Four Days on the Sabine River

sabine river rainbow

The Sabine River trip was the first canoe trip that we planned on our own. I had been on plenty of trips with my family, but this was the first one that I organized myself. I was looking for a river that wasn’t a very far drive from Austin, but that would be remote enough to get us into the wilderness. Also, as not a super experienced paddler, I wanted something that wouldn’t be too hard.

The Sabine River ticked all these boxes. It was about a five hour drive from Austin to our put in. The Sabine River runs from Northeast Texas all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. The southern portion of the river flows along the Texas-Louisiana border. The leg that seemed most interesting began right below the Toledo Dam. From my internet research it seemed that there were very few outfitters to rent from in this area. The one that I settled on was Tack-A-Paw Expedition. I called ahead and the nice man with a Louisiana accent assured me that they would have the two canoes available for our party of four. It seemed like a laid back kind of place. After talking to the owner, I decided that we would spend five days and four nights beginning just below the dam and taking out at the US 190 bridge, a distance of approximately 50 miles.

Charming display at the outfitters.

Charming display at the outfitters.

For this trip it would be me and Jessamine and our friends Chris and Ben. We were all really excited for our first “rough neck camping trip.” We arranged for our two-canoe rental and made the five hour drive to Tack-A-Paw. When we pulled up to the outfitter we found a semi-run down looking house. We walked over to a counter area and were immediately bitten by a million mosquitos. “What have we gotten ourselves into?” we thought. We paid our outfitter, went over our trip plan, and signed our lives away.

The interesting thing about the Sabine below the Toledo Dam is that the Corps of Engineers control the flow out of the dam. It is regulated on a fairly consistent basis to control the flow of water. What this means is that the water levels below the dam rise and fall rapidly. This can cause some rapids below the dam after water release. The outfitter told us that we only had a short period of time to get below the dam a ways so that we would avoid a large rapid that forms after water release. The rapid below the dam is called Ghost Rapid and can become a Class III, so we were motivated to avoid it. Unfortunately one of the entry points was closed and we had a bit of a late start leaving Austin. This meant that we would have to start in a swampy area and truck it to get past the Ghost Rapids area in time. We went as fast as we could through the bayou that was filled with many overturned trees. The boys were faster, and Jessamine and I worked hard to keep up. I hadn’t been canoeing in a while and at first it was tough to maneuver the canoe around all the logs in the swamp that were causing small rapids to form. At some point our canoe turned sideways and got stuck on a log! Fortunately, the flow wasn’t very strong and we were able to push off the log and continue on. After we got through a good portion of the bayou, we were beginning to get our bearings. The boys were ahead and at some point we heard them yell out. As we caught up I heard Chris say that he was grabbing ahold of his gun! They had seen an alligator! Understandably they were a bit shaken up. Sadly, Jessamine and I missed it as the alligator went underwater. But what a start to the trip!

The dudes.

The dudes.

Shortly after the sighting, we made it out of the swamp and to the main river channel. We were worried about time and paddled as hard as we could. Not too long into the main channel we noticed that the water started moving faster. It seemed that the water had been released. Luckily, we had made it past the location of the Ghost Rapid! We continued on and the paddling became easier with the current. We began to hear a dull roar that sounded like wind blowing through the trees, but was actually our first rapid. Everyone seemed more excited about this than I was. I was beginning to panic! The boys went first and seemed to be enjoying themselves while managing not to capsize. A good omen. We were next. Jessamine had no fear despite having never been on a canoe trip before in her life. I was worried. But we had no choice. We floated into the rapids and there was no turning back. “Paddle hard” I screamed. We did and it was a fun ride probably down a Class I rapid that felt like a Class IV to me.

The gals.

The gals.

We kept paddling with the current and then we came across an even larger rapid. This one must have been a Class II. Really tall standing waves that we had no choice but to go through. Believe me I looked and there was no way to portage around it. Again I screamed “paddled hard” and we went blazing into the rapid. The standing waves caused us to take in some water, but not enough to be a problem. Immediately following the rapids was a rocky area where we all pulled over to bail our boats. We didn’t know it at the time, but we had made it through the toughest rapids of the trip! It also seemed like a good place to stop for lunch.

It was a relief to be on land and we had our typical lunch of salami with cheese and crackers, and some Kool-Aid to wash it all down. As our trip was in August, it was also a perfect opportunity to take a swim break. Due to the rising water levels we had to continuously pull our canoes and packs higher onto the land to keep them from floating away.

