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History on the Rocks

Destination - Lower Pecos River

By Charles J. Lohrmann

Ancient pictographs and other artifacts are the starting points for an exploration of the Lower Pecos region's rich past.

Travel time from:

  • Austin - 5.5 hours /
  • Brownsville - 8.5 hours /
  • Dallas - 8 hours /
  • El Paso - 7.25 hours /
  • Houston - 6.5 hours /
  • San Antonio - 3.5 hours
  • lubbock - 8 hours

In the borderlands west of Del Rio, the oak and juniper typical of the Edwards Plateau yield to the ocotillo and cenizo characteristic of the Chihuahuan Desert. It’s rough country that seems inhospitable, but as I drive through a particularly impressive cut in the colorful Boquillas limestone formation on Highway 90 west of Comstock, I can only see the land’s rugged early-morning beauty.

I’m scheduled to meet up with Val Verde County Game Warden J.C. Flores, an area native who has agreed to take me along in his flat-bottomed, jet-powered boat on a trip up the Rio Grande from the Pecos high bridge boat ramp up to Langtry.

At 8 a.m. on a Thursday, the boat landing on the Pecos is quiet, and we’re the first to launch. Flores’ uniform is crisp and official-looking, but his manner is completely friendly. It’s a surprisingly cool morning for the region, and there’s a steady breeze as Flores maneuvers the 18-foot craft out of the Pecos channel and onto the Rio Grande, where he points the craft upstream. This year’s rains have added more than 40 feet to Lake Amistad, and the reservoir is as full as it’s been for more than 20 years. Even so, the high-riding jet engine — which pulls water from the lake and shoots it out to propel the boat — is a necessity, because the river still hides obstacles, including the top branches of the now-flooded willows and saltcedar, that would make the trip impossible with a propeller-driven boat.

The skies are overcast, and the clouds muffle all sound: The majestic canyons of the Rio Grande are quiet, except for the calls of the red-winged blackbirds that cling precariously to thin willow branches and the occasional squawk from a great blue heron that takes flight as the boat approaches. Herons seem to be everywhere, nesting on the small ledges up and down the vertical cliffs that border the river. We see the birds standing silent sentinel at their perches 30 or 40 feet up the 200-foot cliffs, sometimes peeking out from behind shrubs that have taken root on the narrow ledges.

We remark on the occasional looming skeleton of a dead cottonwood, which has been choked by the aggressive saltcedar that is taking over the river bank, crowding out virtually all other vegetation on the river’s bank. The only plant that competes successfully with the invasive saltcedar is the equally unwelcome river cane.

A few miles upstream, Flores swings the boat over to the Mexican side so he can chat with a commercial fisherman working from a makeshift camp on that side of the river.

Flores explains that one of the most important effects of his regular patrols up the river is to prevent these commercial fishermen from setting their gill nets on the U.S. side. “They’ll catch everything in the river with those nets,” he points out. The conversation is casual, and we share the last few cans of Dublin Dr. Pepper (which is made with the original formula at the oldest Dr. Pepper bottling plant in the world, in the Erath County town of Dublin). Flores asks him about one of the older fishermen, one whom Flores had arrested on the U.S. side of the river a few years before. Turns out the old man no longer works on the river, but sells fish in the village of Sabinas.

The fisherman is the only person we see in the course of the morning’s trip, but Flores is quick to point out that crossings along this remote stretch of the Rio Grande are chosen by drug runners or by those entering the U.S. illegally. The M-16 secured to the console of the boat testifies to the ever-present potential for violence.

After an hour and a half of steady travel, we’re just shy of Langtry, and we agree to turn around because we want to save some time to explore part of the Pecos Canyon upstream from Lake Amistad. We’re traveling into the wind on the return trip, and are glad to have jackets to shield against the sporadic mist and stiff breeze. Before proceeding up the Pecos, we decide to take a look at the Parida Cave shelter, a significant rock painting and archeological site that overlooks Lake Amistad.

The National Park Service manages the access to Parida Cave. With the higher lake level, an NPS dock lets us tie our boat at the water’s edge and climb about 10 yards to view the painting-covered walls. Updated interpretive signage inside the limestone shelter explains that archeologists have found signs of human occupation that date back as far as 4,000 to 10,000 years ago, including pictographs (rock paintings), fire rings and burned rock, mats, sandals and spear points.

