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HomeNL-2009-06 Brazos River

Brazos River, Sugar Land
June, 2009
by John Rich

 On Tuesday, June 9th, four Houston Canoe Club members led by Paul Woodcock met in Sugarland with the goal of exploring Bullhead Slough. Other participants in this trip were Ken Anderson, Dana Enos and John Rich.

The dictionary defines a “slough” as: “a place of deep mud or mire; an inlet on a river; or a creek in a marsh or tide flat.” In this case, Bullhead Slough is a man-made drainage ditch that runs from the area of the Sugarland Airport, straight south, under Hwy 90, under Hwy 59, and into the Brazos River.
(Click on the thumbnail photos to view the full-screen version in a separate window.)We met up at the new Sugarland Memorial Park along the Brazos River at Highway 59. This park was built in 2007, but it doesn’t show up yet in online maps.
We met up at the new Sugarland Memorial Park along the Brazos River at Highway 59. This park was built in 2007, but it doesn’t show up yet in online maps.
To get to the park, you head south on Hwy 59, take the University Blvd. exit, go south on University until the road takes a 90-degree left turn, and the park entrance is on the right.
Area map       Park map      Park entrance
The park web site is here (this is a clickable link): Sugarland Memorial Park 
The river access is a steep cove. To get to it from the entrance, you drive three-quarters of the way around the traffic circle counter- clockwise, and drive parallel with the jogging trail. There’s a gravel path heading off to the right towards the river, with a gate across it. Drive around the closed gate through the grass to get to the cove. A police officer pulled up to investigate while we were untying our boats, but he didn’t have a problem with us being there, and even granted us permission to leave our vehicles there instead of driving them back to the parking lot several hundred yards away. He said he would let other units know about our trucks so we wouldn’t get any tickets. Very cooperative, thank you.
Getting the boats to the water is only mildly difficult, as you’re going downhill and have gravity on your side. But you do have to negotiate a steep bank, watch for ankle-breaking cracks in the ground, and wade through head-high weeds. Coming back out later, on the other hand, dragging the boats back uphill was a major effort. It helps to have two people per boat to negotiate this on the way out. 
And like any access point I’ve ever known on the Brazos, it’s muddy along the shoreline: it's the kind of mud that puts stains on white T-shirts that never come out, no matter how many times you wash them. Brazos veterans know to keep a set of “river clothes” aside just for the Brazos, so you don’t ruin a new set of nice clothes every time. Just do it once, and re-use them. Some people go through complex gymnastic moves to try and avoid touching the mud - but I just consider getting muddy inevitable, and barge right in.
Put-in site     Dana heads
for the water
    Muddy feet
   Paddle route 
And with that, we’re on the Brazos River. As you can see from this map, just around the corner downstream from the starting point is where Bullhead Slough branches off to the north. That was our target. The blue line traces our path for the day, but you'll notice that the line only goes a short distance up Bullhead Slough. That was where "Murphy's Law" struck, as Paul likes to say.

Pulled ashore   
Here the boats are pulled up on the muddy shore of Bullhead Slough, just north of the confluence with the Brazos, which can be seen in the background. We pulled up to this bank because the water got too shallow to continue upstream. Why was it too shallow?...

