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HomeNL-2006-11 Brazos River

Brazos River, Hwy 290 to FM-159
November, 2006
by John Rich

The Brazos River is the longest river entirely within the state of Texas, at 700 miles, running from the far north all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. On Sunday, 11/26/06, Kay Choate and I canoed a 12-mile section near Kay’s house. The following are the content of a series of e-mail reports I made to the Houston Canoe Club members.

First up is a map of the section we paddled, showing the canoe route, and the truck shuttle route. The general area is near the city of Hempstead, which is on Hwy 290 northwest of Houston, where Hwy 6 branches off to go north to College Station.

I made the trip with my girlfriend, Kay, who hasn't paddled a canoe since she was in the Girl Scouts as a kid.

The take-out point was the Farm-to-Market road FM-159, which runs south out of Hempstead. We parked the pick-up vehicle there, and then headed north. We put-in at the Hwy 290 bridge crossing, at the county line between Waller and Washington Counties. Both of these bridge crossings have public parking underneath, and are frequented by fishermen.

 
The happy couple at the Hwy 290
put-in site, 
about to hit the river.
My canoe is an Old 
Town
Discovery 15'8".
      Looking back at the Hwy 290
bridge from the river.


By the way, I consider myself a novice canoeist, with my experience consisting of two trips to Big Bend on the Rio Grande, and piddly little Oyster Creek in Sugar Land.

The east bank of the river was steep and covered with large hunks of granite for erosion control. That looked like a difficult place to carry a canoe down to the river. The west bank was more shallow, and was just sloping dirt. So that seems like the best place to put-in. You just drive west over the bridge (coming from Houston), U-turn at the first highway cross-over, and double back to the pull-off for the under-bridge parking. From the nearest parking to unload the canoe, you have to carry the canoe downhill only about 100 feet. There was shoe-sucking mud near the waterline, so you start the trip immediately with a mess in the bottom of your canoe. Oh well.

The water level seemed to be somewhat low, due to the lack of rain over the last month. There was no current noticeable to help move you along, but there might have actually been about a half-mile per hour or so - it just wasn't obvious. And even worse, the wind was from the southeast at up to about 10 mph, working against us as we paddled downstream. But with two paddlers, we made acceptable progress. And it was a drop-dead gorgeous day with comfortable temperature and cloud-speckled blue sky.

My GPS said it was 7 miles, straight-line distance, to the FM-159 take-out point. But with the meandering bends of the river, I figured it would be more like 10-11 miles of paddling, and a 5 to 6-hour trip.

Oh, that map in the last e-mail was taken from Google Maps off the internet. Be forewarned, that it's not a good source of great river detail. I quickly discovered that there are many more bends in the river than are shown on that map. So you can't really determine your position precisely by counting the number of bends and relating them to the map. That lead me to think that I was further along than I really was. A better map would have been nice.

Photo: This is a typical view of the river in this section.

The banks are either gently sloped and lined with trees, or else very steep 25-foot tall dirt walls. Willow trees seemed to be the most common. In many places, you can see where the dirt banks collapse into the river as the water flow in the curves reshapes the river. Also in this photo you see a log sticking up in the river - there are a lot of those. But the log obstacles are far apart, and the water flows slowly, so it's easy to miss the logs and branches sticking up. In fact, we zigzagged around in-between them a few times just for entertainment.

One lesson I learned: I tried to paddle between two branches sticking up out of the water, and we hit bottom on a log in-between just under the surface, and got bounced around a bit. Thus, I learned that where there are multiple branches sticking up, it might be wise to assume that there is a common log running in-between them from which they protrude. Doh!

The river here is very undeveloped, and we saw only one ranch house. The adjacent land is all large farms and ranches, so there are few signs of human habitation to spoil the scenery. There were several spots where landowners had built a small patio to overlook the river with their lawn chairs, or while fishing. We spied one motorboat tied up to the shore. And a few of the riverbanks had signs of wheel ruts from all-terrain vehicles. Otherwise, it felt like uninhabited wilderness.

