In March of 2007, I accepted a close friend’s invitation to venture to the small Texas towns of Goliad, Tivoli and Falls City for a long weekend involving some combination of bird-watching, junk-shopping, cheap motels and kayaking—an activity I’d never braved and figured I’d find a way out of. Late in the afternoon on the first day of this memorable excursion we found ourselves in Goliad gazing at the San Antonio River after some decent rainfall. Thanks to some words of encouragement, I swallowed my inhibitions and descended into a Frenzy (a compact, one-person Ocean Kayak) armed with a life jacket, a bottle of water, a walkie-talkie and a cell phone to coordinate my arrival roughly one mile downriver. “Once you’ve passed under two bridges, you’ll see the get-out point at Goliad State Park,” my pal explained as I set off paddling. “It should take you about an hour.”
The entire length of the Goliad Paddling Trail is 6.6 miles and can take between two-and-a-half and four hours to complete depending on water levels and flow rates. Not long after setting off, the flow picked up and I didn’t need to use the paddle much except to steer. Less than an hour after I’d departed, it started to get dark and I began questioning my bridge-counting abilities. If I counted a certain retired-looking railroad bridge along with the real-deal highway overpass, I had overshot my destination—and by a lot.
While the walkie-talkie proved useless, I was able to use my cell to call my friend, who (slowly) helped me confirm I’d passed the get-out point and needed to do a 180 and start paddling back upstream.
By this point it was completely dark and some of the only things I could make out with the flashlight (which I was holding in my mouth) were “NO TRESPASSING” signs posted on steep, muddy riverbanks, and jagged rocks and tree stumps rising up in the river. Although this stretch was shallow enough to wade in, I’d heard enough about alligator sightings (which become more likely as the San Antonio River approaches the Gulf of Mexico) to prevent me from getting out and pulling the kayak behind me. The current wasn’t exactly raging but it was strong enough to wear me out physically and before long I was overcome with a mixture of exhaustion and fear. Then I started seeing blinking lights in the distance and, in my delusional panic, I assumed my friend had found a game warden and that they’d lit flares as part of some kind of search effort. With my phone battery about to give up, I dialed him and he calmly explained, “No, that’s lightning.”
The idea of a storm enhancing this embarrassing experience really sent me over the edge (there may have been a little crying involved) and I started paddling faster, determined not to let the pinche San Antonio River get the best of me. Finally, my phone rang. “I can hear you,” my friend told me. “You’re getting close.” Minutes later I was on the banks—shaking, relieved and in dire need of a cocktail.
A word to the wise courtesy of the San Antonio River Authority: Heavy rains and high water can create dangerous conditions. Flow and water quality information is available to paddlers on the SARA website. Read on for more tips on how to truly kayak in style, no panic required. —Bryan Rindfuss
Though horror stories exist, kayaks are an excellent way to itch the Great Outdoor urge and get some super exercise (shoulder/tricep pushes and bicep/lat pulls during paddles makes for a full range of muscle coverage). And lucky for us, in Central Texas, kayaking has a nine-month season if you’re willing to wake up early during summer.
To see if it’s your thing, start with a rental. Mission Kayak (1750 SE Military) rents on weekends, putting in at Mission Espada for $10 per hour (life jacket and paddle included). There’s recommended round trips of two, five and seven miles, though we suggest the shorter routes. It’s easy to burn out on a long trip and Pavlov condition yourself to associate kayaking with lobster-hued sunburns and hangry, existential-threat-to-relationship arguments.
Like biking, kayaking is a great medium for exploration, faster than manual modes of transport (walking/swimming) and way cheaper than mechanical ones (car/boat). Paddling the San Antonio offers a fresh take on the river’s semi-urban beauty, with access to otherwise unavailable spots. Rather than hustle through the experience with the seriousness of an outdoorsy, Chaco-stuntin’ dad, take the cruise lightly and stop to cool-off or grab a snack.
Kayaks from the most basic of floating slats to the most seaworthy of vessels all have places to put your gear, so don’t Bear Grylls this trip. Bring water, snacks, more water, sunscreen, hats, booze and assorted vices, and please bring a bag to store the trash. REI, Whole Earth and like-minded outfitters offer dry-bags to keep valuables safe, but a budget double plastic baggy rig should do the job on a casual excursion. And boys, obviously you wanna show off your pecs and tan for the daytime date, but life jackets are mandatory by Texas law so you’ll have to impress her some other way.
Within the city, there are only 11 River Authority-designated spots to put in, all south of Mission Concepción (check sara-tx.org for a map). But courtesy of the Hill Country landscape, there’s no lack of picturesque and badass trips within a two-hour radius. Guadalupe Canoe Livery (8195 US Highway 281 N) offers trips between two- and eight-hours on the Guadalupe River, with shuttles offered on the longer trips to avoid an exhausting schlep back upriver. The Medina River Company (1307 Main, Bandera) offers rentals on the cool, spring-fed river. Just think happy thoughts as you paddle past the frat-toobers.
Of course, if you want full freedom, you’ll have to invest in your own boat. Again, aim on the low-end and prepare for reliable transport (ratchet straps work great for securing on truck beds and roof racks). Unless you’re in some serious sea or whitewater action, a basic workhorse boat will keep you afloat. The major kayak companies—Old Town, Wilderness, Heritage—offer great recreational kayaks under $500. But if it’s my money, I’m betting on Craigslist. It’s pretty damn hard for a prior owner to structurally damage a kayak and there are deals in abundance. Like with any Craigslist purchase, trust your gut and bring a friend or meet in a public place for the swap. –Matt Stieb
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