NATURE NOTES:
Handbooks to Adventure: Louis Aulbach’s West Texas River Guides

By Andrew Stuart

The Rio Grande, the Devils River, the Lower Pecos. The rivers of West Texas are exceptions to the desert rule. In this harsh land, they’re a life-giving resource.

And they’re irresistible to backcountry adventurers. There are challenging rapids, and some of the most spectacular landscapes in Texas.

Louis Aulbach published his first West Texas river guide in 1988. His guides are iconic. For thousands of boaters, they’ve been essential company.

Boquillas Canyon, in Big Bend National Park, is a classic Western experience. The Rio Grande sweeps for 30 miles through the cliffs and spires of the Carmen Mountains.

A native Houstonian, Aulbach was working in the oil industry when he made his first Big Bend river trip.

“I had joined the Houston Canoe Club in 1980,” Aulbach said. “We did Boquillas Canyon – and then I realized, wow, this is a lot better than backpacking.”

He returned next to run the Lower Canyons – an 80-mile journey, on the most remote stretch of river in the continental United States. Now he was hooked. In the ensuing years, Aulbach averaged three West Texas canoe trips a year.

The park service produced small river maps at the time. But Aulbach saw there was a need for detailed guides.

Aulbach self-published his first Lower Canyons guide in 1988. The first run – a thousand copies – sold out in three years. That book set the template. It featured photos, a mile-by-mile account of the river and topographic maps, drawing in surrounding terrain.

Aulbach has now published five guides. They cover 350 miles of the Rio Grande, as well as the Lower Pecos and Devils rivers.

“I wanted to write something for people like me, who didn’t want to go down with an outfitter,” Aulbach said. “They wanted to go on their own – but they needed the basic instructions, the basic description of what they’re going to deal with on the way.”

Aulbach became an avocational historian. He spent long hours at the Archives of the Big Bend, at Sul Ross State University. His most extensive research was for a guide to the Rio Grande’s “Great Unknown” stretch, which is rich in pioneer history.

Aulbach noted early that he “reads” a river in a way not all boaters do. It’s the key to the guidebooks.

“I had a funny experience about the second or third Lower Canyons trip,” he said. “I kept asking everybody, ‘Don’t you remember that rock over here?’ and ‘Don’t you remember the funny formation down here?’ I didn’t realize that when I went down the river I saw and remembered these features. Other people didn’t see that.”

Boaters regularly contact him with questions and feedback. After the first book, a boater from Pennsylvania called to say Aulbach had “saved his life” on the Lower Canyons.

“He said, ‘I didn’t know there was no water on the river,’” Aulbach said. “But I had mentioned where the springs were, and he said he was using ziplock bags to fill up water. I knew then that I had done at least one good thing.”

Aulbach said the relationships he’s formed – with retailers, outfitters and fellow river enthusiasts – have been the guidebooks’ greatest reward.

“You can’t put a price on the people you meet doing this,” he said. “I go out to West Texas, and it’s like visiting old friends. You meet these people – sure you’re selling stuff, but you’re helping them do their business too. These people I’ve known for 25, 30 years – it’s like a big community.”

Whitewater, historical resonance, scenery – each river journey in West Texas has its own unique appeal, Aulbach said.

“It’s like having kids – every kid’s different,” he said. “It depends on what feature I’m interested in enjoying that time. If you’re up on Colorado Canyon you’re fighting all those little rapids. If you’re in the Great Unknown you’re looking at all the historic sites. If you’re in the Lower Canyons you’re looking at canyon walls that are just enormous. I don’t think there is one that I’d say, ‘That’s the best I’ve ever done.’ I like them all.”

Many of the most beautiful places in West Texas can only be seen from a river. For 30 years, Aulbach’s guides have helped the intrepid make those journeys.