Starting Local: Buffalo Bayou Trip Report

Starting Local: Buffalo Bayou Trip Report

People paddle different rivers for different reasons. Some rivers offer scenery that can’t be beaten. Some rivers draw people in with their whitewater playgrounds and adrenaline packed channels while others use their slow current based honey holes stocked with elusive smallmouth bass to tease paddlesport anglers into another trip. Long or short, wide or narrow, flowing or stagnant, lively or seemingly dead, most rivers have something to offer paddlers looking for that rush, that high, that escape.

While I’m sure it was there, I couldn’t find that romantic attraction I look for in rivers while planning the Buffalo Bayou trip.

Buffalo Bayou is my McDonalds. Buffalo Bayou is close, cheap, readily available, and good enough to get the job done when you are running short on time. It looked close enough to the real thing, but I was sure I would be overwhelmed by a feeling of dissatisfaction halfway through…soon followed by a sense of gross disappointment when I finished.

It is listed on the TWPD Paddling Trails as one of the most scenic routes in Houston, providing great views of architecture, nature, and downtown. Let’s be real though. Buffalo Bayou is drainage water impounded and released by a couple of Houston dams – Addicks and Barker. While it used to be a more natural outlet of flood prevention, it is now more of an eyesore that conservationists are working hard to revitalize. It’s Crayola Rusted Tin Brown water is fed predominately by sewage treatment plants, surface runoff from streets, parking lots, and highways, and several significant tributary bayous drawing water in similar fashions. Toss in a natural spring or two and you get the gist, right?

This real life McDonalds Double Cheeseburger of a river – not the one on the commercials but the one that you get late night 4 hours after it was originally cooked – wasn’t everything we wanted our first distance training run for the Texas Water Safari to be. But the river was ours. For the next however many hours it took, we were on a mission: paddle hard, finish fast, and get some idea of a good pace.

After all, 260 miles in 4 days is a daunting task to train for. We needed to start. We needed to start fast, and we needed to start wherever we could.

Instant Feedback

As you can tell by the tone in my voice, the general feelings of disappointment in the river, and the overconfidence I had in our paddling skills, we were not threatened by the river. That quickly changed.

After unloading gear, rigging our accessories, and sliding down the prickly burr and broken beer bottle infested launch, we heard some action in the water about 100 yards downriver. With nothing to lose, we walked down under the Eldridge overpass and saw one heck of a drop-off.

This is the kind of drop off that drainage pipes are built around, not rapids meant for paddling.

Here is how the scouting conversation went:


“Hmmm, well… What do you think?”

“I think we can do it.”

“Ok. How?”

“Dude. We can do it. Let just power through the middle as hard as we can. It’s freakin’ Buffalo Bayou, man. It’s not Niagara Falls…”

No longer than 90 seconds from our launch were we swimming in this rusted tin colored pool of Houston drainage with an overturned canoe, soaked dry bag, and a cooler heading downriver like it was trying to qualify for the prelims in the 200-meter backstroke.

Note to self – You are not indestructible. Learn to scout rapids, drops, dams, and anything else that can ever get you into this situation ever again. Ps – Respect the river or this ‘karmic can of Mother Nature’s whoop ass’ is going to keep opening up on you.

Third Quarter Comeback, Fourth Quarter Miracle

After our slow start, we didn’t exactly figure it out and start pushing water. The first 6 miles was filled with downed trees across the river. These weren’t little logs. These were trees six to ten feet in circumference – spaced roughly one every 200 yards – blocking the entire river. Not only are these logs hurting our time, but they are also crushing our enthusiasm. Only 3 miles into a 26-mile trip – already soaking wet and smelling like parking lot runoff water – is a little early to start having emotional outbursts and second guesses on ever making it to the second car of the shuttle.

After portaging around the first couple downed trees, we learned a valuable lesson: Less is more. Unless you really need it, leave it at home because if you bring it you have to paddle it, pull it, lift it, or slide it all the way to the finish.

Portaging is hard work. We leaned on our evolutionary survival skills to find another way to get around the downed trees without blowing out our backs carrying a canoe, an excess of soaked gear, and an overloaded cooler up, down, and around the muddy litter covered banks. Portaging quickly turned to an acrobatic combination of squeezing under and/or hauling over these roadblocks.

About 6 miles in, the trees cleared. We were back on track. It was time to make up some lost time and get in any rhythm. We needed the kind of rhythm that is going to push somewhere over 4.5 miles per hour. If we kept the rough 1-2 mile per hour pace the trees were holding us at, we wouldn’t finish til lunch time…tomorrow.

To our surprise, we found that rhythm like it was posted on the side of a milk carton. With a newly learned J-Stroke – thanks, Dad – and a keen eye for staying in the surprisingly quick current, we kept a sharp pace for the following 15 miles. The next thing we knew, we crossed under the 610 bridge and our take out point – downtown Houston – was only two hours away from us.

A Perspective You Don’t See Everyday

Maybe I was too harsh earlier. I wasn’t wrong, but it is possible I was too harsh on the river. Even my quick, easy, convenience meal, McDonalds gets the job done sometimes. Not only does it get the job done, sometimes – just sometimes – it tastes pretty damn good. Sometimes it’s good to have that McDonalds experience. It gives you a taste of something you would have never cooked yourself, something you would have never ordered at a nicer restaurant, something so simple that you started to take it for granted.

Listen, the river was filled with shopping carts, old hubcaps, and the signature dumped refrigerator. I am not trying to convince you that it wasn’t.

But, man, there was a stretch at the end, about two miles long, that featured a consistent worms-eye view of downtown Houston that’s beauty paralleled any sandstone cut bank, central Texas bald eagle, or small family of rapids that I’ve seen in my paddling experience.

I’m not going to overdramatize the beauty and elegance of the bayou abused by its cruel foster parents – the booming city of Houston – like my serial optimist tendencies are pushing me to do. Or maybe I will…

The city that has used every resource the bayou has had to offer since 1830 then suddenly turned around and began using it’s once prized possession as a big trash can. The city now stood towering over it’s beat up, run down, and littered creator.

The view, the paddle, and the history gave us a new perspective on the city, the river, and the sport – a perspective we don’t see every day. A perspective that we have never seen before in our 20+ years living in the city. A perspective most wouldn’t care for, but it was a perspective I have no doubt that we will see again soon.

Distance: 26.0 Miles | Time: 7 hours | Average MPH: 3.7 MPH | Canoe: Wenonah Aurora 16′ Tandem


canoeing, trip reports

Mark Vlaskamp

After four years as Marketing Director for Yak Gear, Mark now partners with creative outdoor brands and pursues the gray area between freelancing and (f)unemployment. Currently, he is floating between Austin and Houston, TX - still searching for new water, cool people, and cheap beer.

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A Long Portage:

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