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Lazy River with a Twist

Tight channels and 90-degree turns keep kayakers on their toes while navigating the otherwise mellow Medina.

By Rob McCorkle

The mercurial Medina pulses through the heart of the Edwards Plateau like a torpid turquoise serpent, most of the time more a lazy creek than what most Texans would consider a true river. Harmless unless provoked, the two forks of the upper reaches of the 116-mile waterway converge near the tiny hamlet that bears the same name, in Bandera County. Just below town lies prime paddling territory.

For centuries, the cypress-lined banks and spring-fed waters have lured Native Americans, Spanish explorers, pioneers and ranchers to the Medina River Valley. Eventually, all who are drawn to this natural gem witness the awesome power of this slumbering giant that becomes engorged with the runoff from surrounding hills, sweeping away lives and property. But at normal flow, the Medina rewards paddlers with a relaxing, mesmerizing and often transcendent experience.

Popular since the 1970s, mainly with canoeists, the river has begun recently attracting a growing number of kayakers addicted to what is a still a relatively new recreational pursuit in Texas. The narrow, twisting, flood-impacted Medina River of today, however, proves much better suited to the smaller, lighter, more maneuverable and durable kayak than to the larger, heavier canoe.

But whether traversed by canoe, kayak or tube, the cypress-shaded, crystalline waters of the Medina dazzle with their beauty and can soothe even the most harried soul. Floating on translucent waters, shaded by towering bald cypress trees and serenaded by riffles and birdsong, one becomes quickly hooked on this Hill Country jewel.

I first splashed in the Medina several summers ago while tubing (or, as the locals spell it, toobing) during a summer vacation. Several Bandera outfitters are happy to rent you tubes or kayaks at reasonable daily rates. Shuttle services also can be arranged. Spring and fall typically offer the best water conditions, though summer tends to be busiest, as vacationers from Austin, San Antonio and Houston head for the cool, clear waters.

Not long after my first tubing trek, I was introduced to kayaking (I used to canoe years ago). I wondered how the mellow Medina would fare as a kayaking river. When I discovered during a subsequent visit to Bandera, the "Cowboy Capital of the World," that river-running legend Ben Nolen lived in the county, I knew I had to find out.

I tracked down the legendary co-author of Rivers and Rapids: Canoeing, Rafting and Fishing Guide; Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma — a pioneering paddling guidebook to Texas' rivers that Nolen and Bob Narramore published in 1973 — at his real estate office in Bandera Village, recently rebuilt after a devastating 2002 Medina flood that inundated parts of Bandera County. The 67-year-old dean of Texas paddling agreed to take me, photographer and fellow kayaking novice Earl Nottingham, and a small group of more experienced local kayakers on a short sojourn on what he calls the "upper part" of the river.

The Medina, named in 1689 for Spanish navigator Pedro Medina, originates from springs on private property in the northwest corner of Bandera County. Its waters flow to Lake Medina below Bandera and on to the San Antonio River. But knowledgeable river runners such as Nolen consider the picturesque 19.5-mile stretch from just below Medina to Bandera's city park the primo part of the river for water recreation.

"It's a beautiful stream, especially the upper part," says Nolen, who's been paddling Texas rivers for 40 years. "The flood of '78 took out most of the trees on the lower part below Bandera. "Between Medina and Bandera, the river's canopied a lot of the way. It's clear and the fishing's good."

For less accomplished paddlers, the Medina River appeals because it is shallow, with the exception of occasional "blue holes," it can be kayaked in shorter sections and is relatively docile except when water levels are high. Let me not suggest, however, that paddling the Medina River is a stroll in the park that offers no challenges.

Even at a relatively low flow rate in the 100 to 200 cubic feet per second range, the Medina-to-Bandera run can keep even more accomplished kayakers on their toes. Don't expect any Class II or Class III rapids, but be ready to execute quick, almost 90-degree turns and to "thread the needle" through tight channels. Although volunteers from organizations such as the Bandera Regional Community Foundation hit the river each May to remove dislodged flood debris, fallen logs and other flotsam, hazards still exist. A waterfall, low water bridges and several dams along the upper portion of the river can either be run, or must be portaged around, depending on river conditions.

Before our maiden voyage on the Medina in June 2004 — a 4-mile journey from a bridge three miles below Medina to takeout at the Camp Bandina crossing — veteran kayakers Linda Lera of Kerrville and Bandera realtor Gay Guillot shared a few pointers.

"Don't overcompensate going into rapids," they advise. "Watch the current and read the river to see if the water is going to be pushing you into the bank or rippling away from the bank. Watch for fast-flowing water with calm on one side because it will tend to push you back in a circle. And be sure to use your paddle as a rudder to turn left or right."