After lunch, we hopped into our canoes just as we heard the first thunder boom. The day had been pretty exciting already with an alligator and two pretty strong rapids, but now we had to deal with a potential storm. At first the storm seemed off in the distance, but then the sky grew dark. It started pouring. Even in August in Texas hard rain can feel cold. We hugged the shoreline and continued on.

Paddling in the rain.

Paddling in the rain.

We continued into the rain until we were all pretty worn out. Finally, we decided it was time to call it a day. The nice thing about the Sabine River is that there are multiple white sandbars to camp on. You are out in the middle of nowhere and no one is around to claim any of them but you. We were exhausted and found one with a fairly steep bank. This ended up being a good thing as the water can rise high if the dam is released. It was such a relief to be at camp! We set up our tents and our tarp to try to keep some of the rain off our gear. We had planned a steak dinner for the first night, but it was raining! It was hard to keep our charcoal going, but it was steak and we were determined! So we had to make do. We ended up using Chris’s stove to cook the steak in a pan. The meal was balanced out with foil packets of potatoes, onions, and veggies that we cooked in the charcoal. As an added bonus, Jessamine and I had brought a surprise beer, ice cold and hidden in a tiny cooler, for everyone! It was much appreciated by all after our long day!

The paddles helped to keep the tarp upright.

The paddles helped to keep the tarp upright.

Our next day began with our usual breakfast of oatmeal or granola bars. And coffee of course. We were motivated to break camp as the August temperatures were rising rapidly throughout the morning. Once packed up and on the water, the weather seemed much more tolerable. The river calmed down at this point and fluctuated from basically flat water to mild currents. The boys took the opportunity to do some fishing as we traveled. The Sabine is a good river for bass and the boys caught a few, one of which was large enough for a before-dinner snack that evening. I enjoyed the solitude that the river provided on the remainder of the trip. We did not see any other canoers and only a couple of small fishing boats.

sabine river

We enjoyed building large fires at night with the abundant driftwood that lined the sandbars. We brought Jiffy Pop and had a special popcorn treat cooked over the fire on one night. Other nighttime activities included taking swigs of bison grass vodka and trying to choke down warm boxed-wine. We all agreed that bringing wine in the Texas summer was not the best idea!

The canoes were not quite high enough here.

The canoes were not quite high enough here.

One sandbar that we camped at was quite large and had a gradual slope to the water. We had been warned to pull our canoes up level to where our tents were since the water can rise very high during the night due to the dam release. We pulled the canoes about halfway up the sandbar thinking that there was no way the water could rise that high. However, just to be safe we decided to follow the advice and pull the canoes another 20 feet or so up to where we had pitched our tents. Good thing we did! That night we woke up due to the water rising within about 10 feet from our tents. Our canoes might not have been around in the morning if we hadn’t pulled them higher!

Jessamine with a giant portage pack.

Jessamine with a giant portage pack.

Around the Anacoco Bayou the water began to turn a darker brownish red color, and we found this section to be less pretty than the previous area. If we do this leg of the Sabine again we will exit before getting to this section and spend a day at base camp if we want a longer trip.

On day 4 we got to our takeout point ahead of schedule. We were all pretty tired at this point and decided to end the trip one night early instead of staying an extra night. Our outfitter picked us up at the US 190 bridge and drove us the hour or so back to our cars. Along the way he stopped at a gas station where we all got out and purchased our favorite flavor of Gatorade. After so much time in the hot Texas sun, it was the best Gatorade I’ve ever tasted, at the very least because it was cold!

On the drive back to Austin, we stopped in Livingston to eat a seafood dinner at a place called Shrimpboat Manny’s. It was an amazing first dinner back in civilization to cap off a great canoe trip!

Logistics:

Outfitter: Tack-A-Paw Expedition

Best time to go: We went in August, but this trip could be done year-round. The summer heat was pretty brutal, but we stayed cool by drinking lots of water and taking many dips in the river. You may prefer spring or fall for more moderate temperatures.

Trip Length: 54 miles, four days and three nights

Route: We started in the Toro Bayou just below the Toledo Bend Reservoir and took out at the US 190 Bridge.

Don’t Forget: Make sure to bring a first aid kit and gear for basic survival! The Sabine River is very remote and it can be difficult to get a cell signal. We greatly appreciated our tarp for shade and our Lifestraws that allowed us to drink from the river.

Post-Trip Meal and Beer: Shrimpboat Manny’s in Livingston, TX (on your way back if heading west).