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.

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

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