Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Tubing on the Guadalupe

I grew up on the Mississippi. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. I grew up in southeastern Minnesota, in a college town, past which the Mississippi swiftly ran. Living so near it, I could spell "Mississippi" by the time I was 6. I remember my older brother, Dick, impatiently saying to me, "Jude, it’s so easy, just memorize this!
crooked letter,
crooked letter,
crooked letter,
crooked letter,

We never referred to it as the Mississippi, though, and I didn’t know anyone who did. We always just called it The River, as in: "Don’t go down to The River!" or "They were out on The River" or "Do you want to go swimming at The Lake or The River?"

Even though we didn’t live on it, to me, The River was a big part of my life the entire time I was growing up. It was spanned by a long interstate bridge, linking Minnesota to Wisconsin. Each year, in the first days of spring, when most of the snow had melted and the first buds were bursting forth, my Dad would invite me to accompany him on a walk across the interstate, across The River. 6th of 7 kids, I loved the attention, the one-on-one-time aspect of it, and I can still remember how it felt, the way he gripped my hand with his own big, hard, calloused hand. He’d helped sandbag the levee during the Flood of ‘53, and when he’d had too much to drink, that was one of the stories he liked to tell. It sounded thrilling and almost heroic to me, and as a result, every April, the mind-numbing monotony of living in a small college town in Minnesota in the 1960's was broken by the exciting possibility that The River, swollen with runoff from melting snow and spring rains, might once again FLOOD. That happened only once during the time that I lived there. I was in high school then, and although we were excused from classes to help sandbag and/or distribute coffee and donuts to the workers, the reality of The River flooding was much more frightening, and not nearly so thrilling, as I’d imagined.

The River was cold and muddy, but each summer a part of it was roped off for swimming, and as a kid of 8 or 9, sometimes I’d get on my bike and pedal across the interstate by myself, to the beach house on Latch Island, where I’d change into my suit and go swim in The River. There were places that the current was so strong that even sitting in the shallows, near shore, if I lifted my feet off the sandy bottom just a little, I’d be pulled along by the current.

When I was 9, I became friends with a girl, Chris W., whose family owned a houseboat. Each summer for the next several years, I spent many weekends on The River with Chris and her family. Her father would pilot the houseboat to a sandbar, and as soon as it was anchored, as Chris’ parents settled onto deck chairs with gin and tonics in their hands, Chris and I would lower the dinghy into the water and paddle off into a slough, looking for adventure, the sun warm on our shoulders. Sometimes we’d spend the night on The River, an experience I always loved. When I left Minnesota, although I was entirely ready to move on to new experiences and new places, I knew that a part of me would always miss The River.

Eventually, I moved to Texas. I love the heat, and the huge blue sky, and the stark beauty of the desert southwest, and yet I feel landlocked, and although I’ve lived here for 23 years, until this past weekend, I’d never been tubing on the Guadalupe.

A couple of months ago, somewhere on the web, I found a list of things recommended to enjoy tubing on the Guadalupe. It was a short list, of mostly obvious items: hat, sunblock, water, sunblock, sunglasses, sunblock, and sunblock. The only thing that I might not have thought of was the recommendation to wear tennis shoes, river shoes, or sandals rather than flip flops "‘cause the river’ll suck ‘em offaya". Uh-huh. I searched my closet for my TIVA river shoes, from a week-long white water rafting trip I took on the Salmon river in Idaho a couple of years ago. As soon as I found them, I knew I was good to go.

At a little after 2:00 on Friday afternoon, we left Dallas. There were 8 of us, and we drove down in two cars. On our way to Austin, we stopped at Lockhart, Texas, where we ate mouthwatering barbecue at Black’s, and took photos of the beautifully restored county courthouse
before driving into Austin, where we spent Friday night in a cheap hotel, talking over each other, arguing, playing Cranium, and having a great time.

Saturday morning we woke to weather I can’t remember experiencing in July in the 23 years I’ve lived in Texas: rain and thunderstorms. We decided to drive to the river anyway. That was a good decision, because by the time we arrived at Canyon Lake to rent our tubes, the sun was shining and the day was Texas hot. At River Sports Tubes we signed up for a "medium", 4 hour float (as opposed to the short float of 2 hours or the long float of 7 hours). We rented 9 tubes: one for each of us and a "cooler tube" for our cooler, packed with an endless supply of water and a 6-pack of Shiner, so the 4 of us who are old enough to drink could have a ceremonial beer on the river. We put on gimme caps, t-shirts, and river shoes, slathered on sun block, picked up our tubes, and headed for the river.

