Run With the Devils

A two-day trip down the state’s wildest river was exactly what I was warned it would be: difficult, frightening, and unimaginably beautiful.

June 2005By Comments

DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, take a trip down the Devils River. You are not welcome there. If you so much as set your big toe on the river’s privately owned banks, you are likely to be arrested, hauled down to the Val Verde County courthouse, and prosecuted for trespassing. You may even be shot at. Resident ranchers hate the whole idea of auslanders on their river. The folks at the Devils River State Natural Area don’t like them much either. They severely restrict public access to the river, provide no maps or guidebooks, force paddlers to camp along narrow, tamarisk-choked rock ledges with no amenities, and go out of their way to warn you not to linger near places of extreme beauty. Over the course of fifty miles of navigable river, there are exactly three tiny points of public access. But there are hundreds of posted signs whose exquisitely clear message is: Keep the hell out.

Those aren’t the only reasons to avoid the Devils, an irascible, unforgiving, and quite primitive river that runs through a stretch of raw West Texas outback where few human beings choose to live. The Devils has some of the most violent and sudden flash floods in North America. Its rough limestone will shred your sneakers. Its grooved and rutted rock ledges and boulder gardens will sprain your ankles and break your shins. Its rapids will bend your canoe like a hairpin. You will get lost down its dark, Alice in Wonderland-like chutes of black, rushing water that disappear into canebrake and willow thickets. There are leeches. Lots of them. There is a four-tongued waterfall, the biggest in Texas. As you slide toward it through a stretch of boiling white-water rapids, there is absolutely no warning of its approach. Get in trouble, and no one is likely to come to help you. If you’re smart, you’ll stay away.

Almost everyone does. Fewer than two hundred people run the river each year. No more than fifty do it without a guide. These latter are, generally speaking, either brave or stupid. They are virtually guaranteed to have a long and arduous paddle. But they get something else for their foolishness: an intimate look at one of the last great, wild rivers in the Southwest, a river so clean you can drink it, so clear that its turquoise pools look purely Bahamian, so astoundingly full of bass and gar and beaver and catfish and osprey and other wildlife that it calls to mind the first pioneer accounts of America’s unspoiled, undammed waterways. The river’s harshness and inaccessibility are thus virtues; they guarantee that, if you are indeed brave or stupid enough to choose such hardship, you will be rewarded with the sort of beauty that car-campers and day-hikers never see.

Last October photographer Kenny Braun and I decided we were willing to give it a try. We ran the middle section of the Devils, unguided, in a grotesquely overloaded fifteen-foot canoe. Before we started, we had been able to find out little useful information about the river. We knew where to put the canoe in and the approximate location of the campground. We knew our final destination—the riverside house of a local guide named Gerald Bailey, who would shuttle us back to our car. Beyond that, it is safe to say that we did not know what we were getting into. Neither of us had paddled a canoe in white water before. There were no maps of the river to tell us where rapids, waterfalls, low-head dams, dead-end canebrakes, or other hazards were, and the few written accounts were so sketchy as to be mostly useless as guides. Over the course of 24 river miles and two days, our trip was exactly as advertised: beautiful, difficult, and occasionally frightening. It was everything we had been warned about—and much, much more.

THE DEVILS RIVER is as close as you can get, in Texas, to the middle of nowhere. That is saying something, considering that much of the western part of the state is devoid of human life. In the Big Bend country there are at least familiar landmarks. In the Panhandle there are cities and towns. Here, there is pretty much nothing. The river originates in a series of creeks near the towns of Ozona and Sonora that merge near the ghost town of Juno. Thus formed, the Devils tumbles roughly a hundred miles southward through a gigantic swath of mesquite-dotted emptiness until it dumps into Lake Amistad, north of Del Rio. Because there is hardly any civilization anywhere in its four-thousand-square-mile watershed—there isn’t even much livestock—there is little pollution of any kind. Ecologically speaking, the land is a one-of-a-kind hybrid, a collision of Hill Country limestone river bottoms, Chihuahuan Desert uplands, and what botanists refer to as Tamaulipan thornscrub, basically Mexican brushlands. To me it just looks like John Wayne country—immense cactus- and mesquite-covered mesas cut by twisting, rock-toothed canyons. Junction, some one hundred miles to the northeast, bills itself as the “front porch of the West.” I have always liked that image. It’s how I think of this part of Texas.

