Sunday, November 3, 2013

Misty Sunrise Over Caddo Lake

The most striking visual from our second visit to Caddo Lake came early one morning. Over the course of a chilly night, a thick blanket of mist formed over the surface of the lake. As morning arrived, the mist started to thin and flow and rise, almost as if it were reaching up to greet the rising sun.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Following Old River To Its Roots

This solo visit to Old River fell on a much more cooler day than my meetup group outing earlier in the month. As a result, I was able to explore more of the river than ever before. I paddled upstream to the point the channel became blocked by a mass of fallen trees, and then explored a small tributary.  As I enjoyed the beauty of the day, I had the company of a whole host of turtles like this red-eared slider, and even a kingfisher who was much less camera shy than usual. All in all, it was a nearly perfect fall paddle.

More Pictures From Old River

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Armand Bayou: Where the Mullet is Always in Style

Bright sunshine sparkled on the surface of the bayou. Fresh, cool breezes danced across our skin. It was a fall afternoon so perfect that even the fish were jumping for joy!

What? Well, yes, the fish were mullet. And yes, mullet do jump habitually. But let's stick to the story line okay? It was an wonderful day for a paddle on Armand Bayou.

We launched our kayaks at Bay Area Park and paddled upstream among the leaping mullet the rolling gar. We set a leisurely pace, making frequent stops along the way to admire the scenery.

Water hyacinths were more numerous along the bayou than I remember seeing in recent years and they were covered in blooms. A number of osprey had taken up their winter residence along the bayou, along with the ever present herons, egrets, and kingfishers. We even spotted an alligator sunning on the bank during our trip upstream.

Some of the life we spotted wasn't quite so wild. Early on we passed one small boat where three fishermen were tending to a collection of about ten fishing poles. And along the way we crossed paths with a number friendly folks in kayaks and canoes, and even one on a paddle board.

Much too quickly the afternoon turned toward evening and it was time for us to head back toward the launch. As we passed our alligator friend once again, he slid into the water and swam along beside us briefly before concealing himself in the vegetation near the bank.

We bid him adieu and continued downstream. Before long we were crossing under the Bay Area Boulevard bridge with the boat ramp just a short way ahead. We set our paddles aside for a little while then and let ourselves drift in the light breeze. Neither of us were ready for this day (or this weekend) to end, so we paused to soak in the peace for just a little bit longer.

When was the last time you stood still long enough to take joy in something as simple as a little fish leaping in the sunlight? It's a feeling that never goes out of style.

More Pictures from Armand Bayou

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Sometimes the Old Ways Are Best

Early fall weather in Texas can be tricky. One day the gusts from a cool front will be raising goose bumps on your skin, while just days later that same skin will be slick with perspiration.

So when I scheduled an early October paddle at Pickett's Bayou for my meetup group, I knew the weather was a question mark. I just didn't count on the location being up in the air as well.

As it turned out, the government shutdown closed the gates of the Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge, putting our Pickett's Bayou launch point off limits.

As the date for the meetup approached with no movement in Washington, it was clear that I had to either cancel the paddle or move it somewhere else. Fortunately, the Trinity River basin is rich with interesting places to paddle, including the Old River. While its environs may be slightly less wild than Pickett's, they remain quite lovely.

The group met at the bridge over the Old River on FM1409, launched our kayaks, and headed upstream along the cypress-lined channel. Conversation among the group mixed with the calls of birds as we paddled the peaceful waters. We covered about three miles before pausing for a bite to eat, turning around, and making our way back to the launch at a leisurely pace. It was a very enjoyable outing with the group, proving once again that things can go well, even when they don't go exactly according to plan.

And for the record, this particular fall day had lots more perspiration than goose bumps. Happy Fall, everyone!

More Pictures from Old River

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Lake Livingston, I presume?

After a few years of paddling the waters around Houston, I have settled on a handful of favorite destinations -- beautiful, peaceful places I savor returning to season after season. You'll see their names appear repeatedly here on my blog. But as much as I enjoy these familiar haunts, the itch to explore new places is always there in the back of my mind.

