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Go With the Flow

Pecos River

Pandale to the boat ramp at U.S. 90, near Comstock

Photograph by Kenny Braun

Section Pandale to the boat ramp at U.S. 90, near Comstock
Difficulty Hard
Length and duration About 60 miles, 5–7 days
Resources Emilio Hinojosa’s shuttle and towboat service, 830-317-0760
Guidebook The Lower Pecos River, by Louis F. Aulbach and Jack Richardson
Reward yourself Enjoy a Tecate and the delicious seafood at Las Playas, in Ciudad Acuña.

Canoeing/Kayaking, Rapids, Overnight Camping

All you crazy adventurers, you lovers of wild and secret places, your next mission awaits you. The Church of the Holy Pecos offers towering bluffs, deep pools full of huge catfish and carp, challenging rapids, and, rarest of all, almost complete isolation. The area between the Edwards Plateau and the Trans-Pecos mountains is an intimidating landscape of treeless ranches and dusty oil fields, dominated by rocky gray mesas. It is likely the least-visited area of Texas, since for outsiders there’s really nothing else here—the Pecos passes through, and that’s about it. On the water there are no trails or any of the little brown signs that shepherd you around a regular park. A trip down this river is one of the last real adventures you can have in this state.

Here’s how to do it. Pick up Emilio Hinojosa at his place by U.S. 90 in Comstock and drive 65 miles north to Pandale. If you thought there was nothing in Comstock, wait until you see Pandale (though you can get a few last-minute supplies at the general store, if it’s open). Load up your boat, wave goodbye to Emilio as he drives your truck back to his place, and push off into the current. About a week later, when you’ve arrived at the boat ramp at Highway 90 and walked half a mile up the hill to get a cell phone signal, you call Emilio and he shows up with your truck. If the Cowboys are playing, he might invite you to watch the game on the big-screen TV in his party garden, where the locals will be working on a 24-pack of Keystone Light. In between Emilio sightings you’re on your own. The Pecos is a classic spring-fed pool-and-drop river, which means that calmer, wider sections alternate with short, fierce rapids hidden in thick canebrakes. The guidebook is only useful if you’re paying close attention, since it quickly becomes hard to tell one rocky bend from another. But one of the great joys of this trip is not knowing where you are and how much longer you have to go. Instead of worrying about the where and when, feast your eyes on the cliffs that my companion called a rock symphony, float through vast boulder gardens, and spend the evenings counting endless stars.

There are a few landmarks along the way. At about seventeen miles, you’ll come to the Flutes, several miles of shallow water passing over grooved limestone bedrock. You’ll have to jump in and out of your canoe and drag it from one tapering rut to the other, trying to find the best route. Fifteen miles from the end of the Flutes, try to spot the petroglyph-covered bluff in Lewis Canyon, famous for its enigmatic, abstract designs. Lewis Canyon Rapid, which comes up a few minutes later, is the first in a six-mile series of potentially class III (or even IV) rapids. The last of these, Painted Canyon Rapid, will almost certainly require a long portage. The Weir Dam, located at about the 46-mile mark, signals that you are heading into the last part of your journey. (At this point you will hear trains and imagine that you have reached the end of the trip. But the river takes another big curve north; you still have about fifteen miles to go.) Soon after, the canyon walls rear up and close in on the river, and you travel through a breathtaking cathedral of rock.

At a certain point the water loses its sparkle and the cliffs retreat into totalitarian aloofness; you have made it to Amistad Reservoir. The scenery is gorgeous, but the last ten miles are infamous for thirty-mile-per-hour headwinds and blistering heat. My advice is to ditch any macho delusions and prearrange (through Emilio) for a towboat. Perhaps he’ll bring a few of those Keystone Lights.

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