The Devil made me do it

12:00 a.m. Saturday, June 17, 2017 Travel

The Devils River bashes your shins, blasts you with headwinds and tricks you with reed mazes.

And right now, at the top of a washing machine of cascading water called Three Tier Rapid, my knees won’t stop knocking. I’m three days into a four-day paddle trip down this turquoise ribbon of liquid, and the only way home is forward, over the twisting, tumbling, boulder-strewn obstacle course that lies ahead.

The warnings I’ve heard flash through my mind: If you snap a leg on the Devils, which cuts across remote southwest Texas before gushing into Lake Amistad near Del Rio, no one can help you for hours — or even days. Step onto shore and someone might point a gun at you. Rookie paddlers shouldn’t even attempt it.

I’ve wanted to run this river for years. When I finally got the opportunity in May, a few months after the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department opened two new paddle camps along the route, making it much more doable, I knew I wanted another woman with me. I enlisted Marcy Stellfox, who has joined me for a hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, a multiday bike ride through the prickly West Texas desert and a llama trek into the Colorado mountains.

No one would call us expert paddlers, but we’re fit and determined. Plus, we’ve got two veteran paddlers on our expedition: photographer Erich Schlegel, who has competed in the Texas Water Safari and kayaked part of the Amazon River, and musician, beer expert and adventure junkie — all useful attributes on a river trip — Tony Drewry.

So at the top of the rapids, Marcy and I peer around the corner, scouting for imminent danger. We climb into our borrowed two-person aluminum canoe, shove into the current and hope for the best.

Halfway down, we get wedged on a rock. We step out, and the Devil yanks our boat. I try to hold on to the tow line and ram my shins into one boulder after the next. Marcy holds the nose of our canoe in place as we creep through the rapids, trying to stay upright. When we’re finally down all three tiers, blood trickles down one leg like wax on a melting candle. And oh, the bruises — three days of clambering in and out of a metal canoe have turned my thighs into a Vincent Van Gogh “Starry Night” canvas.

Still, I feel proud and confident — and that’s why I’ve come to the Devils. It’s part of my Year of Adventure, but for Marcy and me, it’s more. Our personal lives feel like they’re smashing down rocky slides of their own — and we both need to hit the reset button.

Nature, we know, can help us do that.

We made the four-and-a-half-hour drive from Austin to Del Rio on a Monday, booked a room at a hotel, then got up early Tuesday for the 30-minute drive to Amistad Expeditions, the outfitter we hired to shuttle us to our put-in point at Baker’s Crossing, an hour and a half away.

As we clip dry bags filled with gear to our boats and drag them down the bank, I wonder for the 100th time if I’m ready. Our permits are tucked in our bags, along with dehydrated meals, snacks, a water filter, a tiny campstove, cameras, a tent and sleeping bags.

“You’re going 12 miles today?” the shuttle driver asks, barely concealing his doubt as he eyeballs me and Marcy. He tells us later that of the last 200 people that the company has shuttled, just three have been women. “Most folks just go 7 or 8 miles a day, you know.”

Charcoal gray clouds scud across the horizon as we push into cool green water, dip in our paddles and begin at about 11 a.m.

At first, it’s deep and we glide easily, practicing coordinating our paddle strokes. A mile and half in, though, the dragging begins. Our canoe chokes on bony fingers of limestone on this upper stretch, and we’re in and out of our boats every few minutes, tugging and pushing. As tedious as it is in a canoe, Tony, in his kayak, gets it worse. The rock grabs his boat like Velcro, and he does more hiking than paddling.

We tick off the miles, though, passing through narrow channels followed by broad, windy stretches. We gnaw beef jerky, nuts and dried mangoes, and guzzle water we filter from the river. We point our boat down one rocky slide after the other, grateful we don’t dump over.

This trip isn’t for the out-of-shape or lazy. If tugging your craft over rough rock doesn’t sound fun, or you worry about raccoon invasions or using wag bags when nature calls, stay home. If you think you might be tempted to trespass or toss a beer can into the river, stay home. This place is beautiful — and no one should mar it.

We know we’re in for hard work, but we want to tackle it head on.

“You’ve got to be prepared out here,” says Colton Moore, 27, of Sonora, who’s making his fifth trip down the river. He’s among a small group of fishermen we meet late in the afternoon. “You’ve got to consider that breaking a leg out here would be a big, big problem. It doesn’t have the name Devils River for no reason.”

We arrive at our first paddle camp, a sliver of chigger-infested grassland along the west bank, at dinner time. We pitch tents, hang hammocks and boil water for freeze-dried lasagna. We’ve finished our first and longest day on the Devils — and it’s glorious.

We’ve only got 3 miles to paddle today, so we kick back and enjoy the morning.

