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!

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