Pad­dling the Ped­er­nales for a new view of the Hill Coun­try

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - Pam LeBlanc Fit City

An hour west of Austin, the Ped­er­nales River spills over a dam in John­son City be­fore snaking its way, unim­peded, to Lake Travis.

Along the way, it tum­bles down a 3-foot ledge, glides past a tow­er­ing sycamore where a bald ea­gle pro­tects its nest and chat­ters through mazes of rocks and reeds. It cuts through ranches and past lime­stone cliffs, around small is­lands and through quin­tes­sen­tial Hill Coun­try ter­rain — and you can see all of it while pad­dling a ca­noe or kayak.

I’m in the midst of my Year of Ad­ven­ture, so when two Lower Colorado River Author­ity rep­re­sen­ta­tives ea­ger to high­light river ac­cess in­vited me to join them for a trip, I put on my board shorts and sunglasses and headed out to get wet.

We put in at in John­son City and pad­dled for five and a half hours, cov­er­ing 11 miles and emerg­ing (with per­mis­sion) onto a pri­vate road. But tack on 5 more miles and you can pull your boat ashore just above the falls at Ped­er­nales Falls State Park.

Drew Pickle, man­ager of busi­ness and prod­uct devel­op­ment at LCRA, and Mar­cus O’Con­nor, su­per­in­ten­dent of nat­u­ral sci­ence pro­grams, were un­load­ing bright green kayaks at the 222-acre Ped­er­nales River Na­ture Park when I pulled up.

The day-use-only park, one of 44 parks the LCRA op­er­ates in Texas, opened to the pub­lic in 2010 and of­fers fish­ing, pad­dling, hik­ing and swim­ming. En­try is free, although Pickle says that may change as more ameni­ties are added. LCRA is look­ing for a part­ner to build rus­tic cab­ins here, where vis­i­tors who want to ex­plore the river, John­son City or nearby winer­ies could stay overnight.

No per­mits are needed to pad­dle the Ped­er­nales, but it’s il­le­gal to tres­pass onto pri­vate prop­erty along the river. That means un­less you have per­mis­sion from a landowner, once you put in at John­son City you’re com­mit­ted to pad­dling all the way to Ped­er­nales Falls State Park.

“It’s not Lady Bird Lake, it’s not flat water,” Pickle says. “It’s about go­ing around the next bend and not know­ing what’s go­ing to be there. There may be a pouroff, or a reed maze where you don’t know where you’re go­ing to pop out. That un­known makes the ex­pe­ri­ence at­trac­tive.”

I don’t know a lot about pad­dling. I’ve got a pair of kayaks, a gift from a friend who was mov­ing to Bos­ton. My ex­pe­ri­ence mostly in­volves pad­dling around Lady Bird Lake and Lake Austin, plus a few quick trips on the Llano River and one foray into Matagorda Bay.

The day of our pad­dle trip, the sky re­sem­bled dryer lint — fluffy and gray and so soft you could reach out and pluck a bit off for a pillow.

So perched on the loaner boat from LCRA, a per­sonal flota­tion de­vice buck­led around my chest, I lis­tened to the ex­perts’ ad­vice. I held my pad­dle with my arms shoul­der-

width apart, looked for the V-shaped pat­tern in the water that in­di­cates smoother and deeper water, and dipped my pad­dle in firmly, pulling it from knee to waist. I prac­ticed stop­ping, turn­ing, piv­ot­ing and back­ing up.

We shoved off at 10 a.m., water rush­ing over the spill­way be­hind us like a frilly white cur­tain. We nudged our kayaks along­side lime­stone out­crop­pings and into the great un­known.

Within 30 min­utes, I could hear rush­ing water ahead. Pickle went first, point­ing the nose of his boat straight over the ledge that we slowly ap­proached. I se­cured the dry bag hold­ing my gear, then fol­lowed (like a lem­ming). My boat rocked and I won­dered if I’d be tak­ing an im­promptu swim but sta­bi­lized quickly. I swung around in time to watch O’Con­nor come down.