Earl and I are paddling Ocean Kayaks provided by Johnny Boyle, who operates Bandera Kayak and Canoe out of his True Value store on Main Street in Bandera. My kayak is a canary yellow, sit-on-top Frenzy model that proves quite stable. Others like Ben and Linda sport sleeker, faster watercraft. While the rest of us use the standard single oar with a plastic blade on each end, Ben wields a single, wooden paddle that he whips smoothly from one side of the kayak to the other, using it as both a rudder and accelerator to steer clear of overhanging branches, rocks and protruding cypress roots.

With more than 20 inches of rain having fallen in the Medina River valley in the spring, we encounter a flow Ben surmised is between 200 to 300 CFS, down from 600 CFS only a couple of weeks earlier. Having only been in a kayak twice before, I'm fine with the lower flow.

Not long after we slip into the aquamarine waters, a Cooper's hawk soars overhead. Buzzards, cliff swallows and other birds keep us company along the way. A good-sized bass and numerous perch form an underwater armada. Fishing from kayaks continues to grow in popularity and Ben notes that the Medina produces some good-sized bass and catfish.

The weather and our trip prove close to idyllic. I manage to negotiate a number of fast-flowing chutes, S-turns and low-hanging branches without a spill. I take to heart Linda's earlier admonishment: "You may feel exhilarated after you made it through a waterfall or rapids and relax, and there'll be a rock right in front of you when you sail through that will tip you right over." Sure enough, one kayaker falls prey to a partially submerged rock, tipping over and going for an impromptu swim. On a sunny, warm day, I'm almost envious.

Stopping for the photographer at various scenic spots turns the normal two- to three-hour trip into almost six hours. We're out of the river at 6 p.m. and head just up the Tarpley highway to spend the night at Cool Water Acres on Indian Creek, one of many bed and breakfasts, country lodges and overnight accommodations found throughout the county.

During breakfast talk the next day with Ben at the venerable O.S.T. Restaurant, our river guide talks about the different stretches of the Medina River, which has a North Prong and a West Prong. Some of the North Prong above Medina, he explains, can be paddled, but convenient, public put-in and takeout spots are scarce. As is the case with other parts of Texas, most of the land fronting the Medina River is privately owned and trespassing is frowned upon. (For an explanation of public river access laws, please visit the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Web site: <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/landwater/water/habitats/rivers/>.)

Ben points out that the lower part of the Bandera County portion of the river — a 12-mile float from below Bandera to the English Crossing just above Lake Medina — can be paddled as well, though the river is wider and more open, the 500-year-flood that occurred in 1978 having eradicated most of the cypress and other shade trees along the banks.

Peggy Tobin, who lives on this stretch of the river with her husband, began canoeing the Medina in the 1940s. She can testify to the toll on the river exacted by the '78 flood which resulted from 48 inches of rain falling on the North Prong in 24 hours.

"We used to tube and canoe a lot on the river but since the severe floods, there's lots of debris and it's not quite as pretty as it once was," she recalls. "My kids used to go all the way to Medina Lake, but now there are impediments and there have been a number of changes in the river's course."

Consequently, we're happy we're going to tackle another four-mile run on the upper regions of the Medina on our second day as well. This time, Earl, Ben and I will put in at the Peaceful Valley Road crossing eight miles upriver from Bandera and take out at Ranger Crossing, where a spacious roadside park provides plentiful parking for shuttle vehicles and good access to the river from its cypress-shaded banks. Kayakers soon come to realize a seeming contradiction: Although it may be only a mile or two in highway miles between put-in and takeout points, it is usually two or three times that distance on the twisting, turning Medina.

Ben's put me in a Pelican kayak for the morning run through a segment highlighted by a waterfall resulting from a five-foot drop over a limestone ledge where the river swirls around an island between cypress stumps. With little hull for stability, the Pelican skitters over the surface readily, but proves difficult to control. More than once, I find myself coming out of the rapids facing backwards and fighting, sometimes unsuccessfully, for control of the ornery little vessel. I take several dunks before the afternoon is done. Yes, equipment does make a difference.

This part of the river is a bit less isolated than the stretch we paddled the day before, but it is equally as scenic, with cliffs soaring into blue skies along part of the route. Bald cypress, pecans, sycamores, willows, mustang grape vines, Virginia creeper and other vegetation border much of this stretch of the Medina. And wildlife seems just as plentiful. Halfway through the trip, we are greeted by a half-dozen large water turtles in what I dub "Tortugua Alley." Signs of civilization — cliff-side homes, ladders to the water, gazebos and other structures — appear with more frequency.

