The celebration of a river brings back fond memories of a Texas legend. Camp Warnecke was the place for summer fun.

Photo Credit: Bob Howen.
Photo Credit: Bob Howen.

Saturday found us rummaging around the Hill Country, researching a future Home By Another Way post.  In Bandera to investigate the Cowboy Capital of the World, we ended up following an impressive line of cars to RiverFest, hard on the banks of the Medina River.  RiverFest, which had been strangely under-publicized in the DFW media market, featured a classic car show, barbecue competition and a hot dog-eating contest, all accompanied by better-than-average-for-a-Saturday-afternoon live music.  As no one made me enter the hot dog-eating contest, RiverFest made for a just about perfect afternoon.

The Medina River on June 27, 2015. Photo Credit: Bob Howen
The Medina River on June 27, 2015. Photo Credit: Bob Howen

Of course the star of this year’s show was the river.  Scores of kids spent the entire afternoon enjoying a Texas version of the swimming hole; they were joined by chronologically-older-kids-of-all-ages in kayaks or on paddle boards.  In the center of the stream stood a rocky outpost from whence to perform jumps and dives.  That outcrop really told the story. For it seems like a decade, the sky has been so stingy that the outcropping would have been about 10 feet tall over a river that ran four to five feet deep.  You could sit on it and sunbathe maybe but it was too tall, and lacked enough cushion, to jump off.  Our wet spring has paid dividends in that regard; as we drove home north on highway 281 and east across highway 67, we saw the theme repeated on the Blanco, the Guadalupe, Brazos and the Bosque.  Hundreds of families set up shop on the banks until late in the evening; tubing, fishing and rock sliding were the order of the weekend.

Families on the Blanco River, June 28, 2015. Photo Credit: M'Lissa Howen.
Families on the Blanco River, June 28, 2015. Photo Credit: M’Lissa Howen.

The sensation of water moving you through space is unlike any other.  To start with, the cool of the Texas river in the summer needs no justification. Whether your entry is a dive or a careful submersion it only takes seconds to wash away the heat.  River water is cooler than pool water or ocean water; the relief is different and complete. The still, deep water is good enough but rapids add another dimension. At the completion of your ride you feel like you have mastered something.  Your heart pumps faster and you cannot wait for a return engagement. It is more than a little bit of magic.

Which is why you need only to say the words “Camp Warnecke” to Texans of my age to bring a smile to their lips.  In 1918 Otto and Martha Warnecke were living in Kansas City when their daughter Anona contracted malaria. The doctor advised moving to a place with plentiful clear water; Otto and Martha did not hesitate to return home to New Braunfels were they bought a plot of land on the Comal river.  Otto constructed a few extra cabins for rental income; the demand kept growing until one day several years later he woke up surrounded by 103 cabins, a dance hall, a dining room and a Texas institution.  Generations of Texans regularly returned to Camp Warnecke for their summer escape; its renown was such that it made the cover of Life magazine in 1951.  Growing up on the north side of San Antonio we were 20 minutes away (the drive has gotten to be much longer if no farther) and made frequent use of our proximity.

The entry to Camp Warnecke's famous rapids. Photo Credit: Barbara Shallue.
The entry to Camp Warnecke’s famous rapids. Photo Credit: Barbara Shallue.

From an entry point about 200 yards upstream you would float your inner-tube to a rock dam that partially spanned the river. There was about a eight-foot opening through which all of the Comal rushed.  As you approached you felt an inexorable pull; soon enough you were shot out of a rocket and propelled downstream over underwater rocks large enough to make waves and small whirlpools.  I am sure the rapids ride was shorter than I remember, but it seemed like minutes before you were reaching for a low-hanging cable stretched across the river, grabbing the cable  you would haul yourself out. If you missed the cable, there was a bridge to grab onto or you might kick yourself to the side.  All types of urban legends were told about the doom you faced if you did not get out by the bridge, but I am sure the lifeguards had everything under control. I never heard of anyone getting hurt at Camp Warnecke.   However you extracted yourself, it was a quick walk back upstream to do it again. And again. And again.

Once you were old enough, the inner-tube became a nuisance. Now you swam to the dam and right before entry, you dove to the river floor.  The object was to grab a hold somewhere in the underwater rocks; many of the rocks had holes in them perfectly formed for that purpose. The force of the river would whip you around but if successful, you earned the unique sensation of becoming the focus of  water-tunnel experience. The longer you could hold your breath and hang on, the more of a man you were. As with any dare-devil activity, the boys did it largely to impress the bikinis arrayed on the banks.  Why that particular feat might be impressive I now have no idea, but it made sense at the time. Being a good swimmer I liked the set-up.

The rapids in New Braunfels are now man-made. The Schlitterbahn opened for operation in 1996. Photo Credit: Summerfuninautin.com (public domain).
The rapids in New Braunfels are now man-made. The Schlitterbahn opened for operation in 1996. Photo Credit: Summerfuninautin.com (public domain).

Camp Warnecke was a natural amusement park without the waiting in line, priced so a teenager could afford it.  When your hands started to cramp from the rock holding,  you rested on a beach towel covering grass that I remember as greener than what we see now in the summer.  Sn0-Cones on top of a home-made lunch provided sustenance.  After the park closed you might stop at the New Braunfels Smokehouse for dinner before heading home. Usually on arrival I would flop right into the bed.  There is a special type of delicious tiredness you feel from being on the water all day. Camp Warnecke always gave you that feeling.

In the early 1990’s Schlitterbahn began its water park empire by purchasing the Camp Warnecke site. Probably because of my Camp Warnecke experiences, I am a fan of water parks. As my girls grew up I regularly subjected them to terrifying drops down mountainous slides into waiting plunge  pools at every chance I could get.  I am sure the girls are emotionally scarred, but I loved it. So, I have no beef with Camp Warnecke’s transformation; time and progress march on. Schlitterbahn seems to be a great Texas company that meets a huge demand.  But if Emmett Brown ever gives me a ride in that time-traveling DeLorean, I might set the destination for 1970’s summertime on the Comal.

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