Trip Report: Paddling Buffalo Bayou…

We had talked about this for a while.  I had heard, and confirmed, that the Houston REI rented out kayaks.  So, once I got a few extra bucks in my pocket, I made arrangements for us to rent a couple of kayaks from REI and paddle part of the Buffalo Bayou.

 

Twin kayaks on the Honda

They said it couldn’t be done…

The look on the face of the guy at REI who saw us pull up in a 2004 Honda Civic to pick up our kayaks was priceless.  With some help, we got them secured to the roof of the car.  He found the spectacle entertaining enough that he insisted on getting a picture.  The put-in for Section 5 of the Buffalo Bayou was less than a mile away so I was not all that worried about the kayaks.  We drove out of the parking lot of the Houston REI and up a side street through a beautiful neighborhood to Briar Bend Park.  Access to the Bayou at Briar Bend is behind the park.

Access was pretty easy, even toting heavy 10ft plastic recreational kayaks.  The beasts we rented were not like the sleek, light sport kayaks I’m used to.  These were the heavy, lumbering Old Town Vapor 10 kayaks.  Short, wide and made of heavy plastic, these boats were nearly 50lbs without any gear and made to take a beating.  I would consider them a pretty good beginners kayak, with a relatively flat bottom and very wide mid-section they were very stable.  I’m not sure if I could have tipped it over if I tried.

Buffalo Bayou kayaking

Our plan for the day had options: We initially thought we would paddle downstream from Section 4 (Briar Bend Park) to the put in for Section 5 (Woodway Memorial Park) and if it didn’t take too long we would just paddle back upstream to Briar Bend.  The Bayou is a pretty slow moving water way and paddling upstream would not be difficult.  Plus, we did not schedule a shuttle or plan for leaving a vehicle at a designated take-out.  Plan B was to drift on past Woodway Memorial on to the other side of Memorial Park and perhaps further if we kept up a fast pace.  We expected to be out for about 4 hours.  Without a shuttle, we had decided we’d just pull off the bayou wherever we wanted and grab a cab to take one of us back to our car while the other waited with the kayaks.

So, with options for the day, we carried our giant hogs down to the water and prepared ourselves for an afternoon of paddling.

LESSON ONE:

Always bring more food than you need.  We were running a little late that morning getting started, so we did not get the chance to run by the store to stock up on snacks for the afternoon.  I had packed water, almonds and a couple of apples.  Turns out almonds and a couple of apples are not enough food for a 5+ hour paddling trip.  Make sure to pack enough food and water to last longer than you anticipate being gone.

The put-in at Briar Bend is nice.  It’s tree covered and an easy walk to the water’s edge.  The Bayou is very narrow here so this is one of the few places with an actual riffle of fast moving water.  I set up Merelyn at the lower end of the rapid so she didn’t have to push-off in to a fast current and then set myself up a little higher (just for fun).  Once on the water, we got ourselves settled in to our boats and began our paddle trip.

The water on the Bayou is slow and murky, exactly what I expected from a Bayou.  It is definitely a leisurely paddling trip, we kept up a decent pace but it was still plenty slow enough to enjoy some of the more scenic turns.  Old growth trees, hanging their heavy, gnarled limbs over the water as if guarding the muddy shoreline.  Vines draping low as they weave between the tree branches added to the dense vegetation.  The Buffalo Bayou winds it’s way through the heart of Houston.  So, from time to time, the trees open up to reveal some building or another peaking through the greenery.  Much of the Bayou is adjacent to high-end private estates or golf communities so the architecture seen from the water can be impressive.

As we paddled along, learning how to handle the new boats, we started to see the signs of wildlife along the waterway.  Often, something would slip in to the murky water before we could get a good look at what it was.  But we did see snakes, turtles and fish as well as a variety of birds.

