Floating the Upper Brazos
A daylong kayak trip turns into a personal journey, showing how time and water can carve fresh paths
By Barbara Rodriguez
So it was that we set out, smack-dab in the middle of the best month to say a seasonal goodbye to the Brazos—only to discover it had already left without us. We had been warned—my brother, son, and I—that because engineers would soon stop releasing water into the Brazos from the Possum Kingdom reservoir, the Brazos would not be navigable again until spring. We crossed our fingers and planned a kayak- ing trip for October 16, 2011. A gully-washer of a rainstorm two days before made me think we might be in for an easy ride. What I didn’t know is that the rain would also inspire an early shutting of the dam gates. The day we headed out, the water was running at less than 100 cubic feet per second—in other words, a trickle.
But I get ahead of myself. Our goal is modest: to kayak a 10-mile stretch of the Upper Brazos, putting in where Farm-to-Market Road 4 crosses the river north of Palo Pinto, and heading roughly south toward Mineral Wells. This slow, flat-water stretch of river is favored for day trips by greenhorns like me, and is considered an easy half-day trip with time for fishing by river rats like my brother, Jem.
The great appeal of this stretch is accessibility and—in spring and fall—great weather and relative isolation. We pull into Rochelle’s Canoe Rental beneath the FM 4 bridge just before 9 in the morning. For decades Rochelle’s has offered boats, shuttle service, snacks, and ice for those wanting to run the river. As inside skinny and river lore have always been freely dispensed here, it is no surprise that Graves himself spent time visiting with the grandfather of current proprietor Buddy Rochelle.
Buddy advises me that to see the sort of stark beauty that Graves wrote about—dramatic granite cliffs and narrow canyons—we’d need to extend our trip to 20 miles and camp one night. But we leap on the chance to jump in for even a short trip.
At the best of times, this stretch of river is a Class 1, flat-water stream that meanders through and over a wide selection of hamburger-sized rocks, pea-gravel ridges, and sandbars. Almost always, some portage is to be expected.
The sun was just beginning to shine warmly, and jays squawked around us. I had no worries about anything, so joyful was this bright fall morning. Before we put in, Jem and his nephew, my son Elliott, spend some time ogling each other’s bait boxes. I note Jem has dead minnows among his lures. “Seasons the lures, makes ’em nice and smelly. Fish like it,” he says.
My carry-on is more appetizing. I’ve packed a cooler with prosciutto, baguettes, wedges of cheese, Honeycrisp apples, and frozen peppermint patties. The only thing missing is a parasol and a volume of Dickinson. I imagine a few choice hours of birding, sky-gazing, and exchanging philosophies and memories.
We’re off. Surrounded by rolling hills and meadow expanses, river willows, hardwoods, and scrub, this is the stretch of river Graves identifies as passing through “… the fringe of West Texas, where it loops and coils snakishly from the Possum Kingdom dam down between the rough low mountains of the Palo Pinto country, into sandy peanut and post oak land, and through the cedar-dark limestone hills above a new lake called Whitney.”
Elliott and I have never before shared a kayak. We have been on the river less than 20 minutes when it is clear to me that we have made a grave error. The two-man kayak, requiring him to coordinate his stroke with mine, quickly becomes a battleground. The “tone” every mother of a teenager can recognize lets me know that, unbeknownst to me, Elliott is an expert in paddling, while I am nothing but ballast. I am asked, not nicely, to stop paddling.
I do. I am still feeling mellow. The day is fresh. I am happy to do little more than strike a romantic pose. I do note—while Elliott splashes me with each stroke and zings many-pronged fishing lures past my ear—that the water is less than two feet deep. We drift a bit in those first 40 minutes, the boys casting steadily into willow-shaded holes beneath the banks. We stay close, bump off each other’s boats, and share observations about the glorious day and skittering birds. But while Jem can tell a funny bartender’s tale, identify a bird’s call, cast a line, and whip out binoculars all at the same time, Elliott and I are unable to keep our kayak running parallel to the bank, let alone fish.
