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.