Our expedition began at a bend in the highway sixty miles south of Ozona, where Route 163 crosses the Devils River. It’s called Baker’s Crossing and is roughly where the fifty-mile-long navigable part of the river starts. It also accounts for most of the population in the area. Here there was a house, a couple of outbuildings, a campground, and a laconic old man—our host—who answered the question “How is the fishing?” with “I don’t know. I haven’t been fishing.” He warned us not to leave our car near the river “because it might not be there when you get back.” He was referring not to thieves but to the occasional twenty-foot-high wall of water that comes raging down out of these dun-colored hills without any warning at all, often when little rain is falling in the immediate area. The river is famous for these flash floods, which occur because it drains such an enormous area. Though we would not have a guide with us, we had made arrangements with a local outfitter to rent a canoe and be transported back to Baker’s at the end of the trip. We pitched our tent in a grassy, sun-flecked grove of sycamore, pecan, and elm, inspected the debris deposited high in the trees by the last flood, gazed at the starry heavens, and fell asleep to the swift, explosive rush of the river.

The next morning we got up early, crammed an implausibly large quantity of gear into the canoe—tent, sleeping bags, clothing, food, stove, fishing poles, and photographic equipment—and made ready to shove off. The air was still and cold. The fog that had settled into the river valley overnight was beginning to lift, and as the sun rose over the mesa, it caused thousands of dew-heavy spiderwebs on the riverbank to sparkle like Christmas ornaments. The effect was magical, like nothing I had ever seen. It reminded me, as I looked downstream at the vanishing river, of just how little I knew about where we were going. The few accounts of the river we had read described droughty conditions. In the past few years, the river had often been so shallow that canoes had to be hauled or dragged over the river bottom. We had exactly the opposite problem: The river was now swollen and roaring, the result of a whopping sixty inches of rain in the past fifteen months (compared with the usual average of eleven inches per year). We thus suspected that the rapids were going to be much bigger and more powerful than anything we had read about. But that was all we knew. We stepped out into the current, shoehorned ourselves into the crowded canoe, and headed out into the weirdly swirling, sun-spangled fog.

We were headed to the campground at Devils River State Natural Area, a distance of 15 river miles. It was, literally, the only place we could camp. The rest of the riverbanks are privately owned, and local ranchers are famously ornery in their dealings with trespassers. They do not hesitate to have them arrested and prosecuted. There are stories of boaters being fired upon with high-powered rifles. In one account in Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine, a man who had been separated from his canoe was held down by gunfire for six hours. On the second day we would paddle roughly 9 miles farther downstream from the park to Bailey’s place. If we missed that, the next takeout was 24 miles away, at Rough Canyon Marina, in Lake Amistad. Kenny and I agreed that missing Bailey’s would be a serious mistake. It would mean spending two additional days on the river without food. And, of course, it would mean camping, or attempting to camp, on private land.

But such worries soon yielded to a more immediate necessity: keeping our yawing, overstuffed canoe upright and pointed downriver. This was not as easy as it might seem. The Devils is what is known as a “pool-and-drop” river, meaning that long, calm, somewhat lakelike sections alternate with narrow, swiftly descending rapids. The pools were easy, fun, and relaxing. The drops were often harrowing, especially since the approaches to so many of them were cloaked in dense clusters of river cane. In the first fifteen miles of river, we estimated that there were sixteen or seventeen discrete pool-and-drop sections. Many of the pools ended in canebrake and willow groves, through which several narrow, dark channels were cut. Because the cane was eight- to ten-feet high, it was sometimes impossible to see where the channels went, and it was equally impossible to know what the drop was like on the other side. We got used to listening very closely, and we got better and better at telling the big rapids from the small ones. The effect was that, at the end of each placid pool, we would repeat the same adrenaline-pounding sequence: apprehension, fear, and frantic struggling to turn the boat away from trees and rocks, followed by wild, howling exhilaration, then a sort of seraphic calm. It was an exhausting day.

