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HomeNL-2017-05 T-103 Canal

T103 Canal to Buffalo Bayou
April 9, 2017
by John Rich

As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch
 for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas,
 and land on barbarous coasts.
” 
- Herman Melville, "Moby-Dick"

This trip report is another in my series on paddling west Houston creeks which have not been known to be visited before in canoes or kayaks.

The T103 Canal is a man-made drainage ditch that channels water from Katy neighborhoods into Buffalo Bayou to its east. The canal itself looks boring; straight, wide, shallow, no challenges. But it's a means to an end, a portal to a section of Buffalo Bayou that runs wild and unaltered in its natural state through the woods of George Bush Park. And that's the reason for paddling the T103.

In my planning, I once again encountered problems finding an access point. The canal is surrounded by fenced neighborhoods which provide no public access. But I found a greenbelt utility right of way from South Fry Road which gets you there. This dirt road goes alongside the canal, down to the point where the canal enters George Bush Park. All you have to do is pick your water entry point along that dirt road. The next problem is that the banks are somewhat high and steep, which would make canoe entry difficult. And that problem is solved by making your entry at one of the side culverts which have gently sloping banks going right down to the water level.



 
Location map   Put-in map   Paddle route
1944 view


Click Here for the Google Maps aerial view of the paddle area, where you can zoom and pan to explore for yourself.

I've included an aerial view of the area from 1944, above. Westheimer Road had not yet been extended through the area. And the trail you see where the T103 Canal is now, is the old trace of the Texas Western narrow gauge railroad (1872-1884) that ran from downtown Houston to Sealy. You can still see the slightly raised rail bed running through the woods when hiking the area in George Bush Park. The next aerial photo in time on Google Earth is 1978 and the T103 already exists at that point. So it was excavated sometime between 1944 and 1978, following alongside the old railroad.

The weather forecast was for clear skies and a high of 81-degrees. Nice! But... winds were going to pick up to 18 mph from the SSW. So a morning start was in order to avoid paddling into that strong headwind on the T103. Once in the woods, the forest would shield me from the wind. And then on the return trip, the wind would be at my back and work with me to lessen my effort getting back to the exit point. That was the plan, and by some miracle, it actually worked out exactly as hoped. That doesn't seem to happen very often for me.

There is no water gauge available for the T103 Canal; not from the USGS, not NOAA, not Harris County Flood Control District, nothing. So there doesn't seem to be a way to remotely check the water level. You've just got to drive there and look at it. Oh the horror! The nearest water gauges which should give reliable identical conditions are Mason Creek @ Prince Creek Drive and Buffalo Bayou @ Peek Road. Whatever is happening at those locations, will also be happening in the T103. Select the Stream Elevation view tab, and change the time period ("Last") from 24 hours to something longer, like a month. 

The side culvert locations have concrete debris dumped onto the bottom to prevent erosion where the water spills into the canal. And some of those chunks are what I call "wobblers", because they look solid but when you step on them they tilt, threatening to make you fall. So watch your step. They could also have some sharp edges if you have a delicate boat.

From a culvert entry point, you first pass under an old wood bridge at the park boundary, that looks like it was once used for vehicle crossings. But you don't want to try and drive on it now - it's old and rotten, but safe for foot traffic. And just beyond that bridge is a modern steel bridge used for pedestrian and bicycle traffic on the popular trail in George Bush Park, just north of the soccer fields. From there, the T103 is a straight-as-an-arrow line east to Buffalo Bayou.

     
Put-in location   Entry point   Two bridges ahead

The T103 varies in depth from about 1 to 2 feet. The water is surprisingly clear and you can see small fish darting about on the bottom, and the wiggly trails left by apple snails crawling across the bottom. I seemed to be quite a novelty on the canal, as people were stopping to watch and take pictures of me. The friendly ones waved.

At the east end as you approach Buffalo Bayou there are sand bars, some sticking up out of the water, others just below the surface, and it was very shallow water all the way across the width. The water level was as shallow as just a few inches, and there was no deeper channel to be followed. You switch from paddling to poling here, as the paddle can't be thrust deep enough in the water to paddle. As my hull bumped against the bottom, I had to step out of the boat and walk it about 100 yards across the shallows. It was easy going though, because once I exited the boat, it floated nicely by itself without dragging. So it was just like walking a well-trained dog. As you get close to Buffalo Bayou, the water turns deep again and you can hop back aboard the boat and paddle.

