There's nothing like paddling down a remote river in a frog-strangling, coldfront thunderstorm, wearing shorts and a t-shirt with lightning crashing around you to make you feel alive.
This trip started off hot and sunny and was supposed to stay that way until I was off the river. No need for rain gear then right? That would cut down on weight and besides, a rainstorm in the summer would be no different than taking a swim.
I was back on the Brazos in the Palo Pinto hills. This time I had put in at Rochelles campground on F.M. 4 and was heading 19 miles downstream to the take out at U.S Highway 180. This trip begins where the famous Hwy 16 to FM 4 trip ends.
Temps were in the high 90's under a cloudless sky as I paddled into the first bend. Bends in the Brazos have names. First is the B.C Harris Bend. Elm Creek comes in on river right, then Little Keechi on the left. The right bank is one continuous rocky sandstone ridge about 60 feet tall, covered with cedar, elm, ash and oaks. The water is fairly clear, though not crystal clear like the more popular stretch of river upstream. There are house sized rocks out from both banks. At the top of the bend, about 2 miles from the put in, on river left, is a huge freestanding cube of a rock about 30 foot tall. Perfectly flat on the top, it intrigued me as a possible campsite. I headed to the top to check it out; but when I leaned against the rock to catch my breath I noticed the "Posted No Trespassing" in red spray paint right on the side of the rock.
Back on the river I spotted several nice places to camp on the inside of BC Harris Bend, from mile 2 to about mile 3, river right. Theyre shady, level, grassy and gently sloping to several feet above the water line in case of a dam release. A great place for a nap; but it was too early in the day so I kept on. Along this stretch were about 6 of the biggest wild turkey I've ever seen.
At mile 3 on river left is a big rock that has "7 miles" painted on it. It means you are 3 miles from the Dark Valley Bridge and have 7 more to go to get to the Rochelles 10 mile take out. After mile 3 I didnt see any decent campsites, unless you count the Dale River Ranch Resort at about mile 4. It's private and you have to call ahead. If you just pull over and make yourself at home they're liable to shoot you, they even have a sign out that says something to that effect.
Next is Post Oak Bend, taking up nearly 3 river miles. The entire inside of the bend is Holt Ranch. They offer hunting, fishing and other such activities. They have the entire left bank posted throughout the bend from mile 3 through 6.
So far I hadn't seen spectacular bluffs and tall rugged hills (we call 'em mountains down here but they're just big ol' hills) like on the popular upper stretch. That changed at mile 7 when I hit Metcalf Bend. The Brazos runs right into a fire scarred sandstone bluff that heads you straight east into a view of a big conical hill. From here on till the takeout 2 days later, there were many such views.
At mile 9, I stopped to camp on river right, opposite the mouth of Keechi Creek in Hart Bend. Here is a huge gravel beach, nice and flat but no shade. It would have to do because it was getting late in the day. There are nice views of the mouth of the creek and some hills close by. I spent two days here, lounging, eating, fishing, swimming, exploring the creek, hunting arrowheads, reading and a little hiking. In other words, the good life. I tried taking a nap but it was too hot. The stargazing was spectacular at this site. One night a military cargo plane buzzed right over my camp at very low altitude. During the day, a pair of fighter jets flew over. They come out of nowhere very loud and just as quick were gone.
At about 3 in the morning on my last nite at this camp, I awoke to the sound of rain on my tent. This was not supposed to happen according to the weather forecasts from the time I had left home. Probably just a passing shower. I got up and put the rain fly on the tent. Thunder woke me up just before dawn. I had coffee to the sight of a huge thunderstorm on the western horizon, slowly moving my way.
I was barely loaded up and on the river before it hit. I hadnt brought any rain gear, figuring it was summer so if I got rained on it wouldn't be much different than going for a swim. But the rain brought with it a north wind and a temperature drop down to 60 degrees.
The rain turned soon turned into a deluge. I tried pulling over and setting up a tent but the rain kept knocking it down. My canoe filled with water and I had to unload and empty it, then reload and tarp it. While knee deep in water pushing the canoe off the bank I came face to face with two water moccasins. They seemed more curious than threatening. Something about rain seems to bring them out.
I resigned myself to canoeing in the rain. It was really pretty awesome except for the lightning and shivering. There was nowhere on the banks close to the water with any trees on which I could tie a tarp to set up a dry camp under.
But there are a lot of nice hills to look at on this stretch. At about mile 12 in Moffit Bend, there is an old crossing with wagon ruts on both banks and old bridge pilings in the river. Finally at mile 13, just past the mouth of Turkey creek on river left, up on the third level of bank I saw a spreading mesquite tree over a nice level patch of grass. After tying the tarp up in the branches for a roof, I stood under it and for the first time in 6 hours I was out of the rain. Man that felt good. I was able to dry everything out by the time I broke camp the next morning, the rain having stopped sometime over night. This camp has a nice view of a large cone shaped hill right across from the mouth of the creek.
Leaving camp the next morning, I came across a good stretch of nice campsites on both sides of the river in Ballenger Bend from about mile 14 through 16, and saw several deer. From here through the Dog Bend to the takeout in the middle of Bath Bend are more nice views of the Palo Pinto hills along with some unusual rock formations in the river bed close to the banks.
The takeout at Hwy 180 is not one of my favorites. It's under a long highway bridge. There's a lot of trash, graffiti and looks like a good place for bad things to happen. I would not recommend leaving a vehicle there. Fortunately I had arranged a pick-up from Rochelle's Canoe Outfitters.
This trip is not quite as scenic as the upper 20 miles of river that precede it, good campsites are fewer, and it is shallower. I did it at 160 cfs and was pushing my paddle off the bottom for a good bit of the way. But it is still a very nice float and well worth doing. It is not as crowded as the upper trip, I saw only one other canoe in 4 days on the river. This is a trip I hope to do again.
Rochelles has primitive camping, shuttle service, canoe and kayak rental, and a small store with bait, ice and basic necessities.
Old Town Guide 147
$10 to camp at Rochelles, $1 a day to park
From Dallas take I-20 West to the 180 exit in Weatherford. Take 180 to Palo Pinto, take a right on FM 4 in Palo Pinto and go approximately 15 miles to Rochelles Campground on the Brazos.
"Goodbye to a River" by John Graves