As we scale the banks of the river at the takeout at Ranger Crossing at high noon, temperatures have warmed into the upper 70s under mostly clear skies — a perfect day for kayaking.

Bandera County native Fred Collins, 52, grew up near the Medina and likely knows the river better than anyone. After the 1978 flood, the young entrepreneur took a chain saw, got in his canoe and began cutting the huge logs that had jammed various spots along the river between Medina and Bandera. He salvaged what he could and began doing some woodworking.

Today, the fruits of Fred's labor sprawl across several acres visible from Texas 16 just north of Bandera. Giant cypress tree trunks, milled planks and other wood byproducts await the craftsman's touch that will turn them into mantels, shelves, tables, chandeliers and dozens of other finished cypress items. The buildings that house Fred Collins' Workshop also housed headquarters for the Medina River Company during the years that Collins owned it.

For almost a quarter century, when kayaking and tubing season rolls around each May, Fred has been renting canoes, sit-on-top kayaks and tubes to locals, out-of-towners, tour groups and others seeking to experience the wonders of the Medina River. He praises kayaks' "high safety factor," noting he never had one boat damaged beyond repair in all the years he rented them.

"The kayaking thing has really evolved," Fred says. "I carry kid boats, adult boats, big guy boats, little guy boats, scared people boats, stable boats, squirrelly boats, whatever you want."

He's delighted to see the community get behind cleaning the Medina River by establishing the Medina River Protection Fund to finance river cleanup, something he says he and his buddies did on their own each spring for years to make the river safe for recreation.

During a visit with Fred this past May, I found the self-professed workaholic and "hardass" working outside and answering calls from potential river customers. Some first-time kayakers, he says, want to take their young children on a trip. But Fred tells parents they need to go first themselves before trying to introduce children to kayaking, so as not to frighten the children.

Over the years, Fred has paddled several other rivers, including the ever-popular Guadalupe. He says the Guadalupe River carries a much greater volume of water than his beloved Medina and features a number of Class II and a few Class III rapids.

"I call the Guadalupe a four-lane highway that you can take your car down any lane and have no problem," he explains. "The Medina is a one-lane country road with land mines on both sides. Here we have Class 1 and under rapids, but you have tight, little turns and lots of fun stuff. But it still requires respect and some scouting ahead if you're not familiar with the water."

From Collins' Workshop, it's only a five-minute drive to Highway 470 and the Tarpley Crossing, where I've come to put in to paddle yet one more segment of the Medina River to the takeout at Bandera City Park where we're expected at 5:30 p.m. The "three amigos" — Earl, Ben and I — make up the mini flotilla again.

With the flow at less than 200 CFS, this section of the river proves barely navigable at spots after weeks of scant rainfall. But only once do we have to get out of our kayaks and drag them 20 to 30 yards over the shallow shoals and limestone beds. We end up doing considerably more paddling on this section where the river spreads out a bit more and the rapids are fewer and farther between. However, the Medina's trademark 90-degree turns and straight-jacket chutes prove challenge enough for my budding kayaking skills.

A small dam where the famed Mayan Dude Ranch borders the river proves the most exciting part of the trek, as we take turns sliding over the structure at a spot Ben has scouted as the best route. Cheering us on and splashing each other are teen-aged ranch guests, some of whom clamber atop the dam and take turns with a nearby rope swing dangling from a cypress branch 40 feet in the air.

But other than some Friday afternoon partiers on both sides of the river closer to town, we encounter nobody else floating the river during the entire 5-mile excursion that takes about three hours to complete despite consistent, strong paddling. As we pull our kayaks onto the dirt banks at city park, I recall the words of Kerrville kayaker Linda Lera, who explained how she had gotten into kayaking.

"I love the rivers. I think the Hill Country is a beautiful place to pursue the sport, and it's very freeing, a great escape from the work week. You see so much beauty and it's a challenge, too. And it's very relaxing."

After three outings, I was beginning to understand the attraction. I wonder how much one of those new Frenzy models costs, anyway.

Details:

Kayak/Tube Rentals

  • Bandera Kayak & Canoe, (830) 796-3861 — Kayak and canoe rentals
  • Bandera Beach Club & Tube Rental, (830) 535-4840 — Tube rentals only
  • Fred Collins' Workshop, (830) 796-3553

Canoe/Kayak Clubs & Other River Resources

Texas River Flows

  • <stream-flow.allaboutrivers.com>
  • Bandera County Information, <www.banderacowboycapital.com> or (800) 364-3833

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