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by Skip Johnson - Spring, Texas - USA

We are gathered at Susie's Mom's place for the 48th consecutive time, now with generations in attendance. One afternoon while sitting around in general conversation oldest granddaughter Sydnee, 16, allows as how she would like to try some expedition canoe camping. I launch into a discussion of what little I know about the "outward bound" type programs along with the thought that she is probably a year or two too young for such a program when my wife gently interrupts me with "Skip, I think she is talking about going with you"..... oops. I shut up, look at Syd and she nods yes. OK, once I pull my foot out of my mouth and ask her if she's sure we decide to wait and see if there's a time she'll be available come spring.

Time's an issue. A junior in High School, Honor roll, Band, Varsity Soccer, boyfriend, just not a lot of free time floating around. So my thought is an overnight trip fairly close to home would be the ticket. A weekend or a couple of days during Spring Break might work if I get my act together. Trinity or San Jacinto River might work but I've not spent a lot of time on either and am really not sure about camp sites. After participating in a number of Colorado 100 Adventure races I'm pretty familiar with the Colorado River and the section from Bastrop to Smithville is close to ideal. Not too far away, 25 miles more or less from put in to take out, quite a few islands well situated for camping and it's a nice run with some rock bluffs and not too much flat water. Location settled more or less, there are still a few items to consider; shuttle is one big one. I'm not about to leave my 16 year old granddaughter somewhere alone while making a shuttle and her car while cute is not the kind to leave unattended overnight in the park at Smithville. Another option is to use a shuttle service and just plan on leaving the loaded boats unattended for an hour or so while we get my vehicle down to the takeout, still not a good choice. The ideal solution is to have a driver, a. k. a. wife Susie who has followed me down the river on all the races and training runs. For an overnight run like this, it's a lot to ask, the kolache shop at LaGrange is good but not that good. After a little discussion we decide the best bet would be for Susie to act as driver and spend the night in Bastrop. Subsequently Susie had the even better idea of spending the night with her 98 year old Aunt Ruth in Brenham, which isn't too far away and they would have some time to visit and play cards.

All that's left is the easy stuff, boats and gear. My plan is to take both 12 and 14 foot EasyBs, Syd in 12 footer and me in the slightly more loaded 14 footer. Both boats need a little work, the 12 foot wood stripper is getting up in years and bottom is banged up enough it's time to refinish with a coat of graphite/epoxy. The 14 foot foam stripper is in need of more work, the bottom was chewed up literally on the last GURG trip when the Rio Grande almost stopped flowing (20-35 cfs!). There's about a 12" x 15" spot right in line with the front of the seat where the foam is compressed and the Kevlar/glass skin is delaminated along with a couple of rips through the skin where a particularly sharp rock coincided with my desire to not get out of the boat again. Repairs are easily made and paddles are in good shape, we'll take the two single blade bent shaft paddles and my trusty old double blade, planning on using the singles, it's not a race and it's good to learn some basic single blade operation before tackling a double. Rest of the gear is simple, I've got all my standard gear, including food and the only thing outstanding is a tent and air mattress for Syd, she's got her own sleeping bag. I've still got my inflatable mattress from the Ruta Maya and first Big Bend trip, so the only thing left is a tent. A friend had several tents he wasn't using, a two man, a four man and a 6 man. I elected to borrow the 4 man on the basis that if it rained, being stuck in a couple of little two man tents probably wouldn't enhance the experience much whereas there's enough room in a four man to visit and stretch out before calling it a night.

Food for an overnight trip is a pretty simple matter also. Daytime fare is usually trail mix, oatmeal bars, and bananas. Syd also likes beef jerky so she'll have a large pouch in her day bag. Evening meals are usually Hawk Vittle backpacking fare (thanks to Dennis Barret aka spidennis for the recommendation). Hawk Vittles are far better than the usual backpacking type meals available from regular retail outlets, less sodium and more flavor. Morrocan stew as main fair with peanut soup as a backup. Both vegetarian fare to suit my granddaughter's sensibilities, before you point out the inconsistency here, let me say that in my limited experience the young can bridge such gaps easily, we elders just get a little sneakier with our conundrums.

