Steffen Saustrup and Cassandra blast through Sycamore Rapids near Game Warden Rock on the Devils River. Pam LeBlanc photo

I’ve paddled the Devils River twice before, but only in spring. This fall trip – with clouds of migrating butterflies and that familiar ribbon of turquoise set against a palette of gold – felt different.
First, the basics. I drove out with a small group of friends on a Monday. We stayed at Gerald Bailey’s place and hired him to shuttle us the two hours up to Bakers Crossing early Tuesday. From there we spent five leisurely days paddling our way 22 miles back to Devils River Outfitters headquarters. That gave us plenty of time to fish, swim and lollygag before pulling off the river and driving back home Saturday.

The sycamore trees along the shore were starting to turn gold. Pam LeBlanc photo

Jimmy Harvey and Marion Burch paddle the Devils River in October 2020. Pam LeBlanc photo

If you want to run the Devils, you’ve got two choices: Camp on islands along the way, as we did this time, or get a permit from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to use designated paddle camps located along the shore. Either way, it’s important to protect the river, pack out everything that you bring in, and respect private property along the way. (Also, remember that you’re traveling in a remote area, without cell service and very limited access. Snap a leg or cut a gash in your arm and it’ll take hours to get out. That’s why we brought along our InReach satellite communications device, as well as first aid supplies.)
The rewards, if you make the trip, are huge.
As soon as we dropped our canoes in the water, the chaos of city life fell away. Instead of laptops, smart phones and automobiles, I fell into a world of paddle strokes, moving water and wildlife. Not long after we started, Jimmy Harvey reeled in (and subsequently released) the first fish. Half an hour later, a group of wild pigs swam across the river in front of us. And then, like leaves blowing across the road, the monarchs made their appearance.

Marion Burch naps in a hammock at camp on Night 1 of our five-day trip on the Devils River. Pam LeBlanc photo

We gave each other river names (my husband and I got Corndog and Spam, or Team Salty Pork for short), and settled in for days of navigating rapids, getting lost in reed mazes and judging the merits of each new teal-colored swimming hole. This river offers the best swimming on the planet, and I don’t say that lightly.
One of my favorite parts? Listening to Jimmy and Steffen tell stories about the weeks they spent here as kids, when Jimmy’s father held a lease on the river. They pointed out boulders they’d climbed 40 years ago, when they were sent out and told, “Don’t get hurt and bring back dinner.”
Unlike backpacking trips, when every ounce matters, canoes can haul heavier gear. We filled them with steaks and pork chops, homemade chile verde and sausage, and cooked up feasts on a Coleman stove every night.
We paddled through willows that shed a snowstorm of floating seed pods. We briefly swamped a boat or two, but didn’t break a single canoe this time, like I did on my last foray down the river in June. We napped on rocks in the sunshine, and hung hammocks in trees in the evening. We counted shooting stars when night fell, sipped hot tea and coffee as the sun rose, and listened to noisy kingfishers announce each new day. We dragged our boats around Dolan Falls, leaped off rocks into the churning water, and laughed until our bellies hurt.
I’m back home now, and my gear is stashed until next time. I’m pretty sure it won’t be that long.
The Devils keeps luring me back.

Jimmy Harvey cooks eggs for breakfast while camping on the Devils River. Pam LeBlanc photo

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