Sunday, November 6, 2011

A day for the birds from Armand Bayou to Clear Lake

When mother nature presented me with a gorgeous, sunny Saturday morning in November, I found myself loading up the kayak and driving south once again. The morning chill lingered as I launched but the lightness of the breeze deprived it of its bite. I turned my bow downstream, determined to follow the bayou's course to Clear Lake for the first time. The character of the channel to the south of the park is quite different than the narrow northern stretch. It broadens progressively as it winds its way toward Mud Lake, finally finding its end in Clear Lake and through it, Galveston Bay. 

The character of the wildlife changed along with the bayou. While the chattering kingfishers and wading birds patiently fishing along the banks were familiar, my old friends the alligators didn't make an appearance. Instead some new players took the field as I worked my way downstream.

Across from the park, a row of gulls sat resting on tree that had fallen in the shallows. Soon after leaving them in my wake, I spotted this osprey perched above the bayou with the breeze ruffling his feathers.

I paddled on for a time before encountering a sight to make any Louisiana boy smile -- two brown pelicans sitting on stumps and basking in the morning sun. They were content to let me watch them preen as long as I kept a respectful distance.

While I lingered to watch the pelicans, I noticed a disturbance in the water ahead. A closer look with the binoculars revealed a deer swimming across the bayou. Before long it emerged into the shallows and disappeared into the woods of the Armand Bayou Nature Center.

As I continued along my way, the pelicans became more numerous:  perched on stumps, skimming over the bayou with their wingtips nearly touching the water, and wheeling overhead in large flocks.

Finally I reached Mud Lake where the wild character of the bayou's banks gives way to human development, and fishermen in gasoline powered boats start to outnumber those in kayaks. I paddled across its length and under the NASA Road 1 bridge, where the bayou empties into Clear Lake.

From the mouth of the bayou I could see all the way to the bridge at Kemah. The lake was alive with boats of all descriptions and despite the moderate breeze, the swells were the largest I've experienced in my kayak.  After surfing the swells for a time, I crossed back into Mud Lake and landed at Clear Lake Park for a picnic.

Fully refueled, I turned back upstream for an enjoyable paddle back to the launch.

More Pictures from Armand Bayou

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Horsepen Bayou on a nearly perfect day

The first cool air of fall chased away the summer heat and drew me back to the water after a long absence. I returned to Armand Bayou, but for the first time I turned my kayak downstream toward Mud Lake. I rounded the curve of the bayou into a fairly stiff wind, with waves occasionally splashing over the side of the boat. By the time I reached the confluence with Horsepen Bayou, I was happy to turn into its sheltered waters.

The bayou was alive small bait fish, mullet, gar, turtles and the occasional alligator. In the air and trees above it were herons, egrets, kingfishers, and several hawks. I paddled upstream into the midst of the UH Clear Lake campus before turning back. Days like this remind me why fall in Texas is second only to spring in my affections.

More Pictures from Horsepen Bayou

Sunday, August 7, 2011

No marshmallows required

The boat ramp is deserted as I arrive at Sheldon Lake in the predawn light. A few minutes later I am skimming across the water in my kayak, through air that is still and saturated with moisture. I pause to watch the sun climb over the eastern shoreline. The first hints of a morning breeze ripple the water and scatter the worst of the humidity.

As the sun clears the horizon I resume paddling toward the middle of the lake. Since my last visit, the water level has dropped farther and the growth of the aquatic plants has gone into overdrive. I weave between rafts of water lilies and mats of floating grasses. The birds become more active, with cormorants sunning themselves in the treetops and roseate spoonbills fishing in the shallows. I approach a small cypress tree and stop to watch an alligator laying in the shallow water at its base.

I move on to the east until the water becomes too shallow and I'm forced to change course toward the south and west. I hop from one cluster of cypress trees to the next and then into areas of open water surrounded by fields of lilies in bloom. Soon I spot the second alligator of the day and it's an unusually bold one. Rather than retreating or submerging as they usually do, it swims slowly in my direction. Is it being aggressive or just hoping I'll feed it? I'm not sure and I have no marshmallows*, so I maintain some spacing and observe it for a while before moving on. I continue to work my way through the lily fields, spotting four more alligators along the way.  Finally I run out of open water to paddle and make my way back to the launch. 

Without significant rain there may not be much water to paddle here by summer's end, but today was truly lovely.