Tony pulls out his beat-up river guitar, strumming away and serenading us with songs. Erich grabs his fishing rod and paddles upstream in pursuit of a giant fish. Marcy and I swim down river a little ways, peel off our suits and skinny dip. It’s the perfect kind of morning, unrushed and luxurious, fat with sun-warmed rocks and long green plants that stretch out and wave at us from beneath the water’s surface.

We finally shove off after lunch. As we glide down the river, it’s easy to understand why so many people care so much about this special place.

An hour in, Marcy and I are at the head of our flotilla, and we hear the rush of water. A couple of fishermen have stopped for a break, and they’re perched on a sculpted wave of rock that forms one side of a little chute we’re fast approaching.

I stab my paddle into the water, trying to aim our boat around one chunk of rock, then readjust and steer it the opposite direction. We clank against one side, bounce off, holler and ride the water into the next pool. The guys on the rock cheer, and we throw our paddles overhead. It might look like a tiny victory, but the boost of confidence it sends through our psyches stands tall as a towering cypress.

We’ve packed our hammocks — the guys are sleeping in them instead of tents — and when a milk truck-sized rock formation looms ahead, we pull off. It’s the perfect spot to hang one, we decide. Erich loops the straps around knobs of rock, and Tony climbs in, dangling beneath a fern-covered overhang.

From there, we’ve got just another mile or two to our destination: the Del Norte Unit of the Devils River State Natural Area.

We pull ashore at the foot of a ridge. Just before sunset, I climb the hill, snagging my shredded legs on cactus and nearly stepping on a palm-sized tarantula. At the top, I’m rewarded with a dusky, glittering view of the Devils as it flows south toward our next big obstacle, Dolan Falls.

Lightning flickers to the south. Moments after I finally zip the tent flaps shut a few hours later, the raccoon invasion begins. They scurry in and out of our canoes and rummage through our gear. One even nibbles a hole in the corner of our tent.

It’s another short day with just 5 miles ahead of us, but it begins with the discovery of a hummingbird nest holding two grape-sized babies and continues with the exploration of a glimmering little oasis of spring-fed water a quarter-mile below our campsite.

The land opens up. The hills swell, the river widens and deepens. That means less dragging. In 30 minutes, we’re at Dolan Falls. We pull our boats to the side and wade ahead to check out the situation.

The falls plunge at least 15 frothy feet here — and you can’t paddle a canoe through it. That means we have to empty out our gear, carry it around the sides, try not to slip and fall along the way, then hoist the boats down. Inspired by the surroundings, Tony unstraps his guitar, plops down in the water and starts strumming before we make the crossing. Marcy dances a quick jig. Erich pulls out his cameras.

It’s a slow process, but we work together, tossing dry bags and lugging boats through the raging water. When we’re done, we secure our fleet and fling ourselves into the water to celebrate. It’s one of the prettiest spots on the trip, and we spend another hour here, soaking it in.

We watch as a group of fishermen, their kayaks bristling with fishing rods, navigates the falls. We see a lot more people today — the bottom half of the trip is easier, and the scenery is prettier. It’s also got more rapids.

Which brings us back to Three Tier Rapid. When we finally make it through, we assume we’re done with the white-knuckle stuff for the day. We’re not. Fifteen minutes later we toss and turn our way down another stretch of leg-mangling water. It’s a relief when the last half-hour unfolds calm and clear.

We find three or four groups of kayakers at our next paddle camp, the other new site leased by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. We find a spot on the narrow spit of land, cook dinner, make more music and take lots of pictures.

I wish I had more time out here, but tomorrow we’ll make our last run, to the Dan Allen Hughes Unit of the Devils River State Natural Area, where our shuttle driver will pick us up and deliver us back to civilization.

This river just keeps getting better as we go. We’ve got 10 easy miles today, and Marcy and I paddle along, ducking through canyons and admiring huge slabs of rock.

In one spot, we park our canoe and scramble onto the top of a bus-sized chunk of rock in the middle of the river. The white rock bottom makes the water glow turquoise. We jump off, climb back in our boats and enjoy the easy paddle to the take-out, telling stories along the way.

A few other paddlers are already gathered at the takeout when we arrive. We unload our boats and hang our hammocks in trees to nap. That’s when I meet Benny Salazar, 52, of Telferner, who’s just finished his first overnight trip on the Devils. He tells me he carried a snapshot of his dad, who died in 1979, along the way, and dedicated the adventure to him.

“I wish he was here with me,” Salazar says, and I understand. I lost my dad two years ago and miss him more now than I did when he first died. “I said a little prayer for him. I told him I miss him, you know?”

That reminds me that I’ve got one more thing to do before I leave this special place.

I head down for a final dip in the teal-colored water, beneath a cliff squawking with swallows and hawks. I swim back and forth for 20 minutes.

I thank the river for the fun and bid it goodbye. I tell it I wish my father could see it, and that I know it’ll help Marcy and me sort out what’s troubling us.

And I promise to take care of it as best I can.

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