A few min­utes later Pickle spot­ted a river ot­ter scam­per­ing up the bank, and fur­ther down­stream we ap­proached a tow­er­ing sycamore tree with what looked like a Volk­swa­gen-sized clump of sticks lodged on a branch — a bald ea­gle nest. As we got closer, the bird took off, cir­cling ner­vously, wait­ing for us to pass.

Around an­other bend we heard a ruckus. A dozen wild hogs popped out from shore, rafted up and swam across the river in front of us, a porky flotilla. We saw cat­tle, a frog or two, and all kinds of birds, from egrets and blue herons to cor­morants, king­fish­ers and red­winged black­birds.

Three hours in, we pulled off for a quick lunch, then piled back into our boats to con­tinue our odyssey, which we wrapped up 11 miles from where we’d started in John­son City.

We didn’t see any other pad­dlers, and only a few homes. “For be­ing one hour away from Austin, it pro­vides a nice wilder­nesslike ex­pe­ri­ence,” Pickle says.

If you de­cide to do the trip, plan ahead. Lo­gis­ti­cally, you’ll ei­ther need two ve­hi­cles (drop one at the state park and take the other to John­son City) or some­one to shut­tle you.

Al­lo­cate a full day. It took us five and a half hours to cover 11 miles, and we ex­ited (with per­mis­sion) on a pri­vate road. But if you don’t have per­mis­sion, you’ll have to pad­dle all the way to Ped­er­nales Falls State Park, and that’s a 16-mile jour­ney, which can take eight or more hours, depend­ing on con­di­tions. At the park, be sure to exit be­fore the falls, on river right. And make sure to pay the en­try fee of $6 per per­son.

Check the flow rates and the weather fore­cast be­fore you start. The LCRA’s hy­dromet site at hy­dromet.lcra.org/full. aspx posts flow rates in Cen­tral Texas; the U.S. Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey web­site at wa­ter­data.usgs.gov/ nwis/uv?site_no=08153500 and the Amer­i­can White­wa­ter site at amer­i­can­white­wa­ter.org/con­tent/ River/state-sum­mary/ state/TX are also help­ful.

We made our trip when the river was flow­ing at a rate of 156 cu­bic feet per sec­ond. Pickle rec­om­mends a flow of at least 100 to make the trip or you’ll find your­self drag­ging your boat a lot. And use your best judgment when flow tops 250 cfs. Wind di­rec­tion, speed and re­cent rain­fall can af­fect how long the trip will take, too.

“The river changes and new ob­sta­cles come into play,” Pickle says. “Runoff can greatly af­fect flow in a short amount of time. It can change quickly.”

A river’s course changes due to floods, and even if you pad­dled it last year, it may be dif­fer­ent now. That’s where the prob­lem-solv­ing as­pect of pad­dling comes in. Wear sun­screen, hy­drate and use a per­sonal flota­tion de­vice.

Con­sider get­ting some in­struc­tion be­fore head­ing out, too. The Olympic Out­door Cen­ter in San Mar­cos (kayakin­struc­tion. org), Mis­sion Kayak in San An­to­nio (mis­sionkayak. com), the Ex­pe­di­tion School in Austin (ex­pe­di­tion­school.com) and Cen­tral Texas Kayak­ing in Ma­son (face­book.com/ CenTexKayak) all of­fer classes.

Fi­nally? Pack your sense of ad­ven­ture and cu­rios­ity. And don’t be afraid to get a lit­tle wet.


Mar­cus O’Con­nor and Pam LeBlanc pad­dle on the Ped­er­nales River on March 9.

Mar­cus O’Con­nor of LCRA puts the kayaks back on the truck.


Pam LeBlanc pad­dles down the Ped­er­nales River on March 9.

Drew Pickle of LCRA pad­dles on the Ped­er­nales River on March 9.

A bald ea­gle pro­tects her nest on the Ped­er­nales River on March 9.

Drew Pickle of LCRA on the Ped­er­nales River on March 9. “It’s about go­ing around the next bend and not know­ing what’s go­ing to be there,” Pickle said.

Ped­er­nales River bridge.

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