LESSON TWO:

Know the skill level of your party.  Little did I know, Merelyn had virtually no experience in a kayak.  I’ve seen her use the sit-on kayaks on trips to Mexico and she handles the paddle with confidence so I never suspected her lack of experience.  On most whitewater trips, I don’t assume anyone has experience unless I’ve paddled with them before.  I would normally run through a quick “how-to” and talk about fitting the kayak, posture, paddle grip and technique.  Along the way, once I realized she was struggling with certain parts of paddling, we did a quick lesson on steering, stopping, correcting, etc.  It’s important to know the skill level of your adventure partner and, if you are the one lacking experience in a particular skill, you should not feel embarrassed or afraid to ask for help.

We reached our first take-out option pretty quickly.  We stopped for a minute to discuss our options: paddle back, or keep on going?  Ultimately we chose to keep on going under the assumption that the next leg would take us about the same amount of time as Section 5.  We had a quick snack of some almonds and I ate one of the apples (Merelyn was afraid they were too old and not good anymore).  The next section proved to be much more technical than the first.  The path of the Bayou became more twisted and littered with debris.  Consequently, the water moved even slower forcing us to work harder.  We both had assumed that as we neared the Memorial Park area, there would be places where we could get out of the Bayou prematurely if we were getting tired…this was not the case.  The shoreline continued to be a thick, matted jungle of shrubs, vines and tree-limbs.  And where it wasn’t so heavily vegetated, the shore was either too steep to ascend or was private property and clearly not welcome to trespassers.

We paddled on.  The map we had picked up from REI showed the Bayou Paddle Trail and the areas where access was available.  However, the map was remarkably small and lacking in detail and many of the supposed access points were not marked.  Without knowing exactly how far we had to go, or how long it would take us, uncertainty began to weigh on my hungry companion (“almonds are NOT food”).  The Bayou was loosing it’s charm.  The shear volume of litter and trash that choke the waterway was disturbing to both of us.  Some parts were worse than others but it seems that the Bayou has been the personal dumping ground for the population of Houston.

LESSON THREE:

Know your equipment.  The ability to rent expensive equipment like rafts and kayaks is great, it grants you the opportunity to participate in an activity that you otherwise couldn’t afford.  The problem is, most times you are renting equipment you may have never used and may never use again.  In some cases, this can be a deadly problem.  Luckily, in our case, I had experience with several different styles of kayaks and once I knew there was an issue I could address it.  Again, don’t be afraid to ask about your equipment.  Let the outfitter know that you want them to walk you through the features of the equipment you are renting.  You’re paying to use it, get the most out of it by knowing what it can do.

Shortly before we came to the Hogg Bird Sanctuary, Merelyn and I stopped and she complained about not being able to find a comfortable position in the kayak.  It was wearing her down, constantly having to shift around to find a stable position.  This is when we realized that she had never found the foot braces.  They had been pushed so far forward by the last person to use the kayak that she didn’t even know they were there.  Once we adjusted them so that she could reach them, and fine tuned them until she was comfortable, everything changed.  Suddenly, she was comfortable in the kayak, had better posture and a stronger stroke.  She was re-energized and anxious to reach familiar ground.

We never did see the exit point at the Hogg Bird Sanctuary (beginning of Section 7) and looking at the map, decided we’d shoot for a take-out at Eleanor Tensley Park (just short of Section 8).  The Bayou straightens out after the Hogg Bird Sanctuary and we were able to make good time, especially with Merelyn’s new-found mastery of her kayak.  The cruised along at a good pace, the bayou opened up at the shore and we no longer felt “trapped”.  We pushed to a spot along Eleanor Tensley Park where we could pull the kayaks out and wash them off a little before dragging them, and our gear, up the hill to the parking lot.

LESSON FOUR:

Always have an exit strategy.  It’s always good to have a plan, and a backup plan.  But makes sure your plans are well thought out and you are prepared for them.  As much as “eh, we’ll figure it out when we get there” can make for a great story and adventure, it can also create pain, misery and resentment.  It’s best to have a clear, well designed plan for concluding your excursions.  One that everyone is informed about and agrees with.  

