texasmonthly.com: Where did the idea for a cover story on rivers originate?
Stayton Bonner: I don’t know.
Stacy Hollister: Well, I’m not too sure about the particulars (although I’d bet much of the credit goes to outdoorsman–editorial director Christopher Keyes), but service pieces are a big part of what we do around here, with get-out-and-explore-the-outdoors pieces being one of our biggest themes.
Christopher Keyes: Everyone knows how brutal the Texas summer can be, but if you look at a map of the state, where more than twenty rivers thread the landscape, you can start to imagine the place as a giant water park. We thought a feature story on rivers would offer great ways to escape the heat while exploring the state in June, July, and August.
Charlie Llewellin: I think it was [editorial director] Chris Keyes’ idea or maybe it was [editor] Evan Smith’s idea. The state parks story was well received, and prior to that, the “Escape!” and “Jump in!” cover stories. This just seemed like a good extension of that franchise.
texasmonthly.com: How did you end up picking the particular rivers that you wrote about?
SB: I picked the tubing rivers according to their overall popularity and the Pedernales because it’s off the beaten track. I selected the fly-fishing rivers because they’re also popular destinations and have good public access points.
SH: First off, we had to narrow our list. We took our cues from the Texas Monthly staff members, who had suggested many great ways to have fun on Texas’s rivers, and from the mounds of research we had compiled. Once we had our finalists, we divided up the state and each took a region to “report.”
CK: We thought less about specific rivers and more about activities—where are the best places to fish, which waterways have great rapids, where can you put your tube in and just float? Once we had a list of things to do, we simply picked the best twenty adventures we had.
CL: Chris and I talked about it a lot and came up with the list. We wanted to make sure that we covered the state and not give too much prominence to the Hill Country, which has some of the most famous rivers—the Guadalupe and the Frio are so classic. We also wanted to make sure that a full range of activities was covered. But in the end, that’s a little artificial, since you can basically fish where you can kayak or tube. And you know, I was in a Wal-Mart in East Texas getting a flat fixed, talking to the mechanics, and one guy told me about this trip on the Neches that he does every year with his buddies. Every Texas river has its charms, and people have their favorite rivers, their places to go. This is such a small sample.
texasmonthly.com: How much time did you spend working on this story?
SB: Days and days of fun research.
SH: Well, if you call swimming and picnicking and boating and lounging about in a cabin “work,” then I got to spread my “work” out over a couple of months.
CK: I suppose you could say a year. We started planning this series of stories in the spring of 2004.
CL: Well, I talked on the phone to lots of people, getting ideas, then did the Sabine trip in January at the same time as I did the reporting for the issue on drives. I had gone fishing down the Colorado, east of Austin, a couple of years ago when I did a fly-fishing piece and have always wanted to write about that stretch of the river. I live right by there, in Manor, so it is home turf for me. And I have been to Colorado Bend many times. The others I did in a long weekend, driving all across the state.
texasmonthly.com: How much research did you do before going out to the rivers?
SB: A pretty good amount. In addition to some Internet surfing, I read Ben Nolen and Bob Narramore’s guidebook River and Rapids, as well as the Texas Hill Country Fly Fishing Guide.
SH: A lot of the research came via word-of-mouth recommendations. Everyone seems to have his or her favorite nook and cranny on one of Texas’s rivers. When you couple that with everyone’s favorite ways to enjoy those nooks and crannies, you find yourself with a lot of “research.” And Texas is a much-explored place, so we supplemented the personal recommendations with the written ones from magazines, newspapers, books, outfitters, and the like.
CL: Oh, tons—asking people, reading stuff, researching online.
texasmonthly.com: What had been your experience with rivers before this?
SB: I’ve been tubing since I started drinking beer and fly-fishing since I could throw a line.
SH: Mostly as a summertime river rat—lots of tubing and a good bit of swimming on the Hill Country rivers.
CK: I grew up in Oregon and spent a few summers as a fly-fishing guide on the Deschutes River. I’ve taken rafting trips all over the West: the Green River in Utah, the Middle Fork of the Salmon in Idaho, and the Snake River in Wyoming. There is really no better way to spend a summer vacation than floating through a great western canyon.
CL: I fell in one once. That’s a joke. I grew up by a river, but a big one, an estuary, and we would go fishing and sailing all the time.
texasmonthly.com: What’s your favorite thing to do on a river? Why?
SB: Fly-fishing. It puts my mind at peace.
SH: Tubing—I think it suits my inner bum.
CK: I love to fly-fish, but really I could care less about catching anything. The attraction is the peace of being on a river and what you see and hear around you.
CL: Apart from just floating? I think kayaking. You can relax, but you can explore too. And you can go into secret places.
texasmonthly.com: Since there are so many rivers, how did you find something new to say for every one?
