Ed Lowe, 1949-2018, died last week doing what he loved, exploring Big Bend. Photo by Nick Dornak.
By Amy Martin
Nov. 12, 2018
Ed Lowe’s paddle went all over the Brazos as he fought for the river he loved with an overwhelming passion, dipping in and out of brisk waters, following the aquatic trails of Texas author John Graves whose words charged him with a cause: Speak up for rivers. Lowe’s paddle joined Graves’ nearly thirty years ago in a tandem canoe as together they paddled the challenging Lower Pecos River’s whitewaters.
His paddle also plumbed the length of the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park in West Texas, within whose ancient stone canyon walls he found his most profound peace. There the 69-year-old returned over and over again as a professional river guide with Texas Water Trails, even though he was better known as a Dallas restaurateur.
Lowe’s paddle favored rivers in Texas like the Llano where he shepherded a beloved annual float. Their quiet timelessness brought to mind Graves’ words in Goodbye to a River, a classic of Texas literature on the Brazos’s last undammed days: “You are not in a hurry there; you learned long since not to be.”
Ed Lowe died in the Rio Grande’s Boquillas Canyon on Nov. 6. Courtesy of Mary Kay Votilla
On the New Moon last Tuesday, in the Rio Grande’s Boquillas Canyon, he and a group of four river-rat friends stopped for the day. There on the shore, Lowe’s paddle rested with his beloved canoe, never to dip into waters again. While scouting for a campsite above the river, where rocks pitch and slide in the sandy soil, Lowe fell headfirst down an embankment, dying soon after despite the lifesaving efforts of his stricken friends.
Ed Lowe’s last day. Shown with Christine Psyk and Nick Gillen, Nov. 6, 2018. Courtesy of Mary Kay Voytilla.
Lowe’s dear friends and river buddies Richard Grayson of Dallas and Nick Gillen of Seattle canoed upstream, paddling against an 800 cfs flow and unfathomable sadness to notify national park officials. Seattle friends Christine Psyk and Mary Kay Voytilla kept vigil with Lowe’s body and prepared to pack out. Responders from law enforcement, U.S. Border Patrol, and Big Bend National Park arrived to recover Lowe’s remains.
Marcos Paredes, a Big Bend resident who was to meet the canoeists later in their trip, held the group together, channeling his sadness into coordinating support and rescue for the paddlers stranded at Boquillas Overlook. Local businesses and friends chimed in, helping to pull heavy canoes and equipment from the shore.
Lowe made the Rivers Run
The loss reverberated as word spread. Some words about Lowe occurred over and again. Inspiring. Welcoming. Kind. Passionate. Servant-leader. Tributes flowed from the slow food community Lowe fostered as owner of Celebration home-cooking restaurant, a pioneer in the North Texas farm-to-table movement since 1971. Sentiments rolled in from employees, river activists and long-time friends. He lived his passion for life fully.
Courtesy of Celebration Restaurant.
Lowe’s impact was everywhere, but nowhere more so than the river conservation community. As founder and president of Friends of the Brazos River, he carried on Graves’ cause. For at least 14 years, he devoted countless hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars on experts and lawyers. The goal was limiting the Brazos River Authority’s ability to take water from almost the entirety of the river.
BRA applied to the state in 2004 to expand its water rights, requesting a million acre-feet of water in addition to the limit of 700,000 acre-feet of water it already had, to be sequestered in its reservoirs. Such a drastic reduction in flow would essentially strangle the river. Lowe suspected BRA’s estimates were rashly speculative. A visionary, he knew if the BRA succeeded, others would plunder all of Texas rivers for profit. Ultimately, coastal estuaries and ecosystems would suffer from the dismal river flows to the Gulf of Mexico.
Lowe hired scientists and lawyers for Friends of the Brazos River to challenge the plan and helped limit the scope of new water rights granted to BRA. Ultimately, state regulations for a significant stretch of the Brazos below Lake Granbury became signed into law.
“It is not enough to just say that Ed was the founder and president of Friends of the Brazos. He was the heart and soul of the organization, chief inspirer, a one-man ambassador for getting people onto the river to share his love for canoeing and inspire conservation… While most people are content to simply read John Graves’ tribute to the Brazos of his youth and tale of paddling the Brazos before it was dammed in Goodbye to a River, Ed wasn’t. Instead, he decided to paddle that stretch of the Brazos for himself. That trip would end up enriching the lives of countless people and keeping the Brazos clean and flowing for all of us.” – Sandra Skrei, High Hope Ranch
Said Richard Lowerre, one of Friends of the Brazos’s lawyers on the case:
“After the river group succeeded in limiting BRA’s right to capture more water than it needed, that helped to better protect flows in the entire Brazos River from Lake Possum Kingdom to the Gulf of Mexico. The goal was to assure adequate flows in the river and its tributaries for recreation, to protect property values, and for fish and wildlife habitat.”
