BURNET – At the height of mid-October’s relentless rains, muddy torrents spewed from the limestone cliffs along the Colorado River above Lake Buchanan. Just two weeks later, I was pleased to see that Fall Creek Falls was still thundering, but the mixture of subterranean water with rainwater had cleared, and crystalline plumes tumbled into the still-murky but recovering river.
Tree branches, silt and an occasional chunk of dock still floated the river and Lake Buchanan, the first of the Highland Lakes to be reopened Oct. 26 to recreation, during my visit as October turned into November. Boat captains had to dodge detritus. But each day, there’s less debris and the water gets a little clearer. It’s how a waterway heals.
Properties along this uppermost lake were the least affected by October’s floods. Just as the lake started climbing up decks and docks, eight of the Buchanan Dam’s 37 floodgates were opened, sending the muddy waters downstream toward Inks Lake, and from there, eventually, toward Austin as other floodgates opened.
Canyon of the Eagles, the area’s best-known resort on a 940-acre nature preserve, hadn’t missed a beat. It had dozens of cancellations immediately after the floods, but those weren’t necessary. The beach got muddy, but the buildings weren’t affected, and daily cruises had to be canceled for only about 10 days while Lake Buchanan was closed.
Right now, honestly, is the best time to visit Canyon of the Eagles, because the bald eagles for which it is named have returned. Room rates are low, and weather is typically cool and clear — great for hiking the resort’s 14 miles of trails. And it’s only an hour and a half out of Austin.
A partnership between the private Calibre Resorts and the Lower Colorado River Authority, which owns the land, Canyon of the Eagles is chock full of critters. Deer and occasional foxes dart across roads, and raccoons waddle around at dusk. From my room, I could see a great blue heron soaring above the lake at sunrise. The resort offers interpretive classes showcasing local reptiles as well as hikes geared toward finding not only eagles but also owls, armadillos and other creatures.
After a sublimely quiet night’s sleep, I sat in my chair on the deck, watching each morning as the lake came to life, lights winking on across the water before the sun appeared. I don’t normally get up this early, but I sacked out early here without electronics. My Sprint cell service didn’t work well, and the free Wi-Fi was only reliable in public areas. That was all to the benefit of my relaxation, and without the distractions, I nodded off soon after dark.
So, I was up daily before dawn, ogling the lake before walking up (quietly, so as not to disturb the lakeside yoga class) to breakfast at the Overlook restaurant (my favorite: blue corn blueberry pancakes, accompanied by two hefty chunks of pork belly).
The wholesome, locally sourced food at the Overlook is one of my favorite things about Canyon of the Eagles, because although I enjoy some off-property meals in the daytime (catfish at Mama’s, barbecued chicken on the Highlander House buffet), driving the 20 minutes up RM 2341 at night is a little scary because of all the wildlife. The one evening meal I had in town, a nicely cooked rib-eye at Trailblazer Grille to the tune of John Arthur Martinez’s live music, was capped by a near-miss with a deer on RM 2341. Hence, my preference for taking the evening meal here at Canyon of the Eagles. Besides, chef Matthew Wayland dishes up fine fare, from crab cakes to wild boar.
I took two boat trips to see how the lake and river were faring. The 2 ¼-hour Vanishing Texas River Cruise ($25) took a double-decker boatload of us north up the Colorado River, past flotillas of migrating white pelicans, and showcased the gushing (at the moment) Fall Creek Falls. Guide Tim Mohan told the history of the Buchanan Dam, built in 1937 to control floods and provide power.
Canyon of the Eagles runs a cruise, too ($40), and I took that as well. Guide Jim Sheets’ smaller boat was able to get closer to Fall Creek Falls (we got wet), and our two-hour cruise went farther north to see other falls and scenery, dodging logs all the way.
As unscathed as most homes on Lake Buchanan were, half an hour south in Marble Falls, it was different story. Again, though, floodgates were opened. Water, although still very muddy, has receded, and the business community is helping residents clean up.
At Save the World Brewing Co., I found Quynh Rathkamp, who, with her brewmaster husband, David, owns the place, setting up for a benefit for flood victims. The Rathkamps, both former physicians, make flavorful Belgian-style beers that are, for my money, a welcome change from bitter IPAs, and they donate all their net profits to charities including Meals on Wheels and Habitat for Humanity. So, naturally, they wanted to help flood victims.
Save the World stopped brewing during the four-day boil water notice in Marble Falls. A few miles south, so did Double Horn Brewing Co., where you can find that Afterthought IPA so many of you crave.
Fall Creek Vineyards in Tow, on the left bank of Lake Buchanan, didn’t have any effects from the torrents, said Ed Auler, who owns the winery with his wife, Susan. The Hill Country grapes they use had already been harvested, their property didn’t flood, and they kept right on making their award-winning wines. My favorites are chenin blanc and the robust 2015 merlot blend Meritus, with complex flavor layers including plum and currant.
Back to Canyon of the Eagles. It’s very dark walking around this resort, and that’s intentional, because it lets us see the vast canopy of stars. What’s more, the resort has an observatory with powerful telescopes, and any guest can visit for free (actually, it’s part of the $5 resort fee).
Astronomer Jim Sheets — yes, indeed, the same Jim who captained our cruise boat — fired up two powerful telescopes and showed us Mars and Saturn. Yes, we could see the rings, but they appeared as one from this distance of 746 million miles.
Sheets told me a lot (for example: Saturn has 68 moons), and he’s always happy to stay as long as visitors want him to, explaining the mysteries of the universe. There’s something comforting about knowing that regardless of any turmoil down here on Earth, the stars remain constant.