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HomeNL-2012-04 Trinity River

Trinity Trek

March 12-14, 2012
by John Rich

  Float plan

Paul Woodcock had the idea to paddle the Trinity River, northeast of Houston, from Highway 105 all the way down to Lake Charlotte, simply for the reason that he had never heard of anyone doing it before.  And that was all the reason John Rich needed to join in with him for the adventure.  No one else signed up for the trip, perhaps thinking that there might be some good reason why nobody paddles that stretch of river, and whatever it is, they didn't want to get caught up in it. 


Water gauge height

Water gauge CFS

And if that trepidation alone wasn't enough to kill the idea, along came the torrential rains in the days preceding the trip, raising the normal water level by 2 and one-half times, and increasing the flow rate from 3,000 cfs to over 36,000 cfs, a 12-fold increase!  That was enough to scare-away one other person who was contemplating joining us, leaving just Paul and I still committed.  The trip would either be a dangerous disaster, or one heck of a fun Nantucket sleigh ride.  But, our experience the previous month in similar conditions on the Brazos River turned out not to be scary at all, and we surmised that the Trinity River would no different: high and fast compared to normal, but nothing really much to worry about.

Paul had the trip carefully planned and printed out on maps, with mileage markers and GPS waypoints, and figured the trip at 52 river miles.  At normal water levels, that would be a leisurely 5-days and four nights on the river, covering about 12 miles per day.  With this fast water, however, we might get the same distance done much quicker, but would there be any ground above the water line upon which to camp?  The normal wide, white sand bars would be submerged, and what would be remaining?


Hwy 105 put-in

Mary & Paul

We decided to proceed with the plan, drive to the put-in at Highway 105, and take a look at the river.  We would make our go or no-go decision then and there, only after looking at the actual conditions on the scene.  Mary Zaborowski drove down with a canoe trailer to visit, and ran the shuttle for us from Cedar Hill Park at Lake Charlotte up to Highway 105.  We had permission to leave our vehicles in the park while we were gone, even though the park is locked up at night.  The caretakers live adjacent to the park, so we located our vehicles within sight of their home to keep an eye on them, and we had official notices to put in the windshield to let the sheriff know that we were there with permission.  Arriving at Highway 105 an hour or so later, the water was high and fast, about 5 mph, but it wasn't turbulent, there was little debris in the water, and no known rapids or obstructions.  We mutually agreed to go for it!

We packed up our boats and launched, and quickly sped away in the fast current.  No paddling was really necessary other than to steer, and looking at the water we didn't seem to be moving that fast, since we were being carried along at the same speed as the water - a relative speed of zero.  However, when you looked over at the riverbank, the ground was whizzing by at 5 mph or so.  Yeehaw!



  River foam

Paul in foam

Got milk?
As it was on the Brazos at high water, there was a lot of foam on the river, in the form of soft squishy globs floating on the surface.  That foam congregated where the current was most swift, so to take advantage of the current and avoid the slow spots, all you had to do was follow the foam.

Moving along this fast we started thinking we could finish the trip in 3-days, easy, instead of 5.  And instead of getting up early and paddling hard all day to earn 12 miles, we would sleep-in, have a lazy morning in camp, launch into the water about 10:00, paddle for four hours covering 20 miles, and make camp about 2:00 in the afternoon.  And then we would have all afternoon and evening to do absolutely, gloriously, nothing!  I liked that plan.  Paul and I paddled along, often side by side, chatting along the way.  We talked about the sights we were seeing, books we've read, life in general, and had many pleasant conversations.  I never get tired of talking with



A bad omen?


Pipeline crossing

Paul: he's intelligent, well-spoken, polite and has a lot of interesting stories and thought-provoking ideas.  One idea we discussed was the relative effects of water current versus wind.  How much headwind would it take to slow down your speed on the water by 1 mph?  What's the ratio there - would it take a 15 mph wind to reduce the push from the current by 1 mph?  Such are the kinds of things I can wonder about when my mind is not distracted by other things.  There were a lot of pipeline crossings on this stretch of river: one was elevated above the water like a bridge, and the others were all buried underground.  There must have been over a dozen of them, each with multiple warning signs not to anchor or dredge in that area.

