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Canoeing and Kayaking Houston Waterways
By Natalie H. Wiest
Texas A&M University PressCopyright © 2012 Natalie Wiest
All rights reserved.
East Bay, Eastern Trinity Bay, and the Neches-Trinity Coastal Basin
Bolivar Peninsula, a narrow strip of land between the East (Galveston) Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, is 27 miles long and at its widest spot only 3 miles wide. It is reached by land only through Chambers County and, on the southwest, via the Bolivar ferry from Galveston Island. From the peninsula you can access the waters of both the bay and Gulf of Mexico. All paddling routes are exposed to wind, weather, current, and tides.
The peninsula took a terrific hit from Hurricane Ike in September 2008. Many homes were completely destroyed to their foundations, beach erosion was severe, and property loss was immense. The Texas General Land Office's Texas Beach and Bay Access Guide and many of the fishing maps of the area were excellent before the storm at locating places to put a boat in the water. All of these access points should be double checked for availability post-Ike.
Three trips that may be of interest are putting in from the beach next to the ferry landing and paddling the bay side of the peninsula, or the ICW, to Stingaree Marina (and having a fried seafood dinner to reward your paddling effort); from Stingaree Marina to Rollover Pass; and from Rollover Pass across the bay to Oyster Bayou and back. From here you will find the bayside pretty much unspoiled by human habitation with some lovely sand beaches all to yourself and the occasional fishers.
East Bay is bounded to the south by Bolivar Peninsula and tapers to the east to East Bay Bayou. The ICW parallels the bay's northern shore. Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is on the northeastern part of the bay.
East Bay Bayou
East Bay Bayou can be accessed from TX 124 boat ramp on the east, and from the ANWR on its East Bay Bayou Tract. This access has a gated entrance road, with limited hours, usually dawn to dusk. Check with the office (409-267-3337) to make sure you don't get locked in and to see if it is currently open. To get to this tract, travel east on FM 1985 past the entrance of the ANWR for another 4 miles and look for the right-hand turn. You will have two choices of places to put a boat in the water: the first right turn off the access road or another half mile farther where the restrooms and public boat launch are located.
East Bay Bayou is draped with live oaks close to the put-in. Oaks give way to open coastal prairie and wetlands closer to the bay. This is pretty much an out-and-back trip unless you want to try making it a 10-mile excursion that includes connecting to the ICW and following it east to 124.
Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge
Directions. To get to the main refuge from I-10 East, take Exit 812 (TX 61, Anahuac/Hankamer). Head south on 61 for nearly 4 miles to the stop sign (1 mile past the new visitor center). Continue straight across the intersection. The road becomes FM 562. Continue for approximately 8.5 miles to the fork in the road at FM 1985. At the fork, turn left on FM 1985 and continue for an additional 4 miles to the main entrance of the refuge. Turn right on the easement road for another 3 miles. Past the on-site visitor center; the second road to the right goes to the Bay Boat Ramp and Overlook (marked Boat Launch on the map). A brand-new visitor center with signage from I-10 is actually on TX 563 (not 562), only 3 miles south of I-10.
For purposes of this discourse on canoeing and kayaking, I won't go into a detailed description of ANWR, but I encourage you to visit with or without a boat to enjoy one of the best bird-watching areas in the world. Winter avian residents are spectacular for their numbers and variety. Ducks and geese abound. Warmer seasons give the alligators a chance to show off; spring and fall migrations are spectacular for longdistance fliers. There is a brand-new visitor center just off TX 61 about 3 miles south of I-10 (not on the refuge grounds proper). There are wonderful displays, a walking path to Lake Anahuac, and knowledgeable staff to orient you to the area.
Paddling is not allowed on the ponds of the refuge, but there are several access points from the refuge to good paddling destinations. The refuge, its roads, and facilities were severely impacted by Ike. Boat ramps may be accessed, but bay patterns and even the form of the land have changed significantly. Do not count on drinking water being available on the refuge.
Directions. To get to Oyster Bayou, take the first left turn beyond the entry pond and walkway within ANWR. There is a boat ramp on the canal to Oyster Bayou. From that access point, it is an 8- or 10-mile paddle one way to the southernmost tip of ANWR. The bayou itself is large and well defined, but by all means carry a good map and compass when you paddle here; and remember that if you paddle 10 miles downstream, you have to turn around and paddle 10 miles back upstream to return to your vehicles!