So when I pulled out of my driveway before sunrise on Saturday, I steered my car toward a new destination: Lake Livingston in the piney woods northeast of Houston.

After launching at the state park on the southeast side of the lake, I needed a destination. The wooded shores of Pine Island on the horizon looked inviting, so I turned my bow in that direction and started paddling.

Let me tell you a funny story about Lake Livingston. It's really big! And that inviting island turned out to be about three miles from the launch. Once I got there, it did prove fun to explore. It was ringed with sandy beaches and covered in dense woods full of birds. I circled the island slowly, landing a couple of times to look around and to take a break under the shade of a weeping willow. During my picnic, I spotted what I believe were a pair of bald eagles, though they were too far away for me to get a really good look.

By the time I was done with my snack, the clouds had started to build ominously. I took to the water again and paddled vigorously back toward the launch. I'm glad to have added Lake Livingston to my destination list and I imagine I'll be back again -- but I think I'll pick a day that's a little cooler and with less chance of lightning!

More Pictures From Lake Livingston

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Setting Sun at Buffalo Run

Those of you who read this blog regularly will know that I get the most excited about paddle trips to wild places on the outer fringes of Houston and beyond. But what's a paddler to do when they don't have the time or patience for a long drive, but still need some peaceful time on the water?

Down in Missouri City they've taken what could have been just another set of grassy storm water detention basins and turned them into a set of lovely little lakes surrounded by the trees and trails of Buffalo Run Park. And even better, they've bucked the trend of parks that close at sunset and left the park open until well after dark.

Thank you to the folks in Missouri City for the relaxing afternoon paddle, complete with this lovely sunset over the water.

More Pictures from Buffalo Run

Saturday, July 27, 2013

West to Columbus

Over the course of the last three years, the quest for new paddling destinations has led me from Houston in almost every compass direction:
  • Buffalo Bayou at the center
  • Oyster Creek and Cedar Lake Creek to the southwest.
  • Surfside Beach to the south.
  • Armand Bayou to the southeast.
  • Pickett's Bayou and the Old River to the east.
  • Sheldon Lake, Lake Houston, and Luces Bayou to the northeast.
  • Lake Raven to the north.
  • Lake Conroe and the West Fork of the San Jacinto River to the northwest (more or less)

At long last, I can fill in a destination to the west. At Linda's urging, we met up with friends in Columbus, TX and paddled the Columbus Paddling Trail on the Colorado River. It took us just over an hour to reach the starting point in Columbus and we completed the loop in about two and a half hours of paddling at a very relaxed pace. The water is fairly clear, flowing over a bed of mostly gravel and stone. On the banks are a mix of woods and ranch lands.

With the ongoing dry conditions in central Texas, the current was very light, but there was still plenty of water for floating. We saw numerous birds, a profusion of turtles, lots of cows, and even a few deer as we made the big loop around Columbus.

Once we reached the end of the loop, the nice folks at Howell Canoe Livery quickly shuttled us back to our cars and we were off restore our energy with a lunch of barbecue before heading back to Houston.

It was a nice relaxing paddle and well worth repeating.

More Pictures from the Colorado River at Columbus

Friday, June 28, 2013

North Lake Conroe: Western Shore

As I shoved off from the ramp at the Cagle Recreation Area, the sun was rising above the treeline and a light mist was still floating just above the surface of the lake.

I've paddled most of the area north toward Wildwood Shores and Stubblefield Lake before, so the plan for the day was to explore the western shore south of Cagle.

As I paddled west, I soon entered an area of the lake that's filled with old tree stumps with their heads just barely above the water at this level. As I passed among them, slowly and quietly, I startled a number of fish and turtles that were nibbling on the plants that were growing among their roots.

Once I reached the western shore, I turned south and started hugging the shore line and listening to the sounds of the Sam Houston National Forest coming alive. Great egrets and great blue herons were staring hopefully into she shallow waters and a vulture who had already found his breakfast was dining happily on a small sandy beach.

As I explored the one little inlet I spotted a beaver lodge, but it seemed no one was home. In another I ran across a doe and fawn browsing by the water side. Cattails waved in the gentle breeze at the mouth of a little creek which flows into the lake during wetter times. The sounds of woodpeckers and other birds carried across the water from the forest.

