More Bite Than Bark: The Little River Trip Report
Practicing the art of contentment is not one of my specialties. I’m more of a practitioner of pushing it too far then resorting to my overused and self-developed art of figuring out how the hell to get out of the hole that naturally dug me. I get it. Patience isn’t a flower that grows in everyone’s garden. But man, I sure missed out on those seeds while growing mine.
In optimistically planning our training runs, we saw no trouble in scheduling a 75+ mile paddle over two days on a section of a central Texas river that was not only unscouted and never before paddled by us, but it also was a river that was seemingly nonexistent on paddling forums and unheard of in multiple outfitter’s internal database of experience and knowledge.
But hey, we’re pretty much professionals after our three months in the endurance canoe game, right? What could go wrong?
Fighting the Good Fight
Like two kids checking the chimney on Christmas Eve, the evening before our trip our eyes were plastered to the weather reports of Waco, Texas. Waco – a solid 3 hour drive north from our Houston home base – gave me initial hope for weekend weather warmer than the mid 20 temperatures we were suffering through in Houston.
That quickly changed. It was going to be cold, real cold. There was nothing we could do about it besides pack extra gloves, our thickest waders, and prepare to fight off the cold weather like it was the featured match on UFC Pay Per View 183.
Quitting time on Friday came – after putting in my 8-5 reading Adventure Kayak and Paddling Magazine articles on cold weather paddling tips, tricks, and success stories – we hit the road. Time to get there, get some sleep, and prepare for 12 rounds dancing in the ring with Mother Nature’s hard left, right, left winter jabs.
I wish it was that easy.
We got to Philip’s family’s ranch house in Rogers, Texas around midnight. Turning up the gravel driveway, the ranch house – surrounded by it’s postcard view of a tree farm and only a stones skip from our put in on the river – smiled the most inviting smile at us from under the stars.
The gear was unloaded on the open air porch. The backyard’s windmill was fertilized with each or our home brew combinations of coffee, Red Bull, and the occasional sip of Gatorade. The celebratory flask of ‘We Made It’ whiskey was opened and passed in true hot potato fashion when it happened; the ranch house door wouldn’t open.
Nothing worked. We were accidentally given the wrong key to the ranch house. We were also given a tablespoons taste about what we were going to endure on the river from the sleeping town of Rogers, Texas.
Cell phone service went out about 30 miles down County Road 437 and we now only had about 5 hours until our predawn launch. The comfortable pajamas and electronics chargers that we brought quickly became as useless as proofreading after clicking publish. We bundled up in every article of clothing we brought, polished off the flask of whiskey that was meant to last us two nights, invited the barn cat into the car for a break in the tension, and did our best to rest until our alarms sounded.
Our fight with the elements on the river was going seem like sparring at the gym compared to the mid-round battle versus sleep that we just got tossed into.
Dad’s Old Paddle
The alarms sounded before the sun began to think about rising and were quickly beaten into snooze mode until the neighborhood chickens, cows, whatever the hell was in that barn started calling us up from our cramped sleeping quarters.
After undressing six layers and feasting on a granola bar breakfast, we headed to the launch for a put in just behind schedule.
The river was perfect. I swear, there’s something special about every damn one of them. Regardless of the depth, clarity, or current of the river, they’re amazing creatures.
This creature – all beauty aside – was cold, shallow, and was going to make us work for her respect. This respect would have been hard to gain with our two 17 ounce, 14 degree bent shaft premium canoe paddles from Bending Branches. Even the latest technology in something most view as a chunk of wood couldn’t help us power through the many shallow ripples because there was hardly any water for the paddle to work against. While the shallow sections gave us a false sense of quicker currents ahead, scraping the bottom began to wear on our sleep deprived morale and our cold bodies with every stop.
The continuous need to stop, get out, and wade the canoe though the shallows 30 yards downriver to the next drop off wasn’t only killing our time. Paddling was the only thing keeping us at a respectable level of moderate warmth. Stopping our warm paddle strokes to step in the cold water was a big double negative: a no-no.
Something had to give.
That’s when the 25-year-old battered Old Town Beaver Tail paddle – no longer in production by Johnson Outdoors – that my Dad lent us as a spare got called into action. This paddle was heavy, dense, and as strong as could be making our racing paddles feel like toothpicks. Well, you can’t push a 50-pound canoe, 30 pounds of well-rigged cooler, and 360 pounds of city slicker through sandbars with a toothpick.