There were only about a half-dozen places on this stretch where the river was constricted by sandbars such that the water flow was channeled through a small area and increased to a nice flow rate, creating a small tongue of "rapids". They weren't much, maybe only a Class one-third, but provided mild entertainment to break the boredom.

The river bottom would often be very shallow on one side, but moving to the other side always found deeper water. We rarely scraped bottom, and then only when we were too close to protruding spits of sand.

Next up, some history! I think knowing the history of the area makes a canoe trip so much more interesting. For example, in the early days of Texas, steamboats actually came upstream on the Brazos during high water to pick up cotton bales from the plantations. They would go as far north as Washington on the Brazos (Navasota area). Several were sunk in the river, and many got stuck in low water for long periods of time.

Only about one mile downstream from Hwy 290, you get to a couple of interesting man-made structures. This is the first of them (photo).  It's a very large wood structure protruding diagonally out from the river bank. It reminds me of a "fender" that you see built around bridge pilings to guide boats through a bridge crossing so that they don't hit the support pilings. But I have no idea if that's what this really was. Is it related to those steamboats that I mentioned?

It may also be related to this next item (below), found just a short distance further downstream. This, I think, is the remains of an old railroad bridge, which crossed the Brazos River here. There was a rail line built starting in 1857 called the "Austin Branch", to move goods from the port of Galveston up to Austin. It was a spur line off of another route that ran west out of Galveston. This spur was started around Hempstead, and with a short interlude for the Civil War, was completed to Austin in 1872. There was also a POW camp for captured Union soldiers just a few miles east of this point along that rail line. The rail has since been pulled up and removed, and there are few remaining signs of that track bed.

      


So, I think this large pier is a support for that old railroad bridge, and is about 150 years old, in remarkably good shape. Look along the water line in the previous photo, to the right of the piling, and you'll see iron girders still spread out across the river, where the bridge has collapsed down onto the riverbed.

Or am I wrong about all this? Does that look too new to be Civil War era? Could this be the site of an old road bridge, before Hwy 290 was built?

At any rate, that structure creates the one big obstacle to boat traffic on this stretch of river.

Let's see, where did I leave off yesterday... Oh yeah, the old collapsed bridge.

But first, a couple of comments:

1) Kay, my girlfriend, says that it isn't her first time in the canoe as an adult, just her first time on a canoe trip for the purpose of just enjoying the ride. She has previously fished from a canoe in Alaska and done some lake canoeing.

2) I estimated this trip length as 10 to 11 miles. Mark Andrus says that his "Texas River Almanac" lists this section of river as 12 miles. I've going to have to buy one of those
handy reference books.

3) There seems to be a debate over whether the best way to post such stories and pictures is by e-mail, or by the newsletter. The comments I've received are split both ways. I am downsizing the photos to try and minimize the impact on e-mail receipt processing time, and limiting the e-mails to two per day. So I hope that helps.

Okay, back to the canoe trip.

The collapsed bridge is the only obstacle to boat passage on this section of river. We encountered a pair of fishermen in a motorboat south of Hwy 290, but they can't get past the bridge obstacle. A canoe, however, is small enough to get beyond it. We pulled over in front of the bridge at the sandbar riverbank to examine the situation. There are three possibilities for passage: the left side, straight ahead, or portage.

This photo shows the "left side" option (right).  The water bends around the left side of the bridge piling, but as you can see, it is fraught with ugly-looking logs. Is this what you guys call a "strainer"? There were gaps just barely wide enough for a canoe to squeeze through, but you would have to run a tight obstacle course, in fast-flowing water, with some quick turns. My adventuress side was tempted to try it, but my wiser half prevailed, and I ruled it out.

