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HomeNL-2017-07 Buffalo Bayou

Buffalo Bayou
May 28, 2017
by John Rich

This paddling trip was a continuation of my quest to paddle different little-explored sections of west Houston waterways. For this trip, I paddled on Buffalo Bayou in George Bush Park, starting at the Westheimer Road bridge crossing, and paddling upstream to the west to Fry Road. The Google maps link is here. There was almost no current this day, so going upstream was easy-peasy.

This section has what I'll call the "south fork" which was added for some reason in the past (see the maps, below). This man-made channel branches off of Buffalo Bayou at Peek Road, runs parallel to the natural Buffalo Bayou to the south, and then re-joins Buffalo Bayou again just south of Westheimer Road. I have no idea what the purpose of this secondary loop channel is, but there must be some water drainage benefit, perhaps to hurry run-off from the housing areas down into the reservoir. Historic aerial photos show that the south fork channel didn't exist in 1978, and that it was added sometime between 1978 and 1989. This is well after the creation of the Barker Reservoir in the 1940's.

I had planned to paddle west up Buffalo Bayou to the intersection with that south fork at Peek Road, and then make my return to the starting point paddling downstream on that south branch, creating a giant loop route. However, upon nearing Fry Road the bayou ran out of water, becoming only a few inches deep, and I could proceed no further. So I never made it to the upper end of that south fork, and just doubled-back on Buffalo Bayou for my return route. 

Location    Float plan   Paddle route   1978 aerial view

The put-in I used at the Westheimer bridge crossing is a popular spot for fishermen. You'll see cars parked there, and the fishermen disperse along the banks in the woods to spend the day angling for large catfish. This is not a great spot for putting a canoe in the water, though. The banks are about six feet high and steep. The best spot I found was under the bridge, and that was very slippery shoe-sucking mud. So I started the trip right away with a muddy mess inside the boat. After getting in the boat and in the water, I took my shoes off and rinsed them in the water over the side of the boat, then used my bailing sponge to clean up the mud on the deck. After getting my boat back into ship-shape clean condition, I was off paddling.

Westheimer put-in   Buffalo Bayou

The first part of this section meanders nicely through natural woods with some overhanging trees. There are just a few snags from downed trees to zig-zag around, but otherwise it is obstruction free. The first landmark you see is a pipeline that dangles unsupported across the creek with a big droop. The pipe is well overhead though, and does not present a problem. Shortly after that, you pass under an old concrete road bridge, which may be a vestige of the days when this area was an oil field area. It currently connects to no roads on either side - it's just a bridge in the middle of nowhere, now a popular fishing spot. Don't run into the fishing lines dangling over the side as you pass underneath. Nearby, there is what appears to be an old concrete post street marker at the top of the bank, with "Runklan" or "Runklane" on it. But I can find no reference to any former street by that name in this area. And following that, you come to the fork in the creek which is the convergence of the south fork back into the natural bayou. I decided to go right, up the natural bayou.

Pipeline crossing   Old road bridge   Runklane?   Fork convergence

The bends in the creek along this stretch are lined with concrete on the banks to prevent erosion by water flowing around the outside of the curves. Otherwise, the banks are "natural". I put that in quotes because they've been straightened, widened and shaped by man, but generally follow the original path of Buffalo Bayou.

It was in this area, just upstream from the south fork convergence, that a man riding an ATV pulled up alongside me at the top of the bank and stopped to chat. He was wearing a tan uniform with patches on it, so he was probably a park ranger or game warden. He warned me of a 14-foot gator that lives in a pond in the woods near there, and sometimes comes into the bayou. He says he has videos of him on a game camera. So I took this as a credible source of info, and kept a sharp eye out, but spied no alligator.

