In the Sizzling-Hot Heart of Texas, River Tubing Offers Cool Relief

Photo for The Washington Post by Sergio Flores
Tubers float down the Comal River in Texas, a long-cherished summer pasttime, amid a record heat wave.

NEW BRAUNFELS, Texas – On a blisteringly hot summer morning, dozens of people are lined up in Colie Reno’s parking lot well before he hands out the first bulging inner tube. Just beyond the gravel, the Comal River beckons. By noon, the sun-dappled water will be crowded with tubers: young and old, couples and families, locals and transplants and out-of-state tourists, all seeking relief from the triple-digit temperatures by joining up with a laid-back flotilla.

“It’s a true Texas experience,” explained Allison Hohenberger, who last weekend drove an hour from Johnson City to celebrate her 14-year-old son Heston’s birthday with a group of friends on the river.

Now is peak season for such languid fun, not just on the Comal but also on the nearby Frio, Guadalupe, Pedernales and San Marcos, five Hill Country rivers treasured for offering an affordable respite from the state’s meanest season. Tubers are willing to travel long distances for a cool dip: The first family in line on Saturday at Reno’s Texas Tubes was from the Rio Grande Valley, hundreds of miles away.

Because of this summer’s record heat wave, the rivers are flowing lower and slower than ever in recent memory. But white water isn’t the point. Folks come to party, to distract bored kids from devices, to recapture their childhood and, above all, to escape the sizzling weather for a few hours. While the mercury has regularly climbed above 100 this month, the spring-fed Comal remains a refreshing 72 degrees.

“You have to do something to cool off,” Reno said. “Not everybody can afford a boat.”

At 52, he has run the business for more than half his life – teaching high school economics on the side – and knows each ripple of the stretch his customers float. Like other local outfitters, he starts people out by running through the list of items banned by law on the river, which is basically anything disposable from cans and juice boxes to mini kegs. Police are patrolling, he warns, and anyone caught with contraband faces fines of up to $500.

“Don’t take anything on the river you can’t afford to lose,” he advises.

For $25, everyone gets a tube and a ride on the shuttle bus that returns them to the parking lot at the end of the day. Some pay for an extra tube for the cooler and food they keep within reach as they drift.

Ashley Rossi, a pastry chef from San Antonio, was introducing a co-worker to the river on Saturday. She’d also brought Muffin, a 10-year-old dachshund-Italian greyhound mix wrapped in a yellow life jacket, snug as a hot dog in a bun. As they approached the edge of the water, the pooch whined.

“Muffin will be next to the cooler, or she’ll sit on me,” Rossi said. “She’s a little rocky at first, and then she hops right in.”

The day was the busiest of the summer, local officials said, with at least 15,000 tubers on the Comal. Its 2.5 miles make it the shortest river in Texas, if not the country, and one of its special features is a trio of chutes. Youngsters contemplate the best strategy to maximize their thrills.

“I like fast things,” said 10-year-old Benjamin Hardt of Houston, who was more than ready for his first ride. An older cousin considered leaning forward into the current. That idea got nixed fast.

“Bottom down,” ordered Benjamin’s mother, Kayla Hardt. “So you don’t flip.”

The most squeals – and perhaps the best reward – come in the winding “Tube Chute,” which was carved out of a 19th century hydroelectric dam and added here in 1976. It sends everyone spinning, then dumps them into a frothy pool near a riverbank bar and club called Float In.

On Saturday, as the bar blasted a tune from Zac Brown Band – “I got my toes in the water, a– in the sand, not a worry in the world, a cold beer in my hand . . .” – a scuba diver probed the water at the foot of the chute, searching for valuables washed out of tubers’ grasp and into the murky green-brown depths.

“Some of them are really good guys that are trying to help people find their stuff,” Reno said. “But some of them are just scavengers who sell stuff online.”

No one seemed to mind, including police patrolling nearby. Officers wading beside the bar busted at least one group with alcohol and proceeded to escort the perpetrators from the water, weaving through a sea of tubes. The women all wore matching neon trucker caps that said “floats n HOES.” No one seemed surprised.

Farther downstream, away from any law enforcement, cans and bottles were back out, along with mini kegs. The river smelled of suntan lotion, cigar smoke and occasionally marijuana. People played their own music through portable speakers nestled in their tubes. Some groups tied their rubber crafts together with ropes, then lingered on the banks in the shade of mesquite trees.

Ricardo Flores’s friends devoted a spare tube to hauling beer, tortilla chips and other provisions. He clutched a waterproof speaker to his chest, singing along to Cumbia music in Spanish. Weekdays, Flores works construction in Houston, so he was covered up from the baking sun in an Astros hat, reflective sunglasses and a hooded sun shirt.

“This Texas heat, it’s not a joke,” he said.

In one spot where the banks turned steep and the river deep, the more daring climbed up and then jumped or cannonballed into the water as friends and relatives cheered.

Carlos Hernandez joined his sister-in-law’s fiancé in some midair acrobatics. After first shouting to discourage him, his wife started filming on her cellphone as he executed a slow, midair flip. He surfaced with a grin. By the time he paddled back to his tube, he was winded.

“I get to relive my childhood,” said Hernandez, who grew up tubing in Texas. “I feel like a kid.”

Eventually every floater reached the large EXIT HERE signs signaling the end of the fun and a forced return to land. One by one, they grabbed black metal railings and hauled themselves out, clutching dripping tubes. They followed a nearby flight of stone steps and boarded the converted school bus that would take them back to their cars.

The shuttle’s last run was 7:30 p.m. Reno and his staff stayed well past that as night fell. They had to restock – dry bags, waterproof phone cases, jugs and sunglass straps – and to clean up the bathrooms and parking lot. The next day’s line was just a sunrise away.

Photo for The Washington Post by Sergio Flores
Ten-year-old Muffin, accompanied by her owner, Ashley Rossi, was among the dogs tubing.