Guad is Good; Guad is Great
It’s the finest recreational river in Texas, but how long can it last?
By Joe Nick Patoski<
One late afternoon in mid-February, the day after the ﬁrst signiﬁcant snowfall in 19 years, I launched a sit-on-top kayak from the low-water crossing near where I live onto my river, a tributary of the Guadalupe River. It was due for an inspection. It was early in the season for this kind of excursion, but I’d been feeling the tug for weeks.
The calendar said winter, but spring was subtly stirring wherever I looked. A loud scree overhead identified the first pair of zone-tail hawks nesting in the top of a nearby cypress, none too happy with my presence. The first kingfisher flashed right in front of me, then skimmed above the water in full glide. A mockingbird hopped among the bare cypress branches, scouting for nest sites. A small turtle, its shell caked gray with mud, scooted atop a boulder to sun itself. A bass peeked out from under the base of the same boulder, submerged at the bottom of a deep hole.
With each dip of the paddle, I stirred up liquid diamonds that dazzled in the sunlight. The boat moved swiftly as I paddled through placid, deep pools, and scraped rock and fought currents. Where I could find them, I rode riffles and rapids, and whenever necessary, I sloshed through shallows, dragging the boat behind me.
While surfing the little rapids, I’d occasionally get in a groove where I didn’t have to paddle at all. Rather, I was suspended in the rapid, nose upstream, waves rushing downstream, motionless in the midst of perpetual motion, losing sense of time and even existence. In one of these trances, my meditative state was interrupted by a white-tailed doe stealthily sidling up to water’s edge about 100 yards upstream to take a drink. She spied me about the same time I spied her. She took another quick drink, stepped gingerly on several flat rocks in the water before bounding into a pool and scampering up to cross over to the other side. Two larger whitetails followed, going through the same routine. Look, drink, scan again, step, step, plunge, step, step across. Negotiating around a particularly large limestone hazard, I glanced back to spot a great blue heron, the giant bird-queen of the river, moving upstream, flapping her pterodactyl-like wings just enough to keep her sizeable trunk above the surface of river.
None of the rapids were so much as class II-worthy. But on a mid-winter’s day in Central Texas, I was more than satisfied. I couldn’t imagine a better place to be on this earth. That thought stuck with me all the way back to the house even though my butt was numb and I couldn’t feel my toes.
A River of Pleasure
Of the 15 major rivers in Texas, the Guadalupe is the Texas-most river, springing to life in the Hill Country, that sweet spot where east and west, north and south, coast and desert, tropics and prairie all converge, and diversity thrives and flourishes. The Guadalupe runs exceptionally cool, swift and clear until it reaches the fertile rolling plains, where it widens and muddies and roils through hardwood bottomlands and past the historic towns of Seguin, Gonzales, Cuero and Victoria before reaching the coastal prairie and its delta in San Antonio Bay.
The Guadalupe is the home of the state fish of Texas, the Guadalupe bass. It is the only river in the state that sustains a year-round trout population. Marked with dramatic stretches of limestone cliffs and tall bald cypresses on the upper half, and distinguished with water that begins gin-clear, evolves into an ethereal green-turquoise and ends an earth brown, it’s the prettiest river in Texas. Fed by the state’s two biggest springs — the Comal and San Marcos — and supporting abundant wildlife and several endangered species, the Guadalupe has attracted visitors for more than 12,000 years and today is probably enjoyed by more people than any other river in the Southwest.
But the water of this beautiful river is under pressure from growing urban demand. Whether the river will endure for another 50 years, much less 300, is not certain. For all its attributes and benefits — and in part because of them — the Guadalupe may be Texas’ most troubled river. Coveted by thirsty cities, tenaciously held on to by farmers and ranchers, exploited for new, competing uses as the population of Central Texas booms, the Guadalupe has a forbidding future, and that is a shame when you consider how many Texans take pleasure in it.
