(State #1/50) The Brazos is my Texas River. It doesn’t cut magnificent canyons like the Rio Grande or draw throngs of beer-soaked college kids like the Guadalupe. No, the Brazos runs wide and brown through the heart of Texas, attracting little outside attention, before dumping its muddy payload into the Gulf of Mexico. As a kid, it was the river we drove across, near our Grandparents’, to release our captured ‘problem’ armadillos. The Brazos was the first river I ever canoed… so it felt natural to make it the first river of my Canoe 50 Campaign.
My Dad and I launched my green 16-foot, Wenonah canoe, which I can’t help but call Rider, from a gravel bar below the Possum Kingdom dam. Though technically still winter, the sun blazed down from its mid-March perch in the noon sky, assaulting my white thighs. Verdant grass grew from the banks, elms sprouted electric green and butterflies and insects filled the air. Birds sang from every tree line. A Kingfisher swooped towards the water, missed a fish and chattered all the way back into the trees. The Brazos’s water, by George, was clear! From the bottom of the dam and through this country of limestone, it wasn’t the murky brown river I knew and I wasn’t about to complain.
That first mile was dotted with men, old and young, all bearded and tattooed, fishing from rigged-out kayaks. Most were friendly in the mildest sense, but some just eyed us with that familiar suspicion, which I interpret as “where the hell are your fishin’ poles, city boys?” We had to admit, with some embarrassment, we forgot about bringing gear. Although fishing wasn’t a priority this weekend — our trip was about breaking in the canoe without breaking it.
Within that first mile, we negotiated a few swift runs before the water widened out and slowed. If you didn’t paddle, you didn’t move. The Brazos, like many big rivers, has no interest in reaching the ocean without enjoying the scenery. Here, it takes a series of mile-long u-turn bends, winding through the Palo Pinto Mountains. Though generously named, the rocky ridgelines and mesas rise above the still river in fetching fashion. Combined with prickly pear cactus and Longhorn steers along the banks, the scene left no doubt that you were in Texas. It’s rare, even in Texas, to see ‘sense of place’ so prominently and naturally displayed. It’d be like going to NYC and running into Billy Crystal eating a bagel and wearing a Yankees cap while peeing on the floor of a subway… sandwich shop.
After a late lunch, Dad and I paddled against stiff gusts, which came head on no matter what direction we faced. We found the halfway point — a floating dock at mile 10 — at 4pm. A dozen locals were grilling and listening to country music under a long corrugated covering. All smiled, waved and shouted greetings, which mixed together into one unintelligible joyous noise. In that spirit, I grabbed two beers (Rahr Blonde) from the cooler. Lacking a champagne bottle, I knocked one against the gunwale of Rider, spilling a little suds down her green hull.
A few miles down we claimed a campsite on a raised bank on the right side; it was a gorgeous spot. The only downside was a white structure high on the cliff, silhouetted against the sky. It looked like a miniature 1980s home transplanted from the Hollywood Hills. Though jarring, we enjoyed concocting stories about its owner; a middle-aged man that wears robes while spying on the people below with his telescope. Every 3rd Saturday of the month, he hosts lavish, yet weird costume parties that typically descend into, well… weirder things. This, inherently, we knew. Giving the creepy guy something to look at, Dad and I cracked another beer, put on lifejackets and took an evening swim in the cool, salty Brazos.
With clear skies in the forecast, we elected to sleep out under the stars. As late evening approached a kayak club from OK City floated by, asking about camping down river. As a native Texan, my gut reaction was to put on a drawl, spit and say, “Hit’s gettin’ dark… Y’all best be movin’ along.” Then I’d take a prolonged swig of beer, allowing a good amount to dribble down my chin and sleeveless shirt, eyeing them all the while. Maybe it was the lovely evening, but we broke tradition and were friendly to our northern neighbors. “There’s plenty of room for another camp along this bank!” I said.
I lit the fire as night fell. Dry tinder was abundant amongst the green grass, so we had a roaring campfire by the time the first bright stars appeared. In a skillet, we fried up provolone mushrooms followed by hotdogs, which we wrapped in tortillas because someone (me) had forgotten the buns. Regardless, it was all delicious as most otherwise mundane meals are in the outdoors. I read aloud a few passages from Goodbye to a River, the 1960 John Graves book, which inspired our trip to this section of the Brazos. He talked about doubting the dark sky, the bite of the wind and the foreboding — even dangerous — looking rapids below. “But rivers tend to look that way when you start a trip…” Graves wrote. Luckily for us, the weather was perfect, but I knew what he meant. With any bold trip, mixed in with the joy and excitement, there is always a feeling of trepidation that can border on dread if you let it. I expect I’ll have those same feelings in the weeks to come, but not that first night on the Brazos.
