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Repost: Texas River Tracing: Sabinal

Michael Barnes

Readers have asked for access to past reports of Texas River Tracings that are no longer online.

Travel companion and co-author Joe Starr and I are trying to compile links to the 40 or so preliminary reports, which requires reposting some of them. This process will likely take weeks.

We’ve rescued this one about the lovely Sabinal River from an RSS feed.

The Sabinal River is a rare and exquisite jewel that rises in the steep, narrow canyons of Lost Maples State Natural Preserve northwest of San Antonio.

Here among big tooth maples and red oaks, the stream pools in clefts among the scattered boulders, evidence of raging floods that were no danger on this warm, cloudy December day. The preserve has been one of our favorite hiking and camping spots for decades. Even though the fall colors had faded, a steady trickle of hikers followed its trails.

Just below the preserve is tiny Vanderpool, which guards two of the state’s most scenic drives on RR 337 — westward to Leakey and eastward to Bandera. These winding branches of 337 overlook craggy, green valleys. Stop at the vista points, but try not to notice the abundant litter — one of the ways Texans mistreat Texas.

(And before you blame out-of-state tourists, they don’t perch at these remote spots late at night drinking beer. That’s a local thing.)

Back in the Sabinal Canyon, the water flows freely from a series of springs and backs up behind short weirs. Fish wriggle through the crystal depths. Flycatchers, mockingbirds and a raven or two keep them company.

There’s little evidence of a tourist industry here, unlike the Frio River Valley just to the west. There’s no lake or tubing. Still, a few tourist cottages dot the Sabinal’s banks. Just beware flood season if you decide to get away here. My friends who have been rescued from rooftops will tell you a story or two of this sometimes angry river.

As the canyon widens into a proper valley, cypress trees line the river, almost as if they were planted with an architectural eye. Depending on the flora, the Sabinal shimmers green or blue, picks up speed then fades away for a while.

Ranching is an option here. We talked to one man who moved here from Colorado whose family’s ranches stretched well into the foothills of the Edwards Plateau. He told us about a “Black Hole” on the next ranch downstream where the Sabinal disappears altogether.

We discovered that this is true for other rivers coming down off the plateau to the south. They enter an arcing recharge zone and just go away. They pop up again below Uvalde, but don’t really gain strength until they reach the coastal plains — if they get that far.

Our acquaintance — one of two who warned us about deer hunters in the area — said that hydrologists had dyed the water that entered the Black Hole and said they found remnants in a bigger river below the town of Sabinal (probably the Frio, which eventually joins the Nueces River below Choke Canyon Reservoir).

Anyway, the valley remains lovely as far as Utopia, site of Kinky Friedman’s animal rescue ranch. Here, too, the farming begins. Irrigation from those aquifers that swallow up the rivers allows for some surprisingly intense agriculture around Uvalde.

The town of Sabinal, by the way, was once a railroad stop and it still sits along U.S. 90, formerly the main southern route to the Pacific Ocean. It appears rather dusty and abandoned now in comparison to Uvalde, where we spent the night. The county seat has the appearance of a boom town, with almost every national franchise fighting for a place along U.S. 90.

It’s north of the Eagle Ford Shale oil and gas frenzy, but Uvalde might have benefited from its economic reverberations.

We stayed, as is our new custom, in a new “fauxtel.” These are the three or four-story hotels that can be found in any Texas town of 1,000 or more people. They are clean, convenient and comfortable, if they lack the character of the old roadside motels and the miraculous historic hotels.

Since we are only there at night during these river tracings, who needs character? Give me WiFi and access to local cooking if at all possible. I’ll be fine.