Off in the distance you can hear the faint popping sound of gunfire from the American Shooting Center further east in the park. Not to worry, though, as the range is not pointed in this direction. But you can use that sound as a reference to keep yourself oriented if you feel like you're getting lost in the woods.


   
Side culvert   T103 Canal   Sand bars

After the T103 sand bars, you're at the junction with Buffalo Bayou. Upstream is a right turn, and downstream is a left turn. I've already seen the side going left on my Mason Creek trip, so this time I went upstream to the right. Ahh, this was a nice creek; isolated, through beautiful woods. The water here was usually 3 to 5 feet deep.

But, the paddle was not to be easy. I encountered three different log jams over the next mile, each one requiring portage around the fallen tree. I had my bow saw with me, but all of these trees were too big for a hand saw, with no option of cutting through just a few limbs to open a path. The first jam had a water level mud bar for exit and re-entry - messy but easy. The second had about a five-foot bank of semi-slippery dirt, but by stomping my foot down I could impress a flat spot to make a stable step, and I progressed sideways like a crab uphill. And the third jam had an 8-foot high bank with no easy escape options. On that one I chose a spot where a lot of tree roots were exposed from the creek bank by erosion, and used the horizontal roots like rungs on a ladder to get up the bank. Then I dragged my 80-lb boat up behind me. Ugh. Upon reaching the top, I scouted ahead on foot to find the best re-entry point, and returned to drag my boat the short distance through the woods to get there. I wondered how many more log jams there might be, and at what point I would say; "to heck with it", and give up. But I was determined to reach my goal of Westheimer Parkway.

     
Buffalo Bayou   Log jam 1   Log jam 2   Log jam 3 


Just a note here. I secure all my gear to the boat, by attaching it to thwarts or tie-down loops. This was convenient for dragging the boat up steep banks, as it kept the gear in place while the boat was tilted at steep angles. If the gear was just laying inside loose, it would all slide downhill and likely tumble out and fall into the water, where you would then either lose it or have to go swimming to retrieve it. So, either secure it, or otherwise you'll have to unload it all up the bank before pulling the boat up.

At one point there was a very loud and sustained splashing in the water behind me. I turned around, alarmed, and looked, but could not see the cause of the splashing. Perhaps this was the rumored alligator I had been hearing about. He is reported to be anywhere from 3-feet to 12-feet long. But he didn't seem to be after me, and I moved on. Quickly.

There was not a lot of wildlife. The T103 had egrets of several types, but I saw no birds back in the woods. There were tracks of deer. Turtles perched on logs. Fish jumped. And I chased a garter snake through the woods, but he won.

Besides the three log jams, there were other more normal hazards. There was plenty of tree debris in the water creating snags, which required deft control to weave through the maze. There was also another tree which had fallen across the bayou, but fortunately that tree was three feet shorter in height than the bayou was wide, and I squeezed through the small gap.  

One of the portages was through a field of wild onions, and as I dragged the boat over the plants, it released the pungent odor of onions into the air.

       
Steep bank   Snags ahead   Tight squeeze   Onion field

As I continued down the bayou, the sound of cars passing by on Westheimer grew louder, and fishermen started to appear along the banks, one with a very nice catfish. Upon reaching Westheimer I paused under the bridge to rest, to celebrate reaching my goal, and relieved that there weren't any more log jams to be crossed.


   
Fishermen   Westheimer bridge   In the woods

I reversed direction and started back going downstream now, but there wasn't enough current for it to make any difference in speed. I did have to cross the three log jams again, but it seemed easier this time. I crossed alligator alley without seeing the big splashes this time. And before I knew it, I was back at the T103, walked the boat over the sandbars, and paddled back to the truck. Done.

I have scratched the itch to see that remote stretch of Buffalo Bayou, paddled the forbidden T103, portaged the tortuous creek banks, and was not taken down by Moby Gator. The T103 canal has been conquered! Captain Ahab would be appreciative.


The author, John Rich