On March 4th, HCC swampman Joe Coker led a small band of paddling adventurers on a day trip into the maze called Champion Lake, northeast of Houston. He was backed-up by fellow swampman guide Dave Kitson. Other paddlers on the trip, in no particular order, were: John Rich, Natalie and Ellen Wiest with dog Zootie, Honey Leveen, Charles Zipprian and Katie O'Neill.
To get there, you drive east on Interstate-10 to and take Exit 803 at Highway 565. Go north on Hwy 565 to Old River/Winfree and turn right onto FM 1409 going north. In about three miles, turn right onto CR 417 and drive to the end to find the park boat ramp.
Champion Lake is a swamp area which is densely packed with cypress trees hung with Spanish moss, and it's great fun weaving amongst the trees and following the narrow paths. There are numbers on metal plates nailed to trees which match up to maps, to help you follow the paddling trails and keep from getting lost. However, there are some older maps on the internet which don't match those numbers, and even the current official map seemed to have a few numbers wrong. Or maybe we were just lost. It is strongly advised to take a compass, and if you get disoriented, just head south to hit the high bank shoreline, and then follow that west to the boat ramp. All the trees create quite a confusing maze, where everything looks the same and visibility is limited, and it would be easy to get disoriented and become lost in there.
Here is a link to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service map which is the most correct map known of the Lake:
There was no high ground upon which to exit your boat to stretch your legs except on the south bank, but the water level was higher than usual at 7 feet on the painted gauge at the pier. There is no electronic gauge on the lake which transmits data to be viewed on the internet. There is a drain on the southeast shore that limits the height of the water level, just like the overflow drain on a bathroom sink, and the water was pouring through that drain - so this is as high as it gets. The drain water goes through the dike and into Pickett's Bayou, which runs into the Trinity River. Dave reports that at lower water levels there is high ground that you can reach on the north shoreline, suitable for exiting boats and stretching your legs. Dave also reports seeing a water spout over the lake on a previous trip.
We didn't spot a whole lot of wildlife. There were two large gators in the southeast corner sunning themselves on the bank, but they slipped into the water when they saw us coming and we never got very close. Three more gators were spotted sunning on the shoreline in the back yard of a house on the southwest shoreline, and Dave spotted three small ones on a branch that quickly slipped into the water. Dave states he has been here 8 or 10 times and only seen one gator before, but there were plenty this time. The northwest quadrant is the rookery area where the birds hang out, and the highlight there was a group of about a dozen buzzards together perched in the tree tops. Several of them would stand for long periods of time with their wings spread - what is the explanation for that behavior? The birding highlight for me was a magnificent pileated woodpecker. The rookery area is closed March 1st through June 30th for the nesting season.
There were gnats which didn't seem to bother anyone except Honey - they were highly attracted to whatever lotion she was wearing, and she had a constant buzz around her head. She reminded me of the character in the Lil' Abner comic strip called Joe Btfsplk, who always had a dark cloud following him around. You might want to bring a mosquito head net as a countermeasure in case the gnats decide you smell good too.
My photo album containing 36 photos of the experience can be viewed here. Click the "expand" button in the upper right corner to make the photos larger, and click the arrow buttons, or use your keyboard arrow keys, to scroll through the photos one at a time.
Thanks to Joe and Dave for their knowledgeable guidance through this swampy maze, and for a pleasant day on the water.