Well, the end of the annual Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count season has come at last, and not a moment too soon. I’m not sure how many more of those things I could have withstood. Bird counting, as practiced within my usual group is not for sissies.
I know Christmas Bird Counts conjure up the image of geezers in their L. L. Bean sweaters and parkas diligently scanning the skies and recording bird sightings on meticulously-kept data sheets, and ardent young environmentalists doing their bit for citizens’ science and this is in many cases, actually how it is. Those counts are the norm. I do not dislike the norm and it’s pretty pleasant, but sometimes I like my bird counts a bit more primeval.
This past Saturday I participated in the brand new San Jacinto Wilderness bird count in the area of Lake Houston, sort of northeast of Houston. This is definitely one of the more primeval ones. It was the test year for the count and I’d say it passed with flying colors. Other opinions may differ.
The plan proposed by the organizer had been very interesting. He wanted to have people on bicycles and people in canoes and kayaks count along a series of routes in Harris, Liberty and Montgomery counties. We were to count all day from 7:30 A.M. and then finish with a nice little gumbo dinner and social hour over at Lake Houston Park, starting at 6:30 P.M.
Of course my friends Marilyn and Steve and I were keen to do one of the water routes. We would do it with Marilyn and me paddling her 18-foot tandem canoe and Steve paddling his sea kayak. After doing a bit of aerial photography review, I determined that the most promising habitat was on Luce Bayou, between FM 321 and FM 2100. The other motive was to see this stretch of the bayou to help with comments on the Luce Bayou Inter Basin Transfer Project. This route scales about 17 miles on the maps, an easy 6 hours if you are poking along and counting birds. One would think.
Due to some map discrepancies, it took us a bit longer to get onto Luce Bayou, so our actual launch time was about 9:30. A quick glance at the current and the map’s total lack of public roads from our start to our finish told me that launching was a commitment to see it through. I considered this to be a real enhancement of the potential for adventure on the trip. Nothing makes one go forward like the inability to go back.
The trip started out uneventfully enough, for perhaps the first twenty yards. A that point, we hit our first major strainer and were forced to pick through it, killing bout a half hour. We then sped happily along the quickening current for perhaps another 45 yards before we foundered on a log jam, complete with a bloated feral hog. We managed to slam our way through that and continued paddling along what had now become a narrow, swampy, flooded bayou. We were ricocheting from tree to tree because there were not 18 straight feet in which to put the canoe.
After two hours, we consulted the GPS units to see how much progress we were making. According to the units, we were cranking along at about a half mile per hour. Why, that was almost a sixth of what we had planned! The bird count was beginning to look like something Marilyn and I had planned by ourselves.
Our next check revealed that for every 1.7 channel miles we traveled, we were only going one map mile. This is caused by the stream doubling back on itself within the mapped channel. It is not at all uncommon, but 1.7:1 is pretty extreme. It actually sort of sucked, at least as to rate of downstream progress.
The surroundings were beautiful though and the cypress became more frequent as we progressed. Bloated feral hog carcasses remained fairly common in the log jams and the water was quite rich with tannins, a sort of clear coca-cola brown, even in low sediment areas. I’m sure the hogs contributed their own essence to the mix.
Unfortunately, after about 3:00, I didn’t see quite as much as I would have liked, because my glasses and my hat got whacked off my head by a limb swinging past. I got my hat back, but the glasses are forever a part of Luce Bayou. I was pleased that my head remained attached and was doubly pleased that I had failed to pick up my new glasses from the eye doctor the previous Friday. All I needed to do to have my vision restored was get out of Luce Bayou alive and drop by her office on Monday. Steve didn’t see too well either, because he was awaiting cataract surgery. Marilyn, for the record, was 63 and had a bad shoulder. Such is the life of the outdoor geezer demographic.
Long about 6:30, with night descending and a rather perverse map that showed us many miles from out, getting off Luce bayou was determined to be a goal for another day. We paused and made phone calls to inform everyone that we were not in any danger but we would be missing the gumbo dinner. We found high ground on what turned out to be a little island, and made an impromptu and unplanned camp for the night.
It was one of those ultra light camps that are so trendy now days. Maybe we were even lighter, since we were not burdened with tents, sleeping gear, lights, food, or much of anything else. We did have an old table cloth, a space blanket, a couple of rain ponchos, some dry bags a couple of handfuls of trails mix, and a thermos of day old coffee. By the standards to the wilderness, it was really pretty darn cushy.
As you can see in the picture, there was a very nice log for a pillow and all the mosquitoes you could ever want. It was a pleasant January evening with temperatures in at least the mid 40s, but I suppose our conversation did run a bit heavily to gumbo and our lack of it. We also reminisced about all the handy things we used to carry and were thinking of carrying again. It only rained on us twice and not too hard either time. The space blanket (the first I had ever seen deployed in anger) was pretty good as a rain shelter. Note that the paddling boots are Marilyn’s. Steve’s feet are in the orange dry bag. I am represented by my hat.
By morning, we were still laughing and more or less able to move. We inadvertently blew the left over coffee all over our island, because we were unfamiliar with the little emergency stove Steve had brought. We settled for hot water without much in it and another heaping handful of trail mix. We were both sustained and stoked!
We traveled the next 13 miles of bayou, still replete with log jams, strainers, dead hogs, and in channel trees. We made it to our take out point by 1:00 PM. It took another two hours to get boats and cars back together, but by 5:00 P.M. Sunday evening, a mere 23 hours after the uneaten gumbo dinner, we were all home and passed out, dreaming of gumbo and log jams.
So now you know why I love bird counts. You get out in the cool crisp early winter weather, you get some great exercise, and depending on whether you get back in time for dinner, you may lose a few pounds. You may need a new set of friends now and then, but the ones who come back are worth keeping. Counts are on December 27 and 29, and January 1 and 5 this season. Sign up on the club website!!!