Ben Kvanli steers toward a frothy, stair-stepped rapid on Mexican Creek called the Big Enchilada, then nudges his bright yellow inflatable kayak over the edge.
A couple of quick turns and he’s through it and on to enjoy the rest of one of the best stretches of kayakable water in Central Texas, one that twists through a rocky channel for about a mile between the south side of Medina Lake before it gushes back into the Medina River above Diversion Lake.
Kvanli, a former Olympic paddler who represented Guatemala in the 1996 Olympics, learned about the creek from another outfitter more than a decade ago. These days he takes wounded veterans and small groups of recreational paddlers there for runs down its series of rock slides and drops.
“It always has water, and that water is cool and clear, the kind of water you want to be in,” Kvanli says. “There aren’t too many places that have that much drop and that much flow every day. It’s perfect for kayaking.”
I tagged along for a spin down the creek, steeling my nerves for plunges higher than my head, with names like Chupacabra, Brujo and Carp Hole Tumble. Bobby Bernier, 3o, a U.S. Army veteran from San Antonio who suffered a traumatic brain injury and burns while serving in Afghanistan in 2012, came along, too.
“We can show them the water is so equalizing, we can show them adventure isn’t done, and not only that but it might be just beginning,” Kvanli says of the Veterans Adventure Therapy program he started in 2002, a chapter of Team River Runner, a national nonprofit organization that helps wounded veterans get on the water.
Kvanli should know. He fought back from a serious car accident to compete as an individual at the Olympics. “My story to these guys: Not only is the adventure not done, but it may help you in life,” Kvanli says.
That’s true for Bernier, who finally gave in to Kvanli’s repeated requests a few years ago to join him on the river. At the time he felt sorry for himself; now he loves paddling so much he’s studying to become an occupational therapist so he can help others in similar situations.
“We’re all broken a little bit, but we all have each other’s backs,” Bernier says.
Our trip to Mexican Creek marks Bernier’s first visit to the spot. Mine, too. We launch our kayaks in at Bedrock Resort at the south end of Medina Lake, about 2 1/2 hours from Austin, then paddle across the emerald green water to the top of the spillway, where we hoist our kayaks down a steep and slippery incline of rock to Mexican Creek.
When the dam here was first built, tourists described the area as the Mediterranean of Texas. Mexican Creek drops 160 feet through a gorge, creating a kayaker’s playground.
Drought and water releases drained Medina Lake for several years, and businesses catering to fishing and boating in the area closed. But the water is back, and so are the kayakers.
When the flow is mellow, like today, skilled athletes like Kvanli can easily navigate these waters. But inexperienced paddlers shouldn’t attempt the trip alone and should always wear helmets and life jackets. And when heavy rains fall, the lake overflows the spillway into the gorge, turning what now looks mild into a raging river of Class III, IV and even V rapids.
The first drop, the Big Enchilada, immediately catches my attention. The three-tiered descent presents no problems for Kvanli. I bypass the worst part and watch from below, cooling my shaking knees in the water.
Not everyone appreciates the influx of paddlers here. The area was at the forefront of state river navigation law in the 1930s. Even today, landowners in the area challenge the public’s right to access the waterway, worried that people will trespass onto adjacent private property, disrupt the quiet or trash the surroundings. Kvanli says property owners have harassed him and others who venture onto the creek.
Local law enforcement officials say paddlers are allowed to run the creek as long as they don’t trespass on adjacent private property. They’re also allowed to get in and take out via public easements, according to Jamie Moore, an assistant at the Medina County sheriff’s office, and Texas game warden Jeff Benson .
“They’re legal as long as they stay in the water,” Benson says. “They can go all the way down and pull out on County Road 271.”
In 2013, County Judge James Barden wrote in response to a complaint from one resident letter that “ the Medina River bottom is public land and, by law, accessible to the public” and “any impediments to such access from the county right of way will be removed … we believe that maintenance of lawful access to public land is part of our mandated responsibility.”
No one bothers us during our explorations. When we’ve made it through the rapids, we glide into Diversion Lake, where we spend 20 minutes paddling among cypress trees and admiring a waterfall that spills down a hillside. Springs burble up ice-cold water, and blue herons flap overhead. Now and then a fish jumps.
Our pulses slow and we ride the current downriver to our takeout at County Road 271, where Kvanli pulls out some plastic bags. We fill them with trash left by other visitors, pull out our kayaks and load them into our vehicle.
I hate to leave this little slice of Hill Country beauty. I’m hungry for more — and next time I’m getting a bite of that Big Enchilada.