As the sun grew warm and my stomach grew empty, I doubled back to a nice landing spot I'd passed earlier and beached my kayak. Soon I had my camp chair set up under some shady trees and was enjoying a picnic lunch in the woods. Once lunch was consumed and had settled a bit, I took a nice relaxing swim (well, more of a float really) in the lake. It was a perfect way to cool down and to wash away the lingering stress that hadn't already succumbed to the peaceful morning on the lake.

Once I had my fill of swimming, I reloaded my boat and headed back toward the launch, physically tired but mentally refreshed. Thank you Lake Conroe!

More Pictures from North Lake Conroe

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Huntsville Gator Bait

When the official start of summer arrived in concert with a miniature heat wave, we started looking for a cool weekend escape. We settled on Huntsville State Park for its appealing combination of deep woods and cool waters. Why choose between hiking, kayaking, swimming, and picnicking when you can do all four?

The first paddle was great, as was the first round of swimming. The picnic was tasty and refreshing. The hike was a little warm, but we did get the chance to get up close and personal with this great blue heron!

For the final act, we decided to take another paddle and swim. There was a small hitch though. As we were paddling toward the spot where we wanted to swim, we happened to mention to our junior paddler that I'd spotted an alligator in the distance during our first paddle of the day. It wasn't anywhere near where we swam and its only reaction to our presence was to run away, but that didn't matter. The idea of sharing the open lake with an alligator put her quite out of temper and she refused to swim off of the large concrete block we'd used as a swim platform before. She was still okay with swimming in the "designated swimming area" over by one bank though. Apparently she was of the opinion that an alligator would never swim under a rope with floats on it?  :-)

Anyway. . . she took her final swim in the rather crowded designated swimming area. Then we took our final swim in the "alligator feeding area." Despite the worst fears of our junior paddler, no one was eaten and we all made it home safely after a fun outing to the park.

More Pictures from Huntsville State Park

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Sharing Sheldon Lake

My last trip to Sheldon Lake was only couple of months ago, but today's visit was special because it's the first time I've been able to share this place with Linda.

The water level was reasonably high, the lotus and lilies were starting to bloom, the alligators were out and about, and the rookeries were doing a booming business in baby egrets, herons, and other water fowl.

The only alligator sighting we'd had together in prior paddles was one at a distance on Caddo Lake, but today was the first close encounter. A medium sized gator was relaxing in shallow water near the bank as we made our way down the channel. It was disturbed by our approach and it started moving slowly toward us. Was it preparing to attack?!?! As it turned out, no. We kept a respectful distance and as soon as it reached deep enough water, it submerged and swam away in peace.

We continued our circuit of the lake, taking in the sight of the trees, flowers, nesting birds, and the clear blue sky and enjoying a relaxing time on the water.

More Pictures from Sheldon Lake

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Wooded Escape on Little Cypress Creek

After lunch at The Bake Shoppe and Cafe in Cypress, we decided to explore the Little Cypress Creek Preserve for the first time. What a treat! While Harris County's web site refers to it as a "58-acre undeveloped park site", it is really a gorgeous wooded gem along Little Cypress Creek.

What this park lacks in play equipment and picnic tables (there are none), it makes up for with its lovely hiking trails among the ponds and along Little Cypress Creek. The ponds were mostly empty due to the persistent dry weather, but the recent rains had the creek flowing fairly strongly.

We spotted a little snake and a number of turtles sunning themselves as we followed the creek. In the woods we saw cardinals, jays, chickadees, woodpeckers, and a hawk. On the "maybe" list were a bluebird and a brown thrasher.

We spent a couple of hours exploring the wooded trails and thoroughly enjoyed every minute. The weather was lovely and we needed to burn off the delicious chocolate chip cookies from the Bake Shoppe. 

This is definitely my new favorite patch of wilderness relatively close to home. If you're on the northwest side of Houston and looking for an outdoor escape, you could do much worse than losing yourself here for an hour or two.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter in the Big Thicket

When it comes to vacation destinations, I am often drawn to places where the directions advise you to keep on going once you reach the end of the pavement. Our long Easter weekend in the Big Thicket was that type of trip.