SB: I just talked about them from my own perspective. I tried to give the write-ups some attitude.
SH: Oddly enough, I think the rivers have their own personalities in a way, and, it often seems, there’s variation among the people who are drawn to a particular river. So there’s plenty of possibilities for differentiation.
CK: Some of these adventures, like floating the lower canyons of the Rio Grande or tubing on the Frio, aren’t exactly new ideas. In fact, we’ve written about a few of them before. But we felt if something was a classic, so to speak, then there was a reason for that. And the great thing about rivers, whether you’re tubing, kayaking, or fishing, is that no two experiences on the same river are identical. Conditions change every day, depending on the weather and river flow, so it’s not too difficult to discover something new.
CL: Well, they are all so different—like anything, once you get to know it, the differences appear. I mean, the Guadalupe and the Sabine are about as different as you can get.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect of working on this story? Why?
SB: It was tough getting all the direction details—some of these places are pretty remote.
SH: Well, I always find the writing the most difficult part! But other than that, I’d have to say it was the weather. It’s funny how much more pleasant an experience seems when you have sunshine and clear-blue skies as an accompaniment.
CK: Covering so much ground—Texas is a big state. In one week I floated Colorado Canyon outside Big Bend, went rock climbing on the Pecos River near the Amistad National Recreation Area, camped on the Sabinal in the Hill Country, and then went birding on the Rio Grande near Mission. I think I drove more than a thousand miles that week just to get it all in. I don’t recommend that approach.
CL: The thinking is always hard!
texasmonthly.com: What’s the best time of year to go to the rivers?
SH: We’re lucky in Texas—we can go year-round!
CK: It really depends on what you’re planning to do. I don’t recommend tubing in the Hill Country in January! Then again, if you want to catch trout on the Guadalupe, or see migrating birds in the Valley, your best bet is in the winter. Early fall can be a great time to run the Rio Grande in the Big Bend area because the water is (sometimes, at least) up and the temperature a little more tolerable. And if you camp on the Sabinal in Lost Maples during the spring, you’ll likely avoid the huge crowds that are always there in the fall.
CL: Anytime. I went down the Sabine in January, wearing thermals under my wet suit (a first for me), and it was great.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this story?
SB: It’s illegal to drink in a public place before noon on Sundays in Texas.
CK: I’ve spent time on rivers all over the American West. I never realized, however, what an incredible place the Hill Country is. There are at least eight rivers within a day’s drive that are still in pristine condition with cleaner water than you’ll see anywhere else in the lower 48 states.
CL: Oh, every moment is a revelation. I love knowing more about Texas and weaving it into the grand story of the state, making the connections.
texasmonthly.com: Did you have a favorite river? If so, which one? Why?
SB: The Guadalupe. It is killer for fishing and tubing, and it’s just plain beautiful.
SH: I was quite fond of the Frio near Concan: the waters were gorgeous, the surrounding landscape was very “Hill Country,” and the Neal’s Lodges cabin was welcoming and homey.
CL: They are all great. I have a soft spot for the Colorado and a swimming hole on the Medina.
texasmonthly.com: Did anything unusual happen to you while working on this story?
SB: I got paid to write about tubing and fishing.
CL: Well, not unusual but kind of amusing. On the Sabine, we planned to go 21 miles in two days, hoping to make 16 or so the first day. Well, we misconfigured the GPS, so the first night we thought we had only gone 8 miles. Now the trip was going to take three days instead of two. The next morning it was raining hard. You can’t paddle a canoe in the rain because it fills with water and sinks, especially with all the gear we were carrying. So now the trip was going to take four days, perhaps, if it stopped raining. We had food and everything, but we were a long way from anywhere with nothing to do but sit in the tent, chat, and wait. So I resigned myself to the fact that I had no control over how long this trip would take, and as soon as I did, it stopped raining. We continued and within about four hours came to the take-out to our great surprise, which is when we realized that the GPS was wrong. I was so happy.
texasmonthly.com: Are you planning to go back to these rivers anytime soon?
SB: I’m out there all the time.
CK: I’d like to go back to the Continental Ranch on the Pecos to go rock climbing. There are hundreds of routes that I didn’t get to try, and it’s a spectacularly remote and wild place. If only I can convince my girlfriend that hanging by a rope hundreds of feet above the ground is a vacation.
CL: Yes, for sure. I want to go back to the Brazos. The country up there in Palo Pinto is stunning.
texasmonthly.com: Based on your experiences, give us one piece of advice we should always heed when going to a river.
SB: Never underestimate a rapid.
SH: Trust the experts, and always plan ahead.
CL: Be prepared for anything, but mostly be prepared to get wet.