Getting Ready

Boats repaired, gear together, only thing left to do is to obsess about water level. Being able to easily monitor water level/flow rate ( is a mixed blessing for the mildly obsessive compulsive. What's the cut off? 20-35 cfs is definitely too little flow. Colorado 100 river races usually are run in the 1200-2000 cfs range. An arbitrary limit of 150 cfs is set for making the trip. Flow is running around 400 cfs as Spring Break approaches and guessing commences as to how many portages are going to be required. Then it begins to rain and flows hit 10,000 - 12,000 cfs and more. What to do for an upper limit? Sue Van Natta and I ran one race at about 8,000 cfs and that would have been a bit much for a relative neophyte in a solo canoe so an arbitrary upper limit of 4,000 cfs is set.

Spring Break approaches and I check with Syd and she's still interested (the fact that her boyfriend is going to be out of town may have been a factor). So I tell her to pick any two consecutive days and we'll do the deal depending on water level. She calls back and Monday-Tuesday it is.

Monday we pick up Syd around 7:00 Am and head to Bastrop, where the river's flowing at about 2,600 cfs. First time we'd been there since the fires that took out St John's home, Chuck and Sandra's daughter's home, and so many more, a sobering sight still. At Fishermans Park, the first order of business is to check the water situation, I'm still ready to call the trip off if there's a lot of debris in the water, but it's clear debris wise (still muddy). We unload the boats then load them up with gear and carry them to the water. A minor gender/generation gap issue comes up during the loading, Syd doesn't want to wear her lifejacket but that's a non-negotiable item, the hesitancy due mainly to not having matching gloves and jacket, something that quite literally had never crossed my mind.

Everything together, gear tied in, trim looks OK so we are off, once again freeing the surly bonds of earth, to be at one with the water. Water is flowing good but not too turbulent so we pass under the bridges and get into an easy rhythm following the flow of the river, switching sides as the channel meanders from one bank to the other. The first set of riffles run river left and are a nice straight shot for Syd to get a feel for keeping her EasyB pointed downstream, easily done. Few pointers or instructions are called for, we're just easy cruising and making good time, quite a bit better than I'd anticipated, it looks to be an easy trip.

It gets close to noon and we take the smaller channel around an island river right to find a place to stop and take a break, eat, and let an old man wander back in the bushes for a couple of minutes (it's still early in the season to dip down in the water). A suitable spot's found quickly and we pull out on a gravel bar with little mud around. We're visited by a couple of Syd's friends (mules) looking for a handout.

In the water

Much like I've never met a boat I didn't like, she's never met a horse or its close cousin that she didn't like. Once fed and refreshed, it's time to hit the water again. Just downstream of us is a little knarly with branches hanging out from the island side and little maneuver room, looks like a good place to walk the boats downstream for 50 yards or so before paddling on. But it's a pretty small stream and we should be able to make it. Sure enough, Syd gets out a little too far, turned backwards in the current and ends up close to the island side. As she starts to work back across the boat gets pinned against an overhanging branch and the inevitable happens. Boat rolls under and she is swimming, surprised and for a moment perhaps even frightened, then it's just aggravation that the world isn't conforming to her wishes. I'm downstream just a bit by then and switch over to double blade paddle to get back upstream to her. Fortunately the side stream not that swift or deep and Syd is able to stand up and holds on to the boat (and her paddle, good girl). Joined up in the shallows on the island side it's only a few minutes to dump the water, bail and sponge the balance and get recombubilated. Only thing lost were two half gallon water jugs that I'd fitted under the bungee hold downs for the bow and stern hatch hold downs plus a partially full half gallon loose water day jug. We've got plenty of water, so it's no big deal and a couple of spares are shifted to Syd's boat. She's a little chilled but warms once on the move again and out from under the cover of the side channel. Then it's along the golf course and the first big bluffs, which also have some indications of last fall's fire.

The first of the potential camp islands is here but it's early in the afternoon and there's no reason not to continue on to what I hope is the premier camp site at mile 16 (we are at mile 10). Back when I was obsessing about water flow I'd also followed the river on Google Earth and tagged possible camp sites and the island at mile 16 stood out as being there no matter how high the water was (using the new history function in Google Earth). I felt better once I'd placed the potential camp site in my mind from previous trips down the river. A little bit of a raised promontory that I'd usually go left if there was enough water, while the dedicated racers usually went right following the faster current. So we paddled on for a couple of hours at a nice relaxed pace until our potential campsite came into view.