The night grew chilly, but the embers did their job. We stared up at the constellations, listening to the fire pop and the Okies laugh from down the bank. Dad pointed out the North Star. “How do you find it again?” I asked. He gestured towards the Big Dipper. “Follow those two stars from the end of the dipper, they point right at it.” Sure enough, it worked. All my nights camping, time in Boy Scouts and stargazing from our country place and I just now learned this simple trick. How is that possible? Laying down on our tarp and sleeping bags, we looked for shooting stars before falling asleep. You don’t require any knowhow to see them, just a clear night away from the city lights.
We stirred throughout the chilly night. Dad woke up, at 4am, to the sound of chomping. As his eyes adjusted, the moonlight revealed a huge bull with twisted horns grazing 30-feet away. Dad sat up and the cow spooked. Fortunately, the bull tore off in the other direction rather than charging towards us and trampling me in my sleep, which could have very well ruined the weekend.
It was still dark when I awoke to the sound of wild turkeys gobbling. A little irritated, but mostly amused, I pulled a shirt over my head and fell back asleep. When I re-awoke a few hours later, it was a bright, dewy, glorious Texas morning. A chorus of songbirds, turkey noises and mooing cows filled the cool air. Dad’s sleeping bag was empty; he was off taking photos of birds and a beaver he spotted swimming upriver. We took our time breaking camp, enjoying the spring-like morning with all its singing, chattering and gobbling perks.
Back on the Brazos, we canoed past more cliffs, kayakers and ranch land. We paddled against strong wind once again, over shallow riffles and through the occasional fun, fast-water shoot. We wound through enormous bends, below mesas belted with dark cedar and light gray stripes where wildfires had roared from previous drought-ridden summers. We found another flock of turkeys foraging on an island. As we canoed close they took flight and flapped over us in effortful fashion. Half captivated and half worried about getting crapped on, I watched a 20-pound tom fly 100 feet across the river before, with something close to grace, crashing into the brush, recovering and strutting off with confidence.
We reached the pullout point in the early afternoon, below the towering bridge on FR 4. Rider’s newly painted green hull was covered in long scratches and both of her wicker seats were collapsed in the middle, but she carried my father and me 19.5 miles without sinking — a success! On the drive home, we had to re-strap the canoe to the top of my Mom’s SUV at a seedy gas station. We both stood, frustrated, holding ends of ropes in our hands, while hoping the other had a better idea what to do with them. When it comes to knot tying, among many things, I truly am my father’s son. Yet, the canoe made it back intact. Lack of rope skills and astronomy incompetence aside, 1 down, 49 to go.
Photos by Dean Straw (my camera was in the shop)
River Stats and Fun Facts:
John Graves Section of Brazos River, TX 3/18-3/19/17
- Weather: Sunny, some clouds and warm enough to swim
- Total Miles: 19.5
- Launch Point: Bridge at Hwy 16 downstream of the Possum Kingdom Dam (32.858257, -098.411379)
- Camped: Below Hollywood Hills House (32.831714, -098.354608)
- Pullout Point: Bridge at Farm Road 4 (32.863748, -098.3006)
- Outfitter used: Rochelle’s Canoe and Kayak Rental (940-659-3341) for paddles, PFD and shuttle
- Trash collected: Few beer cans, whole can of corn
- Wildlife Spotted:
- Mammals: Fox Squirrel, Field rats, Beaver, Longhorn (not wild, but worth noting)
- Birds: Wild Turkey, Osprey, Red Tail Hawk, Vultures (blackhead, turkey), Belted Kingfisher, Red bellied Woodpecker, Blue Heron, a multitude of songbirds.
- Reptile/Amphibians: Red Eared Slider, leopard frogs
- Ecoregion: Cross Timbers (29) (a forest grassland transition between the rolling plains and more forested regions of the East). This section of river is in the Western Cross Timbers (29C). Dominant trees: Post Oak, Blackjack Oak, Eastern Red Cedar (increases with fire suppression), Ash Juniper (can dominate with overgrazing)
- Past Human History: Comanche Indians, Pioneer settlers (“Washington Irvine, 1835, described it as “like struggling through forests of cast iron””), ranching, Coal mining. Clashes with pioneers and Comanche Indians in the mid 1800s. Poor soils, lots of impoverished settlers moved around a lot.
- Current Threats: Noncompliant stormwater activity has degraded water quality with erosion from bare areas from quarries, total suspended sediment (tss). “The John Graves Scenic Riverway and its associated pilot program were developed in an effort to address water quality related environmental impacts from rock, and sand and gravel mining (quarry) operations.” — TCEQ report, 2008.
- Suggested Reading: Goodbye to a River, by John Graves, 1960