32 days on the Clear Fork of the Brazos River

First Cast...
from Honey Hole Magazine - Aug/Sept/Oct 2002 issue

While a river may be described technically as inanimate it contains a living world all its own, and life around it as well flourishes or succumbs depending on its continuity of flow. Prehistoric man, various American Indian tribes, and the pioneers who settled the land making way for our current lifestyles all depended on the Clear Fork as a source of fresh water in this area of Texas. Water has, and always will draw both man and animal to its promise of life-sustaining liquid.

Lueders Spillway
The "bushes" you see in the photo are actually 20-foot tall trees!

Arid land, meaning insufficient rainfall not necessarily desert, lies only a short distance from the river's banks. The settlers who came before us to ranch or farm had no stock tanks or windmills at that time. What they did have was constant flowing, clean water in this tributary of the Brazos River. As far as we know, the Clear Fork received its name not because it was clear sparkling water, but because the other tributaries (Salt and Double Mountain) of the Brazos contain heavy amounts of gypsum and other salts leaving their water brackish and unpalatable to man and animal alike. The current erosion problems, caused by overgrazing which certainly hasn't helped the amount of silt carried downstream after every rain, were not present in the 1850's. Written accounts of the Clear Fork still described it sometimes as red and muddy. Prior to the growth of civilization we have now, as well as the consequent reckless consumption of water that comes with it, and before the still spreading overgrowth of both salt cedars and mesquite trees, this section of Texas had numerous underground springs which flowed to the surface. Not only the river itself, but most of the creeks shown on our map (next page) held a continuous discharge of life-giving liquid. Thus the Clear Fork became a major trail for settlers and others headed west, or southwest, through northern Texas - the same as it had for prehistoric man, Indians, and the Spanish explorers who sought both food and water in their day to day struggle to survive the harsh environment in which they lived and traveled through.

In our desire to seek adventure, as well as outline the history of this relatively small but important part of Texas, Bob Hood and I chose to follow the course of this same river. Those before us walked on foot, rode on horseback, or in wagons, following and sometimes crossing at shallow fords in the stream since canoes were seldom used in this part of the country. We wanted to see more of it up close. We wished to feel the history. We wanted to follow the river's course that brought life to this part of our state.

Why Bob and I chose the Clear Fork for an extended canoe trek is almost a story in itself, and will be explained shortly. We'll tell you how this trip came about at the end. Here at the beginning I'll tell you that it ended successfully after 32 days of hardship and struggle. Days-on-end of hardship that had us both covered in cuts, scratches, bruises and blisters that soon turned into hands and feet that were almost completely covered in hard calluses. We loved (almost) every minute of it.

Join us on this true adventure that we are obviously proud and willing to share with you. I promise we won't grow tired of the telling of the story, if you'll try not to get tired of hearing about it.

All you need do is turn the page.

Jerry Dean

Friends and family waited for us at Possum Kingdom Lake. They asked if we were happy to be home and have it all behind us. The truth is, had someone handed us six gallons of fresh water and rations, we could have kept paddling on towards the Gulf of Mexico. A 32-day wilderness trip will change any individual's outlook on life. You can't help but return home with a better appreciation of what civilization has to offer, the conveniences such as running (clean) water from a faucet, a soft (dry) bed, and (for old men with bad backs) your favorite reclining chair. There is also an almost indescribable feeling of being insignificant. Not a sense of less importance in our day-to-day lives, but a better understanding, or perhaps acceptance, of the power of nature. A thought process occurs that entails a comparison of how small we really are as compared to the forces of nature, such things as wind, rain, and erosion which have and will go on forever. Rising water, even in small flood stages, has a way of making you pay attention. Bob and I experienced this feeling on three separate occasions during our trek. Each time we were made aware that we had to be prepared for the worst, and yet each time it was as if providence had guided our way and the resulting high waters made our excursion easier. It was enough to make a man think about spending more time in church with his creator.
Then too, there's the revelation that sets in when you appreciate the fact that our predecessors had no GORE-TEX® rain jackets or boots, no battery operated flashlights, etc., and more importantly, never built a fire, went to sleep or woke up without wondering if there were hostile Indians nearby. Life was hard. This narrative of putting in a canoe near the ruins of Fort Phantom Hill at Abilene and traveling over 230-miles by river to Possum Kingdom Lake holds little in the way of bass fishing, but like those who went before us there was seldom time to fish for pleasure. We did catch a bass in Hubbard Creek, which flows into the Clear Fork near Crystal Falls. Other than that one brief period of a couple of hours, our time spent fishing was in pursuit of catfish - for food. Drop-lines were used and baited with the hearts or livers from either bullfrogs or squirrels, the one meal almost guaranteeing another.