In a second effort to save the Brazos, Friends of the Brazos fought quarries that used the river as a slag dumping ground, impeding the flow for paddlers and swimmers who for centuries sought its flow. The spreading detritus was tearing up the delicate riparian ecosystem in what Lowe called “the most beautiful piece of flowing water within easy driving distance of Dallas-Fort Worth.”
Lowe and Friends of the Brazos helped pass a law to protect a section of the Brazos below Lake Granbury by limiting sand and gravel mining along the river there. Boaters, fishers, swimmers and other recreational users of that part of the river rejoiced. The section is now called the John Graves Scenic Riverway.
Not content to rest, Lowe led Friends of the Brazos to organize cleanups of significant sections of the Brazos, removing trash, tires, appliances, mattresses, and industrial refuse. He served as a board member of Texas Rivers Protection Association and was open in his gratitude that Celebration’s success enabled him to fund and persist in these causes. Lowe changed Texas forever.
“Since I began working with Ed and the Friends of the Brazos, I smile when I cross the Brazos and know there’s water flowing in her banks. Now, when I see people canoeing, or tubing, or fishing, they may not know it, but they, like all of us who knew him, will be receiving a last, and lasting gift from a truly great man.” – Sandra Skrei, High Hope Ranch: A Sanctuary for Retreat
A Generational Man
Once the Brazos challenges resolved, Lowe channeled his energies and resources into getting youth in canoes on the river, often from his Brazos riverfront property. As Lowe wrote on Celebration’s website: “For several years I have taken groups of young folks from all socio-economic backgrounds canoeing, camping, hiking and exploring the outdoors, teaching young people and adults how to enjoy the earth’s natural beauty as well as how to protect and preserve it. Introducing kids to a world that many of them have never experienced is one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”
“It can be tough to narrow down the immense number of things he had a hand in and worked for. But if you do want my opinion, it came down to just this: people and nature, with a willingness to do whatever he could to be of service in connecting the two. I think it’s possible that he never turned down a call to bring a group of kids outdoors or to the water, no matter how busy or how tired he may have been.” – Uriel Carpenter, Texas Water Trails
Ed Lowe with grandson. Courtesy of Nick Dornak.
More than a river advocate and ecologist, Lowe was a role model for youth. His last public talk was at the Celebration who hosted an annual meeting for Groundwork Dallas, a nonprofit that exposes at-risk Dallas schoolchildren to the Trinity River’s Elm Fork and other natural spaces.
“Ed’s passion for rivers, tenacity for protecting them, empathy for his fellow advocates, and his willingness to share all these traits with youth will always be an inspiration, and want to make me work with passion and a kinder heart.” – Tyson Broad
The ultimate tribute for Lowe’s work was the way he cared about and connected with people. Through his children and grandchildren, his name lives on.
“Ed’s life’s work of service and stewardship always came down to the uniquely beautiful people he grew to know and love along the way. His heroes, his mentors, and of course, his fellow river rats! He shared his love of rivers and the outdoors honestly and intentionally with his two daughters (one of which decided to marry me about 15 years ago) and his three precious grandchildren. His latest grandchild, Townes Edward Dornak, has inherited one hell of a legacy with his name.” – Nick Dornak, son-in-law
Carrying on the Lowe Legacy
Dornak serves as director of Watershed Services for the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University in San Marcos. Plans are afloat to create a fund in Lowe’s name to honor and continue his stewardship efforts. Emphasis will be on watershed protection efforts for the Brazos, Llano, Pecos, Rio Grande and San Marcos rivers.
“The Meadows Center Watershed Services Program (which includes Texas Stream Team) will coordinate with Friends of the Brazos, the organization Ed founded, as well as others to ensure that his spirit of service and leadership are honored through a dedicated and effective river conservation program. – Nick Dornak
Donations noted as “In Honor of Ed Lowe” can be made online or checks sent to Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, 601 University Drive, San Marcos, TX 78666.
Ed Lowe serving cobbler on a campout. Courtesy of Uriel Carpenter.
For memorial donations and memberships in Lowe’s honor focusing on the Brazos, donate to Friends of the Brazos River.
Even before Lowe’s loss, Friends of the Brazos was beginning to manifest one of his last goals: a Texas Parks & Wildlife paddling trail between Granbury and Whitney. The main hurdle had been too few put-in/take-out spots in that stretch to qualify. “His solution?” said Sandra Skrei. “Create a park under the Highway 67 bridge. When we make that happen, it will have Ed’s name on it.”
Life is a River
James Woods, Tom Titus and Ed Lowe in Big Bend National Park. Photo courtesy of Nick Dornak.
