Best rivers in Texas: San Antonio River

We continue in our quest to retrieve the lost blog posts about our Texas River Tracings. Go to this report on the Medina River for links to the ones we have retrieved so far.

We reversed course to follow the San Antonio River from its mouth to its source. We started by exploring the coast below San Antonio Bay. That included a stroll around the fishing harbor at Rockport, a pilgrimage to the Big Tree at Goose Island and a few hours at the Aransas National Wildlife Preserve.

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Rockport is about as twee as Texas gets. At once a working fishing town and a haven for artists and retired folks, it brims with quaint shops, galleries and eateries. We intended to check out the small aquarium, which has been around since my childhood, and the newer maritime museum, but neither was open.

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Similarly, boat tours dedicated to spying on whooping crane nesting sites were not available on that day. No problem. We simply wandered around, purchased a couple of books from the Texana shelf at a used bookstore and headed north to Goose Island where we reverently circled a 500-year-old oak tree amid a coastal grove that has survived numerous hurricanes.

IMG_1710-thumbThe oak stands near the historic site of Lamar, a town dating back to the Republic. Hey, I had no idea that a Union ship bombarded it during the Civil War. There seemed to be little trace of the old town, not unusual for Texas coastal sites. Hurricanes take care of that.

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We hiked about three miles at Aransas National Wildlife Preserve. Saw alligators, herons, pelicans and, eventually, whooping cranes. That blurry pair of white and black was spied from a car. Meanwhile, we met a couple who live on a preserve in Norfolk, U.K. They had been to the San Antonio Riverwalk and were now headed back to Houston, which they rather fancied. They cheerfully misidentified several Texas species.

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After that, we headed up the San Antonio River, which meets the previously traced Guadalupe River near the tidy farming burg of Tivoli. You don’t really get access to the river itself — we had discovered this before — until several miles upstream at U.S. 77. Here the river is wide and calm, bordered by oaks, willows and pecans. U.S. 77 is wide and new here, so somebody upstairs is paying attention.

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Our next full contact with the river would be at Goliad, the site of two missions, a Texas Revolutionary battle, a subsequent mass execution and the birthplace of Mexican Gen. Zaragosa, hero of the Battle of Puebla and therefore patron general of Cinco de Mayo.

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Mission La Bahia,, perched high above the San Antonio, is beautifully restored. As often is the case, the rebuilding took place over time, as generations became curious as to the ruins that formerly were home a vibrant community of colonials and Indians. We didn’t visit the Fannin Battlefield this day. Anyway, there was much more history to come.

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The San Antonio River retains some of its silvery glory even as its cuts through the Gulf Coastal Plain and into the first series of low hills. As we heade to Panna Maria, the oldest Polish Catholic community in Texas, perhaps North America, we witnessed more evidence of the oil and gas fracking boom — and its toll on the roads. The traffic turns a bit dangerous near any of the boom camps.

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The church at Panna Maria has been meticulously tended. We had visited it before and nosed around the handsome buildings that cluster around the spire. Pope John Paul II expressed interest in the Polish town during his visit to San Antonio. It still looks proud about that attention.

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We caught the river once more before we hit the outskirts of the big city, where we settled into of third fauxtel of the trip, then zipped down to the Riverwalk for some Mexican food. This is the best time of year for the fabled tourist attraction, as the giant cypress trees are draped in colored holiday lights. Not the LED ones, which our waiter told us the squirrels chewed through, but the old-fashioned type.

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The next day, we set out along the urban stretch of the San Antonio River. That took us to five more missions, including the elaborately restored Mission San Jose and, of course, the Alamo. The three smaller missions attract only sporadic tourist attention and the attendants are very eager to talk to the rare visitor. We learned as much about them and their families as we did about the 18th-century Spanish project to erect a buffer in Texas to repel the French.

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Despite the giant museum store, the Alamo complex is less commercial than I had remembered. Actually, it serves the historical moment pretty well, especially the large outdoor placards that provide a helpful timeline for the shrine. We skirted the tours and headed back down to the Riverwalk for a blessed repast.

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The river below downtown is undergoing a huge improvement project. Although the the flow is contained in what looks like a big ditch, the banks are lined with new trails and recreational attractions, much of it still under construction. The part of the greenbelt above downtown, however, is pretty much complete through the museum district to the parks.

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We picked up the river at its reputed source, a lovely spot near the Witte Museum where the stream enters a stone-lined channel. There we discovered the ruins of a mini-colosseum, which was later identified by locals and emigrants as a herpetarium or perhaps an alligator theater.

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On that note, we spent our last several hours in San Antonio at the city’s fine zoo, which uses the San Antonio River and its limestone canyon to marvelous effect. There’s a new African exhibit, but a good third of the zoo was under construction due to the winter season.

I can remember being more impressed with this zoo when my main comparisons were to those in Houston and Dallas. I’d have to visit them all again, but my most recent impression of the zoo in Fort Worth was the most favorable. Fewest cages. Most creative enclosures. But memory fades …


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