After a reasonably short drive from Houston and a tasty lunch in Kountze, we arrived at Ethridge Farm and settled in to the BlueBerry Hill Cabin. The cabin is in a great location and has a rustic charm, though the mattresses may have been a little too authentically antique.

The grounds of the farm are a lovely mix of the cultivated and the wild. Just behind the cabin, a field of blueberries is growing and guests can pick them when they're in season. It was too early for that during our visit, so the birds and rabbits had the field to themselves.

Once we'd gotten settled, we took a short drive over to the Nature Conservancy's Sandyland Sanctuary for an afternoon hike. We got our first look at Village Creek and its white sand bars while hiking through this rather unusual area. Along the creek we found cypress trees, dogwoods, and other lush plant life. But just a few hundred feet up the sandy hill, prickly pear cactus were growing. There were also signs of the controlled burns being used to try to restore the longleaf pine forest in this area.

The next morning after a hearty breakfast at the farm (complete with locally grown mayhaw jelly), we crossed our fingers on the weather, packed a lunch, and set out to paddle Village Creek. The creek level was low enough to turn the upper section through Sandyland into a minefield of sunken trees. Because of this, we chose to put in at the bridge just downstream, paddle just a mile or so up into the sanctuary, then turn and head downstream to the takeout just past Baby Galvez Island.

The water of the creek was cool and clear, but stained tea-brown in color by the tanins washed in from the east Texas woods. The low water left numerous large white sandbars exposed, available for the enjoyment of visitors both human and otherwise. A host of birds called from the wooded banks and we spotted numerous turtles and at least a couple of snakes as we made our way downstream.

We also passed a few other paddlers and a few locals playing on the sandbars, but mostly we had the creek to ourselves. The sun only peeked out a few times during the paddle and at times the gray clouds appeared to threaten rain, but luck was with us and we made it to the end of the paddle (and even to the end of the day) without getting rained on. Yay!

The evening's entertainment included a starlight hike from the cabin down to the nearby creek. We heard a host of mysterious rustlings in the woods and one brief burst of coyote song, but our only confirmed wildlife spotting was an armadillo.

Easter morning started with a lovely sunrise service on the grounds of Ethridge Farm. The clouds made it difficult to tell exactly when the sun rose, but it's undeniable that a chorus of birds started singing just as the preacher began delivering his message. It was a unique and lovely way to celebrate Easter.

After visiting with some of the other congregants over breakfast, we packed up our things and said our farewells to Ethridge Farm. Our goal was to hike a few trails in Big Thicket National Preserve prior to heading back to Houston. After a short drive up the road and quick stop at the park visitor center, we decided the Kirby Nature Trail would be our first hike. The terrain was slightly rolling and the woods were a gorgeous mix of hardwood and pines, and even some aged cypress down in the sloughs. We thoroughly enjoyed winding our way along the trail, chasing zebra swallowtails, listening to the birds, and soaking in the beautiful surroundings.

Once the Kirby hike was complete, we wanted to head a bit farther north and combine a picnic lunch with hiking an area containing a pitcher plants - a fairly rare species of carnivorous plant. Sadly, it was not to be. A quick check of the weather showed a line of severe storms was heading our way. We decided retreat was in order and turned back toward Houston. The trip home turned out to be eventful anyway, with one rainstorm that poured hard enough to reduce visibility to near zero and another that threatened to blow us off an overpass. In the end, however, we made it home safely with both kayaks still firmly secured to the roof of my RAV4.

Overall we really enjoyed our little taste of the Big Thicket, and given its proximity to Houston, I suspect that we'll be back.

More Pictures from the Big Thicket

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Sheldon Lake: Gators in the Mist

This was one of those days I where I really needed the peace I find when on the water, but the weather wasn't cooperating. As the morning progressed, the clouds hung stubbornly low in the sky and the forecast showed a good chance of rain. After dithering for a couple of hours, I finally loaded the boat and headed east a little after eleven in the morning. As I passed through downtown the low clouds dropped lower still to become a wet fog that left water droplets clinging to the windshield.

