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Web Posted: 10/19/2008 10:06 CDT White water in West Texas is not for the faint of heartBy Tracy L. Barnett - Express-News Travel Editor DEVILS RIVER, TexasKayaking the Devils River is not a leisurely paddle in the sun. My right shoulder, which protests vigorously when I stretch my sleepy self awake, is a sharp reminder. That shoulder, along with my left knee, took the brunt of my inglorious tumble through Three Tier Falls, my initiation into the world of Class III whitewater kayaking. For a seasoned kayaker, the float itself is an ideal blend of exhilaration and relaxation, with a backdrop of incredible vistas, sparkling waters and abundant wildlife — and, blessedly, almost no sign of human habitation. The logistics, however, are not for the faint of heart. Because the land along the river is mostly in private hands, access points are few and far between."But once we get out there on the river, it will all be worth it — you'll see," promised Justin Rice, the friend who had organized this trip. And he was right.We shoved off at 9:30 a.m. when the world was still fresh and new. The sun sparkled on the clear blue waters and the sycamores rose on both sides, hiding a multitude of creatures, from the endangered black-capped vireos to the armadillos and bobcats who make their homes here. We were a group of four: Justin and me; Marni Francell, an archaeologist from Austin; and Karla Held, a longtime kayaker and river guide as well as a professional photographer.With a slow current and a stiff morning headwind, I quickly felt the lack of conditioning in my arms and shoulders. Marni and I followed Karla and Justin, the veteran kayakers, through the smaller rapids and slack water until we arrived at Three Tier Falls, the spot that our outfitter had warned us of.Justin was standing waist-deep next to his kayak, scoping out the possibilities. The river took a sharp turn at this point, and he was concerned that his 14-foot kayak wouldn't make the bend. Karla, in her tiny red 7-foot Dagger, took a look, hesitated a moment, and said, "What the heck." She was one with her kayak and made it to the bottom without incident.Justin, Marni and I, thinking prudence to be the better part of valor, portaged through a series of boulders in chest-high water to a limestone outcropping overlooking the river. There I found Marni engaged in argument with a tall, angry woman. She was clearly unhappy at our presence on the property, even though Marni patiently explained that we stopped briefly only for safety reasons. We merely wanted a glimpse of the rapids below.The woman was having none of it. The discussion came to a head when she looked off after Karla, who had taken her camera to the far reach of the outcropping to get a better shot of the falls. "Wait! Where's she going?" the woman screamed. "She's trespassing!"Clearly it was decision time. The boulders were shoulder-high, and the water moving like a Humvee on Interstate 10. I didn't see myself coming out on top.Justin looked at me. "I think I'm gonna go for it," he said. "What, you're going to ride it?" I responded, surprised. "Yeah — will you take my picture?" he asked, handing me his camera.He paddled his kayak back to the beginning of the pool, sized up the current and aimed for the left-hand side. He hit the first rapid head-on, tipped and righted himself, maneuvered and landed right-side-up in the churning waters of the second rapid, shot through a chute and glided to a smooth finish in the pool below. My heart was in my throat — not so much for him as for myself, because I'd already decided I was going to do it as well.My pass through wasn't nearly as graceful; by some miracle I made it upright to the bottom of the first tier, but those churning waters tossed me from my kayak like a rag doll and I spent some time bouncing along the bottom from rock to rock, popping up from time to time to gasp for air.Marni sailed through with flying colors in her lightweight teal-and-purple Dagger, the picture of cool — but not before persuading the woman on the bank that we shared her love of the river and would do it no harm. "Have a nice float," she told Marni before finally taking her leave.It wasn't long before the river restored my equilibrium, floating as I was, suspended between the dog-size catfish below me and the great blue heron sailing back and forth above me. The landscape shifted from sage-green hills to limestone bluffs to sycamore forests and back again, and the red-winged blackbirds trilled from the banks with the liquid notes of a summer afternoon.The rest of the ride was tranquil, until near the end, when we lost each other in a thicket of reeds. I heard Marni and Karla joking about looking for Moses in a basket; then the river devils reached up from the deep again. I heard the sound of rushing water, and I felt the back of my kayak being pulled in a direction I didn't want to go. I fought to turn myself back around, but it was a losing battle. Before I knew it, the kayak was smashed up against a tree, tipped to one side and filling with water so quickly I could do nothing but jump out and save myself.Luckily for me, Karla materialized from nowhere in her tiny red kayak and commenced a one-woman rescue mission. "Let's let the water work for us," she proposed, and figured out a way to leverage the canoe onto its other side and let the water pour out. I marveled at her 5-foot-2 frame heaving the kayak up like a pack of chopsticks.This would be the end of the story were it not for Marlene Walker and her son Travis. These two genuine river denizens welcomed us to dry land with a friendly smile and a helping hand. Marlene was employed by our outfitter — the only outfitter on the Devils River, as far as we could tell — and they hauled us an hour and a half to where Justin and I had left the truck the day before.Travis, dressed in his river best with a straw hat, adorned with a turkey feather, and cut-off jeans, clearly belongs to these riverbanks as much as the scrubby sycamores and the rocky bluffs."There's no one out here — you get the whole place to yourself, if you know what I mean," he said. "Oh, sure, you might get some people here during the 4th of July weekend, but after that, you can do whatever you want because there's no one else out here."Marlene, for her part, was annoyed by the story of the angry woman who shooed us off her shore. "Our kayakers don't throw trash, and they don't mess up the river," she asserted. "We don't get those types. You gotta work hard to be here. This ain't a float trip, it's a hard day of workin' your way down the river."
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