It was getting late, so I called a cab company (the only one in town) and put Plan B into action.  The answering service for the cab company hung up on me when I failed to find a physical street address for the park.  Turns out, this park has NO listed street address.  It has no address on any of the signage either, nor the website, nor the map.  This, as we were to find, makes the park invisible to cab drivers.  I looked up an address (not even sure it was a proper address) online for the park, but without the numbers displayed somewhere we were gonna have problems.  I finally convinced the dispatcher to send a cab our way.  I watched, who I believe was our cabby, drive by the park 3 times before I got a phone call from him angrily asking where I was.

I was berated, in broken English, for sending this guy on a wild-goose chase to an address that “does not exist!”.  I watched him drive by two more times while I had him on the phone and could not get him to understand that the giant green grassy area with the trees was THE PARK!  I finally waved down the irate cab driver who was crawling along the roadside, getting honked at and I’m sure receiving various unpleasant gestures, and had him pull in to the parking lot.  I sent poor Merelyn with this inconsolable, and incomprehensible,  man who would not stop insisting that the park did not exist.  As they left, I pulled the kayaks the rest of the way up the hill, into the shade, and crawled in to one (hammock style) to take a nap.

LESSON FIVE:

It’s all about attitude.  Even in some of the most stressful and crazy situations, laughter and calm sets everyone at ease.  Life is too serious to take seriously.  When things start to go wrong, they can be made worse by arguing, complaining and fighting with others about the situation.  Or, when things turn for the worse, you can accept it, go with the flow, have a sense of humor and unite to meet the challenge head on.  Cooler heads prevail.

Some time later, Merelyn arrived in her car.  She had brought food (hers was already consumed, I’m sure within seconds of it being passed through the drive-thru window).  She filled me in on the antics of the poor, distressed cab driver who clearly had signed on for more than he could handle that evening.  He really could not let go of the fact that the park address did not exist…it could also be that the address issue was the only thing Merelyn could understand between his thick accent, propensity for leaning on the horn and apparent inability to navigate traffic.

We loaded up our gear and strapped the kayaks to the top of the car again and headed home.  We ended the day sunburned, tired and hungry but we laughed all the way home (mostly at the cabby).  It was an adventure and, like all good adventures, it was more than we had bargained for.  In the end, we had a fun day together and a story to tell.  What else really matters?

Beach Camping in Galveston: A Happy Disaster…

“…But, it’s so small.”

I had barely pulled it out.  We hadn’t even had a chance to get it up yet.

“Is it supposed to be this small?  It doesn’t look like it’s going to be big enough.”

Talk about a bad way to start what is supposed to be a fun, romantic Valentine’s Weekend trip.  Merelyn had to work on Valentine’s Day so we had planned to go camping on the beach near Galveston the weekend before Valentine’s Day.  I had grabbed a few things from home and brought them to Texas for the trip.  She’s moved around so much the last few years that she didn’t really know where any of her camping gear actually was.

Preparing for the trip back in Phoenix, I had gone through my shelves of gear and looked for stuff I could take to Texas and, potentially, leave there for future use.  I knew we needed a stove, so I grabbed my spare JetBoil and packed it.  I also grabbed a small, unused tent from the bottom shelf and tossed it in the box with some other assorted items (including her new backpack and hydration system).

This is where the problems started (entirely MY fault).  I don’t know where this tent came from.  It has been sitting on the bottom shelf of my gear storage for years.  I’m not even exactly sure how long it’s been there.  I figured this made it the perfect candidate for a take-and-leave tent for a simple beach camping trip.  Also, for some reason, I never opened up my JetBoil before packing it.  I’m not sure what I was thinking.

The plan was to bring some basics out to the beach, build a fire and cook a nice dinner.  We were looking forward to enjoying a beautiful quiet sunset together and an evening under a big Texas night sky.  We would spend our Valentine’s Trip comfortably curled up together near the fire enjoying a quiet night alone.