Powered by polling from the stern, this paddle-turned-pushpole saved us. What I lost in muscle endurance, we easily made up for in warmth, speed, and enthusiasm.
The next thing we knew, we were 20 miles into our wildlife-packed winter wonderland episode of reality television. A couple of deep rapids, wild hog sightings, and three hours of jamming to our now deceased Bluetooth speaker later, we were on a good pace to make it to the take out well before dark. After that, it was all about resting for the 35+ miles scheduled for day two.
Borrowing Magellan’s Map
Things were going great. Our strength and endurance had improved tenfold since our last couple practice trips. Our snacks tasted delicious. The weather became a nonfactor, and the river became consistently deep, quick, and uneventful – probably my most highly valued factor in gauging a river mid-paddle.
With four miles – roughly one hour of paddling – and two hours left until dusk hit and our shuttle back to the cabin arrived, we were practicing not only the art of contentment but also the art of pulling off the throttle.
Around a dog leg right cut bank, we got excited at the noise of moving water ahead. If this was a major central Texas rapid with a decent current running through it, we were going to get finished too early! Hell, paddling slow in the cold was a much better option than twiddling our thumbs waiting for a ride.
Well, we were never lucky enough to be forced to make that decision. The rapid ahead began to roar louder than any Texas hill country rapid should roar. That’s because it wasn’t a rapid, it was a 10-foot dam surrounded on both sides by 40 foot high, boulder stacked, and seemingly vertical cliffs.
Somehow we had missed this on all of our maps…
Mayday, mayday! SOS, danger, and red light! We were in trouble.
Let’s go over our options:
- Channel our inner Eric Jackson and plunge over this little thing! While this would have been the most exciting of the three options, it was probably not the smartest idea with a rental canoe, unleashed gear apt to sink or float away, and waders that could quickly fill up with freezing cold water making it difficult to swim to the surface and even more difficult to survive the next hour of paddling.
- Portage everything – including the canoe – halfway up the 40 feet of boulders, past the dam, and back down the boulders. The cooler, paddles, and dry bag would take two trips on their own. The canoe would make an undesirable third trip and a level of balance and coordination that would be challenging without waders on and with full feeling and grip in our toes and fingers. There has to be something between these two extremes.
- Portage the gear in one painful trip each and sending the canoe down on its own with a guide rope system. Now we’re talking!
We consolidated as much as we could in the dry bag and cooler, putting all our eggs in Option 3’s seemingly reasonable basket. Philip took the three paddles, two life vests, and loaded dry bag backpack. I – against my better judgment – volunteered to haul the Yeti. A couple of grunts, groans, slips, and curse words later, the gear was dropped off on the bank downriver of the damn dam.
We laced our rope around the bow and the stern giving us independent control of each part of the canoe. It was like we had our marionette puppet swan diving over this 10 foot cliff.
At least a fatigue packed and danger filled hour later, we got settled in the canoe just downriver of the dam that singlehandedly wore us out more than the previous 30+ miles. As soon as this happened, dusk hit us like a 10-pound hammer and it brought along an overwhelming sense of ‘Mom would be so mad if she knew!’
“Let There Be Just Enough Light To Piss You Off” -God
When testing our lighting accessories from the comfort of our home, I was sure these utility lights were more than enough to see and be seen while paddling in the dark. I was wrong.
This wasn’t the kind of dark that spooks you when a street light goes out in your neighborhood. This was the kind of dark where I couldn’t see Philip seated at the bow 6 feet in front of me. This is the kind of dark where we couldn’t see which way the river was going. This is the dark that made me jump every time a beaver splashed or fish tailed top water.
Moving about 2 miles per hour, we made it to the take out over an hour late with a newfound appreciation for different types of high-quality flood lights, headlights, and even the utility lights that we had spent the evening cursing. While we appreciated learning the lessons now rather than in a race, we were simply too physically exhausted and mentally drained from the last three hours of Day #1 to even considering lacing up to paddle on Day #2.
Early the following morning, we tipped our caps to the river with more bite than bark as we drove away with our tails between our legs. When you get beat that bad, the anticipation of a rematch sometime in the near future is overwhelming.
Distance: 37.5 Miles | Average MPH: 3.1 | Canoe: Wenonah Heron 15’ Tandem