More Pictures from Sheldon Lake

* The marshmallow thing is a True Blood reference and a joke. Don't feed the gators! :)

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Memories of Spring on Picketts Bayou

Heat waves dance across the parched ground. Covetous eyes follow every wisp of cloud. Is a downpour finally coming? Will downdrafts with a hint of ozone drive away the heat? Or will we be left once again with only the mocking laughter of dry thunder?

The calendar's insistence that we are less than a month into Houston summer seems a cruel joke on days like these. Surely summer sneaked in shortly after the ice of early February melted and the rains stopped?

But perhaps that's not quite true. Scattered throughout late winter and early spring there were some truly beautiful days: crisp mornings with crystal clear skies, afternoons just warm enough for comfort but too cool to break a sweat, and air so clean it was a joy just breathing it in.

Since I have no paddling adventures to share from this weekend, I'm reminiscing about the last such perfect Saturday of the spring. It was the morning of May 14th when we loaded the kayaks and headed east to the Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge. The original plan was to launch our kayaks and lose ourselves for a few hours in the cypress groves of Champion Lake. But even in early May the drought had diminished the lake and made it mostly too shallow to paddle. Fortunately, Picketts Bayou beckoned from just across the levee.

We had scarcely cleared the launch when we spotted an alligator swimming the channel. It was only the first of about seven that put in an appearance that day. In the upper stretch of the bayou we exchanged greetings with several sets of people fishing in small power boats. Once we passed the shallows caused by this sand bar, we saw no other boats until we reached our turnaround point about three and a half miles downstream. Large alligator gar rolled frequently as we paddled slowly past banks covered in mixed hardwoods, including a few cypress.

The upper stretches of the bayou are under the protection of the wildlife refuge, but even after we exited its southern boundary there were few signs of development. We were mostly left alone with our thoughts, in the company of the fish, turtles, birds, and alligators.

As we continued paddling into the afternoon, the channel narrowed dramatically and and a slight current could be detected slipping past an obstacle course of fallen trees. We finally turned back at the intersection with a slough that leads to the Trinity River.

Some combination of the beautiful weather and the unspoiled surroundings made this one of my favorite paddles of the year. I definitely want to return here, and hopefully make it all the way down to the junction with the Lost River. And maybe if the rains have returned by then, I'll get the chance to paddle Champion Lake at last.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

The sun remained low and the air was still as I launched my kayak and set out across the calm waters of Sheldon Lake. I steered toward the north shore of the lake and the inlet from Carpenter's Bayou. Water birds protested and took flight when I paddled too near their roosts. Several swimming alligators eyed me warily and then silently submerged.

The lake became too shallow to paddle about two-thirds of the way to the north shore, so I turned southeast. I worked my way through the rafts of blooming water lilies and clusters of cypress. The wind began to stir and thunder echoed across the lake as a small storm approached. I retreated toward the launch amidst the sweet scent of blooming lilies. One could easily imagine worse ways to spend a summer morning.

More Pictures from Sheldon Lake

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A river in retreat

In better years, the upper West Fork of the San Jacinto River helps fill the 21,000 acres that make up Lake Conroe. But with rain mostly a memory, the West Fork has no water to offer this summer. What water it retains stays there only because of the lake levels maintained by the dam below Lake Conroe. With Lake Conroe levels falling, the upper West Fork is in a process of slow retreat. When I launched here in early May, the water line was in front of the the little disconnected pool you see here.

Still, the West Fork isn't gone just yet. And on a hot summer day, there's much to be said for a narrow, shaded channel through the unspoiled Sam Houston National Forest.  I launched near sunrise at the Stubblefield Lake Campground and paddled north. In the six hours I was on the river I didn't see another human, aside from the folks fishing near the launch. But I did see a good selection of deer, birds, snakes, turtles, and gar, plus a multitude of trees. Thankfully, most (but not all) of the later remained standing. 

All in all, it was a wonderful way to spend my Independence Day.  God bless America!

