Monday, August 19, 2013

Hill Country ramble, Part 1: Comal River tubing

For those of you who are not regular readers of this blog, from time to time I post about well-known regional venues and attractions, but I try to do it from the perspective of a village elder rather than a mainstream consumer.  I have no urge to participate in any follow-the-herd experience.  I'm not looking for mindless entertainment.  I have no compunction to deal with throngs of people, screaming children, drunkards, velvet ropes, and long lines at the entrance to whatever it is that everyone else is trying desperately to access.

But life is what happens when we're hoping for high-quality experiences, and so the trick is to compromise to the point where you can get something out of those well-known venues while still responding to the needs of your wider situation.  It can be done, but it takes a bit of discipline and forethought.

Such was the case this weekend when my teenager and I joined three other Clear Lake families for a tubing trip down the insanely-popular Comal River in New Braunfels
Here's one of the reference maps for this venue, with the Comal being that little stub below the dashed red line.  Do you notice how the very first directive on this map is to "drink responsibly"?  Not "welcome" or "have fun" or "enjoy yourself" or "be safe".  A quarter century I've lived in Texas, but I'd never before gone river tubing, because every tubing story I'd ever heard revolved around the extent of alcohol-based partying associated with it (although there are currently efforts to rein this practice in).  That's the last social climate to which I'd ever expose a young teenager. 

Map screengrabbed from this site
The obvious reasonable public access challenge is made even more dire by the current condition of the waterways shown on the map above. 
The worst drought conditions to date may have occurred in 2011, but it's not nearly over yet. 

Screengrabbed from this site
Most of the mighty Guadalupe is reportedly not tube-able because the water levels are now too low to support it.  That leaves only the Comal, the shortest river in the United States, to receive the central Texas water recreational crowd almost in its entirety, a predicament that sometimes proves to be harrowing.
What's visible in that photo above doesn't qualify as outdoor recreation - that's nothing less than a scene from a horror movie.  With or without public drunkenness, this is increasingly what you find on the Comal when you try to go with the flow, literally and figuratively. 

I screengrabbed that section of this KGNB radio website because the volume of spam in the comments section suggests that the site is not being properly moderated or curated, which means that it is more likely to disappear from the internet, and I think it's worth saving that very telling snippet for posterity. 
When I stumbled upon that web report above, what immediately came to mind was a quote from Richard Louv's book Last Child in the Woods

"As long as cities continue to overdevelop housing tracts and underdevelop parks and other sites for natural play, our regional parks and beaches will be crushed by demand, necessitating ever more stringent enforcement"
(p. 239 in the 2008 paperback edition).

In the example shown above, the phrase "crushed by demand" was quite literally the case. According to that article, eighteen people were injured to the point of requiring EMS services that day.

Anyway, that's the worst-case Comal River scenario, so the question then becomes how to achieve a best-case experience, especially when traveling with friends or family such that the logistics are impacted by the diverse needs of multiple people.  Here is how we handled our Comal float to the point of actually having a pretty good time:
  1. We researched the vendors in advance and chose Rockin R for tube rental and transportation (put-in and drive-back following the one-way float-down).  Service and facilities were good.  They had change rooms, restrooms, and a privately-owned pull-out location. 
  2. We were in the river by 10:00 a.m. Sunday.  You want to maximize your sanity?!  Get there early, wherever "there" happens to be. Rockin R actually had a recorded phone message noting that they "now open at 8:00 a.m.", but with multiple families, breakfast, packing up and checking out of our rented condo, etc., it took us a bit of extra time to get there.  Despite our delay, our Rockin R driver noted that we were his first group of the day, a comment which will tell you exactly what you need to know about the crowd distribution. 
  3. We were out of the river by 12:30 p.m. Sunday, just when things were starting to get truly crazy (it did not help our sanity goal that we were forced to do this during the last full weekend before the start of school, but we had to mesh different family schedules).  By that time of the day, there were no parking spots remaining anywhere near Prince Solms Park, which is the tubing put-in area for both self-propelled and rental patrons alike.  Fortunately, Rockin R Comal allowed us to leave our vehicles in their parking lot such that we could walk one block to Pat's Place for lunch when we got back at 12:30 p.m.
Here's a screengrab from Googlemaps showing the location of Comal Rockin R, Pat's Place, and Prince Solms Park. 
This Google pic must have been taken on the coldest day of the winter, because there's nobody there!!  This is the location in Prince Solms Park where folks mount their tubes for the float downstream. 
I don't have any decent photos of this float because my cameras are not waterproof.
You and all your stuff will get wet on a trip down the Comal River - no way around it.  This is a close-up of the first "tube chute".  None of us got dumped completely out of our tubes, but one parent did lose her expensive sunglasses in these rapids. 
There's an additional advantage to being on the river early: you get to see the regular river denizens, the local characters who have the good sense to stay away when crowds are at their peak.
We were amazed and delighted to see dogs riding on stand-up paddle boards (SUPs), dogs running happily along the banks, and dogs swimming beside their owners, some of whom were out for their morning exercise.  This chocolate lab stole everyone's hearts as he dutifully followed his Australian-crawling master for quite some distance upstream.

Screengrabbed from, which is a vendor that takes photos from the edge of the river and sells them online.  Most tubers don't have waterproof cameras so this is a neat service.  I bought one of our group. 
I didn't see any alcohol use that Sunday morning.  I didn't hear any screaming or partying.  Most of the folks on the river at that early hour were quiet family-oriented people interested in relaxing.  There were numerous other tubers present, but it wasn't an oppressive or obnoxious crowd.

What I did see was a view into an extraordinary river whose natural beauty has not yet been totally crushed by the overwhelming public demand for access to it.  I saw many fish and a baby turtle.  I teased a pair of bizarre-looking ducks by tossing bits of vegetation as if they were the Cheetos the quackers were hoping for instead (they paddled behind my tube briefly, but soon became wise to the ruse and departed for better pickins).  With unobstructed views through the crystalline and bracing spring water that feeds the river, my mind flashed back to scenes from The Unforeseen, which is a stunning documentary about an analogous natural area called Barton Springs in nearby Austin.  Somewhere in all of this thronging, no-parking mess, there is a balance between preservation and public access, but as both Louv and The Unforeseen have shown in the most emotionally wrenching ways, that balance is no longer easy to find. 

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