Riverside Dreamer offers cruise along the Rio Grande
By Kathy Olivarez
For those who want to cruise the Rio Grande River to see the water birds that live along its banks, there is no better way than a pontoon boat ride on the Riverside Dreamer.
Owned by Johnny Hart, who owns the Riverside Club south of Mission, this new, larger boat has been cruising the river since mid-September. The Riverside Dreamer is a 55-foot boat capable of carrying 49 people. The old boat was only 40 feet long and held 30 people.
Each Sunday, Hart takes the boat out at 3 p.m. for his passengers to see the sights along both banks of the Rio Grande. Starting in December, he will also take tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It is best to call ahead and make reservations for the tour, which is economically priced at $7 per person.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Hart took the boat several miles upriver, touring Chimney Park, where an old chimney from one of the early 1900s-era irrigation pump houses is located. The old steam-powered irrigation system transformed the Rio Grande Valley from a barren desert into a thriving agricultural area.
The boat then passed a privately owned area where local residents lease property to build boat launches, barbecue pits and porches that overlook the river. Speedboats and jet skis were in sight along the river although on that late November weekend the site was relatively deserted.
Hart told guests that in summer months the area is well used by people tubing on the river, jet skis and fishing boats. The major fish include catfish, bass, carp, perch and alligator gar. Hart said catfish up 70 pounds have been caught along with bass as large as 10 pounds. But watch out, he said, for the alligator gar, which have been known to grow as large as 100 pounds along the river.
According to Hart, it is legal for people from both sides of the river to use it for fishing and water sports. However, American citizens are not allowed to land and disembark on the Mexican side of the river. Nor are Mexican citizens allowed to land on the American side of the river.
The water in the river ranges from eight feet deep in shallow areas and up to 40 feet deep in the deeper areas. Hart said the level of the water in the river remains stable at all times except during flooding. The amount of water behind the dams might vary but the water level in the river is kept about the same because it must be at that level in order to pump it for agricultural use.
Further upriver, Hart pointed out fields of sugarcane, a major agricultural crop in the Rio Grande Valley. Fields filled with tall plants that looked almost ready to harvest lined the northern banks of the river.
There is little to be seen along the Mexican side of the river except birds living in the tall river grasses and mesquite trees along the river. Hart says that on other occasions, guests have seen Mexican families out bathing in the river or washing their clothes and hanging them in the trees along the riverbanks to dry.
The brushland filled with mesquite and tall river grasses provides an excellent habitat for birds and on the day of the tour a group of white egrets was sitting on a bare branch of a tree in the river close to the Mexican shoreline. This gave them a particularly good viewpoint as they searched the waters for dinner.
While heading north, Hart told his guests it was still 35 river miles to the Los Ebanos Ferry. He is currently working up a trip that will take about six hours to take patrons all the way up river where they can view the ferry. Guests would see more of Mexico including farm and ranchland, domestic animals, and homes located along the river. Sometime before January, he will make a test run to time the tour so he can price it. This tour will include a box lunch for those who wish to book it.
Hart currently books a two-hour tour for special parties that go to Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, where many birds can be found along the banks of the river.
Turning around by the edge of the sugarcane fields, the boat then plies the waters of the Rio Grande back past the Riverside Club toward Anzalduas Dam. Just to the east of the Riverside Club, the fun at Pepe’s on the River is going full blast with the sounds of a country western band radiating out over the water. Patrons from Pepe’s step out on the deck overlooking the river and wave to the boat. Further downriver is Pepe’s Backyard, which is currently being renovated and should be open for business in January.
The land downriver on the American side is part of the Wildlife Corridor. The banks are lined with tall grasses and mesquite trees and in places it is quite dense. Hart told guests that bobcat, javelina, ocelots, coyote and armadillos are some of the smaller mammals that call the area home. In addition, there are snakes, turtles and many species of water birds living in the Wildlife Corridor.
On the Mexican side of the river there is a large park. Hart says he sees families washing cars from time to time and has seen a fire truck being washed with river water in the park. Guests have seen weddings, baptisms and other activities taking place in the park. That day, there were several families fishing or enjoying picnics in the park.
Heading into a river bend just before the Anzalduas Dam, Hart tells guests that the United States is actually south of them while Mexico is north in that particular spot. As the boat rounds the bend the towers of the dam comes into view. Hart tells guests that this is the southernmost dam on the river. There are two others. Falcon Dam is about 85 miles west and Amistad is further upriver near Del Rio. In all, the Rio Grande River is about 1,800 miles long from its point of origin to the mouth of the river. From the edge of Texas where it joins New Mexico, the river forms an international boundary with Mexico.
As the boat turns back toward the Riverside Club, Hart points out birds. A Great White Egret, larger than those spotted previously, sat on a branch sticking out of the water. A Green Kingfisher flew by. Many American Coots paddle through the water near both banks of the river. An endangered Blue Heron stands on a rail of an abandoned pier watching for dinner.
Hart has plans for several new cruises on the new boat. In addition to the regularly scheduled tours, he will be adding Saturday birding tours narrated by a birding expert from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Those will run every other weekend beginning in January. They leave at 7 a.m. and return at 9 a.m.
Hart will also be offering dinner cruises beginning in January. He estimates the cost of a dinner tour to be about $20 per person but that figure is subject to change. The cruises will accommodate 24 to 28 people.
"These will be nice sit-down dinners, not boxed lunches," Hart says. "We will use china and white tablecloths and have live music. We will move some of the benches out of the middle of the boat to make room for the tables. We will serve prime rib, filet mignon or some other entrée that would be served in a restaurant. "
The Riverside Dreamer is available for charter by groups from RV parks. They can book the standard one-hour tour, a two-hour tour, or a dinner cruise. It is also available for private parties. Several parks have already chartered the boat for Christmas parties. Hart said there had been a wedding at the Riverside Club the evening before and the boat was chartered to entertain wedding guests.
He plans to install a flat screen TV at the front of the boat for events such as birthdays and wedding showers, where baby pictures can be shown on the screen. He also suggested it would be a novel place for a business seminar to be held. The screen would allow projection of information relevant to the seminar to be shown. Non-glare screens are being designed to help make viewing the flat screen easier.
By then, the cruise was back at the Riverside Club where passengers disembarked. Many stayed at the club for dinner. There is menu of sandwiches, hamburgers, nachos and chicken strips.
The club offers German Night on Saturdays, with only three happening in December due to the holidays. They will be held weekly beginning in January. Bratwurst, sauerkraut, cabbage rolls, potatoes and bread will be served to the music of a live polka band. And, of course, there is plenty of beer.
The menu on Fridays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. is a spaghetti dinner.
The club has a rustic décor. The front dining room has knotted pine walls with copper ceiling fans decorated with lone stars throughout the room. The second dining room has a tin ceiling and colored lights hanging down to create a rainbow of colors. There is also a dance floor for those who wish to enjoy the polka bands or other performers who may entertain throughout the season.
The Riverside Club is located at 214 E. Chimney Road in Mission. Drive 2.5 miles south on Conway and look for the La Lomita marker. Turn South on the asphalt road then take the caliche levy road one-fourth mile west. The phone number is (956) 581-1033