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HomeNL-2007-08 Brazos River

Brazos River, FM-529 to San Felipe
August, 2007
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 Sunday, August 26, I canoed a 14-mile section of the Brazos with my girlfriend Kay.

First up is a map of the section we paddled, showing the canoe route, and the roads used for the truck shuttle route. The general area is between the cities of Hempstead to the north, and San Felipe. The thin blue line is the Brazos River, and the thicker blue line overlay is the 14-mile section of this trip.

The take-out point was the Farm-to-Market road FM-1458, which runs by the little historic town of San Felipe. We parked the pick-up vehicle there, and then headed north. We put-in at the FM-529 bridge crossing. 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.

The water level (see chart) has dropped well below the near-flood stage that was reached from the record rainfalls of the previous months. At 23 feet, there is still several miles-per-hour of current so that you get a leisurely float without a lot of paddling, and no scraping bottom anywhere. There were also 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.

When I scouted the take-out and put-in locations two weeks earlier for suitability, I came across this muddy scene, right, at FM-529.  This pickup truck was mired down to the frame in deep mud. So, I resolved that I would portage the canoe and gear across that stretch, about 100’ to the water. But when we arrived two weeks later, the truck was gone and the mud had hardened, so we got to pull up right next to the riverbank. 

Photo: The happy couple and dog at the FM-529 put-in site, about to hit the river. As you can see from the water in the background, it was very muddy water, due to the erosion from recent heavy rainfall.

The put-in and take-out were both muddy, and required lowering and pulling the canoe down and up 15' mud slopes. That part was an absolute mess. After getting into the boat, we immediately did some housekeeping to clean up, using the bailing sponge to clean the boat deck, and dipping our feet over the sides to wash them in the river.

Photo: Kay and the wonder dog, Truman, in the front of the boat. The willow-lined banks are typical for this area. The water was calm, but moving nicely. And Kay already has mud splattered on her shirt from getting down the mud bank into the boat. 

Yes, she really wore earrings on the river. Don’t ask me why. It’s a woman-thing that I don’t understand. To me, it just seems like a good way to lose jewelry.

After cleanup, we immediately got down to the serious leisure of drifting with the current. Kay sat in the bottom using the thwart and a PFD as a backrest to enjoy the sights, while I stayed seated up high for steering.

The current was moving at just the right speed, maybe 2-3 mph, so that all we had to do was float and enjoy the sights, and dip the paddle occasionally to steer. Sometimes I even let ourselves go sideways just out of sheer laziness, and because there was no reason not to. There were almost zero hazards to be seen, except along the shorelines where severe erosion from recent flooding has dumped trees down into the river. We covered the 14-miles in 6 hours with hardly any paddling, and that included an hour break for lunch and relaxation on a sandbar.

Just a short distance downstream from FM-529 we discovered a cow which had fallen off the dirt cliff at the edge of the river, and was now trapped at the bottom with no way to get back up (photo below). The cell phone worked, so the sheriff was notified, and asked to pass the word to the rancher of that land. We’ve been curious ever since if the owner was able to rescue that big critter somehow. That cow needed to go swimming to escape from there…

Birds were scarce, except for several large flocks of egrets and black birds, roosting in
trees. We didn't even see any herds of cows from the adjacent pastures, but we could hear amorous bulls braying now and then.

This stretch of water is very rural, with no buildings visible anywhere until you get to San Felipe. The tree-lined shores give the illusion of wilderness, while in fact, there is farmland and pastures just behind the shoreline trees. We didn't see another boat or person for the entire trip. While it was nothing exciting or glamorous, it was nevertheless a very pleasant day on the water.

The most amazing part of the trip was watching geology in action. While eating lunch on a sandbar, I heard a crashing sound, and thought it to be thunder. But scanning the sky found no thunderstorms anywhere on the horizon. I dismissed it as some distant farm noise. Then it happened again, and I saw dirt on the opposite riverbank falling into the water. Aha! The source of the noise was identified. Over the next half-hour, we witnessed about eight mudslides as the riverbank gave way and crashed into the water, some of them big enough to send waves all the way across the river to crash into our sandbar. It reminded us of images of Alaskan glaciers "calving" as huge chunks fall off into the water to create icebergs.

