The Texas Eagle, 70 feet long and 19 feet wide, glides through murky Colorado River water. Twin 165 horsepower engines hum along as they propel the craft through willow trees and past a logjam. Bird watchers clutch binoculars and peer through large glass windows. Sightseers on the upper deck pull up their collars against the cool, November drizzle. Tour guide Tim Mohan points out a massive bird that has just taken flight. “A great blue heron, at two o’clock, just took off from the shore. Look at the beautiful, blue feathers on his chest. They’re blowing in the wind.”

The Vanishing Texas River Cruise takes you on a three-hour, 26-mile boat ride from a Lake Buchanan marina into a remote river canyon you won’t see from an automobile. Ochre-colored cliffs grow steeper and more rugged the further the craft churns upstream. Oak, juniper and sycamore trees grow horizontally out of limestone outcroppings. Civilization melts away like river fog evaporating under bright sunlight. “The main thing is how satisfied people are just going up and seeing nature as it is on a major waterway in Texas. It’s about the vanishing wilderness, just so natural and beautiful up there,” Mohan said. “You’re going to see a river valley like it was 400 years ago. No boat docks. No bridges. Very few homes up there, all natural ranch land that has been in those families for generations. It’s just so spectacular. Unspoiled. If you’re down by Austin on Town Lake, you get very little nature. There’s so much history up here. It just makes this area more personal. It’s amazing how impressed people are going upriver.”

Eagle spotting

The Texas Eagle rounds a river bend and several ring-billed gulls hover above the boat as if to hitch a ride. An American Coot scoots across the water and into the safety of thick willow trees. Mohan points out a pair of great white egrets landing in a green oak tree canopy. “There are so many different bird stories, it’s incredible. It’s just amazing, the things these birds can do to impress you,” Mohan said.

About a half hour after The Texas Eagle leaves the marina, folks on the upper deck point out a bald eagle soaring above the eastern shore. Mohan explains, majestic as the American symbol of freedom is, the great bird has some peculiar hunting habits. “We’ve seen them chasing osprey. And the osprey dropped the fish and the eagle swooped down and got it before it hit water,” Mohan said. “The American Bald Eagle is kind of a lazy fisherman. It will harass osprey to dropping fish.”

A little further upstream, most of the 50 or so sightseers scramble for a better vantage point to photograph Fall Creek Falls. The boat inches along and camera shutters click in rapid fire. The waterfall is about 80 feet across and cascades 30 feet down a granite outcropping. In summer, boaters often anchor their craft near there and swim underneath, letting the free-falling stream massage their heads and backs. Just offshore, a granite pinnacle looking like the Rock of Gibraltar juts out of the river. Mohan says Native Americans called it Ceremonial Rock and performed human sacrifice rituals there.

As the boat continues upstream, the rock’s silhouette stands testament to the powers of nature: first, the rumbling subterranean forces that created the Llano Uplift and formations such as this monolith, second, the slow, artful work of erosion that has carved this granite masterpiece through eons of time. Writer Norman Maclean called rocks such as these that jut out of a riverbed as coming from “The basement of time.”

About 22,000 folks venture annually into the wilds of the Colorado River Canyon via the Vanishing Texas River Cruise. Sitting at a table with a front row seat to a meandering river, Teresa and Carl Crosby sipped coffee and said they drove down from Granbury to see the birds and fall foliage. The chauffeur was a bonus “That’s what I like, somebody else is driving,” Teresa Crosby said. “And very few people will get to see this, because you have to be on a boat on a river to do it. That’s what impressed me. It’s gorgeous. It’s like Big Bend to me. We’ve been to Buchanan Lake a bunch, but were stunned. We never saw anything like this. You don’t see a bunch of houses or boat docks.”

Throughout the morning, Mohan shares the history, geography and geology of the Colorado River. He explains there are two Colorado Rivers in the United States. One flows west of the Continental Divide, through the Grand Canyon, and empties into the Gulf of California. The other begins and ends within Texas, flowing about 900 miles. It is the eighteenth longest in the United States and the longest that begins within the state. If not for a clerical error, it would have been named the Brazos River. Spanish mapmakers flipped the two river names while recording their explorations and the mistake was never rectified.

Enchanted Lake Buchanan

The first cruise, in 1982, was on a Viking deck boat that held 12 people. It was captained by Ed Low, a rancher from Llano. Low was enchanted by the river upstream from Lake Buchanan while convalescing at a fishing camp after hip replacement surgery. Entranced by this relatively undiscovered wilderness, he took a couple of exploratory trips. With the idea of piloting a cruise boat upstream, he studied fluctuating lake levels and then took the plunge, launching his first cruise 34 years ago. Ironically, the first bald eagle sighting was not by Low, but by a reporter on one of the early cruises. Before then, Low was unaware that eagle activity on the river had been recorded by the state several years earlier.

Through the years, Low and his crew members have had to cope with an unruly river. A few years ago, the cruise was shut down for several months because of an extended drought. “Going through floods and droughts on the Colorado River is what made our cruise so special,” Low said for the official guidebook sold in the marina gift shop. “The river is wild up here, and its natural ebb and flow contribute to the natural beauty and splendor of each cruise.”

Fred Afflerbach is a Tex Appeal Magazine correspondent.

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