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Deal With the Devils

The challenges of paddling and protecting a wild river.

By Pam LeBlanc

Halfway down a tumbling, boulder-strewn rapid, the aluminum canoe I'm paddling wedges on a rock. I step out to push, and seconds later, the Devil yanks it from my grip.

As my paddling partner holds the boat’s nose in place, I grab tight to the tow-line and we creep through the rapids, trying to stay upright. My shins ram into one boulder after the next, and when we’re finally down Three Tier Rapids, blood trickles down one leg like wax on a melting candle. And, oh, the bruises — days of clambering in and out of a metal canoe have turned my thighs into a Vincent Van Gogh Starry Night canvas.

The Devils River bashes your legs, blasts you with headwinds and tricks you with reed mazes. But a four-day trip on this twisting ribbon of turquoise, which cuts across remote southwest Texas, will make any hardy paddler swoon with happiness and seek to protect this Texas treasure.

I’d wanted to run the Devils River for years, and finally got the opportunity last spring, a few months after the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department opened two new primitive paddle camps along the route. Friends warned me that this was not a trip for beginners or the faint of heart; experience and plenty of planning are absolutely essential. We make reservations and double-check our lists.

Four of us load up our gear, drive to Del Rio for a night, then get up early for the 30-minute drive to Amistad Expeditions, the outfitter we hired to shuttle us to our put-in point at Baker’s Crossing, an hour and a half away. From there, roughly 30 river miles awaited. Or rather, 30 rough river miles awaited.

As we drag our boats down the bank and clip in dry bags filled with our dehydrated meals, water filters, camp stoves, tents, sleeping bags and access permit, I wonder for the hundredth time if I’m ready.

“You’re going 12 miles today?” the shuttle driver asks, barely concealing his skepticism as he eyeballs us. “Most folks just go 7 or 8 miles a day, you know.”

The warnings I’d heard flash through my mind: If you snap a leg on the Devils, no one can help you for hours — or even days. Step onto shore and someone might point a gun at you. Rookie paddlers shouldn’t even attempt it.

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Charcoal gray clouds scud across the horizon as we push into cool green water, dip in our paddles and begin.

At first, we glide along easily. A mile and a half in, though, the dragging begins. Our canoe chokes on bony fingers of limestone, and we hop in and out of our boats every few minutes, tugging and pushing. As tedious as it is for my paddling partner and me, the kayaker in our group gets it worse. The rock grabs his boat like Velcro, and he hikes more than paddles.

We tick off the miles, though, passing through narrow channels followed by broad, windy stretches. We point our boats down one rocky slide after the other, grateful when we don’t capsize. And 12 miles later, we roll into a patch of grass set aside for paddlers, pop up our tents, heat water for dinner and stare up at the stars.

If you make this trip, come prepared. The rocks jab, the plants snag and the chiggers bite. Bring your muscles and good attitude, too, because you’ll have to hoist your boat over obstacles, encounter marauding raccoons and utilize WAG bags when nature calls.

You’ll also understand why so many people are determined to protect this river.

“Without question, the river is a special piece of Texas,” says Beau Hester, superintendent of the Del Norte Unit of Devils River State Natural Area. “We want to make sure we’re being good stewards, educating folks and preserving the wilderness experience the Devils River offers.”

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The two relatively new riverside camps stand as an example. The river has seen a large increase in usage recently, from a few hundred paddlers a year in the 1980s to that many in just one month last spring, Hester says.

The new camps, leased by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, offer a safe — and legal — respite for paddlers once tempted to pitch tents on private land adjacent to the river. Paddlers need permits to camp at the sites; the department issues a limited number of access permits per day (12 for overnight trips; 12 for day trips) to ease the strain on the environment. It helps that the river is located far from the nearest city.

“Because of its location, this place is what it is today, and, hopefully, there’s continued stewardship so we can keep it what it is,” Hester says.

Two other things set the Devils River apart. One, it’s a rare, wild, free-flowing river, one of the only major rivers in the state not impounded by a reservoir (though it flows into Lake Amistad in its lower reaches). Second, springs burble up along its entiretwisting course.

“A lot of rivers have springs at their headwaters, but the Devils has them the whole length, which helps keep water quality and clarity of the river intact,” says Sarah Robertson, an aquatic biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

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The river cuts through the nexus of three eco-regions, creating a hot spot of diversity for wildlife like the threatened Devils River minnow, Conchos pupfish and Proserpine shiner, plus the endangered black-capped vireo. Monarchs migrate through the region; bats patrol night skies.

“A lot of rare and endemic species occur there,” Robertson says. “It’s important that while we appreciate and utilize the river, we minimize the impact so we aren’t endangering those species.”

The next morning, the kayaker (and musician) in our group, Tony Drewry, pulls out his beat-up river guitar, serenading us with songs. Photographer Erich Schlegel grabs his fishing rod and paddles upstream in pursuit of a giant fish. My canoe buddy Marcy Stellfox and I float down the river a little ways for a swim. The morning coasts by, unrushed and luxurious, fat with sun-warmed rocks and long green plants that stretch out and wave at us from beneath the water’s surface.

