(Drone footage by Chris LeBlanc)
I’ve suddenly become a paddling junkie, with recent trips down the Llano River, the Devils River and the Pedernales River.
Recently, I headed south on Interstate 35 with a couple of kayaks loaded into the back of the pickup for a three-hour leisurely spin down the San Marcos River.
We unloaded our kayaks at the Olympic Outdoor Center, located at 602 North Interstate 35, and arranged to for someone to pick us up when we pulled out a few hours later. Besides shuttle pickups, which cost $10 per person, the center offers paddling lessons, rentals and guided trips.
I hadn’t paddled this stretch of the San Marcos River. We pushed our boats into the water at about 11 a.m., before (we realized later), the hordes arrived.
We didn’t know what to expect. We glided past a couple practicing yoga on their standup paddleboards, then quickly approached Cape’s Dam, a 150-year-old, man-made drop-off. We followed signs that pointed left, into the Mill Race, a channel that allows paddlers to bypass the dam. Ten minutes down that channel, we pulled off and dragged our kayaks over a spit of land and back into the main river channel.
We paddled another 15 minutes without seeing anyone, then met up with a group of five or six guys out for an easy kayak trip. The river’s shady in this stretch; towering trees stretch their leafy arms over the river, providing protection from the searing Texas sun. Birds chirp, water flows clear and cool, and the buzz of the city doesn’t penetrate.
But it’s also full of trash. We encountered mats of floating debris – river grass entwined with plastic bottlers, beer cans, lost flip flops and two full-sized garbage cans.
After a while, the San Marcos River merges with the Blanco River, and runs wide and deep until you reach Cummings Dam. Pay attention to the warning signs; you don’t want to go over this one. It’s about a 20-foot drop, but paddlers can portage via a wooden staircase on river right.
We dragged our boats down the stairs and off onto the rocky beach below and went for a swim. (Watch the currents here; they’re extremely strong in places and could be hazardous to even strong swimmers. The bottom is slippery clay.)
After an hour of lollygagging, we got back in our boats. After another 30 minutes of easy paddling, we came around a bend and I thought I saw a couple of people standing in the river.
I was wrong. I saw a couple of hundred people standing in the river.
We’d arrived at the drop-off point for Don’s Fish Camp, a tubing operation that’s especially popular with college-age students. Just up the hill, a seemingly never-ending stream of old school buses was disgorging customers, who were putting in for float trips.
Note to self: To avoid crowds, get an early start.
We called the Olympic Outdoor Center and alerted them that we were ready for pickup. The center was short-staffed at the time, and we waited an hour before our driver arrived. The upside? Great people watching. The downside? Hot and dusty.
The toughest part about paddling explorations is often logistics. This worked great. We put in, called for pickup, and were delivered (after that wait, of course) back to the center, where we loaded our boats back into the truck and headed across the interstate for a late lunch at Herbert’s, an old-school, inexpensive Mexican food restaurant.
For more information about the Olympic Outdoor Center, go to http://www.kayakinstruction.org.
Another option? Paddler and photographer Karla Held, whom I met while paddling the Pedernales River a few months ago, is now offering weekly guided paddling trips on the Upper Guadalupe River.
Meet her at Bergheim Campground (http://bergheimcampground.com/), 103 White Water Road in Boerne, at 10 a.m. Wednesday. The trip costs $10 per person and includes shuttle. You can bring your own kayak or rent one ($35 from the campground or $25 for one of Held’s whitewater versions). For more information, email Held at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at (909) 297-6391.