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Adventure / March 26, 2018

In South Texas, a river runs through it

Written by: Stacey McKenna

Less than 70 miles southwest of Austin, the Blanco (pronounced Blank-oh) River begins its journey as a series of springs, small pools, and waterfalls. From these headwaters, the water wends and winds for 87 miles through Texas hill country, cutting through canyons, diving below ground, and re-emerging downstream with a surge.

When Wes Ferguson first learned about the Blanco, he became fascinated by its dual existence. “I was fascinated that the river could flow for a while, then go underground for a while and come back up,” he said in a phone interview.

From 2014 to 2015, Ferguson spent roughly a year hiking, kayaking, and driving the banks (with landowners) of the Blanco River. He weathered withering looks from locals and overnight storms in his hammock. He returned to the river again and again throughout the year to experience the dynamic waterway’s seasonal transformations.

“It’s not only changing around every river bend, but it’s also changing through the seasons. It can be pretty dependent on rainfall, so you go to a place, and after the rains come in the fall, you go in November, and it’s a whitewater paddling experience. Then you go to the same spot next July or August and you’re walking on dry gravel,” Ferguson said.

But, as he talked to aspiring recreators, local law enforcement, and landowners whose properties skirt the Blanco’s banks, Ferguson came to see the river as a symbol of something bigger than itself.

“Ninety-three percent of Texas is privately owned. A lot of our vast wilderness tracts are held privately and it’s not legal to go on them. That’s why public access to these rivers is so important. It’s the only wilderness that we as a people have left,” he said.

Where it emerges from underground, the Blanco carves through porous limestone.

For most of its 87-mile length, the Blanco is flanked on both sides by public land.

In the urban-adjacent areas like Austin’s hill country, wilderness access is precious. And as the city grows and its swelling population encroaches on rural communities around, people collide over who has what rights to be where.The river itself loses its wildness.

Much of the Blanco does run through privately owned land. It cuts through ranches and provides a lovely backyard view from the back porch of vacation homes. But between the banks, the river is a public resource. Thus, much of the river’s identity is tied up in conflicts between public and private interests.

Ferguson’s recently released book, The Blanco River, serves as a sort of biography of the Blanco, weaving together tales of its history with details about its complicated place in contemporary Texas life.

“I wanted to see the river before it got taken over by development, and maybe encourage people to be more responsible for development,” he said.

Author Wes Ferguson. Photo by Laura Ferguson.

The book, published in collaboration with The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment.

People are drawn to the Blanco River for its beauty and promise of adventure. Each summer, intrepid types hike for hours through the rocky, parched riverbed of the Dry Blanco, a roughly fifteen mile section where the river descends underground.

About halfway, the riverbanks give way to forty-foot limestone cliffs, and the elevation of the riverbed drops low enough to allowing the water to find the surface again. “The Narrows” consists of four waterfalls and a series of deep, icy swimming holes.

Ferguson describes it as “an oasis at the midpoint of the Dry Blanco.” And it’s one of the major points of contention along the river. Accessing the Narrows is not just difficult. With minimal shade, seasonal risk for flash flooding, and no water sources along the way, the hike itself can be dangerous for those who are unprepared.

That risk is exacerbated by landowners, city councils, and local law enforcement who team up to restrict people’s ability to get to the water (parking tends to be prohibited near access points) and refuse to assist to those who run into trouble.

“People aren’t using [the Blanco] recreationally as much as I was expecting,” he said. “There’s a lot of misinformation of residents along the river regarding whether they actually do have the right to access these places. One local guy who grew up near the river had never traveled it because he was told he wasn’t allowed to. Even though state law says he can.”

Just a couple of months after Ferguson submitted his original manuscript, a raging Memorial Day storm brought eyes around Texas and the nation to the Blanco River. The waters swelled as much as 44.9 feet, and rushed at speeds that uprooted trees, swept homes off their stilts, and took a dozen lives. One of the worst known storms in the history of the river basin resulted in one of the river’s worst floods, and caused Ferguson to question his own interests in something as “incredibly petty” as river access.

But when he returned to the Blanco to write about the recovery of its riverside communities, he found that the flood had opened conversations about development, climate change, and conservation of the river. Just months before, the region had been in the midst of a five-year drought and parts of the Blanco had been dwindling. Now, people were talking about better ways to salvage river banks and whether trading pasture for rooftops and pavement had exacerbated the overflow’s devastation.

It turns out many of the locals who want to keep the public out of the Blanco want the same thing as Ferguson: To conserve it. But it’s hard to inspire conservation of something that only a select few can experience for themselves. Summarizing Jeff Francell of the Texas Nature Conservancy, Ferguson writes, “If riverfront landowners truly want to protect the Blanco… they should reconsider their aversion to sharing the river with the public.”

Signed copies of Ferguson’s book are available for sale on his website. Unless otherwise credited, photos in this piece appear courtesy of Jacob Croft Botter. 

about the author

Stacey McKenna

Journalist Stacey McKenna covers travel, adventure, health, environment, and social justice. She has written for numerous print and online publications, including Narratively, Mind+Body, The Wayward Post and The Development Set. A medical anthropologist by training, she applies her expertise as a researcher and fascination with the human experience to tell deeply-reported stories in context. 

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