It’d been a long time since we’d been on the river and we were anxious to get back there. At first it was the selling of our old house that kept us away, and then it was moving into the House from Hell. By the time we finally got the chance to go, it’d been raining pretty regularly and it seemed like it’d never stop.
The days of rain turned into weeks and months of rain, and then we started hearing of places like Wimberley and Horseshoe Bend, which didn’t exactly make us want to go out and run the river. But we were anxious to get back to Whitney and check out the flooded reservoir and witness what would likely be historic releases from the dam. Perhaps, I thought, we could safely paddle the lake, and at least check out the river.
And so it was that when a window of opportunity opened for us to get down there, we jumped at it with the plan being for Dan and Melissa to meet us down at the fish camp, which we’d use as a jump off point to Whitney and then possibly the river.
When the day came, it shouldn’t have surprised me that we had to drive through a thick squall to get down to the fish camp. With the rain pounding on the windshield, I couldn’t help wondering about the Brazos River. I knew the amount of water being released from Whitney was approaching historic rates, but I wasn’t sure what that meant from a paddling perspective. Was it safe? Probably not. Was it even navigable? We could always paddle the rain swollen lake, which I wasn’t too worried about, as long as we could find a put in. And that would have been fine, except that my mind kept going back to the river. It might not be that bad, I told myself. After all, we knew that stretch of river pretty well.
But the river that we knew normally flowed at 300 cfs; the dam at Lake Whitney was releasing at 7,500 cfs and we sure as hell didn’t know THAT river. And as if to seal my fate, I looked over casually at my wife and mentioned something about getting on the river, and she was quick to shoot me down. With all the recent deaths from the floods, she asked, how could I even consider getting on the river? Had I forgotten about the Pecos, she added.
I changed the subject quickly, and kept driving.
The rain was now coming down in sheets, so thick I had to slow down to stay in my lane and avoid the puddles, but even then I didn’t see the silver pickup truck until after it passed us going in the opposite direction. Something familiar about the truck caught my attention as it passed and I barely had enough time to look in my rear view mirror and see a kayak sitting atop the truck as it disappeared behind a curtain of rain. It was Shane. I was surprised to see him down there mainly because of the rain; and I didn’t think he’d be guiding with so much water being discharged from the dam. Maybe I was wrong, I thought to myself, and I made a mental note to call him later.
We arrived at the fish camp late and were unpacking when I got another USGS streamflow update from the Aquila gage; the river was now flowing at 8,000 cfs, which made the decision not to paddle the river even easier than I thought. My mention of the river on the drive down had put my wife on edge, as if she knew it was still on my mind (woman’s intuition, I suppose) , and she kept dropping hints about the dangers of a flooded river. I was mindful that our close call on the Pecos had given her a pretty good scare and I didn’t want to stoke those memories. I decided to rest up for the night and hit the lake in the morning. The river would have to wait.
* * * * * * * * *
As a result of five years of drought, Lake Whitney had been 20 feet below pool as recently as February of this year. The water had receded so badly that the narrow band of Corps of Engineer land surrounding the lake wasn’t so narrow any more. In fact, Dan had spent many hours hunting the corps land over the last two years and he’d gotten to know it pretty well, especially around Cedron Creek near the FM 1713 bridge.
As we crossed that bridge on our way to the fish camp the day before, we’d been shocked to see that the majority of the corps land was now under water. A sprawling pasture that had been near the lake was now a lake itself and the large oak trees surrounding it were underwater with only the tops of the taller trees protruding from the surface. To the left of the bridge was Cedron Creek State Park, or more accurately what was left of it. A good portion of the park was also under water, and as we drove past, it occurred to me that the park might be a good place to put in as it’d be closer to the corps land that Dan had hunted and which we wanted to explore.
It turns out that was a good decision; the next day when Dan, Melissa and I went to paddle the lake, we learned that McGowan Valley was closed because of the flooding. In fact, the park attendant at Cedron Creek told us all the boat ramps on Lake Whitney were closed. That’s not generally a problem for kayakers, but we still needed access to the lake and so we ended up paying $16 for a camp site, which was the only way we could get into the park and access the lake.
