Sunday, August 19, 2012

Houseboating Lake Amistad

A few weekends ago, we decided to go on a trip with our friends Erika and Simon, and their baby Alejandra.  We discussed renting a house on Lake Nasworthy, near San Angelo, TX, about two hours east of Midland.  But then Simon found info online about renting houseboats on Lake Amistad.  We decided that would be more fun.

Lake Amistad is a large reservoir on the Rio Grande, just west of Del Rio, TX.  The Pecos River joins the Rio Grande at the west end of Lake Amistad, and the Devils River joins at the east end.

We left town on Friday afternoon, driving south across the newly green terrain of west Texas.  This summer we've received quite a lot of rain; most areas are above average for the year.  Last year we had almost no rain.  Now, flowers are out; grass is growing; the mesquites are green again.

The drive south to Rankin isn't very scenic, but coming into Rankin presents a bit of topography with a large mesa behind the town to the south, and a sharp downhill going into town.  Rankin, like many west Texas towns, is an oil boom-and-bust town dating from the early 20th century.  Turning east we drive to Big Lake, another oil- and former railroad town.  The amount of oilfield traffic was amazing.  We make a bathroom stop at the Stripes in Big Lake, and we could barely get into (or out of) the parking lot between all the oilfield pickup trucks.  On the roads were dozens of 18-wheelers, making passing impossible and mostly futile.

South of Big Lake on 137 is a large, flat, treeless basin that used to be a lake -- the "Big Lake" that gave the town its name.  Changing weather patterns (and changing water use?) has caused the lake to dry up.  In the early 20th century, apparently the main families in town had houses on either side of the lake.  Must've been a neat place at that time.  Today, the dearth of vegetation in the dry lake bottom points to a high salt content of the soil, typical of small lakes in west Texas.

South from Big Lake, the road climbs a few long, high rises, lending a view of the pretty, green, and slightly rolling surrounding countryside of the Edwards Plateau.  137 then angles southeast toward the pretty little town of Ozona, sitting astride I-10.  On the way into town is a rather ambitious-looking earthen dam blocking off a dry wash.  The resulting "reservoir" looks like it's never held a drop of water.  I can't find any information on this structure; it may be a flood control dam, although the dry wash it blocks extends only a few miles to the northwest.  I've commented on Ozona before; a pretty town with some nice old big houses and a courthouse and school made of stone.

South out of Ozona, 163 winds its gentle way between oddly bare-looking rounded hills of grey limestone.  In some areas, it looks like recent fire has denuded the landscape.  After a few miles of easy 70-mph crusing, 163 loses its wide shoulders and gradually becomes a narrow, winding, barely 2-lane road.  The road dips repeatedly into low-water crossings of the Devils River, which flows into Lake Amistad.  On this dry and hot August day there was no water in the Devils until we reached one of the last crossings before 163 strikes out across the limestone hills to the SW.  In the last crossing, shallow blue water ran among bright green weeds and thick stands of Cottonwood and other trees.

163 deposited us onto US 90 in Comstock, TX.  We headed east on US 90 and, after a few U-turns, found the road to Lake Amistad Marina (aka Diablo East).  We arrived at 5:45 PM, and stepped out of the car into 108 degree heat.  Simon and Erika had not arrived yet, and the Marina folks told us Simon had to be there to take out the boat, because he had actually filled out the rental information online.  As we discussed this, Simon and Erika showed up and we began the process of gathering our stuff and bringing it down the substantial hill from the parking lot to the marina docks.

Lake Amistad is about 25' below "full" level; volumetrically, it is about 58% full.  So the marina docks are downhill, when "normally" they would be just below the level of the parking lot.

View Lake Amistad Houseboating in a larger map

We got our stuff loaded and the marina pilot steered the boat out into the main channel.  A motorboat from the marina picked him up and we were on our own.  I had picked up a detailed lake map from the Marina.  We followed the navigation buoys upstream along the drowned Devils River, ticking them off on the map.  The houseboat was a 50-footer with two 90 hp 2-cycle outboards.  At full throttle, it would move along at six or seven miles per hour = slow.  We chugged upstream.  It was now close to 8 PM and the sun was sinking in the western sky.  We agreed to tie up in a side canyon.  At first, we chose the wrong side canyon and had a little adventure as we backed out into the main channel.  The lake is surrounded by fairly low limestone hills, so "canyon" is a bit of a misnomer.

Full steam ahead

Eventually we found the tie-up buoy in Big Canyon and got the boat attached to it.  It was a little odd floating on this big craft in a small canyon, swinging to and fro like a windsock.

Big Canyon

I got up the next morning in time for sunrise.  Eventually everyone was stirring and we make breakfast.  

Insect on the upper deck


After a bit of trouble getting the engines started, we motored slowly out of Big Canyon and back into the main Devils River channel.  We pointed upstream and motored past some real cliffs.  Along the right (east) bank there were a number of vacation homes which we admired, although few or none had direct access to the lake below.

Dead trees along Devils River arm of L Amistad

Up the Devils River

Ale and Debi (and Mary)

Close-up of dead trees: ahhhh!

Motoring was fun but pales quickly.  We turned around and went back down the river toward the marina.  We tried to get into Twin Canyons but a number of other boats were milling around our tie-up buoy, so we continued south toward the marina.  Across from the marina we found a cove on the west side of the lake.  We tied off to a mooring buoy.  The water around was bright and blue and very warm (85 F).  Time to swim!

Mary launches off the built-in slide

Mary, the only legal fisher on the boat (we didn't catch anything)

After a few hours of swimming in the cove, we motored south of the bridges (one for US 90 and one for the railroad tracks) and followed the buoys west, along the sunken Rio Grande.  On our left was Mexico.  The lake being quite low, there were dead trees and bushes and reeds sticking up above the waters surface in many places.  We were bound for Cow Creek Canyon.  It took several hours but just as the sun began to disappear behind the horizon, we turning into Cow Creek and spotted a mooring buoy.  It was right next to some 20-30' cliffs of limestone.  We get tied off and it looked like we would swing into the cliffs.  But they have the buoys set correctly and we didn't even get close.

After another night on the boat, the next day, Sunday, we all went swimming again.  The water here seemed deeper and was less blue.  Just as we all were having a good time swimming, Simon and I realized we had to depart to make the 2+ hour trip back to the marina at the other end of the lake.

After dropping the boat at the marina we loaded up the vehicles and drove into Del Rio for a late lunch at Manuel's "Steakhouse", where I've eaten several times before.  It is not really a steakhouse but it is pretty good.

Next we parted ways and headed back to Midland.  We had all found our land legs.

The trip was fun, but it was expensive.  Two nights on the boat plus fuel, oil and cleaning fee ended up being about $1750, which the marina folks said is fairly typical.

Next time I think I might prefer to rent a house on land and rent jet skis to ride around the lake.  But there is a certain magic to being on the water all weekend.


DSL said...

Gosh Andy, I chuckled reading your description! Maybe next time, tow a couple of jet skiis!

Liked your photos; especially dead trees!!

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