by Kelly Lipscomb
Don’t bother looking up directions to Tin Top, Texas. For a town just big enough to have a gas station and a popular catfish restaurant called Mary’s Brazos Café, it’s too small to show up on any road maps. The town’s one claim to fame, besides having a winning lottery ticket sold a few years back at Cody’s Country Store, is the Brazos River. This 20-mile stretch of dependably smooth water, actually the headwaters of Lake Granbury, has transformed a once-sleepy community dominated by cattlemen and fishermen into a hub of the Texas water-sports scene.
With a catfish dinner under our belts, we set out to expose this last undiscovered spot where the Wild West meets wilder water sports. On a good day, that being a really hot one, the river beckons barefooters to cool their heels under the blistering Texas sun. In the shade of towering pecan trees, an impressive array of wakeboarders share the water with the hydrofoilers, skiers and, yes, some longhorn cows, who also use the river to cool off. The beauty of it all is that the day and the water won’t be spoiled once the fancy wakeboarding rigs and barefoot rigs are hauled into this stretch of Brazos River just southwest of Fort Worth, Texas.
From this riverbank community, distinguished by its diverse appetite for any and all on-the-water sports, a few standouts have emerged. Joey Arcisz was a young recreational skier when he made the now commonplace switch over to wakeboarding a few years ago. Now 16 and a sponsored CWB rider, Arcisz is near the top of the Junior Men’s wakeboard division and is very close to sticking his wake-to-wake nines and front mobes. With the Brazos’ long ski season, he will have plenty of time to perfect those moves and add them to his already impressive, spin-laden arsenal.
Just down the river, 15-year-old Colt Mahan, a soft-spoken and smooth riding Junior Men’s barefooter, stands a good shot at earning a place on the next Junior U.S. Barefoot Team. After learning how to jump inverted over the summer, he is moving in on the Junior Men’s barefoot jump record. That record, currently held by Matt Wright, stands at 78 feet.
And then there is visiting Pro Tour driver Bill Doyle. While en route to Table Rock Lake in Missouri, he took a detour so he could spend a few extra days relaxing and wakeboarding on the Brazos with the Arcisz family. He would agree that what makes this out-of-the-way waterhole different is that at any given time these guys, or any of the other resident free-riders who call the Brazos home, are just as likely to hop over a few docks and slip into a ski, climb onto an Air Chair or go fishing.
It was just a matter of time then, before the athletes began to step out of the shadows of their two-skiing, denim-shorted predecessors and help to put Tin Top, Texas, and the Brazos River on the water-sports map. When Texans have something they are proud of, they usually want you to know about it. Point in fact: Texas — a state often considered to be little more than a dust bowl — has more inland water areas than any state on the U.S. mainland besides Minnesota. But when it comes to something as coveted as smooth water and ''off the hook'' party scenes, things get a little tricky. When Minnesotan photographer John Linn arrived with his bag of cameras to shoot the Brazos, the locals couldn’t help but get a little edgy. Upon learning that their obscure hamlet was about to be exposed, their first response was usually, ''Just don’t give ‘em directions.''
Their kidding aside, the locals are an openly friendly and hospitable group. Each summer they work together to sign up aspiring area barefooters for a weekend clinic. Over the past few years the clinics have brought in an impressive list of professionals, including Keith St. Onge, Brett Sands, Jason Lee and Paul Stokes. Stokes himself runs a barefooting clinic farther down river on another popular Brazos skiing spot just north of Lake Whitney. At this end of the Brazos the crew from BarefootCentral.com give their share of casual barefoot lessons when they’re not busy hawking barefoot equipment over their Web site. And Aussie Brett Sands liked the river so much that he brought the entire Australian National Team to the Brazos to train before last year’s Worlds in Fergus Falls, Minnesota.