Photo: Kay and Truman play in the water across from the mud cliffs where landslides were occurring.

A second interesting phenomenon was upwellings of water, which would suddenly appear on the surface, sometimes right next to the canoe. It was as if a giant whale was about to broach the surface, as a big circular pillow of water would appear and send tiny waves radiating outwards in all directions. I now understand that these are called “boils”, caused by some obstacle underwater, which deflects water upward.

What was weird is that the boils would appear suddenly and then vanish again. It wasn't a fixed pattern that was there all the time, like a pillow of water flowing over a rock. You would be paddling along in smooth water, and a boil would just pop up out of nowhere, and then a few seconds later, vanish again.

There was yet a third phenomenon, in addition to the landslides and the boils. This one I dubbed "dancing trees". This involved trees in the water, either upright or leaning over, which had fallen into the river from riverbank erosion caused by the recent flooding (photo below). The force of the water current pushing against the tree trunks would cause them to bend slightly, to the limits of their elasticity. Then a point was reached where the trunk could bend no further, and the tree trunk would recoil and spring backwards against the current. This set up a continuous rhythmic cycle of flexing back and forth. The branches higher up on the tree would respond with the trunk, and because they were further out, the slight movement of the trunk was greatly exaggerated by the time it reached the ends of the limbs. Thus, the entire tree would seem to be dancing and waving, all generated by only a few inches of movement down at the waterline. It was fascinating to watch, and the movement seemed almost inexplicable, as if some great beast had a hold of the tree roots underwater, shaking it in its powerful jaws.

A shady lunch of sandwiches and beer, on a wide sand bar on the inside of a bend:

While walking the sand bar I found a soft shell turtle lying way up high from the water.  I actually thought this little fellow was dead at first. He was a long way from the water, and he wasn’t moving. But when I prodded him with my foot, I saw his eyes move. So after examining this unique creature up close, I carried him down to the waterline, and he hurriedly scurried back into the depths, seemingly no worse for the land excursion. The shell, despite the name, was only soft around the edges, and firm in the middle. He had webbed feet, and a cute little pig-like snorkel nose for breathing while floating just under the surface. Yertle the turtle was unaggressive and never tried to bite me. 


  Found on the sand bar: a cluster of pink feathers. So the question is,
  what kind of bird did these come from? I can’t imagine flamingos on
  the Brazos. What other kinds of birds have pink feathers and would
  be seen in this area? How about a roseate spoonbill? 
  Captain John cools off in the river,
  with c
laws into the river gravel, to
  keep from 
being swept away with the 
     A flock of egrets, roosting lazily in 
     the trees, takes flight as we drift by.    

Now for some photos of riverbank erosion from the heavy rainfall and corresponding high water levels:

  Dirt and trees collapsing into the river.
 Aerial photo of our lunch sandbar, where 
 the riverbank was falling into the river, 
 showing just how close a nearby road is 
 coming to getting swallowed up.
  This one shows irrigation pipes from   
  the San Felipe golf course, dangling
  in the void, where part of the golf
  course has disappeared into the
  river. “Fore!”
  And saving the best one for last, here
  we have a home structure on a concrete
  slab about to fall into the river. The dirt
  under the edge of the slab has been
  washed away, and some of the footings
  are now suspended in mid-air. It
  appears to be a cabin built around a
  double-decker bus.

The FM-1458 take-out bridge appears up ahead, at San Felipe, the site of the first Anglo-American settlement in Texas. You can still find pieces of broken porcelain ware and other artifacts in the area from Texas’ first settlers, dating back to the 1820’s.

 Captain John; head propulsion, 
 photographer, chef and navigator, 
 plays with a camera while the boat 
 is adrift. 
 Truman the wonder dog, in charge 
 of entertainment, poses at the helm.
P.S. An 85-lb. dog shifting from side-to-side in the canoe can cause a disconcerting change in the center of balance! He doesn’t tip us over, but it sure makes us worry a bit.

Yawn… All this excitement just makes me want to take a nap:


The author, John Rich