While we didn't set out to make this a survival trip, we did limit our food supply to dried fruit and instant oatmeal for almost every breakfast, and the bulk of our other foodstuffs were in the form of freeze-dried vegetables to which we added various species of wild game. We did supplement our dietary needs with carbohydrate and protein bars to furnish ourselves with the needed energy to maintain the high level of exertion required to push and pull our boat through "skinny" water. We also carried several modern MRE'S (Meals, Ready to Eat) used by the military, to fall back on when game was scarce or more to the point, when we did not have the available time to hunt or fish. No different than a backpacking trip, weight taken in a canoe is weight that has to be carried during portages. We toted 355 pounds.

Time, the same as weight, was important to us on the Clear Fork. It takes time to portage the 21 dams that cross the river between Abilene and Possum Kingdom Lake. A couple of the lower manmade obstacles, which have been built to facilitate the property owners crossing at low water fords, we were actually able to slide over due to the rise in the rivers flow. Then there were others, some only a few feet above the rivers surface, that still took several hours to cross. And there were still others that, to us, looked like Niagara Falls. The three-tier spillway a short distance west of the city of Lueders was daunting.

One dam alone, the Gulf, took us 7-1/2 hours to portage. With the current so strong, we had to pull up a half-mile before reaching it. The river's surface was over three feet below the bank. Bob had to climb out on his belly, I then handed him one piece of gear after another which he stacked on shore. Then it took us a couple of hours to hack our way over 200 yards through the brambles and briars up a 60-degree slope. Once we reached the flat on top, all our gear had to be carried through knee-high weeds, briars, and mesquite trees. At the other end we were faced with a repeat of the trail clearing, this time downhill, which wasn't any easier. Once we were back to the water's edge, Bob remarked, "That's one more behind us." We found ourselves repeating this phrase with less enthusiasm each time. In a span of four days, towards the end of the trip, we had to portage five difficult dams from the Gulf to the one at Eliasville, with the last being the easiest. But of course that's all relative.

At the town of Lueders (there and at Eliasville, were the only two city limits we passed through), we were to have our first of four re-supply rendezvous. Kevin Levesque brought us batteries for our headlamps and flashlights, and film for our cameras, as well as picking up our exposed film. Fresh supplies including food and fresh water were important at this location since this was the staging point for the portion of the trek where we would not cross a road for 12 days. The Hendrick which also includes the Krooked River holdings, and the Lambshead Ranch (Reynolds/Mathews clan), own almost this entire area and besides being vast it's also on the most beautiful stretch of the river.

In fact the beauty of the landscape throughout our trek offered many opportunities for photographs and video footage. The ruggedness of the country was sometimes dotted, other times completely blanketed with wild flowers of varied colors. Wildlife abounded. We saw whitetail deer, wild turkey, feral hogs, beaver, owls and had songbirds including cardinals, kites, scissortails and painted buntings overhead escorting us all along the way.

Back to the aspect of time in relation to travel, it also took time to reposition rocks and boulders. Many places where we encountered rocks that stretched from one side to the other, we were forced to create paths so we would have enough room to slide our canoe in between these obstacles where there is only a couple of inches of water flowing through the shallow stretches. Day after day, we lost count, but estimated we were getting in and out of the boat between 40 and 50 times to push and pull rather than ride in our boat. We would paddle perhaps 30 yards because the water level was too deep to walk, then would be ankle deep and forced to disembark. The untold number of both large and small rocks we moved were backbreaking and tiring to say the least, but the effort to get in and out of our canoe was a major work-out in itself. Some shallows were only 20 yards long, others over a hundred, and there were places where this went on for miles.

Only twice in the entire trip did we reach a point of exasperation concerning a true portage. Once when we encountered a shallow dam built by an oil company that was not on our map, and we were in a hurry to reach our next objective, and the other (that was really aggravating) was an abandoned oil pipe crossing the river that blocked our path. We also had two places in the river blocked completely by logs and debris which required us to use hand shears and a wire saw to cut our way through, but that was expected and taken in stride.

Bob and I both felt, and still do believe, that we have been in training our entire lives just to realize the capabilities of being able to accomplish this feat. Experience in, and knowledge of, the outdoors was critical. Physical strength and endurance was required. But hardheadedness, as well as determination, was even more important. We came upon problems that seemed impossible to overcome, but we accomplished them just the same. While we have no visions of grandeur, in the sense that we know we're not Lewis and Clark, we do take pride knowing that we have done something no other human has accomplished. In the year 2002 this type of adventure isn't readily available this close to civilization.