Since the park’s boat ramp was now underwater, we followed one of its gravel roads to the edge of the lake where it disappeared underwater. We pulled up near the water’s edge to unload the kayaks and quickly noticed there were fire ants everywhere, obviously displaced by the water. We also kept an eye out for snakes as we prepared our gear. Although our primary plan was to explore the flooded areas, we also wanted to do some fishing.
Once on the lake we were amazed at what we saw. The submerged road had led to a parking lot that was now under water; the wooden posts that marked its western boundary were protruding in a row from the surface of the lake. We paddled past the tops of mature oaks, mesquite and cedar trees and saw a water snake exploring the area. We pitched some Senkos and plastic lizards into the submerged trees but had no takers and so we continued on towards 1713 bridge which we’d have to paddle under to reach the corps land.
We saw several floating balls of fire ants which were odd looking, although I couldn’t quite figure out why until Dan mentioned that it was hard to focus on the fire ant balls due to the constantly moving surface of live ants. At one point, Dan must have bumped in to one the fire ant balls because suddenly his kayak was crawling with them.
I continued on ahead of Dan and Melissa towards the corps land, fishing the rocks on our side of the bridge when I heard Dan call out to me. I looked back and saw that Melissa had turtled her kayak. As I paddled back quickly, I could see she was in the water and that her auto-inflating PFD had been actuated when she hit the water. She was hanging onto the handle of her overturned kayak and trying her best to flip it back over. We were in deep water and so she’d have to do a deep water re-entry and I didn’t know if she’d ever practiced that. I hope she had.
When I finally got to Melissa, Dan was trying to help her flip the kayak back over but was in a bad position to do that and the last thing we needed was for Dan to turtle his ‘yak. I paddled over to the opposite side from Melissa and was trying to position my kayak where I could help her, when Dan told me that her hatch was open.
Unlike sit-inside kayaks, sit-on-top kayaks like ours are virtually unsinkable, unless you happen to turtle it with an open hatch which is exactly the situation we now had. Melissa reached up and over her overturned kayak and grabbed the opposite gunwale in an attempt to flip it back over and that’s when I saw the small hatch in her cockpit was in fact open. She couldn’t get the wide kayak to turn back over, though, and back into the water she went. I finally maneuvered my ‘yak alongside hers and she again pulled herself up and across the overturned kayak and grabbed onto the opposite gunwale, but this time I was in a better position and able to assist her roll the kayak back over.
It didn’t appear any water had entered her hull and so at this point, we could breathe a little easier, joking with Melissa and taking some pictures of her unfortunate position in the water. She said she’d reached behind her to grab a bottle of water from a backpack in the kayak’s aft tank well and in the process had apparently extended her center of gravity beyond the ‘yak’s tipping point…and in she went. It was a rookie mistake, but she was, after all, still a rookie; the important thing was that she was safe and her kayak didn’t fill with water.
It turns out she’d never practiced a deep water re-entry and so we explained the process to her and watched her try, unsuccessfully. We then had her remove the inflated PFD which was constricting her upper body, and after doing so she was easily able to pull herself out of the water and onto the now righted kayak. Dan had retrieved most of her things from the water by now with the only casualty being a rod and reel of mine she’d been using which was now under fifty feet of water. It was a small price to pay though for some valuable experience for our now soggy paddling partner.
After a few more laughs, we continued on, under the bridge and around the point to the corps land that Dan had regularly hunted the previous two winters. As we rounded the point we were amazed at the wide expanse of water we saw in front of us. It was like a new lake had been born where weeks ago there were acres and acres of deer filled wilderness and sprawling pasture land. We paddled deeply into the corps land, past more submerged oaks while Dan tried to reconcile our whereabouts with his hunting trips. We checked the depth often by submerging our paddles as deep as they would go and we didn’t hit bottom meaning the water was at least six feet high.
We continued fishing but didn’t get much more than a few hits, so we just explored the flooded wilderness. At one point something caught my eye in the middle of what had been one of the pastures, about a hundred yards away. I couldn’t figure out what it was so I paddled closer and saw it was a huge tree stump, but something didn’t look right. The stump was the size of a car and it had several roots protruding from its base, but the weird thing was that it was floating.