We shove off again after lunch.

An hour in, we hear the rush of water. A couple of fishermen are perched on a sculpted wave of rock that forms one side of a little chute we’re fast approaching.

I stab my paddle into the water, trying to aim our boat around one chunk of rock, then readjust and steer it in the opposite direction. We clank against one side, bounce off, holler and ride the water into the next pool. The guys on the rock cheer, and we throw our paddles overhead in victory.

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To celebrate, we unpack one of the hammocks we’ve brought along, strap it to a milk-truck-sized, fern-covered chunk of rock plopped in the center of the river, and bask in our accomplishment.

Then it’s onward. We’ve got just another mile or two to our next camp at the Del Norte Unit of the Devils River State Natural Area. The river spreads out, and we pass a series of gushing springs and meet a few researchers out on the river to test water temperatures.

As we pull ashore at the San Pedro campsite, dark clouds build to our south. We set up camp, and just before sunset I strike out to climb a nearby ridge, nearly stepping on a hairy tarantula along the way. At the top, I’m rewarded with a dusky, glittering view of the Devils as it flows south toward our next big obstacle, Dolan Falls.

That night, the raccoons invade. They scurry in and out of our canoes, rummage through our gear and snuffle around our campsite. One marauder even nibbles a hole in the corner of our tent, as a reminder that he’s the local and we’re the outsiders.

We awake the next morning to discover a hummingbird guarding a nest holding two grape-sized babies. We admire them for an hour, then paddle a quarter-mile downstream to explore another glimmering, gin-clear oasis of spring-fed water. When we paddle back out to the main flow, the land opens up, the hills swell and the river deepens. We’ve made it to the most beautiful stretch of the trip.

We’re also quickly at the top of Dolan Falls.

We pull our boats off to the side and wade ahead to check the situation. The falls plunge at least 15 frothy feet at Dolan, and you can’t paddle a canoe through the chaos. We work together, emptying gear out of our boats, tossing dry bags across swirling currents and lugging our crafts through the raging water. It takes an hour, but when we finish, we leap giddily off the rocks and smile up at the blazing sun.

We’ve got less boat dragging to do these last few days on the river, but more rapids, too. We navigate one potentially leg-mangling stretch of roiling water after the other, exhaling with relief when we finally approach the Mile 20 camp.

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Three other groups of kayakers are camped here, too. We find a spot on the narrow spit of land, cook dinner and make more music. Two of us spend the early hours of nightfall practicing our night photography skills; the others snore it up.

I wish we had more time out here, but tomorrow we’ll paddle our last river miles to the Dan A. Hughes Unit, where our shuttle driver will pick us up and deliver us back to civilization. I stare up at the dark sky and listen to the river.

We take our last day slowly, trying to suck every last minute of prickly Texas beauty out of the river. We duck through canyons and ogle huge slabs of rock that look like a giant dropped them out of his toy bag.

In one spot, we park our canoe and scramble onto the top of a bus-sized chunk of rock in the middle of the river. The white rock bottom makes the water glow. We jump off, climb back in our boat and enjoy the easy paddle to the take-out, telling stories along the way.

A few other paddlers are already gathered beneath the trees when we get there, waiting for their shuttles. We unload our boats and hang our hammocks. That’s when I meet Benny Salazar, 52, of Telferner, who’s just finished a two-day trip on the Devils. He tells me he carried a snapshot of his dad, who died in 1979, and dedicated the adventure to him.

“I wish he was here with me,” Salazar says, and I understand. “I said a little prayer for him. I told him I miss him, you know?”

I’m reminded that I should do one more thing before I leave this special place.

I head down for a final dip in the teal-colored water, beneath a cliff squawking with swallows and hawks. I swim back and forth for 20 minutes, savoring the solitude and the serenity.

I thank the river for the fun, and bid it goodbye. In my heart I add a sincere promise to take care of it as best I can.

Rules of the River
The Devils River, rugged and unspoiled, remains one of the most pristine waterways in Texas. Careful stewardship is required of all visitors in this remote land of clear springs and desert canyons.

Devils River access permits are required for paddlers who use either of the two units of TPWD's Devils River State Natural Areas - the Del Norte Unit and the Dan A. Hughes Unit - for trips that extend beyond the boundaries of the state natural areas.

TPWD issues a maxium of 12 individual permits each day for overnight trips and 12 permits per day for day trips. The permit system was developed to manage sustainable recreational use of the river and promote responsible stewardship.

TPWD encourages the safe and responsible use of the river resources of our state and reminds those using the Devils River or other waterways that irresponsible use of rivers cannot be condoned and could result in criminal charges or serious personal injury. Most of the land along the Devils River is private property; trespassing is prohibited.

Designated campsites are available along the river for paddlers who possess Devils River access permits. Campers must use a WAG bag to carry human waste, pack out all garbage and arrange their own shuttle transportation.

For more information, go to Devils River State Nautral Area.

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