What made it even more tiring was an activity known as lining, which involved holding fifty-foot bow and stern lines outside of the canoe and lowering it through rapids or waterfalls that were too big to run. The Devils has a well-deserved reputation for destroying marine hardware, even at low water levels, and a smashed boat would have meant real trouble for us. Because of the nature of the riverbanks—steep rocks or dense vegetation—portage was often difficult or impractical. But to line the canoe downstream, we had to be in the rapids ourselves, often up to our necks, which meant that we were constantly stumbling, falling, being swept downstream, getting our feet and legs pinned under boulders, and generally battling to keep the canoe from foundering.

Sometimes lining seemed more dangerous than actually running the rapids. At Game Warden Rock (one of three falls we recognized from our outfitter’s descriptions), the main channel was far too difficult even to line. So we bumped our way down a cane-choked side channel, complete with enormous boulders and a river bottom that varied from one to eight feet in depth. At one point, I got caught between the canoe and a rock in a three-foot-wide chute through ten-foot-high canebrake. As the water rushed up and over my head, I found that I could not move. After a moment of panic, I struggled to the surface, only to lose my footing, be pinned again, then carried miraculously out of the dark channel and into the main stream, where I clung to a rock and discovered that I was covered with small leeches (Kenny was covered with them too; fortunately, we noticed them before they took hold). It required all of our strength to stay out of trouble. Kenny and I had to negotiate several channels like this. Each time it took at least half an hour. We were bruised and bloody—Kenny’s feet especially—and by the end of the day my arms were so tired they ached.

Lining, however, was for only the biggest rapids, the ones we believed we could not run without capsizing. For the rest of them, we held our breath, pointed the canoe into the teeth of the white water, hoped that our calculations had been right, and paddled like madmen to avoid rocks, trees, and cane islands. Before this trip, I had been engaged in the sport of white-water kayaking for six years on rivers in Texas and Oregon. I had grown addicted to the thrill that accompanies the plunge into a steeply dropping section of river at high water, the panicky high of having big standing waves break over your boat, fighting out of a turbulent hole, or just screaming over a seven-foot waterfall. In a big boat in calm water, you have a pleasant and fairly casual relationship with your environment. In a white-water kayak, the relationship is more like a stormy love affair: intense, intimate, demanding, all-consuming. You are wet and fighting the whole way.

A standard canoe in a class II or III rapid provides exactly that same intimacy, with one stark exception: The craft is not designed for that sort of water. It does not turn nimbly like a kayak. In fact, in its stuffed-to-the-gunwales condition our canoe was hard to turn at all. It wallowed. In rapids the bow would submarine, sending a chilly arc of water over me (the bowman) and back into the canoe, which made it ride even lower in the water. Though we knew, technically, how to turn the canoe, actually making it turn was another thing entirely. The main problem, other than the six hundred pounds of deadweight, was that the thunderous whoosh of the rapids made communication impossible. As bowman, I would spot a rock dead ahead and begin screaming to turn right. Kenny, who could not hear me, and who could not see the rock, was more or less left to his own devices. Which meant that we were constantly working at cross-purposes, the boat sometimes careering into rocks and woody thickets.

At times, though, the water just seemed to take us on the aquatic equivalent of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride: mayhem pounding all around us, water crashing into us and over us, cane-lined chutes appearing and disappearing, seeming to trap us, then suddenly spitting us out into a wide, quick rapid. To say it was exhilarating does not quite capture the feeling: It was so physical, such a primal collision of river and rock and bone and sinew, that it had the effect of making the rest of the world disappear completely. For this entire day there was nothing in my mind but the river, the stark, chalky cliffs on our flanks, and the warm, flashing October sun overhead. It was, I realize now, a feeling of being very young again, of being back in a world where time meant nothing and the future was full of pure, wild possibility.

THOSE WERE THE DROPS, anyway. The pools, on the other hand, were lovely, lazy, and serene. Here the land opened up and the cliffs shimmered in the sun and the river was so flawlessly transparent that you could watch a crawdad walk on the bottom through eight feet of water and see him with absolute clarity. The Devils has the cleanest water in Texas and some of the cleanest in the lower 48. That’s because it consists of pure, Perrier-like springwater that is pumped from thousands of springs over fifty miles of riverbed, and it flows over limestone that has been polished and scrubbed by countless violent floods. There is no mud to roil it. This accounts for the river’s astounding color too, which ranges from vivid ultramarine to a limpid turquoise that would remind you of the Caribbean.