Down the river
Camp 1

This might be a little tricky; I've not ever looked at stopping here as I paddled past the island. Going river right is not much of an option as it's swift and deep as the river curls to the left around the island. River left is all that's left (sorry). If we don't make a decent stop along the bank we may have some difficulty getting back to the downstream side at this flow rate. I guess correctly and nudge up against the bank just to the left of where the water breaks both ways around the island and Syd eases in right behind me. There's a spot just a couple of canoe lengths downstream of us that forms a small cove that looks like our best bet to tie up the boats. I enjoin Syd to stay put holding on to the brush along the bank and ease EasyB into the little slot and pull up on the bank. Then it's time to take Syd's bowline and walk her around to pull her boat out while reassuring her that it's not preferential treatment but common courtesy to help the next boat in.

We've arrived. It really is a good campsite. Large flat area covered with short cropped clover, not very many cow patties, though I do demonstrate the proper single blade technique to dispose of same. We chill for a bit, it's still early in the afternoon, Syd lays back in her beached boat and I pull out a camp chair. I also call Susie, interrupt her card game and check in to let her know we are OK. Camp setup is quick, just two tents and associated gear, most of it I can do in my sleep. Supper is simple but good, Moroccan stew, some fruit and parfait cups do the job then it's time to build a fire. There's a lot of dry brush available but it's light and pithy. It takes a while of constant feeding to build up a nice bead of coals. Then it's easy to sit and stare into the fire and discuss the wonders and secrets of the universe, after that it's time to call it a night.

Not much cloud cover or chance of rain, we'd left the rain flys off the tents, to better see the stars above us. No rain, but the dew is heavy enough that it is a distinction without a difference, tents are for sure going to have to be reset once home to dry out. Morning is an easy going time, Syd sleeps in, I greet the day with a little meditation, coffee and cold cereal breakfast before waking Syd. Camp breaks quickly, even wet with tents. I call Susie to give her an estimated time of arrival at the ramp at Smithville and we pack up to hit the river again. The water level has dropped about a foot overnight but there is still plenty of flow and we ease the boats down to the new water level and are off.

Only nine miles more or less to make this should be an easy paddle and it is. But with the lower water level there are a lot more boils, whorls and generally knarly water. After about thirty minutes Syd complains that she is having trouble keeping her 12' canoe straight so I raft up and unlimber my trusty double blade. After the twenty eight second short form instruction (hold paddle like this, reach out, pull, rotate wrist, reach out, pull, repeat...) she is off. Like a natural; previously I'd been leading the way, picking easy quickest routes, now I'm working harder than expected just to keep up. I finally ask Syd to ease up just a bit and we cruise on down the river. As we get closer to the home stretch I pick out the spot that Chuck Leinweber and I sank on our first trip down the river, there have been a lot of river miles since then, but that was a special trip as is this one.

Camp 2
Camp fire

First the water tower comes into view, last set of power lines, and then the bridge and we are at the take out. With the drop in water level, there's no place to take out that's not at least a little muddy so we pull up just upstream and get ready to take all our gear out. Susie's not here yet so there's no calling the hogs this time, a curious anomaly for yours truly. A phone call to Susie finds that they are about ten minutes away and arrive in short order. There are three kayaks in the process of loading to up for a trip down the river to LaGrange and we visit for a few minutes. When Susie and Aunt Ruth arrive they take Syd over to the Park across highway 71 to change clothes while I finish bringing up the gear. They return and we load the stuff and boats on the Element and we are off to a final stop at the Roadhouse in Bastrop for a late lunch before dropping Ruth off in Brenham then back to Cypress.

Double paddling
Almost there

In a lot of respects it was an unremarkable but pleasant trip, hardly worth this many words. But on another level it's worth much more. For me the chance to guide my granddaughter on a trip a little out of the mainstream of life but close to my heart is to be cherished. For Syd; I don't know exactly what she got out or the experience, but to take off and head down the river with little or no previous experience takes a blend of courage, faith and naivety, I'm glad she asked.

Click the image above to open a file of our track in Google Earth.

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