More Pictures from the San Jacinto River West Fork

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Earning a little turtle karma

Armand Bayou welcomed me back to the water on Saturday and this time I had good company. The alligators hid from us this trip but otherwise the bayou was full of life. Water birds of all descriptions, including this Great Blue Heron, were fishing, probably enjoying the schools of minnows and the tiny crabs not much bigger than a quarter. The mullet were jumping and gar were cruising just beneath the surface. At one point we startled a large soft shell turtle so badly that it accidentally turned itself onto its back. It tried to right itself but finally just lay there helplessly. After a flip of my paddle blade put it back on its feet, it disappeared into the water within seconds.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


I was stuck on dry land this weekend. If you exclude my time out of town for my mother's birthday, this is the first week since purchasing my kayak in April that I haven't made it onto the water. Work conspired to keep my ashore but couldn't keep me away completely. I managed walks along Cypress Creek both days this weekend. The banks show signs of a modest rise from the showers last week, but the creek is almost back down to its low ebb again now. One of these days when the water is finally high enough, I want to float this creek and Spring Creek also!

More pictures from Telge Park

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Every desert needs an oasis

The ongoing drought in Texas has made finding places to paddle more challenging than it would have been in wetter years. For that reason, having an appealing destination quite close to home is a special treat.  Sheldon Lake is located just outside the beltway on the northeastern side of Houston.  By virtue of levees and a dam, Carpenter's Bayou is convinced to spread out over about 800 acres.

While its neighborhood is a bit on the industrial side, once you cross the levee you're in an urban oasis full of scattered cypress trees, lily pads,  and countless herons, egrets and other water birds.  I highly recommend it for Houston natives that want to paddle (or fish) for a few hours without having to travel too far from home.

More Pictures from Sheldon Lake

Saturday, June 11, 2011

"Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it"

I have a problem. While this blog is not solely about my paddling adventures, they were a major catalyst for its creation. But I bought my kayak several months before I started writing here. I hate stories that start in the middle. What to do? If you'll bear with me, I'll try to fill in the gap at the start of my kayaking odyssey.

My love of the water developed years ago. I was lucky enough to grow up within spitting distance of a little bayou in my home town in Louisiana. My neighbor who had water access was kind enough to give us the run of his property. Pretty soon my brother and I we were spending countless hours exploring the bayou and the adjoining woods. I was hooked on paddling and kept at it all through my early years. An out of town university choice slowed me down a bit, but I still watched many a summer sunset from my canoe while home on break.

But that was a many years ago. When I moved to Houston after college, paddling was largely left behind, to be enjoyed only on vacations to Arkansas or the Texas Hill Country. What choice did I have? I had no prospect of living on the water. I didn't have a vehicle that could readily carry a big aluminum canoe like the one I grew up paddling. And where was there to paddle in the middle of the bustling city of Houston anyway?

Years passed. I started to hear people talking about kayaks. I learned about a company that was offering kayak tours on Buffalo Bayou, right through the middle of Houston. I started doing a little digging. Was there really enough publicly accessible water in and around Houston to make paddling a viable hobby for the landlocked?

My research showed that things had changed quite a bit since I was a kid. Recreational kayaks were available in a variety of shapes and sizes, most of which could be readily carried on the roof of a vehicle. As paddling increased in popularity, groups dedicated to it were growing more common in the Houston area. And the state of Texas was shepherding the creation of a growing collection of official paddling trails. After taking a kayak tour down Buffalo Bayou, I was convinced that I definitely wanted to get back onto the water.

All that was left was to figure out what type of boat to buy. Kayaks come in many different forms, along with various hybrids that mix the features of canoes and kayaks. I did quite a bit of reading online and thought I had made my choice, but I really wanted a chance to paddle the boat before buying anything. Let's pick up the story of my paddling adventures there, in chronological order.
April 16 & 17 - Independence Park - Missouri City

Right about the time I was looking to buy a kayak, I heard about a great event called Demo Days, hosted by Austin Kayak. Twice a year they haul their whole inventory of boats out to a local lake and let you try them out for free.

While this park can't boast great natural beauty, the event offered me the chance to try out about five different kayak models head to head. I found out that I really hated the fixtures and handling of the boat that had sounded so good when I was reading about it online. And I also got my first experience with the Wilderness Systems Tarpon 120. Just a couple of days later I purchase mine.

April 22 - Buffalo Run Park - Missouri City

I went here for a quick "float test" after picking up my new kayak on a Friday afternoon. For a small city park, this place isn't bad. There's a boat ramp, walking trails, and a series of small connected lakes with partially wooded shorelines. Everything checked out so I was ready for a bigger adventure!
April 23 - Northshore Park - Lake Woodlands

You may be thinking that Lake Woodlands isn't all that adventurous, and you'd be right. The shorelines are mostly a mix of tame woodlands and fancy homes. But it was a step up at least in size from the little lakes I'd paddled the prior two weekends. I met a new friend here, paddled for a couple of hours, and generally enjoyed myself. We even learned exactly how fun it can be to paddle a kayak into a strong head wind that's being funneled under a bridge (hint: not so much).

