By Wendee Holtcamp
Photos by Francis Zera
The Central Texas Hills and Rivers region lies in the dead center of the Lone Star state, abounding with quaint small towns, friendly people, and spring-fed rivers that flow through a semi-arid desert land of mesquite, prickly pear cactus, live oaks, limestone bluffs and wide open blue skies. This region is part of the more well-known Texas Hill Country, which overlies a karst limestone uprising that is replete with freshwater springs, known as the Edwards plateau. Not far below this soft landscape, the limestone bedrock resembles Swiss cheese, with holes throughout in which the water sits. Springs emerge where pressure and gravity force water out of fissures in the earth.
The springs feed creeks, which feed rivers, which provide for idyllic jaunts in a kayak on a lazy Saturday. The springs and rivers give life — not just to the paddler's soul — but to wildlife, and in ancient times to Native Americans who traveled along trails that traversed spring to spring like a dot-to-dot map. In a land where rain comes only sporadically, springs and spring-fed creeks often provide the only source of water for mountain lion, deer, bobcat, coyote, wild turkey, and quail – not to mention endangered black-capped vireo and Golden-cheeked warbler. Photographers increasingly flock to the region, its springs and rivers, to capture shots of wildlife, sprawling ranches, and a rustic way of laid-back Texas living which one can paddle right through.
All of the rivers, other than at flood stages, are easy to navigate. The San Saba and Llano do, however, have a few fast-moving sections that require some decisive maneuvering.
Massive willow trees line the riverbanks, their stately branches overhanging the green river. The water ripples in the modest breeze, and the pale moon glows like a nearly full wedge in the sky. The "other Colorado," like its California counterpart, is a mighty river; it runs through the hills and coastal prairie until it enters the Gulf of Mexico at Matagorda Bay, just north of Corpus Christi. In the Central Hills and Rivers region, the river runs through Colorado Bend State Park, a wild rocky landscape on the Llano uplift – a granite dome overlaying limestone. Dripping spring water carves away at the soft limestone, where it emerges from the geologic formation, forming numerous small caves and crevices near the river's edge. Paddle down a slow-moving side slough, and you might find a crevice where a raccoon stopped to dine on freshwater mussels, the shells of which remain behind, or one of the many aquatic critters. Texas springs have become famous for their endemic blind cave salamanders, each species often found at a handful of close-by springs.
San Saba River
Another relatively lazy spring-fed river, the San Saba flows northeast until it empties into the Colorado. It runs past the historic Presidio San Sabá, a fort built in the 1700s to guard the Spanish frontier from antagonistic Native American tribes. A genuine David Bowie (Bouie) signature is etched in one of the stone walls, and archaeology students and professors have gathered for the past few years to unearth secrets buried beneath the ground. The entire Hill Country region is rich with archaeological history – Apache, Caddo, Comanche, Wichita, and Kitsai to name a few. The riverbanks are lined with milkweed and other wildflowers on which hundreds of butterflies alight – Monarchs, Swallowtails, Gulf Fritillaries, Viceroys, and Buckeyes to name a few. The fall migration of Monarchs through Texas on their way to Mexico has become a well-loved phenomenon.
Morning mist rising on the river and limestone cliffs on the opposite bank, you'll feel as if the Llano river has been taken right out of A River Runs Through It as you paddle through. The river has become a renowned fly-fishing river for hooking Guadalupe Bass, Texas' state fish. Locals and outdoor enthusiasts have rediscovered this river's spring-fed waters and several outfitters new and old now offer kayaking and fly fishing guiding services, lessons or equipment rentals. Fall offers perfect crisp mornings on which the classic morning mist rises, while spring offers scenic views of wildflowers from the riverbanks. The shallow rocky Llano River has short stretches of Class II water, and like the San Saba also flows northeast until it spills into the Colorado. Its sister, the South Llano, merges with it in the town of Junction.