The plan began unraveling early when I realized the JetBoil I brought was just the container…no stove.  And, apparently, you can’t buy  “just the stove” part of a JetBoil from retailers.  So our pre-trip trip to REI ended with us buying the Pocket Stove and a Kettle so we could actually have hot water.  Further complicating things is that neither one of us had a sleeping bag.  I didn’t bring one because I had expected she would have one we could share as a blanket.  Instead, we had to pack a bunch of blankets in hopes that it wouldn’t get too cold.  We still pushed forward with our plan, we made some food, brought some basic supplies and packed the car for an overnight trip.  Even with these stumbling blocks, we were still excited.

Merelyn on the beach...We got a late start the morning we left.  REI took longer than expected which pushed us even later.  Then traffic was stalled on the freeway due to a semi-truck getting itself wedged into the overpass (seriously, he was pinned between the upper and lower decks of the interchange!).  By the time we got to Galveston we were starving.  It was the weekend before Mardi-Gras and Galveston was buzzing with festivities.  Finding lunch and getting through Galveston took longer than expected and by the time we got to a piece of beach we could camp on it was almost sunset.

Not only was darkness approaching fast but it was windy…..damn windy.  Stupid windy.  Let’s-go-home-because-this-is-going-to-suck windy.

Pushing headlong into disaster, we found a place to park (you can drive and park on the beaches in Texas….weird), unpacked our stuff and as Merelyn bundled up and set off to capture some last minute pictures of the sunset I set to work building a fire.  Then we set up the tent…

“Why is it so small?  Are we both supposed to fit in that?”

WTF is this??  What the hell kind of second-rate, miniature, child-sized tent did I bring?  This was supposed to be a 3-person tent!  But unless your names were Grumpy, Dopey and Doc there was no way you’re squeezing 3 people into that tiny bubble of a tent!

“Is the air mattress even going to fit in that?”

Nope.  There’s no way in HELL the queen sized, inflatable mattress we brought is going to fit in that.  But I guess that won’t matter much since we also never charged the pump to blow up the air mattress!  So even when we crammed it into the tent, it got about half-full before the pump gave out.

We did our best with it though.  As I worked on building a solid fire, dug into the sand with a high wind-break around it, Merelyn built us a nest in the tiny little Hobbit-tent.  We folded the air mattress over on itself so even half-full it still gave us some cushion.  We piled sheets, blankets and extra clothing on top to give us as much insulation as we could muster.  Then we unpacked our food and cooked dinner as we sat in front of the fire.

Even with all our challenges, we were still in pretty good spirits and taking it all in good humor.  We had a fantastic dinner of fire-roasted vegetables and grilled-cheese sandwiches (see the post about the cooking iron).  Even as the wind picked up we ate, drank, laughed and had a great time together.

That night turned out to be a record mid-February low for Galveston.  Winds gusted up to 50 MPH.  Even using the car as a wind-break we still felt our minuscule shelter being buffeted about by the howling winds.  We slept off-and-on finding it difficult to get any real sleep in the wind and the cold.

But all of it – the record cold, the lack of blankets, the under-filled mattress, the ridiculously inadequate square-footage of the tent – in the end, added up to this: I got to spend my Valentine’s Trip outdoors, with my Dream Girl curled up in my arms next to me.  That (and some fantastic grilled-cheese) made this an amazing trip I will always remember.

Sunset at Galveston Beach Texas...

Gear Review: Pocket Stove and Ketalist…

On my most recent trip to Texas, my fiancé and I decided we’d like to go beach camping near Galveston.  I packed a few camping supplies I thought we’d need including an old tent I never use (another story) and one of my extra JetBoil cooking systems.  Once in Texas, we discovered that I only brought the cup portion of the JetBoil…not the stove.  Unfortunately, you can’t buy “just the stove” at retail stores and so we were stuck looking at alternatives for being able to cook.

