I paid a toll to Satan last week, when I paddled the clearest, most pristine river in Texas, the Devils.
It was worth the price.
On day three of the four-day trip down the prettiest ribbon of turquoise water I’ve ever seen, my husband and I pinned our aluminum canoe against a boulder at Indian Creek Rapid. The Devil tipped our boat on its side, and we watched in horror as it filled with water. We fought for 10 minutes to free it, and when it finally busted loose with a sickening crunch, the Devil had had its way.
In the end, we gathered all our gear and chased our half-sunk boat down. She’s twisted out of alignment and doesn’t steer quite right, but we’re working to bend her back into shape. And despite the carnage, I loved the trip.
Something about paddling a West Texas river sets me free. I paddled the Devils three years ago, and the Pecos River two years ago. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but the Devils can’t be beat for spring-fed swimming holes and incredible pure Texas scenery.
We drove out on a Saturday, and stayed at a rental house operated by guide Gerald Bailey. We left his place at 6:30 a.m. the next morning, so we could to the put-in at Baker’s Crossing by 8:30.
We planned a leisurely trip. The Devils is all about lollygagging, not racking up miles as quickly as you can.
To run the river, you’ve got two options: Get a Devils River Access Permit from Texas Parks and Wildlife, which allows you to pitch a tent at any of the designated paddle camps between Baker’s Crossing and the Dan Hughes (lower) unit of the Devils River State Natural Area; or camp on islands as you go. Whatever you do, don’t trespass on private land along the way.
If you go all the way to Dan Hughes, it’s a 30-mile trip. (You can also paddle all the way to Rough Canyon Marina at Lake Amistad, but you’ll have to paddle through notoriously choppy lake water and reed mazes to get to the point at Mile 47 if you do.) We took out at Bailey’s place at Mile 22.
We loaded our canoes with coolers filled with steaks, sausage and thick pork chops, home-grown tomatoes, eggs, bagels and coffee. Our third amigo, Jimmy Harvey, took over as expedition chef, and we toasted the stars every night with beer, wine and whiskey.
A few words of caution. This river isn’t for novices. The rapids – especially Three Tier Rapids and Indian Creek Rapids – can mangle boats or snap legs, and if disaster hits, you’re a long way from rescue. We carried a Garmin InReach tracker so we could call for help in event of emergency.
Prepare to get in and out of your boat a lot, especially if the flow at Baker’s Crossing is below 100 cfs. (It was about 82 cfs when we went in late June.) We hit lots of bony sections where we ran aground and had to drag short distances. A composite canoe works better than aluminum, which tends to stick to the rough limestone rock like Velcro.
The rapids build as the miles tick past. The first day, we glided over a few easy riffles. The second, we encountered bigger rapids around Sycamore Chutes. We got out to scout, and Jimmy pointed out a channel so skinny I wondered if our boat would fit. It did and we slid through, reeds slapping us in the face and Chris pushing off rocks with his paddle. We shot over a last big drop by Game Warden Rock, then forged into a headwind as the river flattened out again.
The scenery along the river reminds me of an old Western movie – cactus- and brush-covered hillsides, dotted with big, cracked boulders. A herd of feral hogs galloping across the river. Circling vultures. A pair of porcupines snoozing in a couple of trees. And, best of all, an endless procession of swimming holes – deep, clear pools of water that make me swoon. That kind of water’s best felt against your skin, so I peeled off my clothes and skinny dipped.
Jimmy cast his fly rod as we went, reeling in fish after fish and tossing it back. (Bass are catch and release only here, to protect the wild population.)
The biggest obstacle along the way comes at Dolan Falls, at Mile 16. You have to empty all the gear out of your boat and portage around the plunging water before loading up and pushing off again. We managed just fine, but choose your footing carefully.
We passed a few stray paddle kayakers on the river, but no other campers on multi-day trips. High season is usually April and May; June can be (and was) hot and dry. Check flow before you go, pack personal flotation devices and make sure you’re skilled enough to handle the river.
If you make the trip, you’ll understand what makes it so special, and why an organization called the Devils River Conservancy (www.devilsriverconservancy.org) works so hard to keep it clean. The non-profit organization was formed in 2011 to protect it from threats that include invasive species, recreational over-use, land fragmentation, over-pumping of groundwater and more.
Read about my 2018 trip down the Pecos River at http://specials.mystatesman.com/pecos-river/.
And read about my previous trip down the Devils River here https://tpwmagazine.com/archive/2017/nov/ed_3_devilsriver/index.phtml.