Beneath fading early evening light, I slip across glassy water over the reflections of large cypress and pecan trees along the bank. Swallows swoop fearlessly overhead and a fish splashes nearby. The calls of birds gradually yield to a chorus of frogs. A great blue heron flaps across the lake, its neck a graceful fold. The sky turns dark, and at last, an ethereal, creamy light filters through the trees.
The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment is at 201 San Marcos Springs Dr. in San Marcos. Full-moon kayak tours cost $55 for REI members, $60 for non-members. Call 512/245-9200.
A full-moon kayak tour of Spring Lake in San Marcos offers one of the best ways to enjoy both this lunar phenomenon and unique body of water.
The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, part of Texas State University, manages Spring Lake and coordinates water resources conservation and research. The center recently teamed up with REI Outdoor School to offer kayaking and stand-up paddleboard lessons and tours, which offer visitors a more athletic experience than the popular glass-bottom boat tours.
“The Meadows Center and REI are, in many ways, in the same business, that of encouraging people to enjoy and respect the outdoors,” says Meadows Center Executive Director Andrew Sansom. REI provides all the gear along with instruction and information about the aquifer and springs that create the lake.
REI outdoor instructor Amber Davis is leading our group of kayakers under April’s full moon. “On full-moon paddle tours, you get the whole lake to yourself,” she says. “After the sun sets, you see different wildlife than you do during daytime tours. You can float quietly and just listen, and you’ll likely hear more animals than you could see during the day.” That night, we heard a slap on the water that turned out to be a beaver. Davis often sees deer coming to the water to drink, as well as herons, egrets, and hawks. More than 25 different types of waterfowl live in or migrate through the area during the year.
As our group launches at dusk, enough light remains that we can peer through the crystalline water at some of the springs bubbling from the bottom—some as deep as 40 feet. There are at least 200 springs, and the water emerges directly from the Edwards Aquifer, flowing so fast that Spring Lake completely refreshes itself every 24 hours or so.
The water harbors an underwater forest of Cabomba (an aquatic plant with furry stalks like bottle-brushes), long-leafed arrowhead grass, and Texas wild rice, an endangered plant that grows nowhere else in the world. Open patches of sand mark the springs, as the power of their flow prevents vegetation from taking hold. Davis points out a few specific springs, including those named Salt and Pepper, Cream of Wheat, and Weismuller. The latter gets its name from actor and Olympic swimmer Johnny Weismuller, who reportedly drank from it (nearly drowning in the process) while filming here in the 1960s. I look for fish in the open areas—largemouth bass, redbreast sunfish, Rio Grande cichlids, spotted gar, and American eel call the lake home—and I spot several red-eared slider turtles as well.
In addition to supporting aquatic life, the springs have attracted people from every period of human habitation known in Central Texas, including Paleo-Indians 12,000 years ago and people from the Archaic period between 7,000 B.C. and A.D. 800. In the 1500s, Spanish expeditions traveled the region, with the first recorded crossing of the San Marcos River occurring in 1690.
European explorers first settled this area in 1755, but settlements failed to take root until 1845, when General Edward Burleson bought part of a land grant that included the springs. Burleson, who moved to Texas as part of Stephen F. Austin’s second colony and fought in the Texas Revolution, helped establish the town of San Marcos in 1851. He also built a dam across these waters to run a gristmill, creating Spring Lake. That original structure, albeit shored up and fortified over the years, still stands. After Burleson’s death, the land changed hands several times before A.B. Rogers bought it in 1926 and built Spring Lake Hotel, which opened in 1929.
In 1949, his son Paul Rogers rigged a paddleboat with a glass bottom so he could show people the underwater springs. Paul soon built more glass-bottom boats and developed a theme park around them named Aquarena Springs, adding a submarine theater, sky ride, observation tower, pioneer village, restaurant, and hillside trails. It operated until the mid-1990s, becoming famous for a swimming pig named Ralph and mermaid shows in the submarine theater.
In 1994, Texas State University (known then as Southwest Texas State University) purchased the land and began converting it into an environmental education center. The former hotel now houses offices and Discovery Hall, which features a 1,000-gallon aquarium; an exhibit of endangered Texas blind salamanders, San Marcos salamanders, and fountain darters; and an interactive exhibit about the Edwards Aquifer. That aquifer spreads beneath part of seven Texas counties and feeds seven major springs in addition to these at Spring Lake.
Davis leads our group of kayakers near the dam, where we listen to water pouring from Spring Lake over two spillways. From here, it flows as the San Marcos River about four miles to the Guadalupe and, from there, to the Gulf of Mexico.
I stop and drift several times as we paddle back to where we put in, catching the reflection of the moon on the water, a blink of fireflies in the trees, and ripples on the surface from the force of water gushing out below. In the near-darkness, with just these few boats around, it is easy to imagine what it was like when the first people stumbled upon this watery treasure. Perhaps they had the light of a moon like this one.