A December Night on the River: A Cautionary Tale

November 22, 2019

            Be prepared.

                – Boy Scout motto                        

 

I didn’t intend spending one of the last Saturday nights before I turned 70 trying to stay warm on a mudflat in the Colorado River.

 

Let’s just say, “mistakes were made.”

 

The day started well. My wife Jean dropped me and the canoe off at the Lower Colorado River Authority park near Plum about noon. We discussed a late afternoon rendezvous arranged by cell phone at the La Grange boat ramp.

 

The first few miles were really fine ... sun, clear water, a beautiful late fall day. I had fishing fever and the spirited Guadalupe bass were biting, so I took my time, using the battery-powered trolling motor to maneuver around fishy spots, drifting along with the weak current.

 

Mistake # 1 (the big one)

I started too late.

When my friend Jeff Wick and I did this 18-mile stretch in four hours a few years ago, the water being released for rice farmers downstream had the river running about 2500 cfs (cubic feet per second). Now it was perhaps 250 cfs, a tenth of that flow. And 18 miles is a long way on a river.

 

Mistake #2 

No map.

 

Sometime later, no longer fishing much and moving faster to make time, I felt reassured by passing the mouth of what I took for Rabbs Creek. But it didn’t look quite right. That’s because it was Pine Creek, quite a bit farther upriver.

 

A couple of hours later, with the sun beginning to get low, I passed the real mouth of Rabbs Creek. I called Jean to let her know it was going to be dark-thirty before I got to the ramp.

 

Sundown.

 

But for the next couple of hours there was still a luminous glow on the water and I could follow the channel as it snaked through the mudbanks. By then the trolling motor battery was getting weak and I was assisting with the kayak paddle.

 

Dark. 

 

Battery dead now, paddle-power only. Unable to see the channel, I kept running aground and getting out to pull the boat through muddy shallows to deeper water. This happened about a dozen times.

 

Mistake #3

Wrong clothes.

 

Unlike on every other river journey I can remember, I was not wearing “river clothes” — fast drying nylon. No, I was wearing cotton and, as river runners know, when wet, “cotton kills.” It doesn’t dry and sucks body heat. 

 

Mistakes 4, 5, 6 & 7

Also, I had no jacket or other backup clothes, no emergency food and water, no headlamp and no way to make fire.

 

About then I heard the unmistakable sound of rapids. Oh great.  At this water level Svrcek Rapids appears — two mild drops over “boulder gardens” — no problem in the daylight, but a big scary problem at night. I bounced up, on and over three big rocks. The last one nearly capsized the canoe. Now I was tired and a little spooked.

 

Smooth paddling for a while and my confidence returned. I saw lights on the high left bank and heard traffic on SH 71. 

 

Then more shoals and wading through the muck pulling the boat. At last, exhausted and discouraged, I called Jean, who had been waiting at the La Grange ramp for four hours. 

 

“I can’t find the river,” I told her. “LCRA must have pulled the plug.” 

 

That made sense to me, but it sounded a little crazy to her. “Do you have food and water?” she said.

“Yes, a little of both,” I replied. 

 

She was not reassured about my physical — or mental — status by this conversation.

 

It was 9:30 p.m. I told her what I’d been considering, but definitely didn’t want to do. “I think I’m going to have to spend the night out here.” 

 

“I think you are too,” she said. 

 

I pulled the canoe up on a mudbank, lay down in the center section and curled up in a fetal crouch to conserve warmth.

 

There was nothing to cover up with. My cotton long-sleeve shirt and undershirt were semi-dry, but my trousers and even my river hat were wet. I was wearing “Smartwool” socks (about the only smart thing I’d done all day). 

 

Luckily, for December, Saturday was an almost warm, pleasant night with a slight southerly breeze. I had on a thick lifejacket to keep my core warm and the wet hat — there’s lots of heat loss via the head — and it seemed better than nothing. For a while things were alright. I started yawning and fell asleep for a couple of hours. 

 

Suddenly I came awake, muscles shivering, teeth chattering. The wind blowing over my wet clothes had cooled my body core to the point of first degree hypothermia, after which things can rapidly get serious.

 

Now it was clear I had no alternative but to turn the canoe over and get under it to escape the wind and create a micro-climate, an old canoe voyager’s stratagem. I had avoided this before because I was in the river bed, only about one foot above the water level. 

 

What if the LCRA in its wisdom decided to release water during the night? (This actually happened to me and some friends once on the Colorado River between Austin and Bastrop ... very inconvenient.)

 

Underneath the canoe with the lifejacket on I could scarcely move. It felt uncomfortably like a coffin. Abandoning the wet hat, I stuck the top of my head into a small, thick plastic dry bag. After all the exertion of re-rigging and the lack of a cooling breeze, I started to feel warm again, warm enough to sleep.

 

The night passed slowly. Two coons had a fight next to the boat, hoot owls called in the distance, ducks snuffled in the shallows, and there were so many gunshots it sounded like a militia group practicing on the bluff across the river. Which brings us to ...

 

Mistake #8 

Deer season is not an ideal time to be on the river. (On the other hand, hog hunting or militia practice might go on anytime).   Besides, duck season opened just that weekend.

 

About 6:30 a.m. I called Jean from under the canoe. She said it was light enough to see, so I crawled out from under the boat.The river was right there where I couldn’t find it the night before.

 

It took about an hour to paddle on down to the ramp, perhaps two river miles. It was peaceful and I felt good and happy to be alive. 

 

Jean was waiting at the ramp with coffee and food. 

 

She had assembled a list of emergency phone numbers should I need to be rescued, starting with the LCRA ranger and the Sheriff’s Department, but as boaters say, “The best rescue is a self-rescue.”

 

Later that day, she said, “I was really worried about you. You are usually ‘prepared’ to ‘over-prepared’ on the river.”

 

Not this time. 

 

“I feel like I’m going through the five stages of grief,” she added.

 

“Are you out of the ‘anger’ stage?” I asked.

 

“Not yet.”

 

_____________________________________

 

 

H.H. Howze © 2019

 

H.H. Howze is a writer/photographer and disruptive political presence in deep red Round Top, Texas.

 

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