Then there were the fish—more than I had ever seen in any body of water. The river was jumping with them: huge schools of four-foot longnose gar that followed the boat, crossing and recrossing under the keel; hundreds of largemouth and smallmouth bass that hunted the downstream edges of the limestone; catfish, perch, crappie, and sunfish and enormous schools of minnows. During our first day, we encountered some fishermen, spectral old coots in decrepit johnboats who materialized suddenly from the riverbank, drift-fishing in the gentle current. We figured they were the residents, the ranchers who shot at people like us. They came over to inspect us with odd, insistent, inquisitive faces, and when we asked how the fishing was, one of them said, “Not as good today. Yesterday morning we caught eighty to one hundred.” We laughed. They did not seem to understand why we were laughing. There was lots of other wildlife on the river too. At one point we came abeam of a pair of beavers, paddling unhurriedly toward a cane island. We saw ospreys—a type of hawk that hunts fish—flapping above us and diving for prey, hitting the water at a very high speed but with a very small splash. Belted kingfishers, herons, and egrets all hunted the river. Though we did not see them, the place is also full of wild turkey, deer, javelina, mountain lion, and more kinds of snakes than I care to think about. (The area is considered a sort of paradise for herpetologists.)

It took us the better part of eight hours to get to our campsite, which was just downstream from a monstrous set of springs that come crashing straight out of the rock riverbanks at 22,000 gallons a minute. The camp turned out to be nothing more than a limestone ledge along the small section of the riverbank that belongs to the state: Devils River State Natural Area. There was nothing else there. The only way we could tell that we were even in a state park was a sign bearing one of the strangest warnings I have ever seen. It read “Don’t linger at Dolan Falls.” Dolan Falls is the largest waterfall, by volume, in Texas and the featured attraction on the Devils River. The Devils River State Natural Area staff cannot, of course, prevent me from lingering by the falls, and indeed I had full rights to linger by the falls as long as I stayed in the navigable river. Still, the rangers apparently couldn’t resist helping the landowners shoo us away. The Devils is like that: You get the feeling you are not wanted. Imagine such a sign in Big Bend or Yosemite national parks.

We pitched our tent, then decided we would try to catch some fish. What happened next was almost humorous, a Disney cartoon version of what a very good day of fishing might look like. Fish were striking our spinning tackle just moments after it hit the water. Kenny landed three 3-pound smallmouths on his first five or six casts. I caught fish on two of my first three. This went on for a while. Suddenly, the old man’s wild fish story seemed perfectly reasonable. As the sun set, the wind died and the river went dead calm, and its surface came alive with millions of diaphanous white insects that looked like dancing fairies—until the lunkers rose to snatch them. With darkness came a minor symphony of wheezings, squawkings, thrashings, and belchings, all punctuated by a sound that I can only describe as the noise produced by a twelve-pound bowling ball hitting the water after being dropped from a height of about three feet. Kenny and I had no idea what caused this. We assumed these were the giant gar striking flying insects. Whatever it was, it was not small. We went to sleep gazing at the brilliant sky. All that weird, croaking, unidentifiable noise around us seemed a perfect soundtrack to the vast, spinning universe above us.

OF COURSE WE WERE worried about Dolan Falls, which was a mile or so downriver from our campsite. Was it marked? Were there signs, as you might expect there to be on, say, the Niagara River in upstate New York, warning you to leave the water? From our camp we could hear the falls booming. Dolan is described in Steve Daniel’s book Texas Whitewater as “a twelve-foot vertical drop that, at high water, contains nasty hydraulics.” The latter term refers to water that churns backward upon itself, meaning that the swimmer or boater can be held under against the base of the falls and drowned. A canoe going over the falls would undoubtedly be smashed up, but that would just be the beginning of our trouble.

One of the things you learn as a white-water boater is how benign the worst river hazards can look when viewed from upstream. Example: If you are looking downstream toward Niagara Falls, the drop-off would appear as a perfectly flat horizon line. You would see no white water, no hint of the falls’ descent into seething, frothing death below. Twenty minutes after pushing off from our campground the next morning, the river’s gradient suddenly became steeper, and we found ourselves in a section of shallow, white-water rapids. We stuck to the middle channel, which was getting progressively deeper and faster moving. That was when I saw the horizon line ahead of me. I yelled to Kenny, and we paddled hard for the bank. We beached the boat, walked downstream twenty yards, and indeed found the big, scary, violent hydraulics of Dolan Falls. There had been no warnings of any kind. Of course there hadn’t. Another fifteen seconds and we would have gone over. We wondered how many other guideless river-runners had done that, and what had happened to them.