I wasn’t sure if somehow this stump had already been out of the ground before the lake rose or if it’d been ripped free, roots and all, by flooding in one of the feeder creeks. Wherever it came from, it was now a serious hazard for power boats. I briefly considered tying onto the stump and towing it over into one of the many oak tree groves now under water, but after trying to move it, I could tell it was too heavy to tow. As I paddled away, I was hoping it wouldn’t be hit by a power boat once the boat ramps opened back up.
We didn’t have much luck fishing and headed back, past the tree tops to the flooded park. The whole way there, only one thing filled my mind: floating the river.
* * * * * * * * *
As soon as we were off the lake, we checked the release rates, and the BRA was now discharging 8,500 cfs into the Brazos below Whitney…not what we wanted to see. Dan and I still wanted to float the river but we weren’t sure it’d be safe. If we did go, we’d not be taking Melissa.
I’d called Shane the night before, and told him we’d seen him on our drive down. He said he’d been in the area visiting friends and not guiding. In fact, he’d said, he was going to stay in the area over the weekend. So as soon as we were off the lake, I texted him and asked if he thought it’d be safe to float the Brazos below Whitney. I was surprised when he texted back saying it’d be a “piece of cake.” That settled it. We were going. I then asked if he wanted to come along and to my surprise, he quickly responded, “Sure.”
We agreed to meet at the dam a few hours later so we headed back to the fish camp to eat some lunch and prepare our gear. At 8,500 cfs, we didn’t think it would take more than a couple of hours to cover the eight miles between the dam and the bridge at FM 2114. Not knowing what to expect, we decided to only take a few essentials and no fishing gear. I traded my auto-inflating PFD for a jacket style one and besides a few bottles of water and some rope, I didn’t carry much more.
We met Shane below the dam and were amazed at the amount of water being discharged into the river. I was also surprised to see Shane show up with a rod and reel. While it made me feel more at ease about the difficulty level of the paddle, it also made me wish I’d brought fishing gear. Unfortunately, Shane said, the water was coming from the lower gates, or mud gates as he called them. This meant the water being released was cold, silty and oxygen depleted. In other words bad for fishing. Still, Shane Davies doesn’t go anywhere without fishing gear.
We snapped a few pictures below the dam and then launched. I was surprised to find the flow, although much faster than normal, wasn’t as difficult to maneuver the kayak in as I’d thought it’d be. Now I really wished I’d brought some fishing gear.
We were floating downriver leisurely, with Shane fishing a few spots along the way while I took some pictures and video. At one point, Shane reached into his cooler and pulled out some beers, offering us one. Dan and I had visions of a raging river that would require all our skills to negotiate, in other words the worst case scenario, and so we didn’t bring beer. Dan and I chuckled and then gladly took a cold one from Shane.
Not only was this not going to be as difficult as I thought it’d be, it was actually going to be pleasant. Shane said that many people used the term “float” to describe paddling this stretch of the river, but that today we’d truly be floating the Brazos. We really only needed to paddle to change or keep a certain line and to avoid the trees which could act as sweepers.
We got to the first bend in the river at Coon Creek, an area where we thought things might get sporty, and although there was a rush of muddy water shooting from the creek, otherwise it was pretty uneventful, and we floated past the swollen creek with little fanfare.
Despite being familiar with this stretch of river, it was now about eight feet higher than normal and I was amazed at how different the river looked, more like a river in Arkansas or Missouri than a river in Texas. Although most of the landmarks we were accustomed to seeing were now underwater, we still had a general idea of where we were and a few hours after putting in, we arrived at our take out, which again was much easier than I had envisioned.
No fish were caught that day, but it was a relaxing time on the river; we were able to catch up on things with Shane and drink a few cold ones while enjoying the newfound beauty of the swollen Brazos.
Postscript: Paddlers should always exercise an abundance of caution when paddling a flooded river. We would likely not have attempted paddling the Brazos without Shane, even though we are experienced paddlers. There are too many variables in play that could have made this trickier than it was. I don’t recommend anyone try this without an experienced guide.
This trip occurred three weeks ago, and as mentioned above, the BRA was releasing 8,500 cfs during our time on the river. In a testament to sheer size of the Brazos watershed, despite the fact that north Texas hasn’t received any meaningful rainfall in three weeks, the BRA is still releasing massive amounts of water into the Brazos, 21,000 cfs as of this posting, and the lake is still 19 feet above pool.
Lone Star Chronicles – Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Fish