After an hour’s exploration of Parida Cave and a quick snack, we’re back on the water and heading up the Pecos Canyon. Soon we’ve made our way 5 miles past the Pecos River highway bridge to Dead Man’s Canyon, a side canyon that offers convoluted rock formations and stunning scenery. Along the way, we’ve been craning our necks to take in the red and gray abstract patterns visible on the cliffs of Devils River limestone that soar 300 feet above the river. It’s the first time I’ve seen the country from this angle because on my previous trips upriver, the water level was more than 30 feet lower. The Pecos Canyon is unexpectedly beautiful, and we know there are more shelters with painting-covered walls just above the level that allows for public access.

The next morning, I make the trip from Comstock to the rugged “campus” of Shumla School, a few miles west of the Pecos high bridge. The Shumla School utilizes a hands-on approach to teaching kids and adults about the culture, art and day-to-day lives of the region’s indigenous people. As I arrive, 20 or so middle school students are scrambling over the rocky landscape, notebooks in hand, as if on a quest. I wonder what they’re up to, and my question is answered a few minutes later by Richard Stark, headmaster of St. Stephen’s School in Wimberley.

The group is mostly “concrete kids,” he explains, and they’ve been camping for most of a week at the school and learning firsthand how to make cordage from native plants and knap stone tools, generally learning about the lifeways of the region’s indigenous people. Right now, the students are seeking a quiet spot to write in their journals. Stark shouts a few directives, urging the kids to stay quiet and write.

I leave Stark to supervise his students and make my way to the school’s main building, which consists of an open room with a fireplace on one wall and garage doors for the other three walls. Today, the doors are rolled up to invite the breezes. Staff member Kathleen Burgess excitedly pulls me over to one porch to show me three fledglings in a nest built by a pair of Say’s phoebe.

In the school’s kitchen adjacent to the chair-filled great room, I find Carolyn Boyd, executive director and cofounder of the school. She introduces me to archeologist Elton Prewitt, who is president of Shumla, and before long we’ve made a plan for the three of us to hike down to the Pecos River via the generations-old Hernandez Trail.

Prewitt knows the area as well as almost anyone and far better than most because he surveyed archeological sites along the Rio Grande and Pecos before Amistad Dam was built to create Lake Amistad almost 40 years ago. On the hike, Prewitt and Boyd explain that the school is located on property made available by Jack and Katherine Harrington, and the area has become a living museum as well as an outdoor classroom. After the hike and lunch in the always-popular Owl’s Nest in Comstock, Prewitt takes over as my guide for this late spring afternoon of local history, geology, rock art viewing and backcountry touring. His appreciation for the region is contagious.

On the third day of my visit, I’m planning to meet Carolyn Boyd at the Rock Art Foundation’s Galloway Preserve, just across Highway 90 from Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site (9 miles west of Comstock). We’ll spend a couple of hours hiking to the White Shaman shelter and back. Boyd is the author of Rock Art of the Lower Pecos, a book recognized for its new insights into the area’s internationally acclaimed rock paintings.

But before I meet up with Boyd, I want to take a quick dip in Del Rio’s San Felipe Springs. My lodging is a few miles east of Comstock, so my plan for a swim means nearly an hour of driving into Del Rio and back, but I think it’s worth it. San Felipe Springs is near the intersection of busy highways 90 and 277, and it’s where the Texas Camel Corps once camped. The springs themselves are the fourth largest in Texas and provided the water for Del Rio’s early canal system.

When I arrive at the Galloway Preserve, Boyd is waiting to guide me on the short hike to the White Shaman shelter and share her perspective on the drawings there. After the tour of White Shaman, I still have time for a tour of the Fate Bell shelter in Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site. I had hoped my three days would stretch enough to allow me time for fishing in Lake Amistad. The higher water attracts a steady stream of anglers, and each morning I see the trailered boats lined up at the convenience stores. The fishermen I meet are enthusiastic about the success they’ve been having in the lake, with five- to seven-pound (and the occasional 10-pound) bass not uncommon. But the fishing will have to wait for another trip. Maybe I’ll be able to rent a house boat and take my kayak along.

Details

Check with the Rock Art Foundation for details about the Galloway White Shaman Preserve tour: Sat. 12:30 p.m.; (888) 762-5278; <www.rockart.org> e-mail: admin@rockart .org; Shumla School: (432) 292-4848; e-mail: kburgess@shumla.org; <www.shumla.org>; Seminole Canyon State Park, Fate Bell Tour: For the months of June – Aug. Tours take place Wed. – Sun. at 10 a.m.; For Sept. – May the tours take place at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. (432) 292-4464; <www.state.tx.us/spdest/findadest/parks/seminole_canyon>.

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