Since Dolan was both unrunnable and unlineable, we had to portage it, which proved to be the most difficult part of the trip. Though the distance was no more than one hundred yards, it took us nearly two hours to drag, push, and carry the canoe and equipment through the steep, dense, boulder-strewn, thorn-infested riverbank. But I am happy to report that once we had lugged the canoe down, we did indeed—and in contravention of a specific directive from Texas Parks and Wildlife—linger at Dolan Falls. We didn’t know whose land we were on. After scratching, scraping, sweating, and stumbling our way through pricker patches and over huge misshapen rocks, we did not much care. It is a spectacular place where gigantic plumes of white water cascade into depthless, transcendently clear blue-green pools. The day was cloudless and windless and 80 degrees. At the bottom of the falls, we ate lunch on a limestone ledge, dived off the lower cliffs, and swam in the river’s powerful, swirling eddies. We lingered some more, watched a belted kingfisher hunt the shallows, then finally packed up and headed off on the final eight miles of river. (We later discovered, and this may be our karmic punishment for having lingered, that all the smart boaters portage the other side of the river, where it is much steeper but less jungle-like.)

As muscular and violent as the river had seemed yesterday, today the scale of everything was much bigger. The volume of water in the river, pumped up by springs like the one near our campsite, seemed to have doubled. The more we moved downstream, the deeper, broader, and more powerful the river became. We were increasingly watchful as we approached the drop sections of the river and ever more apprehensive when we entered blind canebrakes at high speed with no real idea of what was on the other side and no way to pull the canoe out in any case. As before, we ran most of the rapids and lined the ones we thought too big. One of those, we later learned, is known as Three-Tier Rapid, a nice, long class III that I would have had fun with in my kayak but which we believed would have been impossible for us to run in the canoe. On the other side of the rapid, we found out that we had been right. There, stranded on a shoal, was a badly smashed canoe with a small fishing motor on the back and a ripped life jacket trailing forlornly in the current. A little farther downstream was a pile of camping and boating gear that had apparently been abandoned in haste. It was a sobering sight: our worst fears, neatly summarized. We inspected it, theorized about what had happened to the people, and pushed on, more attentive than ever to the booming rapids ahead of us.

Our trip ended at the home of Gerald Bailey, who is the only local river guide for the Devils River. His house was easy to find. We needn’t have worried. He is a big bear of a man with a walrus mustache and a ponytail who throws fifteen-foot canoes around as if they were kindling. We boarded his old F-250 and headed back on a two-hour drive to Baker’s Crossing on one of the roughest, most alarmingly vertical jeep roads I have ever traveled. We asked him about the smashed canoe. “I had to go get them,” he said, with a wry smile, then told us that the wreck had happened a few days before. The panicked canoeists had hiked out of the canyon and had been lucky enough to find a nearby ranch house and begged Bailey to come and rescue them. “They didn’t even want to go back and get their equipment,” he said. “I guess they had enough.” Kenny and I just looked at each other and laughed. Sitting in the comfort of Bailey’s pickup truck, now on a paved road and headed north, this was a very funny story. It was downright hilarious.

The Devils Made Me Do It

You can run it too.

>> Anyone wanting to run this primitive river should contact the river’s sole local guide and leading authority, Gerald Bailey, at 830-395-2266. He can provide equipment as well as shuttle service. He also specializes in fishing trips.

There are two recommended places where you can put a canoe or kayak in the river. The farthest upstream is Baker’s Crossing, located on Route 163 about sixty miles south of Ozona. For a fee you can camp there or leave your car while you paddle. Contact Mary Baker Hughey at 830-292-4503.

The Devils River State Natural Area offers to boaters both primitive camping and a place to put canoes and kayaks in the river. To get there from Del Rio, travel 45 miles north on U.S. 277, then turn left on Dolan Creek Road and go 18 miles to the park. (Note: Park regulations allow you to put boats in here but not to take them out.) For camping reservations, call Texas Parks and Wildlife at 512-389-8900. To make reservations for canoeing or kayaking, you must call the rangers at Devils River State Natural Area at 830-395-2133.

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