Back at the house, I estimated how many other people might have been on the Guadalupe and its main tributaries, the Blanco, San Marcos, and Comal rivers, that same February day. I figured at least several thousand. Fewer than 10 miles south of my little play spot, a flock of sailboats breezed across Canyon Lake, the sole significant lake on the Guadalupe, while several hundred people walked the dam over the course of the afternoon.
Downstream, several hundred more men, women, and children were spread out along the banks, tying flies to their lines, scanning the surface and casting into the fast-moving, chilly waters for elusive trout. A little farther down, a handful of hard-headed kayakers played in the waves around Hueco Springs and Slumber Falls, the most reliable whitewater in Texas. Up and down its length, even in winter, the river is a boon to recreationists. Canoeists and kayakers were paddling it, scuba divers were plying its transparent depths at Canyon Lake, duck hunters were sitting expectantly in blinds on its delta and birdwatchers were searching its forests and marshes.
Once the waters warm in the spring, the thousands enjoying the Guadalupe and its tributaries swell into millions. Each day, thousands of people head to Schlitterbahn on the banks of the Comal in New Braunfels and pay more than $25 to play in America’s top-rated water park. On any hot day, some of the best river-swimming on earth is in the Guadalupe basin. The curious idyll of “toobing,” as it is referred to around New Braunfels, Gruene and San Marcos, where the pastime is most popular, attracts tens of thousands of aficionados on Easter, Memorial Day and Fourth of July weekends. The Tube Chute in Prince Solms Park in New Braunfels is a water flume that’s been a tourist attraction for many decades. All told, no other river in Texas is so heavily used for recreation. Plain and simple, the Guadalupe is fun.
A Hill Country Playground
I have driven the length of the Guadalupe River in stages, exploring its multiple delights, tracing its geography. The river insinuates itself into the rocky oak-and-cedar scrub landscape of western Kerr Country very subtly. There are no specific headwaters, no gushing artesian spring. Dry washes and gullies gradually collect enough moisture from small springs to hold water in pools that stretch longer and longer until a steady, shallow stream trickles over a hard limestone bed and then tumbles out of the craggy hills towards the sea, more than 200 miles away.
At Boneyard Draw, on Farm-to-Market 1340, a sheer 60-foot limestone bluff in the distance marks a bend in the drainage, the first hint of canyons to come. A wooden sign identifies a “parking bird-viewing area” on the perimeter of Stuever’s Ranch. Just below the crossing is the turnoff to the Kerr Wildlife Management Area, where the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has been testing cedar (Ashe juniper) eradication, brush-clearing and other water-saving land management strategies. In addition to being a center of whitetailed deer research, this WMA holds one of the great concentrations of wild turkeys in the state.
Less than a mile down the road, I detour down a county road, towards Cherry Springs Ranch, Guadalupe Bluffs Ranch, and the Price’s Joy Spring Ranch Bed & Breakfast. At a low-water crossing, I find the river, sparkling in the sun, the palest of greens with a slight tinge of blue, scooting over the hard rock bed.
A mile farther, the river is moving full-tilt and roaring to life, with a deeper blue tint, a ribbon of sustenance snaking along a narrow alley guarded by soaring cypress trees and flanked by high bluffs, some rising up 100 feet above the water surface. Turkey buzzards politely wait on a fence post while I pass before resuming clean-up duty on a mangled piece of road kill.
A slide leading directly into the water on the banks of Mo Ranch Camp marks the beginning of the “camp run,” consisting of Camp Waldemar and Camp Stewart on the North Fork, and Camp Mystic, Heart O’ the Hills Camp and Camp Arrowhead on the South Fork. Crider’s rodeo arena and dance patio is also on the south fork. There’s not too many places in this world where a couple can two-step under the summer stars to the sounds of western swing fiddles and the steady rush of the river.
The Guadalupe widens, narrows, and spills from limestone shelf to limestone shelf as it moves past patios, swings and ornate rockwork of dream ranches owned by CEOs, corporations and churches. In one field by the river, scale replicas of Stonehenge and two 13-foot-high Easter Island statues have been erected.
