texasmonthly.com: Why the Devils River? Were you planning on going on your own, or was this strictly an assignment?
S. C. Gwynne: I had heard about the Devils from some of my kayaking friends and had always wanted to run it. When the magazine decided it wanted to do a series of stories on Texas rivers, it seemed logical to suggest it. So I did. The magazine then assigned photographer Kenny Braun to do the story, and we ran the river together.
texasmonthly.com: How did you prepare for the trip? Had you been on rivers before?
SG: I have been a kayaker for about six years. I mostly run rivers in Central Texas—the Guadalupe, Blanco, San Marcos, and Barton Creek. I often run them at flood stage, which provides the white-water conditions that I like. This trip, however, was a canoe trip, and I did not know much about how to maneuver a canoe in fast-moving water. Preparation consisted mostly of reading what few accounts existed and talking to Gerald Bailey, the outfitter from whom we rented our canoe. We made checklists of various camping supplies, food, water, and so forth that we would need. We really had no idea what we were doing, but then canoeing on a river isn’t exactly rocket science, either.
texasmonthly.com: Did you know Kenny Braun before the trip? Was the trip a bonding experience?
SG: I did know Kenny. We had covered the Tony Sanchez gubernatorial campaign together and had liked each other. I don’t know if “bonding” is the right word, but when you are in a little canoe in the midst of the very large and empty spaces in West Texas, you certainly get to know someone quickly. We had fun and got along well.
texasmonthly.com: Physically, what was most difficult about this trip? Mentally, what was difficult?
SG: It was physically exhausting for several reasons. First, there was the paddling. Fifteen miles is a fairly long way to paddle if you don’t use those muscles much. And most of that is over open water that is not moving very fast, so you are creating all of your own locomotion. Then there was the lining, which was physically very hard—basically lowering the boat through rapids using long ropes. The problem, as I say in the story, is that you have to be in the white water much of the time. It took a lot of energy.
There was a certain amount of stress, too, because we really had no idea what was around each bend, or what we would do if we lost the boat. I also worried that we would smash up Kenny’s expensive photographic equipment.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this story?
SG: I learned a lot of little things about the river, but probably the most striking thing about the Devils was how full of fish it was.
texasmonthly.com: How did you determine your approach for writing this story?
SG: Since it was always envisioned as a first-person account, the only real decision I had to make was whether or not to extend my reporting beyond a basic account of the river trip. I could, for example, have reported extensively on the landowners and ranchers who live there, or on efforts by various environmental groups to protect the Devils by buying up land. I decided to stick to the river trip, mainly because I found it more interesting.
texasmonthly.com: What did you wear on the trip? Was the water cold?
SG: I wore shorts, a T-shirt, sturdy river shoes, and a life vest for the whole trip. I was wet most of the time. The weather was great: 75 to 80 degrees, clear skies. The water was probably 72 degrees or so.
texasmonthly.com: Did you guys take more gear than you needed? What was the one thing you couldn’t have survived without?
SG: I think we took the right amount of gear. We did not really need a tent, but I like tents and the idea that various insects and reptiles aren’t crawling into your sleeping bag with you. If we had had just the boat and the paddles, we would have made it safely down river.
texasmonthly.com: How does this compare with other river trips you’ve taken in the past?
SG: It is unique. I have never done anything like it.
texasmonthly.com: What kind of recommendations do you have for people who decide to give Devils River a try?
SG: Either run it the way we did, or call Gerald Bailey, the local guide, and arrange a guided fishing trip.
texasmonthly.com: Would you do it again?
SG: Yes, though I might try it in my kayak next time.