The Guadalupe may be one of the most popular rivers in Texas, but it’s hardly the Mississippi. At approximately 250 miles long, it's roughly 1/10th the length of the Mississippi, and the section down which we were tubing was just a couple of miles long. Still, I was river-hungry and ready for a new adventure, so I stood eagerly on the banks of the Guadalupe, looking around me, at the place where we'd put in.

The water looked lazy and slow, and the moment I put a foot in, I discovered the spring-fed Guadalupe was surprisingly cool. It was also surprisingly crowded. There must have been at least a couple thousand people on the Guadalupe, from college students to other families to what Stephanie politely referred to as "country" people. In case you don’t know what that means...for the record, I saw more tattoos on Saturday than I’ve ever seen in my life, and probably more piercings, too, as well as some real river stupidity. Still, overall it was a mellow crowd, and I liked that.

Stephanie & Chris, chillin' on the Guadalupe

The Guadalupe is at an all-time low, due to the drought, and much of the section we traveled was just a couple of feet deep. However, it was beautiful. There were two small "rapids", where flips flops might well have been lost had any of us worn them, but of course we hadn’t. Floating in tubes, our feet snug in our river shoes, we drifted down the Guadalupe, between limestone bluffs and tall cedar, pecan, cottonwood, oak, elm and sycamore trees . We saw baby ducks swimming, and a blue heron walking along the shore. The four of us who are old enough to drink opened the Shiners, and consumed those. Mike, Chris, Sara and Stephanie drank bottled water and gatorade. We got sunburned, and it felt good. There’s something about a river...


Robbie said...

It has been about 20 years since I went "tubin'" on the river. You described it well. Although, I need to hunt down my pictures from way back when and see what exactly I wore on my feet. :-)

Paul said...

Nice work combining a childhood memory with a recent event--both vivid.

I used to do the same thing on the Saco River, but in canoes. You put in in Center Conway, New Hampshire, and take out near Friburg, Maine.

LightYears2Venus said...

We got back from Texas today and one of our memorable evenings was eating at the Grist Mill in Gruene on the Guadalupe (I guess south of where you were). At a crossing along the way we watched 'toobs' (as all the rental signs spelled it) and heard how low the river has been. During dinner, a downpour started and by the time we reached the crossing again, we barely got across in our low-profile Toyota. We crawled back to San Antonio, barely able to see but rejoicing in what we knew was a much-needed drenching. That night we heard on the news that the Guadalupe was nearly at flood level, but didn't overflow.
Here in Arizona people tube the Salt River near Phoenix, but I think there's been any water in it lately with the drought. Maybe your son will have a chance to do that before he graduates.

Lisa :-] said...

Sounds like a wonderful, lazy summer thing to do. Wouldn't mind being there, myself, after the month I've had... :-]

Tammy said...

I loved your post on those lovely summer memories. You were an adventure girl back then too. It sounds like your latest trip was a blast and I can't wait to hear about the next one. I love my Tiva shoes too!

Cynthia said...

It's been years since I've gone tubing down a river. I loved the recollections of the Mississippi. Being an old Memphis girl, the River (we just call it that here as well) has quite a hold on me. I can't imagine swimming in it though. I was always amazed at the people who were bold enough to kayak down the Wolf River and put into the Mississippi for just a short distance before steering to the boat ramp off Riverside Dr.

Chris said...

Great post Emma. Bodies of water fill my memories too. Despite the fact I almost died in the ocean with a head injury, bodies of water are calming to me.

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alphawoman said...

What a great entry! I've lived near rivers all my life...the Ohio several times (Paducah, Louisville and Cincinnati) and the Muddy Kentucky most the time. Now I live in an area that they call Three Rivers. I call it Three Creeks. Ha!!

Anonymous said...

from sister Carolyn: I never knew you got to do all those neat things on the river. Me being older and married already, I guess I didn't always know of some of the neat stuff you did. We have gone canoeing on the Kickapoo, which was one of the most fun adventures of my life. Bob and I and some of our kids and grandkids went, and I don't know when I laughed so hard. We kept bumping into each other, and then into the banks. Canoes are hard to steer!! I hope to do that again some day.

Corner Tubes said...

The 72 degree spring-fed waters of the Comal River snake through New Braunfels, throwing reflected light on tree branches that crane over the banks. One of the shortest navigable rivers in the United States, it stays a constant 72 degrees year round. Corner Tubes outfits visitors with black inner tubes or new vinyl tubes, letting them float down the river at a leisurely pace, then ride a shuttle from the last public river exit back to the entrance.