The North Fork and South Fork join just below the Hunt Store, a community gathering spot for vacationers, hunters, fishermen, swimmers and visitors for more than 80 years. Several generations of the wealthiest, most influential Texans have spent the summers of their youth on this part of the river, learning the basics of life and being exposed to a wilder, more untamed version of the natural world than exists near the cities they come from. Small wonder riverfront property here has been the most coveted real estate in the Hill Country for decades.
Anyone can glean a semblance of that experience by passing a night at an old-fashioned resort such as the Waltonia Lodges on the Guadalupe River, or jumping in and cooling off at Schumacher’s Crossing, the first significant swimming hole with easy public access on the river.
The bluffs fade farther into the background from the river as it flows between Hunt and Ingram. Ingram Dam creates large enough pools to support a bass boat or a one-man sailboat and offers younger river rats the pleasure of dam sliding.
Parks become more plentiful farther downstream: Louise Hays Park on the south bank through most of Kerrville and Kerrville-Schreiner Park east of town. In both parks, people are disc throwing, fishing and hanging out. The river gains stature but loses a little bit of its curb appeal as it flows past Kerrville, Center Point and Comfort, the bluffs considerably diminished, most of the cypress logged out long ago.
The magic returns just below Comfort and Interstate 10, as the Guadalupe narrows, snakes and curves through a verdant valley, parts of which have been cultivated by German farmers from the same families for more than 150 years. To stumble upon the hamlets of Welfare and Waring practically hiding under giant oak motts is like discovering a lost fairyland.
Though the entire 89-mile length of the Upper Guadalupe qualifies as a wilderness river experience — save for the dam in Ingram and all the low-water crossings — the 39-mile middle section between Seidensticker Crossing below Waring to the privately owned Bergheim Campgrounds at FM 3351 conveys the sensation of being somewhere Out There, with more heifers on the banks than humans, more fish in the water than folks.
Below Bergheim and Edge Falls, the 1,939-acre Guadalupe River State Park and the adjacent Honey Creek State Natural Area offer public access to four miles of unspoiled riverfront, more than any park on the Guadalupe and situated a mere 30 miles north of downtown San Antonio. The park attracts hikers and mountain bikers, as well as toobers, swimmers, and paddlers. Every Saturday at
9 a.m., Honey Creek opens its gates for a walking tour of the ecologically fragile environment, which encompasses several native species of plants and animals, including the endangered golden-cheeked warbler.
I keep looking for the right superlative to describe the upper Guadalupe’s blend of wilderness and playground, and one remark sticks in my mind. At Kerr WMA I stumbled upon Anthony Glorioso, a fresh-faced, curly-headed college student from Poughkeepsie, New York, who was working as a field assistant on a study of wild turkeys by radiotelemetry. Glorioso had never been to this part of the world before, he said.
Asked about his first impressions, he lit up.
“It’s like Africa!” he exclaimed.
The New Yorker got it. The Guadalupe is that special.
The most intense recreational use of the river is along the 40 miles of streambed from Highway 281 through Canyon Lake — one of the finest inland spots in Texas for sailing and windsurfing — and below Canyon Lake to Gruene and New Braunfels. In New Braunfels, the Comal — at three miles in length often called the country’s shortest river — joins the Guadalupe, providing additional flow from Comal Springs. The crowds come for the natural beauty, the dependable flow, and, in summer, relief from the heat. Even in the middle of August, the water temperature remains brisk, rarely climbing over 70 degrees.
The 8,200-acre Canyon Lake was created by the construction of an earthen dam in the mid-1960s. Through managed releases, the dam tempers the wild swings between drought and flood that define the typical stream flow of Texas waterways; the Guad has water when other rivers may not. Since the release is from the bottom of the dam, chilled water is the norm and a boon to the stocking of trout. And since Guadalupe River Trout Unlimited reached a settlement with the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, the flow is supplemented through the hottest, driest months of the year.