So at the Houston REI, while I nervously debated buying a brand new JetBoil for the trip, Merelyn found the Original Pocket Stove from Esbit.  At only $10.50 (versus at least $100 for a new JetBoil) it sounded like a halfway decent idea.  For this trip, we really just needed a little something to boil water since we were going to cook our dinner over a campfire (see mini-review at the end of this post).  I, of course, jumped at the opportunity to try out a new piece of gear…especially inexpensive gear!  We bought the Pocket Stove for $10.50 and even though it comes with 6 fuel tabs, we bought an extra pack of solid fuel tabs for $6.25.  Total investment was well under $20 for a stove and 18 fuel tabs (supposedly enough to cook for 3 hours).

The Pocket Stove is basically a small, folding metal stand that will support a cooking receptacle about 1.5″ above the fuel tab.  There are two cooking positions depending on conditions and how focused you want the flame.  It weighs in at about 3.25 ounces without the fuel and, when closed, the stove stores up to 6 fuel tabs inside.  According to the box, the solid fuel works well at any elevation and boasts a boil time of 8 minutes in most conditions.  The REI website specs actually list average boil time at 14 minutes which is probably closer to the truth.

We also purchased the Halulite Ketalist nested kettle and cooking system for boiling our water over the Pocket Stove.  The Ketalist was $34.95 at the Houston REI and comes with a hard-anodized aluminum kettle, two small plastic bowls (one with an insulated sleeve and drinking lid) and a spork.  The total weight is about 11 ounces and is made for backpacking.  I would consider more of a car-camping product because of it’s size.

We set up camp on the beach outside of Galveston and, as it was incredibly windy, I dug out a firepit and built up a wall around it to try to block out some of the wind.  It worked well enough for me to be able to set up the Pocket Stove and light one of the fuel tabs.  I filled the kettle with about two cups of water and set it on the stove.  After 8 minutes, we still didn’t have boiling water.  After about 12 minutes the fuel tab had burned out and we still didn’t have boiling water.  I tested the water and it was plenty hot enough for cocoa, coffee or oatmeal but not boiling.  I wanted it to boil!  I lit another fuel tab and let it run it’s course.  We never did get the water to boil using the Pocket Stove.  I reasoned, after the fact, that if I were to burn two fuel tabs at once I could probably generate the heat I needed to get the water boiling but never had the chance to try it.

I was able to put the kettle on the campfire later that night and got the boiling water I wanted pretty quick.  The kettle worked well and was kind of nice to have.  The wind had really picked up and it had become pretty cold so I made some nice hot tea to take to bed with me.  All in all, I like the concept of the Pocket Stove…it’s a very simple design and it works, somewhat.  If I had limited space and time to wait for hot water, I’d use it again.  The Kettle will probably become a regular addition to our car camping trips, I just don’t see it going backpacking with me anytime soon.

BONUS REVIEW:

Camp Chef Cooking Iron

picture from REI website...

Car camping affords you many luxury items that would normally be too heavy, too big or too awkward to take backpacking.  Large comfortable tents (not something we had), blow up air mattress with powered pump, huge jugs of clean water, etc.  While we were at REI preparing for the trip we came across one such luxury item that we couldn’t pass up.  The Camp Chef Cooking Iron is a cast iron sandwich grilling contraption for making grilled cheese sandwiches (or any number of other things).  It folds open allowing you to put buttered bread on either side of the irons and then fill it with cheese, meat, veggies, etc.  Then carefully fold it back together, lock the arms in place and lay it over the campfire.  You will want to flip it a couple of times so it doesn’t burn one side of the sandwich, but the result is fantastic!!  We had some amazing grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner that night along with some vegetables we pre-marinated and wrapped in foil to toss into the fire.  The sandwiches were nice and crispy on the outside, but the bread was still soft inside and the cheese melted beautifully.  At $17, I would totally recommend grabbing a couple of these to toss into the car for your next outing….or just keep them for cooking in the back yard!