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Paddling through Turkey Country

From low gobbles to blood-curdling screams, the sounds of nature surround you at South Llano River State Park.

By Carol Flake Chapman

As a paddler still in the learning stages, I approach rivers something like dance partners, gingerly trying to anticipate their rhythms and quirks. Some have tango temperaments, ready to dip or dunk you, while others can spin you around in a jitterbug frenzy. The South Llano, though, seemed the most relaxed and reassuring of partners, as we put in our kayaks about 10 miles upstream from South Llano River State Park. Its serene turquoise waters are fed from hundreds of springs along this central portion of the Edwards Plateau, and its flow stays fairly constant even during hot, dry summers. On this warm, bright day, the South Llano looked cool and inviting, and I could hardly wait to test the waters. This was going to be a long, slow glide, I thought, with some occasional quicksteps to keep us on our toes. What’s more, stands of tall pecans and sycamores on the riverbanks promised some welcome shade along part of the way. Because of the peculiar tilt of this part of the plateau, we were actually heading northeast, toward the town of Junction, where the North and South Llano rivers meet to form the Llano, which winds its way eastward. Despite its arid mesas and rocky uplifts, Kimble County is known as the Land of the Living Waters. With so many springs, creeks, washes and rivulets contributing to its major rivers, Kimble boasts more miles of moving water than any other county in Texas. And yet, though we were still technically in the Hill Country, there is a rugged, untamed feel to this countryside that makes you feel as though you’re actually in West Texas, where water can seem as precious as gold. In the old days, the abundance of cool, fresh water, tall trees and knee-high grasses here in Kimble County made good hunting grounds for Comanches and hideouts for outlaws and desperadoes. And now they make the perfect getaway for folks like us, looking for peace and quiet and some unscheduled encounters with wildlife.

Even though I was lulled by the soothing murmur of South Llano’s gentle current, I still found myself jumping a little when I heard rustling in the bushes along the bank. I began listening hard, not only to anticipate the river’s modest rock-garden rapids that required a little more attention from my paddle, but also to try to figure out what might be hidden away in the brush. When you’re exploring a new place in the wild by water, I’ve learned, you tend to hear a lot more things than you can see, and your imagination can get carried away.

There were plenty of great blue herons that revealed themselves, first by an annoyed call and then by a great flapping of wings. There was the constant plop and splash of turtles as they slid into the water. There was even a loud snort announcing the presence of a javelina, which quickly trotted away before I could get a good look. But I was really hoping to spot some of the wild turkeys that favor the South Llano bottomlands. Hundreds of Rio Grande turkeys start converging on the area around South Llano State Park and the adjacent Walter Buck State Wildlife Management Area in early fall, and areas of the park and WMA are closed off to visitors from October through March in order to keep from disturbing their roosting grounds.

Long before I saw or heard a turkey, though, I heard a blood-curdling noise from somewhere on the bank above us. It sounded almost human, though I had never heard anything quite like it. Later, when I tried to reproduce the unearthly shriek for the benefit of a volunteer at South Llano State Park, he shook his head knowingly. “That would have been an axis deer,” he said, referring to the large spotted Asian deer that inhabit game ranches in the Hill Country and have wandered into the environs of the park and WMA. “They sound like someone is being murdered,” he said.

Around another bend, we heard another kind of shriek, this one coming from a high branch drooping from a tree high above. As we got closer, I peered up through my binoculars to get my first-ever glimpse of a Cooper’s hawk. And when my eyes got adjusted to the shade beneath the tree, I could see several turkeys retreating from the bank, their heads and necks looking surprisingly bright blue, almost jewel-like, as the shafts of sunlight glinted on them. I could hear their distinctive soft clucks, and then they seemed to simply melt away into the brush as though they were being erased from the picture by a divine hand. Now you see them, now you don’t. Clearly, turkeys, like outlaws and desperadoes, know a thing or two about discreetly disappearing.

Unless you get lucky, encounters with wildlife tend to be “quick and chancy,” as poet Gary Snyder put it, sometimes not much more than hearing “a call, a cough in the dark,” or sensing a shadow in the shrubs. “You can go about learning the names of things and doing inventories of trees, bushes and flowers,” wrote Snyder. “But nature often just flits by and is not easily seen in a hard, clear light.”

After about five hours of paddling, broken up by a couple of refreshing dips in deeper stretches of the river and a leisurely snack on a small island in the middle of the river, we reached the edge of South Llano River State Park. We debarked in front of a small dam, where swimmers from the park were putting in their tubes for a leisurely spin down a segment of the 2-mile stretch of river that winds through the park. The timing of our excursion was just about perfect for a lightly seasoned paddler, and I found myself wishing I had chosen the South Llano as my introduction to whitewater, instead of the roaring torrents of upper Barton Creek, swollen earlier in the summer by unusual amounts of rain, which had left me totally exhausted. The South Llano is an ideal river for learners and daydreamers and folks who aren’t in a big hurry. After my immersion in the South Llano, I still had plenty of energy left to explore the park.