While Ed’s paddle will no longer ply the waves, he will become one with the waters. Richard Grayson relates that Lowes’ cremains will be returned to his most-loved rivers: Brazos, Pecos and Rio Grande in Big Bend.
“I am humbled to have worked with, paddled, camped and dined with Ed Lowe. His passion and love of flowing water always inspired me. If there’s any consolation to this tragic event, it’s that Ed died doing what he loved, in a place that he loved.” – Richard Grayson
Float trips with Lowes inevitably included evening music, campfires and long thoughtful discussions on the river shore beneath endless stars, embracing the brevity and precariousness of life. And there Lowe persists.
“I have had many adventures in my life and risk is always present. Ed lived a life on the river and his spirit is out there in wild.” – Andy Maeding
As John Graves wrote in Goodbye to a River: “Sunshine and warm water seem to me to have full meaning only when they come after winter’s bite; green is not so green if it doesn’t follow the months of brown and gray. And the scheduled inevitable death of green carries its own exhilaration; in that change is the promise of all the rebirths to come, and the deaths, too.“
“Life is short. Paddle hard.” – Richard Grayson
I am heartbroken, but somehow comforted knowing Ed had his friends there. He lived his conservation ethic…. Ed was a true conservationist and friend of Texas rivers and the river he loved most, the Brazos. I was honored to paddle with him and to be introduced to John Graves, thanks to Ed. A great human being. – Joe Nick Patoski
Our hearts go out to Texas Conservation Association member organization Friends of the Brazos River in the loss of their president, Ed Lowe. Ed has been an amazing champion of the Brazos River, organizing river cleanups, fighting a permit that would have allowed all the remaining unallocated water in the Brazos River to be diverted and launching projects to restore riparian prairie, eliminate invasive species, control erosion, test water quality, and protect the middle Brazos watershed. – Mack Turner, TCA Chairman
I was shocked and deeply saddened with the news of Ed’s death. He was a terrific person, passionate about preserving our rivers and about teaching others, especially young, people to love and protect our natural as l resources. He will be greatly missed by many. – Tony Plutino
We are deeply saddened by the passing of Ed Lowe. He graciously welcomed us to Celebration Restaurant for our first annual event just a few weeks ago. We learned about his passion for the environment and work to preserve the Brazos River. We need more people like him supporting conservation efforts. Our thoughts are with Ed’s family and staff at Celebration Restaurant. – Rick Buckley, Groundwork Dallas
Ed had dinner with us out here at our place the night before they launched. I was hoping to meet them on the river two days later. Instead I was out there helping to get the trip off the water. He was a good man to ride the river with. Que Dios lo bendiga. – Marcos Paredes
Ed passed doing something he loved in a place very special to him. He will be missed. – Randy Johnson
This is such tragic news. Lost a good friend who not only loved rivers, but took the time and energy to do something about saving them as a long-time board member of Texas Rivers Protection Association and president and founder of Friends of the Brazos. We’ll all miss you, Ed. – Tom and Paula Goynes, San Marcos
Our paddles are a sum of our experiences and our future paddles are for those. Grieve on, my friends. – Michael Banks
I remember eating at Celebration when it first opened, with what became a trademark: communal bowls of veggies. Salad, then, too. It was a hippie joint, attached to a leather shop. I’ve eaten there all through the years. It was and remains one of my favorite restaurants in Dallas. I commiserated with Ed when the city gave him some much grief for trying to operate a farmers market. And I STILL think his chicken is better than any of the chicken-houses-come-lately. He was one of a kind, and we will miss him so much. – Kim Pierce
Such a wonderful man. He came to our school, Jack Lowe Sr. Elementary, all the time. He cared about our kids and made such an impact. We just loved him! – Sandra Elizabeth
What stood out for me was his willingness to put time, sweat and money to protect them for the future generations, even when the effort forced him to deal with people who did not love rivers, but only loved the money rivers could bring them. He understood the role rivers can play in making people in his mold: caring and loving. – Rick Lowerre
The loss of conservation leaders in Dallas is particularly tragic. Ed will be missed by all who knew him. – David Hurt, Wild Birds Unlimited
Ed was/is my best friend. He and I started Texas Water Trails together 20 years ago, he was my best man when I got married 7 years ago, and I love him to the moon and back. Really he was family to me, dear friend to my wife and son, and he gave me the privilege of guiding his family on an annual paddling trip down on the Llano. We spent a heck of a lot of hours paddling rivers, sitting by the fire, and of course driving the wide open miles of Texas. – Uriel Carpenter, Texas Water Trails
Texas lost a great man. A true river champion. If others did half as much, we’d be in great shape. – Bob Robinette
Services will be at Highland Park Methodist Church at 3300 Mockingbird Ln., on Nov. 19 at 3 p.m.