We put our fast-water plan into action by making camp about 2:00 in the afternoon.  We had a beautiful grassy bar on the inside of a bend, as pretty as a golf course.  Anticipating rain, we erected Paul's rain tarp, and our tents, and then sat around and enjoyed the sights and sounds of nature.  There was the gurgling of the water, a cormorant who would repeatedly dive under water and reappear somewhere else minutes later, ducks flying overhead in small groups of two or three, owls hooted, and there were other birds which we couldn't identify.  And the darned train!  Somewhere downstream was a train track, and it had regular traffic about once per hour, blowing it's horn loudly as it passed through some town.  It kind of destroyed the peace and tranquility, but only for short periods of time.  And as night fell, the train traffic became less frequent.  We found out the next day that railroad track was actually a good mile away, but the sound carried so well it sounded like it was right across the river behind the tree line.  At a housing area a half-mile upstream on the opposite river bank their entrance road was going underwater, and there was a lot of traffic on the road as concerned residents checked on or evacuated their homes.


Enjoying camp

Stick water gauge
Shack at waterline
While enjoying camp, a pair of young men in a motorboat stopped in for a visit.  My suspicious side thought that they might be showing up to tell us we couldn't camp there, and that would be a problem, as sunset was approaching.  But instead, they were just friendly country boys, warning us that the river was expeted to rise overnight, and that it might cover our campsite.  We stuck a stick in the ground at the water line to monitor the situation, and noticed no movement over time.  We also pre-packed some things in case we had to move fast in the middle of the night and throw things in boats.  We had a couple more feet of ground elevation behind us to which we could retreat if necessary to buy time to deal with rising water, if necessary.  As it turned out, it wasn't a problem at all - the water only rose about an inch overnight.   Many of the riverside homes and cabins were only one or two feet above the water line at that point, and I was certain that the water managers at Livingston Dam upstream would be aware that if they released more water they would create a catastrophe downstream, and surely they wouldn't do that.

Paul's stove   
Paul and I operated with separate food plans.  Paul had the dehydrated food packets to which you add boiling water, let them sit for a while to absorb the water, and then eat a tasty, nuitritious meal.  Paul had a cute little gas stove that was compact and efficient, with a beautiful brass fuel tank, and the whole gizmo reminded me of one of those hobby model steam engine kits that you could buy and build as a kid.  I used my trademark "KFC food plan", which goes as follows: I buy a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and pack it into a watertight tupperware bowl, and that goes into a cooler to keep it refrigerated.  And that chicken becomes my breakfast, lunch and dinner.  There's no stove, pots or pans required, no cooking necessary, and no dishes to wash.  It's as quick and easy as it gets, and I supplement that with some apples, fruit cocktail, etc.  I've found it good for trips up to three or four days long, but admittedly by the end of the trip, I fear that I'll start clucking in my sleep. 



Bug bites

Head net
Mosquitos were a mild problem, as were fire ants.  There were large and small fire ant mounds scattered around, and they weren't always obvious in the grass, so you had to be careful where you stepped.  Mosquitos were not present at all on the water, and the evening breeze kept most of them away on land.  They were just annoying enough around the ears to make me want to wear my head net.  When the wind died out at sunset, the skeeters got more fierce, and I donned my sweat shirt so I'd have thicker protection.  I'm sure that the recent rains made them more numerous than usual. Another annoyance was the cow patties which were scattered around, and I spent some time using a paddle like a shovel to scoop them up from walking pathways and toss them aside so they wouldn't be accidentally stepped in.



River fog

Paul, ready to go

John's neatly packed boat

The sun rose on day 2 with the phenomenon of river fog hanging over the water.  We took our time getting up, eating, breaking camp and packing the boats.  With the water still cruising along at 5mph, there wasn't any urgency to get started early.

After paddling for only about a mile we came across a railroad bridge, which explained the train noises we had heard the previous day.  Usually rail bridges seem to be adjacent to road bridges, but this one was out in the middle of nowhere all by itself.  We approached with great caution as the water rushed through the pilings, but there were no log jams, and we didn't have any problems getting through.



Paul under bridge

Made it through!
Next up was the Highway 90/146 bridge which runs through Liberty, Texas.  The river runs parallel alongside a concrete causeway for a while, and then suddenly makes a 90-degree right turn under the steel span bridge.  That sharp right turn combined with the fast water produced the only real excitement of the trip.  First of all, we were playing it safe staying as far from the bridge as possible as we approached so we could survey the scene, but there was backwash from a giant eddy that was pushing us backwards towards the flooded woods.  It was so powerful that it took everything we had paddling to break out of it and get back into the current.  And then it was just a question of picking which opening to go through.  The water level was so high that we actually had to duck our heads a little to get under the bridge.  Just as I thought I had safely run between the pilings, I discovered I was on the edge of a giant 50-foot diameter whirlpool, complete with an open vortex in the center that spiraled downward under the water so far that I could not see the bottom.  I was getting sucked sideways towards that vortex, and I had visions of my canoe spinning like a top, tipping me over, and then being sucked down into that vortex mouth never to be seen again.  I started paddling like a demon to escape, and I came to know what it must feel like to be a turd in a toilet bowl.  But this big turd escaped to paddle another day.  I shouted back a warning to Paul who was following my line, and he easily glided by safely off to the side.

