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HomeNL-2008-03 Brazos River

Brazos River, FM-159 to FM-529
March, 2008
John Rich

The Brazos River is the longest river entirely within the state of Texas, at 700 miles long, running from far north Texas all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. On the last weekend of March, I spent two days canoeing a 20-mile section of the Brazos River, all by myself.

First up are two maps of the section I paddled (below), showing the canoe route, and the roads used for the truck shuttle route. The first map shows the general area, which is to the northwest of Houston, between the cities of Hempstead to the north, and San Felipe to the south. The thick blue line is the section for this trip.

The second map shows the area in more detail, including local roads. The put-in location is at the FM-159 bridge crossing, and the take-out is the FM-529 bridge crossing. The shortest shuttle route, starting at the FM-159 take-out bridge, is to take FM-159 west, turn south on 331, then turn back east on FM-529. This is only 13-miles by road, and can be covered easily in half-an-hour. Note that the north end of route 331 is marked only as ”Oil Field Road”.

So, I left my vehicle parked under the FM-529 bridge, and the girlfriend ferried me and all my  equipment to the FM-159 bridge. A call was made to the Waller County Sheriff to let them know my vehicle was under the bridge, and why, because some bridges have signs posted forbidding parking at night.

The Brazos serves as the county line between Waller and Austin Counties. Both of these bridge crossings have public parking underneath, and are frequented by fishermen.

  Water Gauge
The water level (see chart below) was at 17 feet on the Hempstead gauge. At that level, there are several miles-per-hour of current so that you get a leisurely float without a lot of paddling, but it’s not very fast. And there is no scraping bottom anywhere. There were almost no obstacles in the channel, except for just a couple of logs sticking up out of the water. The danger lies along the shoreline, where severe erosion has collapsed riverbanks, dumping lots of trees into the water.
The put-in site is under the FM-159 bridge, east bank (photo below).  There is a mild slope here, which is fairly easy to carry a canoe down if you have two people. You can slide it across the steep parts, without any rocks to tear up the bottom.  I get the boat packed and I'm ready to go, if I can just extract my feet from the shoe-sucking mud.  I demonstrate how modest women in the old west used to ride canoes side-saddle, just like they did their horses… Actually, I'm dangling my shoes in the water to wash the mud off trying to avoid getting it all inside my boat and making a mess.

Put-in     Packed      Muddy shoes      Side-saddle

The river is bounded on both sides by ranch-land. So the only “wildlife” you see is the bovine variety.  Cows are humorous. They don't see many canoeists on this river. When they first spied me, the whole herd, curious, ran down to the river edge to check me out and see what I am. Might as well get a drink of water, while they’re there. And then as I drew closer, they got scared, and the whole herd ran back up the bank again. Moo!
There were few obstacles in the waterway, and where there was, they were easily visible, and just as easily avoided.
At first I was surprised that riverbank erosion would have claimed this truck trailer. But with the grass growing on the bank, and the concrete pushed over the edge, I came to the conclusion that this was just an unwanted trailer that was pushed over by the landowner, hoping that the river would take his junk away for him. 
In another location there is what looks like two large deer stands atop the riverbank. But the deer stands don’t have any windows in them for shooting slots. As I drew closer, I saw a lot of debris from orange disks, identifying this as a shotgun skeet club. The deer stands are throwing sheds, which sling the clay targets into the air for shooting practice. Many of them end up down the riverbank.
Threatening skies   
Threatening skies. I was rained on a few times, but had my poncho handy. There was no lightening, fortunately. But just in case, for about half-an-hour, I tied up under overhanging trees on the riverbank, and ate lunch in the rain.

I only saw one other boat the whole time, with two fishermen setting trot-lines. That’s just the kind of isolation I like for getting away from the big city.

There is one spot in the river where there is a slight rock ledge underwater, maybe two or three inches high. It runs across nearly the entire river, except for the far right side. As you approach this area you get excited by the sound of rushing water somewhere up ahead, making you think that you are actually approaching a rapid. But it turns out that it’s just the large volume of water from nearly the entire river width going over a tiny little ledge, that generates all that noise. Shucks.
Finding a decent campsite took some searching. Due to the falling water level, many of the sand bars were actually mud bars, or a mixture of mud and gravel. Many of them would be unsuitable for camping and would be a real mess. I finally came upon one that was very decent, with only a little mud strip along the water line, and the remainder was high and dry dirt and gravel, with plenty of driftwood for a campfire. There was even grass near the high water line, and very few cow pies.  This site is called Wildcat Bend on the topo map.
I spent about half-an-hour gathering up driftwood for a campfire, and quickly thereafter had a nice fire going for entertainment. I only worried a little bit about the pack of coyotes that started yelping and howling somewhere nearby at sunset. I stared at the flickering tongues of the fire until I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer, and then retired to my tent. You get a lot of good thinking done just sitting and staring at a campfire by yourself.
The next morning, after a breakfast of ham and eggs, I got the boat packed and ready to launch again. 
Tent     Sunset     Campfire     Morning
The outside bends in the river are all eroding, like in this photo, with the dirt caving-in and getting swept downstream. That dirt, in turn, then gets deposited on the inside curve of other bends, creating nice, wide sand/gravel/mud bars.This area of the Brazos River is a huge oil field. You get hints of this from the map, with names like “Oil Field Road”, and “Wildcat Bend”. Driving through the area this fact becomes blatantly obvious. Many of the wells are shut down, but many others are still active.
This next picture took me a little while to figure out. I encountered three of these tall, thick pipes sticking up out of the river. Each one had a little spigot on top, like the one to which you attach your garden hose at home.
Oil well      Well pipe 

Consulting my topo maps, I correlated these pipes with the sites of old oil wells. Thus, I concluded that these are former oil wells that were formerly located on land alongside the river, and the river erosion has now washed away the land around them, so that they now sit inside the river itself.

So the question arises: What happens when these pipes get rusty, a logjam builds up against them in a flood, and the force of the water current snaps them off? Is oil going to come gushing up out of there to pollute the river all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico? 
Here, it looks like a bomb went off and knocked all these trees over. But it's just river erosion eating the ground away underneath their roots, until they all fall over like a house of cards.
The hardest part of the whole trip was the takeout at the FM-529 bridge. Your mission, if you choose to accept it (and you must), is to haul all of your gear and this 80-lb. canoe up this 50-foot high bank, covered with mud, trash, dead catfish, a deer carcass, and broken glass. Ugh!

I actually used the old tires as a “dock” to get my gear from the boat to land. And then climbing over the trash pile provided better foot traction than the mud bank. But I had to watch out for broken glass, and oh-boy did that pile of junk stink. The boat, however, was pushed up the muddy hillside to save the hull. Two people here would have been nice, but there was just me on this trip! Why do people think that a bridge is a public dump site?
Mission accomplished! My truck was waiting for me under the bridge, unharmed. I was lucky and remembered where I stowed my keys. I loaded up the boat and gear, and headed home for a big steak.

The author, John Rich