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September 2009 cover image hunting dog

Paddling Mayberry

Destination: Columbus

Travel time from:
Austin – 2 hours
Brownsville – 5.5 hours
Dallas – 4 hours
Houston – 1.25 hours
San Antonio – 2 hours
Lubbock – 8.5 hours
El Paso – 11.75 hours
By Rusty Middleton

Columbus offers a unique opportunity to paddle in circles.

We tend to think of rural communities like Columbus as molasses-slow, quiet, Mayberry kinds of places, where an uptick in sorghum futures is what passes for excitement. But somehow Columbus never quite got that message. Perhaps nowhere else can you find such a bewildering yet charming combination of cultural and outdoor pursuits.

If you timed it just right, it would be possible in and around Columbus to attend a dinner theater in an 1886 opera house, canoe, hunt geese, go antiquing, tour one of the most historic towns in Texas, watch endangered prairie chickens engage in bizarre reproductive acts and visit the only Santa Claus museum in Texas, all in the same frenzied weekend.

I was certainly curious about any town with a Santa Claus museum and lust-crazed chickens, but my main focus was to hit the river. I wanted to canoe the Columbus Paddling Trail on the Colorado River, opened by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau in May 2007.

What I got, besides a sunburn, was a great river experience plus new and unexpected perspectives on Texas history, Texas outdoors and the distractions of romance. But that’s getting a little ahead of myself. Did I mention the sunburn?

The Colorado River near Columbus gets a little loopy — literally. It is supposed to be headed southeast and downhill toward a union with the Gulf of Mexico. But at Columbus, for reasons best known to hydrogeologists, or perhaps some other “ologist,” the river has decided to flow due north for a while. Gravity finally wins out over this futile contrariness, and the river flows south again, taking a 6 1/2-mile detour to return to a point less than a mile downstream.

This meander turns out to be very convenient for paddlers. In Columbus you can take a 6 1/2-mile canoe trip and wind up almost where you started. That means a lot less fussiness about shuttling vehicles and people. If you bring your own boat, you can launch at the paddling trail’s put-in site just under the Highway 71 (Business) bridge in Columbus.

If you want to rent a boat, you can cross the bridge and go just downstream to Howell’s Canoe Livery. Frank Howell and his wife, Evelyn, are the only game in town when it comes to canoe/kayak/tube rental, but they definitely don’t act like it. Both are very helpful and friendly. Frank Howell downloaded the application from the TPWD Web site, filled it out and, with the help of TPWD staff, started the process of creating a paddling trail. (For more information about Texas Paddling Trails, go to www.tpwd.state.tx.us/fish boat/boat/paddlingtrails.)

Frank shoved us off from his dock.

“Keep a lookout for bald eagles,” he yelled. “They fly up and down the river.”

We let the current catch the boat and begin to take us downstream. Suddenly our main goal in life was not, as we originally thought, to retire comfortably. Instead, it was now to make it down the river and have a good time doing it.

Howell’s dock slowly disappeared from view, and the serenity of the river enveloped us. In the quiet, our voices suddenly seemed way too loud. A river mindset settled in. Whatever I was thinking while standing on the bank a little while ago seemed irrelevant now.

While you are on it, you belong to the river, so you have to adjust your thinking down to the basics. You are now in a place where reflexes count a good deal more than intellect, where judgment is about little more than timing your paddle strokes to avoid a tree limb. Your main job in life is to keep the boat upright, and in this section of the Colorado, that is not too demanding a task.

For most of the trail, the river is slow and broad, making paddling almost, but not quite, optional. You still have to steer around curves and the odd tree branch, but you can also spend a lot of time just floating along, deep in river-think, contemplating your place in a world where humans are mostly just visitors.

The residents here are fish, turtles and birds, especially birds. Yellow-crowned night-herons, egrets, flocks of teal and uncounted swallows, among many others, fill the air and riverbanks. Huge alligator gar roll on the surface in the deeper sections. Many paddlers come here just to see them. Alligators have been spotted a few miles downstream.

After a few hours of this dreamy floating and idle paddling, it is time to reluctantly look for the take-out point.

“Just after the two big bridges, look for Beason’s Park on the left,” Frank had instructed. The two bridges are large, by far the most imposing structures to be seen on the paddling trail. We got out at Beason’s Park, yet such is the lure of the water, and reportedly each other, that a couple in a canoe recently missed these two massive structures entirely, plus the I-10 bridge further down, and managed to float another 10 miles downriver. They were getting ­seriously nervous by the time they were found around dark by TPWD game wardens.

Beason’s Park, within the Columbus city limits, was formerly known as Beason’s Crossing. It was at this and a couple of other nearby crossings on the Colorado that the Texan and Mexican armies engaged in a stare-down for several days after the Battle of the Alamo. Many of the men in the Texas army were from Columbus and may have even watched as the town was put to the torch when Houston and his men withdrew to the east. The town was quickly rebuilt afterwards, and today it can claim to be the oldest Anglo-American settlement in Texas.

History abounds here. Columbus and the surrounding area is where Stephen F. Austin brought his original 300 settlers. The town is dotted with historical markers and sites that spell out much of the story of Texas, from its earliest days right into the present era.

A talking house tour (you can park near the house and tune to a designated radio frequency) takes you from the most primitive of log cabins to grand mansions, and many ­fascinating homes between those extremes. The charming Magnolia Oaks Bed and Breakfast provides an opportunity to actually spend the night in a well-restored, 19th-century ­Victorian home.

While Columbus has exceptional depth and variety for a community of its size, it has also managed to hang onto that Mayberry quality. It is friendly even by Texas standards. The best possible way to see it is also the simplest — on foot. The streets are quiet and uncrowded, the atmosphere peaceful to the point of being spiritual. Opie might be just around the corner, headed for the river.

Columbus is fun and interesting, but don’t ignore the ­surrounding area. A few miles to the southeast of ­Columbus, at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge, you can watch prairie chickens put on a courting display ­worthy of the male lead in high Italian opera. ­During mating season, the colorful male prairie chicken puffs up, struts and “booms” for hours to get the ladies into the right mood. Unfortunately, be-cause of habitat loss and predators, the numbers of these once ­abundant birds are now down to about 100 in the wild. If you want to see them perform their courtship displays, you have to go in the spring on a guided tour.

For sheer number of birds, a grander spectacle is the arrival of hundreds of thousands of geese and ducks in the fall around Eagle Lake (a self-described “goose hunting capital”) just south of Columbus. The geese come to fatten up on the leftovers of the rice harvest after their long flight from ­Canada. The fields for miles around Eagle Lake can be filled with foraging geese and ducks during the winter. And following the birds come the bird hunters, also in large numbers.

“The bird hunting around here is usually fantastic ­during the winter. Although it varies from year to year, we’ve always got good opportunities,” said Tim Kelly, owner of Eagle Lake Lodge. “We lease thousands of acres of rice fields around the area for hunting.”

Rice is a water-hungry crop and could not be grown in such huge quantity without adequate water from the ­Colorado River. And without the rice, there would be far fewer geese to hunt around Eagle Lake in winter. Thus the river links almost every aspect of life around Columbus, from its history to its economy, to its charming ambiance and, of course, its great paddling trips.

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