The timing was good, too, for spotting more turkeys. They were strutting by the dozens under towering pecan trees and through the tall grasses and patches of prickly pear in the fields lying between the river, a small oxbow lake and the park campground. As I tried to zero in with my binoculars on a group of turkeys, I would find that there were white-tailed deer there, too, hidden in the background, which would announce their presence with indignant snorts. Compared to the axis deer, with their deafening early warning signals, the white-tailed deer were remarkably subtle, I thought.

Other animals presented themselves through sound, too, and I looked up to figure out what sort of woodpecker was tapping on a tall pecan. As far as I could tell, referring to a checklist of birds at South Llano River State Park, it appeared to be a ladder-backed woodpecker, a bird that I see every now and then in my neighborhood west of Austin. But then I spotted another woodpecker, one I hadn’t seen before, and which I finally identified, with the help of Park Superintendent Wayne Haley, as a golden-fronted woodpecker.

Despite its relatively small size, South Llano River State Park is a great place for wildlife encounters. Though the park itself is just over 500 acres, the adjacent Walter Buck State Wildlife Management Area encompasses another 2,000 or so acres, and many of the WMA trails are generally available to park visitors from April through September. Birders had begun to station themselves at the three enclosed birdwatching blinds located around the park, though the best times for serious birders come in October and April, when more than a hundred species of migrating birds pass through the area. Large flocks of sandhill cranes swoop over the park in the fall, and an assortment of ducks, from buffleheads to ruddy ducks, make seasonal appearances.

There are plenty of birds that prefer to stay a while, though, at South Llano, just like some of the campers who make themselves at home. I enjoyed watching the antics of dozens of pyrrhuloxia, which I thought at first were cardinals that must have been dipped in paint remover. During a sudden heavy downpour, as the rain pounded on the tin roof of the blind, the mottled red and grey birds flitted up to the branches of a nearby cedar and availed themselves of heaven’s fountain to wash and preen.

At the campground, enjoying the newly freshened air after the rain, were Wanda and Durward Rutland of San Angelo, who had settled in for a couple of months as park hosts, just as they have nearly every year for the past 11 years. I sat on a bench they had placed in front of their RV and chatted with them, feeling as though things hadn’t changed so much since settlers first arrived in this area in their covered wagons, circling them around the fire for comfort and safety. This area, I was told by local historian Frederica Wyatt, is known as the “Front Porch of the West” — a title that suggests both the coziness and wildness that visitors discover here. It also suggests the possibilities of yarn-spinning around the campfire, and I found myself wishing I had a taller tale to tell of my experiences earlier that day. I thought enviously of a photo I had seen at park headquarters of an enormous catfish that had been caught in the South Llano. As we talked, deer were grazing not far from the circle of light, and Durward described the comings and goings of skunks that like to wander through the area but that so far had not scented up the place. One of the animals had even stopped briefly beneath the bench I was sitting on, said Durward, who had been reposing there at the time.

The Rutlands particularly enjoy watching the turkeys, they said, which put on quite a show during mating season in the spring. Once, they had even seen what appeared to be a gang fight between two groups of turkeys that had stationed themselves in fields across the park road from each other. “They were hollering at each other like they had chosen sides,” said Durward. After some loud gobbling, the two groups charged each other and met somewhere in the middle of the road, resulting in some confused scuffling. “They raised a lot of dust,” he said.

I imagined that Walter S. Buck Jr. would have enjoyed that scene. Buck, who donated the land for the park and WMA, first came to the South Llano as a child in 1910 with his family aboard a horse-pulled hack. By then, says Wyatt, Kimble County had calmed down a bit from the days of Comanche raids and outlaws. Buck, who inherited the land from his father, was particularly proud of the pecan trees and wild turkeys that thrived on the range and bottomlands on his ranch, and he wanted to make sure the turkeys would always have a safe place to roost. “He was a conservationist,” said Wyatt. “He wanted the people of Texas to have a connection to the land and the wildlife, like he did.” Buck, who never married, was known to tell folks that the land was his “one great love.”

The next morning, as I walked beneath the tall pecans on my way to the river, the mist was rising from the small oxbow lake, where a couple of young raccoons had come down to drink and poke around for breakfast. Out in the fields, I could see groups of turkeys busy foraging, their heads poking up and down curiously like snakes when they heard an intrusive noise. Down by the river, a great blue heron soared across to the other bank. It’s little wonder, I thought, that turkeys keep coming home here to roost and that people, too, keep returning here to watch them.

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