Despite the frenzy of a conglomeration of water-sports, the river has a way of drawing you into its own pace, addicting as much for the smooth water as for its down-home, welcoming atmosphere. With a stretch of river that spans anywhere from 200 to 400 feet wide, banked by alternating limestone bluffs and sandy beaches, the rowdy boatloads have no choice but to be cordial with one another. Seeing boats cruise by three abreast is not out of the ordinary. Or in our case, it seemed safe enough to run our camera boat at 42 mph while sandwiched a foot between the docks and a screaming barefoot boat. Colt, the focus of this questionable shoot, was at the end of the line and just a few feet off our starboard side as he approached a barefoot ramp anchored perilously close to the banks. But as luck would have it, the chine spray from the camera boat slapped him in the legs just hard enough to throw him off balance as he went up the ramp. With Colt flipping head-first over the ramp and 40 feet across the water, the rest of us were just happy we caught it all on videotape and didn’t bring a dock into the boat with us.
The best advice, if you do manage to find Tin Top and its river, is pick the right time. If barefooting is your sport of choice — no surprise here — rise early and get off quick. Then you’ll only have to share the river with the fishermen. This, however, is no small challenge, with a group of characters notorious for stringing jug lines (that’s river slang for catfish trotlines) clear across the river to spoil any boat’s, or vulnerable barefooter’s, attempts to use the water as it should be used, for the sport of it. It was, after all, once their river.
It’s a far cry from the days when floating bleach jugs outnumbered the kickers, sliders and barefoot ramps. The local free-riding wakeboarders, the loudest and rowdiest crew on the river, get out late and don’t stop till the sun’s sinking. That’s when the crowd gathers just up-river at Campbell’s Island. With a sandy beach surrounded by knee-deep water, the island is the popular local spot to beach the boats, make a fire and hold a late-night bash before the MBR (more river slang for midnight boat ride).
It’s little wonder that water-sports lovers are drawn to the Brazos at Tin Top, as much for its friendly hospitality as for its smooth water. In our three-day quest to expose this coveted little spot, we were invited to sleep at three different river houses and fed a variety of home-cooked meals. While waiting for our cushy Tige´ Riders Edition to arrive from the factory in Abilene, the locals shared both their boat space and their cold drinks with us. Over the course of a weekend, when the hydrofoilers were surprisingly absent, the cowboy hats, Speedo men (it goes without saying) and yes, some sick riding were plentiful enough to make up for it.
From the banks, a dock-full of ladies with homemade score cards often serve as the unofficial judges’ booth and cheering section for the river riders. Local free-rider Mike Melton and his huge front flip no doubt earn high marks. Those scores were warranted as much for his riding style as for his boat — a bright orange custom job arguably more unique than his hairstyles. The boat, Mike will proudly tell you, doesn’t use fat sacks because there always seems to be a crowd waiting to pile in. And who wouldn’t want to ride in a bright orange floating advertisement for his edgy new T-shirt company, Slapaho.com (the girls didn’t seem to mind) complete with a raucous stereo system that more than once prompts John Linn to ask, ''Is that legal?''
After riding in on Mike’s coattails and stealing his boatload of hotties for our Tige, we were witness to a true display of Texas-style wakeboarding. Rider Robin Reed was throwing hoochie glides in a fury sporting a zebra-striped cowboy hat, which brought the day’s riding to a close on a high note. The local crew then made the switch to land. With a volleyball net as a decapitation hazard and the golf carts (a main mode of Tin Top transportation) now serving as land tow boats, Reed managed to smack a pecan tree more than once on a wakeskate. Rather than risk it, Mike Melton did the more reasonable thing and let the cart drag him across the grass on his bare chest.
In the dead of night, these locals load their boats for the MBR, and under a full moon head out to destroy the peacefulness of this once sleepy river with dueling techno music. Pontoon boats full of late-night river-goers float past, and all the indicators of this new river scene — the heavily rigged boats and other toys next to the strung-up catfish heads — form an unusual collage along the riverbanks. Each year a few more people find this river and make it their own, obscuring a little more of its sleepy past. It’s a long river, though, and there’s still plenty of room for the fishermen, the cows and the riders to do what they love. Somewhere in between the techno music, one last comment can be heard coming from the boats: ''The only thing missing out here is a disco ball.''