Bits and pieces of the Clear Fork have been seen by fishermen and hunters in modern times. Many a true cowboy or pioneer has watered their horse at the river's edge and crossed it at various passable shallow fords. But even the landowners, some who have lived on the banks for 70 or more years, have never seen all of their own property along the river. It's just that thick with vegetation, remote and wild in places. We cherish the thought that we have now seen land and river that only primitive peoples have visited, and just perhaps not at all by even them.

We encountered flood stages that truly had us concerned for our well being. We spent several days covered in mud so completely that I only half-jokingly described ourselves as looking like professional lady mud wrestlers. We both came too close to being snake-bitten, we sweltered in the sun while paddling down river stretches that offered no shade cover in the middle of the day, and the gnats at times were much more of a problem than flies or mosquitoes.

That one 12-day stretch where we didn't even encounter a road, we were so low on fresh drinking water that we actually drank our dish water. No joke, we had rationed our available water to three military canteens each per day when we should have been drinking at least twice that amount to stay in a good hydrated condition. Each morning we would finish our instant oatmeal and dried fruit by scraping out the last tiniest morsel, add three teaspoons of water and clean the canteen cup with our finger. We would drink the water rather than throw it away, then repeat the process with another couple of teaspoons of water and drink it as well. Not necessarily tasty, but it was moisture.

Actually we did have a compact quality water purification system with us, but chose not to use it because the water quality of the river at flood stage is less than desirable. Pesticides and herbicides run off from the ranches and farms, and then there are the chemicals used by oil drilling operations as well as raw sewage we knew had to be running into the river. It's sad really that these conditions exist, but it is part of what modern man is doing to our environment. Preaching about water quality is never pleasurable, but I can't gloss over the subject even while telling this story.

Food was never a problem, and Bob is known for his wild-game cooking. We ate well; squirrel and bullfrogs were in ample supply. Bob also handled the drop-lines, which produced a good-sized yellow-cat and numerous 6-to-8-pound channel cats. We dined on Bulrush shoots, along with the freeze-dried vegetables we carried with us. We even had a soft-shelled turtle that moved too slowly. I pinned it to the river bottom with my foot. Of course many of you already know that I have taken survival skills very seriously for most of my life, so it shouldn't surprise you that I carried a couple of mouse traps along with us. Truth is we didn't have to set the traps because a field mouse tried unsuccessfully to hide under my bivy one morning. Tiny it was, but the meat was white and tasty.

We had expected to see plenty of snakes on our trip, and both of us had close calls with Cottonmouth Water Moccasins. Then near the end of the trip one morning while I was digging my "cat-hole" on a slope with a military tri-fold shovel, I noticed a "coontail" (Western Diamondback) rattlesnake just about 18-inches from my face. It was coiled, but its tail was underneath its body and no rattle was emanating. The long, forked tongue slithered out and back. But the fella' seemed not to be interested in me.

Nonetheless, I stepped back easily and headed back to camp to get the frog gig and Bob with his .410. First we had to have television footage and 35 mm photos. And then when Bobby shot it in the head, I pinned it to the ground with the gig. More film close-ups of the fangs, then it was skinned and prepared to go along with that evening's dinner. Rattlesnake meat is delicious.

While I have some of you frowning about the thought of eating a snake, you might as well hear it now that we also grilled a skunk. Truthfully it's the "skunk" smell that comes to mind, but we didn't have that situation arise. The two-striper was dispatched quickly and with a cautious skinning job we had no problem. Eating a skunk was actually part of our planned menu. There's a couple of books (Interwoven and Lambshead Before Interwoven) written about the Lambshead ranch family that are very descriptive about the Clear Fork country and history in the late 1800's. There's a mention of several of the ranch hands coming across an old Indian preparing a skunk for eating and I knew I had to give the meat a try myself to add to the list of various critters I've sampled over the years during several survival courses and such. Bob was willing as well, so when a young female skunk was spotted on the bank of the river, and hesitated long enough for me to load a round in my .22, all that was left was the skinning. The eating was easy. It's really good dark meat, and I promise I've eaten worse things that you really don't want to hear about.

Bob and I spent 11-months in preparation for the 32-day trek, I spent over 140 hours alone just on map work. We hired a plane (Plane Texans, Inc.) and with a couple of friends (Lou Barkholtz and Jerry Lunsford) as pilots, we flew the entire length of the Clear Fork looking for, and plotting, dams and hazards. Dennis McGuire, of Aerial Angler Videos, flew the river and filmed various dams and shallow-water areas to help us choose the safest route over, or around, the many obstacles we were to be faced with. We weighed every piece of gear we carried, sorted and resorted, packed and repacked dry bags with the items we carried with us, adding or deleting as the case would have it. Much like a lengthy fishing or hunting trip, the planning and preparation was fun in itself.