In July 2002, Canyon Dam was put to the test by weeklong storms that dumped close to 30 inches of rain into the watershed. The dam functioned precisely as its engineers intended. When the water level in the lake reached near the top of the dam, overflow went over the spillway for the first time ever. The torrent from the spillway carved a dramatic gorge out of the countryside, accomplishing several thousand years of erosion in a matter of days. The result — a dramatic red-dirt gorge pocked with springs, pools and pouroffs — is being studied by geologists. But sometime in the near future, parts of the gorge will likely become another recreational opportunity.
I’m disturbed to learn that recreational users have not been given a seat at the table in regional water planning, although permit amendments have been approved to draw more than twice as much out of Canyon Lake as has been historically allowed. While it is common knowledge that recreation is the major economic engine for Canyon Lake, the Lower Guadalupe, the village of Gruene, and the town of New Braunfels, no research has been done to calculate the total economic impact of having a bountiful, flowing Guadalupe.
Recreational opportunities do not stop at Interstate 35. Despite all the focus on the Upper Guadalupe, the river offers plenty of diversions and opportunities after exiting the Hill Country. Between New Braunfels and Seguin, the river widens into Lake McQueeney, a wider-than-normal part of the river. Still, it holds enough water to attract boaters, swimmers, and water-skiers, including the Ski Bees, the first water-ski gang I ever wanted to join.
Twenty miles north of Lake McQueeney is the starting point of the Texas Water Safari, which bills itself as the “World’s Toughest Boat Race.” Last summer I stood on the banks of San Marcos Springs, the second-largest spring in Texas and the headwaters of the San Marcos River, and watched a couple hundred crazies go through last-minute preparations before beginning the 260-mile test of physical and mental endurance. Staged every June since 1963, the race from San Marcos to Seadrift follows the San Marcos River to Gonzales, where it joins the Guadalupe, and down to the coast. While the Safari is technically a race, the challenge for most entrants is to finish the course in 100 hours, which earns racers a pin.
I heard racers’ tales of Hallucination Alley, a side effect of sleep deprivation that has been experienced by most of the contestants who’ve done the race. I met Julie Basham and Ann Best, two 40-year-olds attempting the race for the first time, and Julie’s dad, or his ashes in an urn, at least. “Before he died, he said he wanted to watch me finish,” Basham explained. She was going to spread his ashes at the finish, if they made it that far (they did). John Bugge introduced me to his 9-year-old granddaughter, Jessica, who became the youngest paddler to complete the race. Ian Adamson, a 38-year-old professional adventure racer and four-time Eco-Challenge champion from Sydney, Australia, put the safari in perspective: “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.” Talking to them made me want to do the race, too.
But there are more leisurely ways to enjoy the pleasures of the lower Guadalupe that don’t require a hundred hours of paddling. The “Guadalupe Loop” is a birding route sponsored by the towns of Victoria, Cuero and Gonzales that includes sites along the river. Situated between Luling and Gonzales, Palmetto State Park offers a birding trail that meanders through a lost swamp rife with palmetto palms. In winter, the park is home to large roosting flocks of caracaras. The Athey Nature Preserve and the adjacent Riverside Park in Victoria is one of the hotspots on the Loop, offering birds such as the river’s specialty, the green kingfisher.
Near the confluence of the Guadalupe and San Antonio Bay, the tidal marshes and riparian woodland of Guadalupe Delta below Victoria are a whole other world, where heat, moisture and fertile soil conspire to cook up a piquant stew of marine and terrestrial life. Birders flock here to spot anhinga, American bittern, glossy ibis, Ross’s goose, bald eagle, Virginia rail, Couch’s kingbird, golden-crowned kinglet, winter wren and late neotropicals.
The Guadalupe feeds them all.