This photo shows the "straight-ahead" option (right).  The old iron girder lies at the water line, sticking up a few inches above the water, and has accumulated a lot of logjam material up against it. We got out into the ankle-deep water at the shoreline, lifted the bow of the canoe up onto the girder, pushed the boat over to the other side, and then climbed back in the boat. We did this at the point where the girder is free of debris, right in front of the concrete. This was relatively trouble free and easy - it just requires wet feet. But watch out for the uneven rocky footing underwater. At higher water levels, I suppose you could glide right over top of this.

A portage would also be possible, but you would have to contend with large rocks and uneven ground. And with the ease of pushing the boat over the girder, a portage was only my second choice.

Beyond this point, there are no other obstacles except sand bars, logs, and a few rare protruding rocks, all easily avoidable.

And on the bright side, this obstacle ensures that below this point you won't have any pesky noisy motorboats spoiling your quiet canoe trip.

What about wildlife?

Well, we saw a lot of birds, most of which were ducks. They included great blue herons, egrets, kingfishers, grebes, widgeons and a blue-winged teal. There weren't large numbers of them, and most were in small groups, with only a few larger flocks. My duck identifications come from Kay, who has spent a lot of time duck hunting. There were other types out there spotted, but which she couldn't identify for sure. The kingfishers are one of my favorites, and there almost always seemed to be one buzzing around no matter where we went. The grebes swim with their body completely submerged, and only their head and neck protruding above water. Then they'll dive under to chase a minnow, and re-appear somewhere else a minute later. The teal was beautiful with the baby blue color under his wings when he took flight. Oh, and those little pointy-winged birds that skim the water. And something that looked like a sandpiper like you see on ocean beaches.

Any mammals? There were tracks of deer, pig, coyote and raccoon in the sand banks, but none were spotted in daylight. The attached photo shows the only mammals spotted on the trip: Cows. There were grazing herds from the adjacent ranches that loitered near the water. I get the impression that they don't see a lot of people in canoes. This particular herd was curious enough to follow along parallel with us on the riverbank for a while. They quit only when it became apparent that we weren't going to feed them.

Note: I have a feeler out to several people in the Waller County Historical Society, asking what the wood structure is, and the date of the old iron bridge. I'll post a follow-up if I get any more info on the history of those items.

This photo is the FM-159 road bridge take-out point (right).  You can see that the light is fading. Yeah, we were pushing daylight, and barely got out of the water before dark. We didn't start until about noon, due to sleeping late, eating breakfast, a flat tire, etc. So we did about five and a half hours of paddling to cover those 12 miles, with a half-hour break for lunch, and several other very short breaks ashore. So those of you thinking of doing this trip during short daylight hours like we now have, plan accordingly. I wouldn't want to be out there in the dark. And the moon was just a tiny sliver, and didn't provide any decent light for tying the canoe down on top of the truck. It wouldn't hurt me to pack a flashlight, even though I don't plan on needing it.

The parking area for the bridge is on the east side, or to the left in this photo. There is a wide dirt path going right down to the water, but it's steep. I wouldn't try driving down there unless you have four-wheel drive, and really not even then. But it provides a clear path for portage, and it's only about 100' up to the top where the parking area is.

In the photo you can see a sandbar in front of the bridge. You can either swing wide to the right and come back up under the bridge, or you can take a narrow channel around the left side of the sandbar. Either way I think will get you there. We took the left.

An extended family of Mexicans, about 10 people in all, with kids of all ages, all from a single pickup truck, was checking out the location for a fishing spot. They graciously helped us carry our boat to the top of the hill. They asked repeatedly if we "caught anything", and couldn't seem to comprehend that we were canoeing just for fun, without fishing.

The bridge area emanated the stench of fishing debris: rotten fish heads, garbage, and even excrement. Watch where you put your feet. You could smell it coming from 100 yards away on the river. Welcome back to civilization.

That's all I have from this trip. I hope you enjoyed the story, and if you picked up some good pointers for trying it yourself, it's all good. Thank you for listening.


Aerial photo images,
1995:
 
Topographical map
images, 1989: 

            
   
 


The author, John Rich