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HomeNL-2017-04 Mason Creek

Mason Creek
March 12, 2017
by John Rich

In the Star Trek television show, the mission of the star ship Enterprise crew was to explore strange new worlds and to boldly go where no man has gone before. Well, I'm no Capt. Jame T. Kirk, but I do like exploring strange new creeks, and boldly going where no canoeist has been known to go before. So, this trip report is another in my series of explorations to paddle west-side creeks that have not been known to be visited by canoeists.

  Mason Creek

Mason Creek runs west to east, south of Interstate-10, draining the western suburbs and emptying into Buffalo Bayou inside the Barker Reservoir.  It has, like many of Houston's creeks, been channelized to hurry the water flow along. The former natural meanders have been erased from the landscape. And it's easier to build subdivisions around a straight line than a crooked one. But once Mason Creek gets inside the flood plain of the Barker Reservoir, it has been left in it's natural state.  So I wanted to paddle the channel down into the woods inside the reservoir, and see what it looked like inside those deep, little-traveled woods.

Below are two aerial photos of Mason Creek. The black and white version is 40 years old, and shows the original meandering course of Mason Creek. The color image is from 2017 and shows how the original creek was replaced with that large, ugly, man-made straight-line ditch, punctuated with a curving arc. As well as the thousands of houses that have filled the prairie up to the edge of the flood reservoir.  "Progress"...

Mason Creek 1978 Mason Creek 2017

In my research, the main problem was an access point. There are almost no convenient public parking areas near the creek. Many of the subdivisions surrounding it are private gated communities, which consider outsiders as trespassers. Those that aren't closed communities, have the waterfront property all occupied by wall-to-wall private homes surrounded by fences, so there are still no public parks for access. To get to where a public road crosses the creek would require a very long portage of hundreds of yards from a public parking area. But I finally spied the solution: Stillhollow Road is a dead end road that skirts alongside a fenced subdivision, and it's only purpose seems to be to provide access to a water treatment facility on the bank of Mason Creek. And that gets you up to a water gully that flows about 200 yards from the dead end road out to Mason Creek. I scouted it by car, the road is public, and the gully has enough water to float a boat and paddle out to Mason Creek. So that was my plan!

Put-in location   Stillhollow Road
dead end at gully
  Put-in gully

For an interactive map of the area, click here. You can use this to navigate and explore the area yourself.

When parking at the end of the dead-end road, don't block the locked gate into the water treatment plant, don't block the gate leading to the greenbelt sidewalk, and don't block the fire hydrant. There's still plenty of room along the curb - mine was the only car there. A nice lady out walking with her son on the trail stopped to watch me get my boat ready. She was familiar with the trails in George Bush Park/Barker Reservoir, in which I also have been doing a lot of hiking. We had a nice chat. 

The put-in was easy, sliding the boat down the grassy bank to the gully water.  But the grass at the bottom was a little swampy, so I got my feet wet right away on this 52-degree morning. Into the boat and away I paddled. The gully channel is narrow and twisty, but could be maneuvered with my 15'8"-long canoe. It was shallow enough that it was easier to "pole" by pushing off the bottom with the paddle, rather than by pushing water. No turns were so tight that I couldn't get around the corners. 200-yards later I turned left and was into the straight and wide Mason Creek channel. 

Twisty gully   Mason Creek 

I paddled casually east on the channel, headed for the Barker reservoir.  At first you see nothing but a solid wall of cypress fences on both sides from houses, but as you enter the property line of the reservoir, you get wild woods instead. Four egrets circled overhead and squawked at me for disturbing their frog fishing. Sorry guys, I'm just passing through.

Click here for a Harris County Flood Control water gauge for this creek: Mason Creek @ Prince Creek Drive  The sensor location is about a mile upstream from my starting point. The water was 3 to 4 feet deep in the center of the channelized portion.  There are sand bars at the downstream end of the channelized section where the creek enters the woods, and it was only about a foot deep there. Once in the woods, water depth varies from 1 to 5 feet. If you're contemplating your own paddle trip on this creek, you can use the information given here for this water level, and compare it to your own current conditions, to get an idea of what your trip might be like. 

Water gauge

As you approach the entrance point to the reservoir, you see a horizon line across the creek, where there is a very low coffer dam spanning the width of the creek. The drop-off at this water level was all of about 2 inches. Woohoo! I thought there might be enough water surging over the top to paddle over it, but no such luck. I ground to a halt, backed off, and went to the concrete debris on river right, which I used as stepping stones to pull my boat over the corrugated steel plates to the other side, and hopped back inside the boat.

Waterfall   Horizon line   Coffer dam

Shortly after the dam, you enter the reservoir and the landscape changes. Instead of manicured banks, fences and walking paths, you enter natural wild woods crowding the creek on all sides. In a few places, the creek bank is collapsing into the water, and as an archeology buff, I can't resist checking out the soil profile: several layers of different colored sand, and then the cursed grey clay. Finally, you're back in time four decades to the natural meandering Mason Creek. And as nature will do, it throws a log jam at you now and then. This tree that has fallen across the creek has a trunk about 3 feet in diameter - way too big a problem to solve with a bow saw. And it had a large pile of unsightly trash piled up against it, from things that have washed downstream from the neighborhoods. Give up? Heck no! It was quick and easy to go to ground, pull the boat around the root ball of the giant tree, and get back in on the other side.