Next up is a nice steel bridge that serves as a cross-over for a pedestrian and bicycle trail that comes from the west along the south bank, and then crosses the bayou here to the north side, where the bike path turns north through the woods and heads towards the baseball and soccer fields in George Bush Park. I'll be back with my bicycle some day soon to check this path out on two wheels. One bicyclist atop the bridge engaged me in conversation as I passed underneath, which ended up lasting about 20 minutes. He was thinking of buying a canoe, so he was asking for a lot of advice, and he had done some research and asked intelligent questions, about things like rocker, keels and different construction materials. I encouraged him, and added the idea of how it opens up many new recreational opportunities and the ability to go places and see things you can't otherwise get to. Who knows?  Maybe he'll become a future paddler.

After the pedestrian bridge you start getting to the western edge of the park/reservoir and into the housing subdivisions, so homes start to line the banks of the bayou. Now you have to worry about the delicate problem of how to pee without being seen by someone looking out their window!  So get that done before you reach this point, and if you go in the woods, watch out for that gator...

Concrete banks   Walk/bike bridge   Neighborhood

At the same time as you reach the neighborhoods, a lot of sand bars start popping out of the surface of the water. You can weave between them in a deeper channel for a while, but eventually the water becomes very shallow, only a few inches deep, and you can paddle no more. Determined to at least reach Fry Road, I exited the boat and waded several hundred yards upstream to the Fry Road bridge, pulling the boat behind me by my bow line. It floats nicely on the shallow water as long as I am not in it, the rascal. I'm just excess baggage. I took a break in the shade underneath the bridge, feeling like a troll.

Subdivisions have their own MUDs, or Municipal Utility Districts, which do wastewater treatment, conveniently located along waterways. And like everywhere else in Houston, those MUD's are gushing their treated wastewater into whatever waterways are nearby, in this case, Buffalo Bayou. It looks clean, but I sure wouldn't drink it.

The nearest water gauge for this part of Buffalo Bayou is one mile upstream at Peek Road. Click that link, then the "stream elevation" tab, and you can see that the bottom of the stream is shown as 87 feet elevation, and the current water level was 90 feet elevation. So there should be 3-feet of water here, right? Nope! That water gauge must be sitting in a hole in the creek bottom. Three feet on that gauge equals about 3 inches at Fry Road. That's a lesson for you about trusting water gauge readings. After my paddle trip, I drove down to where a road crosses that south fork to see what the water level looked like - and as you can see in the photo below, it was completely dry, except for a tiny rivulet down the middle. There is certainly going to be no paddling there. But even if I had reconnoitered that by road first and noticed the empty condition, I still would have made this trip, as the section running through the Barker Reservoir was worth it on its own; scenic, isolated and somewhat wild.

Shallows   S. Fry Rd.   Water gauge   South Fork

Peek Road water gauge    Gauge signs   Gauge orifice line

After my troll-rest under the bridge, the downstream return trip was a reverse of the upstream, and uneventful.

There was not a lot of wildlife to be seen. A few fish jumped. A few birds, mostly egrets, small and large, and herons, small and large. Gatorzilla probably controls the feral hog population. 

The take-out back at the Westheimer bridge was a bit difficult. It's a real balancing act to have one foot in a wiggly boat and the other on slippery mud, but I managed to stay upright. Every footstep wanted to slide me into the water, but I could wiggle my feet while pushing down firmly to make an indentation in the mud to give myself firmer footsteps. I made it to high dry ground without giving the fishermen extra entertainment. And then I dragged the 80-lb boat up behind me by the bow line, tipping it up over the edge of the steep bank onto the top like a see-saw. Muscles were required.

From there, I loaded the boat back on top of the car, under the stares of passing motorists. I like to think they were envious, but most likely they just think I'm crazy. But then, non-crazy people don't get to experience the joys of doing things that few others dare. If staying at home or going to the mall is what's sane, then I'd rather be crazy. I took off my muddy shoes to spare the carpet, and drove home barefoot, stopping for a giant milkshake along the way. Part of my trip planning needs to include finding nearby Dairy Queen's for large butterscotch milkshakes.

The distance was 3.1 miles upstream to Fry Road, for 6.2 miles round trip.

Another section of Buffalo Bayou has been explored by this crazy troll.

The author, John Rich