2003 was a grand year for adventures. After getting into Thoreau and contemplating the possibility of going into decades deep debt, I took a break from school and left Boston, heading back down to Waco where I had started college. I lived with my friend Phillip, working for a short time in a restaurant, but mostly just hanging around with friends and enjoying college life without the homework. I even went to classes. Nathan took me to his history class, and I went with Justin to astronomy class, which was really neat.
Justin and I hung out a lot during that time, and one day he came up to me excited to tell of a great score. “This guy just gave me an old Johnboat. We should totally take it on a river trip somewhere!” We had been spending lots of time at the Baylor marina, using their canoes and sailboats, and marine adventures were calling to us.
The nice thing about my situation was that I had nothing to hold me back. I told Justin I was in and we started researching what river we should go down. We wanted a long stretch so we could spend three days paddling, camping on the banks at night.
Justin eventually discovered the Neches River, which is a swampy, muddy river in east Texas, which drains into the Gulf near Beaumont. The section Justin selected was north of Houston, south of Steinhagen Lake. We knew very little about this river, but we packed our gear and drove out there, borrowing two paddles from the marina.
Thus began our long standing tradition of taking epic river camping trips. Two years later we did the Brazos River in north central Texas, and then two years after that we did the Russian River in northern California. Each of these trips is its own story, and ever since the Russian River trip, Justin and I have talked about how we have to get out there paddle another river someday.
With me planning to be in Texas for close to a month in June, we knew that the time had finally come. Ten years had passed since the Russian River trip, so it was a good year to renew the tradition. For all the previous trips we took one car and hitch-hiked back to it, but this time we took two cars, leaving one at Highway 311 and taking the other as far upstream as we could go before the river level got too low for navigation. We were glad to be kayaking the upper Guadalupe at all; just a few years back the river was completely dry as far down as 311.
The water would be low, we were told, but it was navigable. We were traveling light, with only a little bit of food and some basic sleeping gear. Justin didn’t have a small tent, so he just brought a cot and a blanket. “But there’s gonna be some rain, isn’t there?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “Hopefully not at night. I’ll be all right.”
We loaded up our boats and launched them, thrilled to be on the water once again. It was a beautiful day, with scattered clouds that may have portended rain, but that also protected us from the otherwise brutal summer sun.
The Guadalupe River is so beautiful! Large cypress trees line the banks, reflecting off the green-blue water. Tall cliffs rise one bank or another here and there, and sudden drops in the course of the river make for some decent rapids. If the river was up another foot, they would have been really fun, decently challenging rapids. Even with the water low we had some really good runs, challenging in their own way because it was easy to get hung up on the rocks.
That first afternoon was actually a pretty exciting stretch of river. We would paddle on smooth, still waters for maybe five or ten minutes before we came to the next drop. We saw hardly anyone else. The few tubers we passed were not so sure that they were going to get to their take-out point in time. We were making good time. They were not.
We stopped and swam frequently, enjoying some deep, clean swimming holes. It’s incredible how undeveloped the land around the river is for so much of that stretch. It was so quiet and serene, and every turn brought us another spectacular view.
We passed Guadalupe State Park right before sundown, and we knew it was time to start scoping for a place to camp. We had no intention of getting an official campground, nor was there any to be had. We knew that the closer to Highway 281 that we got, the more we would be amongst houses and development, so it was crucial we find something sooner than later.
We stopped and considered a few places, eventually settling on a nice flat area on a bank over a large gravel bar. We beached our kayaks and walked about, figuring we could sleep on the bank but build our fire and have our food down on the gravel. Plenty of driftwood lay scattered about the bank, so we’d have no trouble getting a fire going.
Justin set up his cot and we used it to lay out all of our wet stuff. Neither of us had flipped, but everything was wet all the same. Whenever we went through the rapids, our gear strapped to the back was splashed and even submerged briefly from time to time. Thankfully it was warm and being a bit damp at night wouldn’t be so bad.
It was so peaceful sitting by the fire, alone on the river. We saw no one else all evening, and our explorations further onto the land revealed no sign or roads or human settlement. We were perched under some low cliffs, which I thought about climbing up, though I never did. Dark was to be upon us soon, and I had a tent to set up.
After we doused our fire and went up the bank, Justin started to question whether it was a good idea to have brought no rain gear. He didn’t even have a tarp. It started to sprinkle on us as we packed up our bags and got them secured under his cot, which was high off the ground.
I got into my tent, glad to be relatively dry, but immediately I felt the heat, trapped by my rain fly, which I closed all the way to keep out the rain. It was muggy for me, but it was worse for Justin. The rain was light at first, but it picked up over the next few hours. He never got out his blanket, because it was the last thing he had that was still dry, so he just lay there on his cot, rain hitting his face. At one point the rain really started to come down and he had to move his whole set up under a mostly fallen tree, which provided a small amount of shelter. Eventually it cooled down and I was able to sleep, but Justin didn’t get to sleep until after three a.m. when the rain finally let up.
I felt bad for him, but my tent is a one man that’s barely big enough for me. And it was already uncomfortably hot inside. But Justin is a trooper, and he was in good spirits the next morning. We ate some more food and loaded up our camp, wanting an early start on the day.
This year’s was to be a shorter trip, of necessity because the levels of the river. The Guadalupe is dammed to make Canyon Lake not far below where we were taking out, and it was too shallow upstream to put in, leaving us only about 22 miles of river to float. The best rapids on the Guadalupe are below the Canyon Lake dam, but this is also the most crowded and developed part of the river, so that wouldn’t do either.
We did the perfect stretch, we just got finished early. The second day was less exciting, as far as frequency of rapids. There were a few good ones, but the most fun rapids were all on the first day, and we had to paddle for longer stretches in between the action on day 2. We also started seeing more houses, many of them very fancy, perched up on the hills. It would have been much harder to find camping any further than we had gone, so everything was working out nicely.
Justin and I had lots of time to talk on the journey, and more than once we remarked on how fast time is going by. We are in our mid-thirties, with kids. It seems like not that long ago that we were twenty one, setting out on the Neches River, or moving out to Hawaii for a while to surf and hang out on the beach. Having kids definitely makes it harder to have these kinds of adventures. Sure, we can take the kids along on fun outdoor adventures, but this usually results in far more whining and much slower progress than when we go out alone. Sometimes you just gotta have some time with you bros.
When we finally pulled out of the water, we were glad to be done paddling. Even a short trip is tiring, and we paddled more the second day than the first. Justin had gotten very sleep, to boot. It was also a relief to see that my car was still there, parked along the side of the road overnight. The trip was a great success, and we talked about what river we could do next. So far three of our four trips have been in Texas, and I’m always advocating going further afield, to Arkansas or Missouri, but it’s harder for Justin to get away for so long, having a job with regular weekly hours.
We didn’t decide on our next voyage, but it’s clear to both of us that we’ll be going on such a trip again. The rivers are so replenishing, and anyone who lives close to a clean, navigable river has a wonderful resource available, just waiting for us to come out and enjoy. Get out and love your rivers folks!