The Rio Frio rises among steep, rugged canyons on the ragged southern fringe of the Edwards Plateau southwest of Kerrville.
When we first encountered its tines (forked tributaries) alongside FM 336 in Real County, its river rocks lay liked bleached bones among the bushy ashe juniper. Nothing but fritillary butterflies and buzzards moved in the open-oven heat.
After an exceedingly tortuous descent into the valley (above the settlement of Vance), multiple springs feed the main course of the Frio (actually kind of lukewarm here). Brave bigtooth maples appear. Also a few pecans. Cabins poke out from limestone ledges. Birdsong rises all around us.
Vacation culture ramps up near Leakey, just north of Depression-era Garner State Park, so popular that vehicles queue up for access to the cooling rapids and welcoming weir. Outside the park, every little low-water crossing turns into a swimming, wading or tubing opportunity for those not willing to wait out the crowds at Garner.
Noble cypresses begin to parade up and down the banks. Dark catfish and light, spotted perch dart among the water plants. Even water lilies float atop the quieter eddies. Here, the Frio is the equal of the Guadalupe River at its most alluring.
Yet as soon as we arrive at the village of Concan, not too far below Garner, the Frio begins to fade. Algae collects in shallows. Fish, birds and insects disappear. From the looks of things, the Frio is being loved to death.
We are tempted to call this tracing “The Mystery of the Disappearing River.”
Somewhere northeast of Uvalde, the Rio Frio simply dries up. At least during the summer. And during a drought. I’m not just referring to its tributary known as the Dry Frio. The above image of the waterless main course was taken under the old railroad bridge outside of Knippa.
The Frio even disappears from two of our three most trusted maps. I’m no hydrologist, but the culprit may be the heavily irrigated plains around Uvalde. My guess is that the Frio contributes to the aquifer, which is then depleted by agriculture. And there’s lots of it for miles around this bustling town of 14,000.
After shopping for Texana at Uvalde’s Opera House Antique Store, then eating enormous spicy Juan burgers at Towne House cafe, we head into the vast mesquite brush of the South Texas triangle. Here, the Frio reappears in little rivulets and pools under thirsty tree motts as we move through Pearsall, Dilley, Cotulla, Fowlertown and Tilden.
Then, almost without warning, the Frio spreads into the Choke Canyon Reservoir. This wide, shallow lake provides water for the city of Corpus Christi. The lake is low these days, although not as dramatically depleted as Lake Travis. Fishermen hug its shores. Bird life swarms. Last winter, a stray pine flycatcher attracted thousands of birders to Choke Canyon State Park.
Our most exotic sightings on this trip are masses of crested caracaras, raptors that look positively tropical to us, but are common in this thorny brush country. We spot a four-foot-long alligator just beyond the grassy shore (above). Later, we read that the state park is the westernmost home of the American alligator.
In the short distance between Choke Canyon and the town of Three Rivers, where the Frio feeds merges with the Nueces, early 20th-century ranches are interrupted by an enormous federal penitentiary and an old refinery now owned by Valero. In the shadow of that refinery, we visit Tips Park, part municipal recreation, part campground for winter Texans. At an artificial falls (above), a sign reads “Alligators exist in the park.”
We believe the sign maker.
Tracing the 200-mile-long Frio meant driving more than 400 miles, and not too much hiking around the riverbeds in the heat. Getting back, however, would be a straight shot up Texas 123 from Live Oak County to Interstate 35 in San Marcos the next morning.
Our stay in George West, another former ranching center, proved uneventful. But just outside Karnes City, we spotted the famous hamlet of Panna Maria. The first Polish colony in America, it was founded in 1854.
The cluster of homes, stores and schools around the Catholic church are in remarkably good condition. You may recall that Pope John Pall II accepted tributes from Panna Marians during his 1984 trip to San Antonio. Somehow, I had imagined the pope actually visited here, but that does not seem to be the case. Other Polish towns with other Polish churches — not to be confused with the painted Czech churches of Schulenburg, Shiner, etc. — line Texas 123. But we had one last small-town attraction to visit before we skittered back to Austin.
That would be the Sebastopol House in Seguin. Made from formed, unreinforced “lime-crete” in 1854, it is lovingly preserved and explained by the Texas parks folks. It appears it was the unfinished city home for plantation owner by the name of Young, whose descendant sold it to the Zorn family. (The name apparently came from the Crimean War battle that intrigued the original owner’s children.)
One Zorn became mayor of Seguin and his daughter left the to a conservation society, who later let the State of Texas look after its not inconsequential upkeep. Park ranger Georgia Davis(above) proved a fount of well-calculated information, among the only tour-guides I’ve ever encountered who didn’t simplify the history for the purposes of mere entertainment. Some recent research, for instance, suggests that the style is not neo-Classical at all, but perhaps Caribbean.
I can see it.
UPDATES: We’ll always update our trips and research on the blog. For a different display, go to TexasRiverTracing.com.