There was another strange water phenomenon along the way which took us a while to figure out.  We would be paddling along near the edge of the foam in the fast current, and our boats would suddenly be seized with the urge to go some other direction from what we wanted, or to spin around, and it was very difficult to maintain control and direction.  I came to the conclusion that there was a fast water area like around the outside of bends, and slow water areas like on the inside of bends.  That's standard knowledge, but with the current flowing this fast, there was a boundary layer between the two speeds that was just chock full of little swirling eddies and upwelling boils, and if you got in that in-between area, the boat seemed to have a life of its own and didn't want to follow your directions.  There seemed to be no predicting when these seizures would overtake your boat.  It was a bit maddening at times, but would make the other paddler laugh at your misfortune and struggles to maintain a line.  Sometimes you would even dip your paddle in the water and when you pulled a stroke it was as if there was no resistance and it felt like you were just pulling the paddle through air - very strange!




 Mid-river visitor

Boat wreck in log jam

Paul and oil well

Paul and cows

After the whirlpool, the remainder of the day was uneventful.  We paddled along easily, admiring the sights like oil wells, grazing cows and cabins in danger of being flooded.  We were struck sad by the sight of some homeowners who live in such a beautiful riverfront location, yet use the riverbank as a dumping ground for all of their household trash.  At this lower part of the river, the terrain turned more into swamp land with no high ground anywhere to be seen.  The west bank had a lot of homes and cabins, but that was all private property, and we were starting to wonder where we were going to camp that night.  I was ready to pull up in someone's back yard and request permission to camp in their yard overnight.  But Paul kept forging ahead in hopes of finding something better.  We finally found a small

Paul's half of the camp site

John's half

finger of land only about two feet above the water, 50-feet long and 10-feet wide.  It wasn't much, but it was just big enough for two tents, two canoes, and a little leg room.  The mosquitos were more fierce here, and more numerous, seeming to come out of the woods in swarms.  We had several large flocks of 40 to 50 ibis fly overhead in V-formations.  We retired to the tents early to escape the skeeters, and I stayed up to read a book, and listened to the strange sounds of nocturnal animals that I couldn't identify.

The next morning we finished off the trip by floating down to the Mac Bayou cut into Lake Charlotte.  There are several old oxbows along the river that are normally cut-off from the river, but with the water level as high as it was, those oxbows had filled in and could be mistaken for the cut.  I had the notion to paddle an oxbow because there has probably been no one on them in a hundred years, but we didn't do it.  The other concern was that if we missed the cut-over, the current might be too swift to double back, and we would have to go down to Lake Pass to enter Lake Charlotte.  And perhaps the flow through Lake Pass would also be too swift!  But we had a GPS waypoint for the Mac Bayou cut, and we just made sure not to miss it, checking our progress on our GPS units, and matching up the bends of the river with our compass to the maps.  If you didn't stay focused following the river bends and matching them to the maps, you could easily lose track of where you were, as there were a great many bends all zigzagging in the same directions back and forth.

We found the Mac Bayou cut with no problem, followed it down into Lake Charlotte, and crossed Lake Charlotte back to Cedar Hill Park.  We walked over to where our cars were still safely parked, drove back to the boat ramp, loaded up and went home.  The 52-mile plus trip originally scheduled for five days, had been completed in just 2 and a half days of easy paddling.  Actual paddling time was probably only about 10-12 hours total.  Heck, you could almost have done it in a single day!
So why is it that you never hear of anyone paddling this stretch?  Well, there weren't any rapids to attract the whitewater folks.  It wasn't particularly rich in birds or wildlife.  It isn't especially isolated as there are homes and cabins dotting the riverbanks.  Finding a campsite might be a problem on the bottom end, but probably is okay at lower water levels.  The prevailing winds are from the south, working against you, which could be tough on normal slow water, but on our fast current it didn't even begin to slow us down.  Nevertheless, I liked the solitude and lack of other boats, and especially the fast water, and I found it quite enjoyable.  And now we can say that this stretch has been paddled, and we did it!



John Rich

Paul Woodcock