Bob has spent months, and has many more to go, researching the history of the area for the planned book about the trek. We have nine hours and 33 minutes of video tape shot during the trip of just scenery and wildlife, and our Honey Hole TV producer, Dirk Hardy, is busy taping interviews with the individuals who are important to the television special we are compiling. He has literally hundreds of hours of studio time ahead of him before completion.

It's been a trip!

This story really began with a fellow by the name of John Graves and a book he published back in 1960 titled Goodbye to A River. A classic in its own right, John's book detailed his 21-day trip in 1957 by canoe down the Brazos River from the dam at Possum Kingdom Lake. His observations on the river, the land and history that surrounded it, and his thoughts along the way are worth reading whether you care about paddling a canoe or not. A gifted writer, John's feelings for "his" river were, and are, strong. I want to thank him publicly for granting us his time to be interviewed for our TV special.

Our good friend Dr. Bill Harvey Ph. D, who works for Texas Parks and Wildlife in the Natural Resource Protection division, duplicated Mr. Graves trip several years ago after reading the book. Bill felt strongly about the Brazos as well since he grew up at a marina his dad owned at Possum Kingdom. Bill and I have camped and fished together out of canoes for a number of years now on several Texas rivers including the Brazos, Colorado and the secluded Devils River at the state park above Lake Amistad.

Harvey and I have a close, but unusual relationship in that his education overshadows mine immensely. Still, we share a fondness of the outdoors including wildlife observation and bird watching, a true love of fishing, camping, river exploration and history, which has helped us form a warm friendship. We share deep philosophical thoughts when we're together or even on the phone, and yet he loves to point out when I might happen to use a five-syllable word.

Playing and picking at each other is part of the friendship that has developed, so it was natural for me to tell him a couple of years ago that sooner or later I was going to spend 22 days on a river trip just to best his record.

I have spent my entire life camping, hunting and fishing, the outdoors is my life. My first boat as a youngster was a wooden pirogue dad traded a .30.30 hex-barreled Winchester for, and I carved my own paddle to scull it with. And although I'll never give up bass fishing on our reservoirs, creeks and rivers were where I learned to fish. Camping out for up to 10 days on several occasions had always been a pleasure, stretching that to 22 didn't seem "undoable."

Then last July, when the temperature was actually 107 degrees, I called my buddy Bob Hood and told him I wanted to spend a couple of days canoeing the section of the Brazos where it comes into Possum Kingdom Lake. We regularly do guided canoe trips below PK, but I had never paddled above the lake. Bob, who obviously doesn't know any better than I do to stay out of the sun in the middle of a Texas summer, immediately agreed.

It was so hot we made "cold camp" at night, but still enjoyed the trip and each other's company. Somehow Bill's name came up, and the story about a 22-day excursion developed into a plan. Eventually, after scouring books and maps, I found the Clear Fork to be a reasonable choice, except for the fact that it seemed no one had ever made the trip from one end to the other. The reason being was a lack of sufficient water flow.

Bob and I talked it over and the plan began to develop. Reasonable or not, we knew we were going to do it.

It was our destiny.

The telling of this story has to include the many new friends we made along the course of the river, people who went out of their way to assist us. There's not nearly the space to tell all the stories and thank all those like Buzz Wylie, Brian Stovall, and Marilyn Beall helping us at put-in. Folks like Joe Don Hicks, Curtis Dawson, Dennis Hill and C.B. Stroud, who helped us at portages. Ranchers John Blue and Zohn Milam who allowed us to rendezvous on their land, as Lester Galbreath, the park manager, at Fort Griffin did. Then there were others who welcomed us on their property like Roy and Becky Wilson who operate Texas Best Outfitters at the Krooked River, Ardon and Rue Judd, John Burns, and John Mathews, descendents of the Lambshead families along with neighbor Linda Perry, John and Janna Caldwell at the Caldwell spread, Lanny and Tonya Vinson just down river, and John Moss at Indian Springs.

Sheriffs like John Hobson, and Larry Moore of Jones County whose family has ranched the land since the 1870's, state game wardens like Brian Huckabay and Shea Guinn who were all very helpful. Then, too, there were the sponsors of the trip who helped make it possible, Fishing Hot Spots Maps, Texas Outdoors, Outdoor Texas Adventures, and most of all Miller Distributing of Fort Worth.

To each and every one we owe our thanks for their help, support and friendship. For additional information on the trek you can read Bob Hoods columns in the Fort Worth Star Telegram at www.dfw.com/sports.



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