...Because there is a huge spillway located there which had reduced the water flow to just a trickle on the bottom side. This is one of the fanciest spillways I’ve seen in the Houston area. Paul and John hopped out of their boats for a short hike up the bank to examine this structure more closely, and to see what was on the other side.
The sides of the spillway were tall concrete walls, and the spillway was a concrete ramp. Fairly common features, so far. But then, embedded in the ramp were staggered rows of concrete obelisks, standing like giant dominoes.  The right picture shows the view from the top, looking down towards the Brazos.
Bullhead Slough      Dominos      View from the top
And finally, this is what Bullhead Slough looks like above the spillway (below, left). It’s a straight-as-an-arrow ditch, running alongside nice neighborhoods, and quite wide for a drainage ditch. It looks passable in a canoe, but the portage from below where our boats were parked would be brutal, and there are other access points above the spillway that would be easy, like that bridge in the distance. So we decided to defer to Mr. Murphy, abandon the Bullhead Slough plan for the day, and save it for another time.
 Paul becomes probably the first person in history to run Bullhead Slough Rapids! (below, right)
Beyond the spillway     Paul runs rapids
Brazos River   
We paddled back down to the Brazos, and "Plan B" was to head downstream for a couple of hours, and then turn around and paddle back. A "couple of hours" turned out to be a distance of about four miles. The scenery here was typical of the Brazos, with tree-lined banks, and mud, of course. There is no development along the banks once you leave the Hwy 59 area. Just woods and pastures.
There is always that strange feeling you get trying to figure out where you want to turn around on a meandering river. You always have the urge to see what's around the next corner. And when you do that, then you want to go to the next one. Heck, you could go all day like that. I joked that if we kept doing that, sooner or later the next bend would be Cancun. So it's always with some regret that you finally have to call it quits at some point, to turn around and go back, leaving that "next corner" unexplored.
We stopped at several gravel bars to rest along the way. Although we were going downstream and benefiting from the push of a small amount of current, we were also paddling into a headwind, which seemed to cancel-out that benefit. 
Petrified wood     Petrified bone
On the gravel bars, it was easy to find small pieces of petrified wood in various colors, and even some petrified bone. I also found a pottery fragment containing the maker’s mark, the research of which has lead to such an interesting story, that I have made that a separate article in this newsletter. See the story titled "One Man's Trash"
    Pipeline crossing
A few miles downriver there is a very fancy pipeline crossing the Brazos, built with steel cables like a suspension bridge. There are also horizontal guy wires, which splay out on both ends, presumably to dampen swaying in strong winds. And along both sides of the suspended pipeline are narrow little catwalks for maintenance workers. I’d hate to be the maintenance guy that has to walk across that like a circus high-wire performer.
We paddled downstream for about four miles, and finally turned around to head back. At first we presumed that going back upstream would be slower, since we would be fighting the current. However, that headwind that we experienced going downstream, had picked up speed, and it was now actually strong enough that if you sat and did nothing, the now-tailwind alone was strong enough to push us back upstream against the current. If only we had sails! We also played the river currents looking for the channels where the water was slowest. So we got lucky and paddling back wasn’t as difficult as anticipated. Mr. Murphy must have been napping.
At one point, a bald eagle was spotted flying overhead, with the distinctive white tail and white head.
Back at the take-out point where we started, great effort was expended getting through the mud and back up the hill to the trucks.
Fortunately, Paul had a watermelon on ice waiting for us, and it was a delicious treat for the end of the trip.
Paul & Dana       Group photo
Dana, Ken, Paul & John
Note that I look like a pig that’s been wallowing in mud, compared to the others. Dana had changed into a clean shirt and had water to wash his feet off - that’s good planning for a Brazos trip. Mostly I got so muddy because I made a short side trip that turned into a quagmire. You see, in the put-in cove, there is a noisy barge which is pumping water through a pipeline that is routed across an island in the middle of the river. I theorized that this barge might be pumping up the river bottom, which is full of fossils, and that wherever that pipeline ended up, there might be a treasure trove of prehistoric artifacts spewing out the other end. So I paddled across the cove to the island, and hopped out of my canoe with images of ancient fossil creatures dancing in my head like Christmas sugarplums. I immediately plunged down to my thighs in mud, and the sugarplums went "poof". I couldn’t get my feet out without losing my shoes, so then I had to lay on my belly and stick my arms down in my former leg holes before the mud closed in, and pull my shoes back out. Next, I had to squirm back to my boat on my arms and knees to maximize my surface area to keep from sinking into the mud again. Oh well, so much for that plan - Bah Humbug! That’s my muddy story. It turns out, the pipeline continues all the way across to the opposite riverbank, where it seems to be serving as an industrial water supply for something like a gravel pit.
As I headed to the park buildings to look for a garden hose with which to wash off, the rest of the gang drove off to scout a convenient access point for a future Bullhead Slough trip. 

The author, John Rich