When I reached Sheldon, I found the surface of the lake shrouded in mist. After donning a rain slicker to keep off the cool wetness of the air, I shoved off into the still waters. Perhaps due to the dim conditions, it proved to be a great day for spotting alligators.

Some were slowly cruising the channel while others were floating stationary in the water with just nose and eyes showing. Over the course of the paddle, I spotted something close to ten of them. (I can't promise that one or two weren't double counted since I haven't come up with a good system for distinguishing similar sized gators at a distance)

Not too surprisingly for spring at Sheldon, it also proved to be a good day for bird watching. All of the usual suspects were there: grackles, herons, ibis, egrets, cormorants, and ducks. I also spotted an osprey sitting atop a cypress tree - a first for me at this lake. There were also a number of roseate spoonbills on the lake and for the first time I was able to get close enough for some good pictures, even with the limited zoom on my camera.

The mist never fully lifted in the two or three hours that I paddled, but the weather didn't get any worse either. I'm grateful. Even a less than perfect spring day on Sheldon Lake is better than good days many other places.

More Pictures From Sheldon Lake

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Murmuration at Brazos Bend

As a child growing up on the gulf coast, I was convinced that calendar makers were strange people. The worst of summer heat might be over by late September, but fall? I don't think so. Similarly, why wait until late March to call it spring when new green was peeking out long before then?

In this context  I can tell you that today was a beautiful spring day at Brazos Bend State Park. The wind was gusty and the air was crisp, but winter was already losing its grip on the Brazos river bottom. While many plants were still dozing, tiny flowers had already begun to dot the grass and fresh green leaves were opening at the tops of the pecan trees.

Still, the main attractions of the day were the birds. During our mid-afternoon walk down toward the Brazos River, we heard (and sometimes saw) birds of all kinds: woodpeckers, chickadees, cardinals, mockingbirds, crows, and even a barred owl!

But the climax of the day's bird show occurred during the waning minutes of the day as we made our way to the observation tower on 40 Acre Lake. As we approached, the treetops were dotted with black shapes and the air thrummed with the call of thousands of red-winged blackbirds.

When we climbed the tower and looked out over the marsh, we could see flocks of blackbirds flying in from all directions, many tens of thousands of them. As they wheeled and turned while always maintaining their spacing, they seemed less like groups of individual birds than some type of coarse fluid weaving is way across the landscape. Now and then a group of birds would land, pause, and then explode into flight once again, starting the process all over as the sky grew darker.

We watched with wonder as the night slowly came on and then finally descended to make our way back to the car in the near darkness. What an amazing sight to end the day!

More Pictures from Brazos Bend

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Suburban Exploration on Oyster Creek

Finally, my paddling drought has been broken! The last time I was on the water was Thanksgiving of last year, and it's been even longer than that since I explored a new paddling destination.

Linda suggested we head down to Sugarland and explore Oyster Creek near where she once lived. We launched just downstream from where Williams Trace Boulevard crosses the creek. At that point the creek looks more like a narrow lake, lined by attractive houses.

As we paddled downstream, we came to the little dam which maintains the lake-like conditions above it. After we portaged around the dam, the character of the creek changed completely. The wide channel lined with houses was replaced by a narrow one lined by trees. Thanks to the dry winter, there was no water flowing over the dam, leaving the creek below it shallow and with very little current.

And suddenly we were surrounded by birds. There were the typical back yard varieties like jays and cardinals. But there were also kingfishers, hawks, ducks, and various wading birds. And just below the damn we spotted a pair of pileated woodpeckers.

All of this scenery came at a cost though. It only takes one fallen tree to block a narrow stream, and there were many fallen trees. Some we could paddle over. Some we could paddle under. One we had to get out of the boats and portage around (or over!).

Eventually we reached a log jam of such epic proportions that we gave it up and turned back toward the launch. There were no regrets though. It was a fun paddle and I enjoyed seeing Sugarland from a slightly different angle!

More Pictures from Oyster Creek