Finally, after one particularly loud zzzzzing of fishing line, Elliott announces that he is snagged. He hands me his reel, and I recognize the snarled loops from my own early days of fishing. Elliott picks up the paddling pace—we are now lagging considerably behind Jem—and I set to work pulling line. I loft a little prayer to thank my Pop for the years he spent untangling reels when he could have been fishing himself.
We see the three-mile marker as I hold my breath while passing through shimmering clouds of gnats. Past a squadron of blue dragonflies, a chittering red squirrel greets us before dashing up a bank into a landscape that has been blackened by summer wildfires. Elliott, dismayed that we have yet to either eat or reach the midpoint of our journey, has developed a paddling strategy that involves much splashing and teeth set so tight I am afraid he will break one. A young couple in a canoe passes us at such a fast glide that Elliott snorts. It is not a warm mother-son moment.
I relax enough to enjoy the slight gilding of the landscape as light pours from the clouds like God’s own tractor beam. At four miles out, I begin to paddle, as Elliott grows weary enough to accept some advice about teamwork. We move close enough to Jem to share his observations about kingfishers and the neat little dens they build in the high-walled banks.
Large, rounded cliff fragments that have made a slow (or perhaps crashing) slide to the water’s edge remind me of gray whales. For a bit we move steadily downriver, happily spotting hawks and identifying raccoon tracks. As we pass a magnificent beaver lodge, we are suddenly aware that as we grow increasingly weary, the water is growing increasingly shallow.
Having deftly maneuvered toward the bank to admire some turkey tracks, Jem is able to arch his back and shift his weight and skim the shallowest sandbars and bottom ridges, slippery as a fish. Elliott and I, however, have begun to drag bottom. He insists I stay in the kayak as he tows me over the first few spots.
Soon we are stuck in so many ways and places that we are both carrying the boat, again and again. Jem has become a flicker on the horizon. He uses a paddle to catch the light and flash some sort of signal, then disappears around a bend.
Jays begin a mocking call I want to believe has nothing to do with us. Maybe 25 minutes later, we are huffing and puffing again in water scarcely deep enough to paddle. We make our first stop and dozens of miniscule frogs splatter the water like raindrops. “Where there’s frogs there’s snakes,” Jem shouts, cheerfully.
Elliott wants to know if we can stop for lunch. He says he can’t lift his arms and has a blister. From around a bend we hear Jem’s exuberant shout. He has reached the five-mile mark, our agreed-upon stopping place for lunch. If we can just get there from here.
In a furious burst of energy, we catch Jem and follow a trail of turtle tracks across a sandbar to a good spot for hunkering around the cooler. “You know the trouble with the halfway point?” Elliott asks. “It’s only halfway.”
Back on the water, now more like a sluice, the headwind briefly shifts to a miraculous tailwind. Somewhat restored and resolute, Elliott and I master our teamwork. For the next three hours we paddle constantly—except when we are carrying the kayak. There are moments of excitement involving great blue herons and a last-minute sprint to the finish. Most of all there is gratitude that my son and I have moved beyond our truce to collaboration and, finally, to mutual admiration.
The trip took us five hours of hard paddling and eight portages. That evening we reflect that the river hadn’t let us down, but rather elevated our sense of our best selves. And after hot showers were taken, blisters bandaged, and muscles massaged, we are grateful for what lessons there were to be learned about the passage of both time and water.
Fort Worth-based writer Babs Rodriguez enjoys any activity that justifies a picnic, unplugs her son, and unites her with her brother for happy reveries of a childhood spent outdoors. Photographer Steven Loesch’s favorite way to experience the Brazos is to set out at sunset and paddle under the full moon. He has paddled the 20-mile stretch starting at Flint Bend nearly 70 times.
From the May 2012 issue.