Soil profile   Log jam front Log jam back

Past the log jam, the real fun begins, leaving behind the modern day, and entering the woods in their natural state the way they have been for thousands of years. There were spots with nice white sand bars, and yellow flowers were in abundance in the woods.

But there's still plenty of trash washed in from upstream. I spotted one small soft drink cooler stuck on a snag in the water. I turned my paddle around backwards and used the handle like to hook to snag the handle strap and reel it in like a fish. I felt something inside. Unzipping it, I found I had scored two coozies, two cigarette lighters, and a bottle opener. 

Yellow flowers   Treasure chest   Abandoned boat

Continuing downstream, I zig-zagged around minor obstacles, and passed an abandoned boat, turned upside down. Shortly after that reference point, you reach the intersection of Mason Creek with Buffalo Bayou. This area is quite swampy, and reminded me of Champion Lake, with water everywhere around the trees. There is also an old oxbow there, so there appears to be three different channels that look like they could be Mason Creek. So the intersection is not real obvious. Coming back, remember to look for that abandoned boat to know where to turn back into Mason Creek. Or take some surveyor's tape, and hang some orange ribbon from a tree limb as a marker. Otherwise, you could easily miss it and get lost among the trees and old oxbows.

I paddled about a mile downstream on Buffalo Bayou, and wished I could keep going, but the current was getting swifter, and I started to worry about my ability to paddle back upstream against it. So, reluctantly, I turned around and headed back.

I went past the Mason Creek junction, and continued upstream on Buffalo Bayou. There were more small trees downed in the water, but I could always get around them. I only had to step out onto the bank once to maneuver my 15'8" boat through a 14'8" turn. After going two-thirds of a mile in the upstream direction, I came to something I recognized - the elevated pedestrian bridge over Buffalo Bayou from the popular hike/bike trail in George Bush Park. Just beyond that is the intersection with the T103 Canal, which I have my sights on for another paddle opportunity. It would be interesting some day to continue upstream on Buffalo Bayou from there, and see if you could make it all the way to where the fishermen hang out at the Westheimer Parkway crossing. But not today.

Pedestrian bridge

I headed back downstream, paddling easy now with the current, looking for Mason Creek again. The first left turn I made turned out to be an oxbow, and I doubled back. It didn't look familiar, but sometimes things look different coming back, than they do going up. The second left turn also looked like the creek, but turned out to be the other end of the same oxbow. The water was only about a foot deep here, and I surprised some large creature under the surface. There was a very sudden and loud "THUMP" against the side of my hull. My first startled thought was that someone had thrown a log at me - it was that loud. But looking around, there was no one else present. Then I quickly realized it must have been a large gar. He probably was quite surprised by the large red monster gliding towards him on the surface, and gave a mighty flip of his tail to escape what to him probably seemed like certain death, and smacked his tail against the side of my boat. All I heard was the loud thump, and all I saw was a big splash of water. I never did see the gar, though. After following this oxbow for a hundred yards, I realized it too was still not Mason Creek. I paddled carefully back through the lair of the giant gar to Buffalo Bayou. Downstream just a little further was another channel on the left, and there was the abandoned boat, so I knew I had the correct channel this time.

Mason Creek & Buffalo
Bayou junction

The return trip from here was uneventful. I paddled back upstream on Mason Creek, went around the log jam again, and stopped to rest there. There was a strong odor of onions, which I investigated, and found I was in a field full of wild onion plants. I pulled one up and smelled the tuber to confirm my hunch. Yep, onions. And then washed it off and tasted it to see how strong they were. Very!

Onion field Wild onion Onion plucker

Then I was out of the reservoir, and up the channelized Mason Creek. I went past the gully up to Fry Road, just for the heck of it. There always seems to be a lot of concrete debris underneath bridges. There are drainage culverts emptying into the creek that are big enough to swallow a canoe and paddler. Curious dog-walkers and bicyclists along the creek-side trails stopped to gawk at the nut in the red canoe in the ditch. Then it was back to the gully, and to the take-out spot. A bicyclist had stopped to watch me, and volunteered to give me a hand carrying the canoe up the bank to my truck. Offer accepted! He said he had read the book about the LH7 Ranch which used to own all the land in that area, and I have read that book myself. So I had another unexpected and pleasant conversation. It's always nice to find people who appreciate nature and history.

Creek bank flora   Canoe-swallowing
Fry Road bridge

Total distance was about 7 miles. I loaded up the boat, and treated myself to a milkshake on the way home. This is an interesting paddle. The channelized portion of Mason Creek is somewhat boring, but once you enter the woods, it's as wild as any bayou in Houston. I'd do it again.

Paddle route

The author, John Rich