Sustaining the Guad
Yes, the Guad is great, but for how much longer? In 2002, the nonprofit environmental group American Rivers designated the Guadalupe one of the top 10 most endangered rivers in the United States because of demands placed on it from growing Central Texas cities.
Perhaps more than any other Texas river, the Guadalupe faces a diminishment of its flow in the coming years. The thirsty city of San Antonio is looking to the Guadalupe for more water. One plan under close consideration and considerable discussion involves taking water from near the mouth of the Guadalupe at the town of Tivoli and piping it 120 miles back to San Antonio. The project is estimated to cost from $683 million to $785 million, or more, depending on design. The flow of the Guadalupe is also potentially affected by pumping in unregulated parts of rapidly growing Comal and Hays counties, which are part of the Guadalupe basin. This explosive development includes more than 20 golf courses built in the last 20 years, each consuming from 500,000 to 1 million gallons a day.
The Guad is beset by a combustible mix of historic laws, traditions and a rapidly growing number of users and uses for the river whose collective demand could soon outstrip the existing supply. The “rule of capture” is still the building block of Texas water law. Under it, groundwater belongs to the owner of the property above it, and plans are in place for excessively pumping underground reservoirs that provide the Guadalupe its sustenance. Surface water, such as the river and its tributaries, belongs to the people of the state, and is managed under the Prior Appropriation Doctrine which says, “First in time, first in right.” Surface water, too, is being coveted as a resource that can be moved and sold to the highest bidder.
The problem is that the real price of water, in terms of its effect on wildlife and recreation, have yet to be calculated. Thirty-five miles away from the mouth of the Guadalupe as the black-bellied whistling duck flies, I ran into Tom Stehn, the whooping crane coordinator of Aransas/Matagorda Island National Wildlife Refuge. Stehn had been a speaker at the eighth annual A Celebration of Whooping Cranes and Other Birds in Port Aransas, the town’s end-of-winter birding and ecotourism festival. When I found him, he had finished hearing Norman Johns, the water research scientist for the National Wildlife Federation, lecture about freshwater inflow, a major unresolved issue in Texas water planning.
Without fresh water from the Guadalupe, the health of shrimp, oysters, fish and other marine life in San Antonio Bay and other nearby bays will be at risk, Johns explained. His PowerPoint presentation layered current water usage and projected water usage in 2050 onto historic data from the great drought of the 1950s. The numbers suggest the likelihood that in the next drought of record, the population of blue crab, the main food source for whooping cranes, will crash, jeopardizing the most successful recovery of an endangered species in Texas.
Stehn joined the long line of witnesses telling me how remarkable the Guadalupe is. After all, what other river nourishes 198 whoopers during the winter so they can fly up to near the Arctic Circle for the summer? Without the Guadalupe, thousands of visitors wouldn’t be coming to the refuge to try to spot the tallest bird in North America.
The final stop on my tour of the Guadalupe River was at Austwell, a sleepy little community on the western bank of Hynes Bay, the northwestern thumb of San Antonio Bay, where the Guadalupe meets the sea.
“You carry it in. You carry it out,” reads the hand-painted sign by water’s edge. A single lighted dock juts out into the water. Two men lean on a rail, their fishing lines dipping down.
Wind is a constant, bending the sea oats and cattails northward and stirring up mud in the shallows to add a brown earth tone to the pallet of rich green slate and pale blue hues streaking the expansive bay. Ducks settle contently in salt marshes, shielded from the wind. A redbud blooms near a stack of crab traps, and a Texas lantana is showing all colors, the first clear signs of spring’s arrival. Austwell is quiet and silent and like some of the stretches of the Upper Guadalupe, refreshingly remote and disconnected.
I start to approach the two fishermen on the dock, but think better of it.
Maybe they’re in the same zone of solitude I was farther upstream that late February afternoon. If they’re not, maybe if they’re left alone long enough, they will get there. I walk away, leaving them be, shaking my head in amazement that the Guadalupe is the reason they are there. My river is a special river indeed.