April 23 - Langham Creek/Buffalo Bayou

By late afternoon I was ready for a bit more paddling but less wind. I decided to try out the segment of the Buffalo Bayou Paddling Trail at Memorial Mews. I found what I was looking for in terms of less wind, with shade thrown in as a bonus. And there were lots of friendly people on the Terry Hershey trail who wanted to know more about my kayak. Unfortunately, what I didn't find was much water in the bayou. The extended drought had cut releases from the Barker and Addicks reservoirs to the point that dragging bottom was an expected part of the Buffalo Bayou paddling experience.

April 30 - Huntsville State Park - Lake Raven
This was a beautiful place to paddle. The water was by far the clearest I saw all spring. In the shallow areas I could easily see three or four feet down to the lush bed of water plants clinging to the bottom of the lake. While alligators proved elusive, the lovely wooded shorelines rang with bird song.

May 8 - Sam Houston National Forest - Stubblefield Lake/San Jacinto River (West Fork)

For this trip we launched in the national forest above Lake Conroe near the Stubblefield Lake Recreation area. Initially we headed north up the old river channel. While it was technically upstream, it was easy going as there was no discernible current. The channel quickly narrowed, offering a shady and sheltered route north through the woods. Birds, turtles, snakes an even one alligator made an appearance before we were forced to turn back by a pair of fallen trees.

After retracing our steps, we headed south toward Lake Conroe. At first we tried to the western outlet from Lake Stubblefield and this proved to be a poor decision.  It quickly became too shallow even for kayaks and the bottom was some of the stickiest mud you can imagine. After a rather messy retreat, we had better luck with the eastern channel. We made it into the northern end of Lake Conroe before eventually turning back in the face of strong headwinds and fading energy.

This was the just the type of "adventure paddling" I hoped for when I decided to buy my kayak.
May 14 - Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge - Pickett's Bayou

My next paddling adventure took place on Pickett's Bayou in the Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge. The combination of the lovely scenery with nearly perfect spring weather has made it one of my favorite paddles ever. After the fact, I wrote about it in more detail in the blog entry Memories of Spring on Picketts Bayou.


May 22 - Bay Area Park - Armand Bayou

Armand Bayou was familiar to me from the many enjoyable hours I'd spent walking the trails at the nature center which shares its name, but having a kayak gives you a chance for a whole new perspective on the bayou. With much of its length protected as part of a Texas Coastal Preserve, the bayou is largely undisturbed. As we paddled the calm waters, we had ample opportunity for observation of birds like this night heron, as well as countless turtles and a handful of alligators. If a relaxing nature paddle is what you're looking for, the upper section of Armand Bayou is for you.
May 29 - Briar Bend Park - Upper Buffalo Bayou

My next paddle took place a little closer to home when I decided it was time to get more familiar with Buffalo Bayou. I signed up with the folks at Bayou Shuttle for their "Adventure" tour, which traverses the bayou from its crossing at Wilcrest Drive downstream to Briar Bend Park. While it's not exactly white water, the upper section of the bayou does have some pretty scenery, a few small rapids, and the occasional obstacle like the one pictured here. It was a fun paddle with the group.

June 11 - San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge - Cedar Lake Creek

Since I enjoyed paddling in the Trinity National Wildlife Refuge so much, I had high hopes for this paddle to the southwest of Houston. We launched from within the refuge and then paddled upstream along Cedar Lake Creek. Sadly, I can't find much to say about this paddle that's positive. The area wasn't particularly scenic. We didn't see much wildlife. And as the heat of the day arrived, the shorelines didn't offer much shade. Maybe it would have been more enjoyable during the fall when the air is cooler and more migrating birds would be in the area? For now this one goes in the "been there, done that, not in a hurry to go back" bucket.  :)

So there you have my kayaking "origin story" as it were. From here forward, most of my noteworthy paddling trips have been chronicled in their own posts. If you enjoyed hearing my story, then I'm gratified. If you just want to use this as a laundry list of paddling destinations in the Houston area you could do much worse. Happy paddling!