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Michael Barnes

Repost: Texas River Tracing: Upper Brazos

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No matter how often one crosses the Brazos River east of Interstate 35, one tends to miss the falls. Yes, the lower Brazos, generally brown and sluggish, turns whit ish and rapid just below Marlin.

Few bridges cross the river here. Kayaks and canoes negotiate it regularly, stopping only to portage at a Falls County park, called Falls on the Brazos.

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We made the falls our midway stop between College Station and Waco, the two biggest cities directly on the Brazos (unless you count Lubbock, which straddles the North Fork of the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos). We left the Aggies’ home on a cloudy, cool morning, wriggling our way through reddish brown fields and scraggly, temporary farm communities.

The river narrows slightly below the falls. The jungle of the Columbia bottomlands is gone, replaced by oak brakes and rolling prairie. We stopped in Calvert – long gentrified – to pick up coffee and chocolates at Cocoamoda , the much-praised six-table bistro and chocolate factory.

The falls are home to nesting bald eagles. Not that we saw them. Ordinary bird-watching here. So we moved into Waco, where we climbed around the Baylor University campus that has sprawled onto the riverside parks east of the freeway.

The Brazos here is dammed into a pass-through lake, not unlike Lady Bird Lake, and is crossed by an historic suspension bridge, where we watched college-age kids play tortilla Frisbee golf – meaning they threw the white, edible discs onto a bulkhead, where ducks and other birds fought over them.

The joyous surprise: Cameron Park. Who knew Waco could be so gorgeous? This park climbs up cliffs to a ledge not unlike the Balcones Escarpment. It’s landscaped sensitively with small recreational areas, lookouts and a zoo.

The Brazos forms three major lakes above Waco – Whitney, Granbury and Possum Kingdom. One full day of our river tracing was spent on this Trail of Three Lakes.

Lake Whitney – alternately named Whitney Lake, for whatever reasons – goes back to the era of the Highland Lakes. It was probably planned in the 1930s, but not completed until the 1950s. A Herculean dam holds back an ample pond not far upstream from Waco. Unlike some other Texas waterworks, this one is open for full inspection.

We walked out onto its high lip, poked around the stream under its floodgates and powerhouse. Like so many similar spots, it chokes with bird life.

Then we headed northwest toward our second destination, Lake Granbury, smaller, with no pretensions to flood control or power generation.

In between, the Brazos turns into one of those crisp, clear Hill Country rivers one would never expect from the Mississippian flood beneath Waco. We dipped down to the water at various bridges, booting up and down embankments, focusing on vegetation, insects and geological stratafication.

The unfettered Brazos just gets more and more beautiful as we head upstream on our fourth day. This is John Graves territory. And I can see why he eulogized this stretch of Texas greatness. Oaks and pecans march down to glittering rapids and stretches of brightly flecked stone.

The third big Brazos lake, Possum Kingdom, has escaped much of Granbury’s troubles, in part because of its distance from Dallas-Fort Worth. The lake culture here is mostly old-school – anglers and other slow-recreation lovers. We tarried at a spot between RV parks and trading posts.

One last glimpse of the Brazos before we reached Graham: It looks like a silty agricultural canal, probably stopped up by a weir. The prairies above the banks burst with evening song.

Here the West really begins. No longer does the Brazos belong to marsh, jungle, low prairie, city or hill country. West of Graham, the land opens up to the sky. And the river is divided among streams, forks, canyons and draws.

Heading out of Graham, we dropped by the immaculately preserved Indian-era Fort Belknap, where we scratched our heads over the presence of a Eurasian collared dove.

Our first reacquaintance with the river was on U.S. 380, where, in the frosty morn, we found a Brazos, clear despite the red rock and buff sand around it, racing by, and no more than a foot deep. Then we snaked through Newcastle – yes, a coal-mining town, to match its Old World name.

Past Throckmorton, Seymour Goree, Munday and Knox City, the Brazos cuts through rolling pasturelands and scrubby brushlands, the two characters alternating regularly, and not always accompanied by an easy explanation to the outsider.

Whenever we descend its banks, we leave tracks in the sand. The water is bracing, the wind constant. We spot a dozen different kinds of raptors in the fields beyond its borders.

In Stonewall County, the Brazos, as defined by some geographers, ends. Split into forks (Salt, Clear, Double Mountain, etc.), it is no longer viable as a single river. We could have ended this particular rivertracing here, but the call of the upper forks was too strong.

We are reminded of the far reaches of the Missouri River, which we traced from its vast mouth, joining the Mississippi at St. Louis, to Lemhi Pass on the Montana-Idaho border, where the continental anaconda starts as a spring the size of two cupped hands.

Refreshed, we take farm-to-market and county roads following the Double Mountain and its own tributary, the lengthily named North Fork of the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos River, on the fifth day.

We encounter the Salt Fork once, too, on our journey between Aspermont and Post, located just below the Cap Rock, the outcropping that definitively divides the lower plains from the high “staked plains.”

These forks disappear into slender, silvery tines. Mesquite chokes this lower plain, but it looks like some ranchers and farmers are fighting back. Working our way up through the canyons of the Cap Rock to the gridiron-flat, intensely cultivated Llano Estacado, we lose track of our main fork. Are we done?

No. Humans have intervened.

At one point, near tiny Buffalo Springs Lake, we run into a giddy water park. At another micro-lake, an upscale residential community. On the edges of Lubbock, a series of manicured city parks string along what remains of that North Fork, teased and tortured into service.

Those parks don’t relieve the industrial blight of the city’s east side. We do find the famous prairie dog town created when 98 percent of the species had been exterminated. It seems to attract an odd set of human loiterers, as well.

Beyond Lubbock, the Brazos watershed extends into New Mexico through a series of draws, which stay bone dry except during a flash flood. So we can finally say the western reaches of the wet Brazos really rise from the springs on and below the Llano Estacado.

We settled into the dreary, unlandscaped core of Lubbock’s downtown and prepared to trace the Colorado River downstream from the same Llano Estacado to the Gulf.

UPDATES: We’ll always update our trips and research on the blog. For a different display, go to TexasRiverTracing.com.