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 red-winged 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.