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

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