real feel for the whole river, I needed to go out and consort with it; with all of it.”

Gratefully, McAlister did not leave his own muse at home before embarking on his many canoe trips down the Guadalupe. Just as in his Matagorda narrative, McAlister’s wife Martha appears as the stalwart, narrating life’s adventures with an omnipresent voice that consistently reels mere mortals back down to earth where we belong.

“A woman ahead of us is pole fishing for channel cats,” McAlister recalls. “As we pass she is baiting her hook. I idly ask her if she is using stink bait.

‘Naw. Hit don’t stay on the hook good ‘nuff. This here’s a mix’a chickens guts’n garlic.’ Out of earshot Martha commented that if that concoction did not qualify as ‘stink bait,’ she did not want to get close to the real thing.”

Spending time with Paddling the Guadalupe is almost as good as taking to the river course directly, while avoiding all the exhausting portages. Readers enjoy a wealth of side trips into the river’s cultural and natural history while the McAlisters do all the actual heavy lifting. Praise be to these Guadalupe paddlers for capturing the magic of a beloved river and delivering it directly into the hands of Texans. Paddle on! 

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