My experience with Oyster Bayou came from across East Galveston Bay, putting in at Rollover Pass on the Bolivar Peninsula. This trip took place in August, departing Rollover around 4:00 p.m., returning after dark. We paddled sea kayaks, using both compasses and good maps to test our navigation skills, as the distant shoreline looks rather featureless from miles across the open bay. From the bayou, you will note how incredibly flat this area is, a very large marsh area with few places to get out and stretch your legs and many "Keep Off" signs. A high-and-dry lunch spot may offer good viewing of alligators cruising for dinner less than 50 feet away.
The Bay Boat Ramp in ANWR is a good access point to Robinson Bayou, a delightful coastal marsh paddle. You should know, however, that the east side of the lower bayou, although it is owned by ANWR, is a closed area; the other banks and the lake are privately owned. You are okay as long as you stay in your boat, but know that everywhere else you are not. This deepwater bayou is paddleable year-round. The distance to Robinson Lake is about 5 miles via the bayou, but likely 2 or less as the crow flies. You can see on the map how much the bayou twists and turns. Although there are very few trees, the bayou sits down in the coastal prairie and is fairly protected from the wind.
Smith Point, East Galveston Bay, and Eastern Trinity Bay
* Directions. There are three sites to launch boats at Smith Point. Robbins Park is public (no charge); Spoonbill RV Park is a private site with a fee to park/launch there. The third site is from the parking lot at the observation tower of Candy Abshier Wildlife Management Area. The approach to all is from FM 562, at least 20 miles south of I-10 East. Robbins Park and Spoonbill RV Park are accessed from Hawkins Camp Road, your last available right turn from Smith Point Road (FM 562, Smith Point Road). The decision point for Spoonbill or Robbins Park is on Hawkins Camp Road 1.3 miles from the turnoff from FM 562. Go right for Spoonbill or left for Robbins. There are full facilities, including a campground for RVs at Spoonbill; there are only a dirt parking lot and paved boat ramp at Robbins. For the Abshier WMA lot, go left from FM 562 at the WMA sign. There is a wonderful bird observation tower and a large paved parking lot with access to East Galveston Bay. For access and accommodation information at Spoonbill RV Park, call 409-355-2347.
On a January trip from Smith Point, Spoonbill RV Park, I had some interesting weather challenges. Across the bay to the west and north were large, dark, menacing clouds that had obviously drenched Smith Point earlier. Several miles into the trip thunder rumbled and rain showers blew around us. At one point, a herd of cattle thought we might be their ticket to safety and started following us along the shore. With the thunder and dark clouds on the horizon, we debated turning around and what our best choice was if the storm came our way, but in the end we kept paddling. We encountered only heavy drizzle before the clouds headed away from us, and the day warmed and brightened as the storm continued on its route westward. Back at home in League City, my rain gauge measured 3 inches of rainfall.
Once we passed Frankland Point, there were very few houses until we reached Oak Island and Beason Park. Brown pelicans dived on the waters; several shell beaches evidenced the presence of earlier Native Americans who camped, fished, and clammed this area at least two hundred years ago. More such middens have been found many miles farther south but are now covered with water. On this day, the kayakers were the only ones on the water.
Lone Oak Bayou
Lone Oak Bayou drains a good-sized coastal marsh about halfway between Oak Island and Smith Point. I have seen small fishing boats going into the water where the bayou goes under FM 562. It appears to be about 4 miles in length as it meanders to its mouth on Trinity Bay.
Directions. Double Bayou drains an area of 100 square miles. It is paddleable year-round. The East Fork is about 28 miles in total length, and the West Fork about 15 miles; typically, only the lower 6 or so miles of each fork are paddled. Good public access points are at Double Bayou Park and Job Beason Park. Double Bayou Park is about 5.5 miles from Job Beason Park, just downstream of where the East Fork and West Fork merge. Beason Park is a popular launching place for trailered fishing boats, so expect a lot of activity near its boat ramp. Usually people are fishing and picnicking along the bulkheaded bank of the bayou. To get to Beason Park from Double Bayou Park, go west on Eagle Ferry Road until it dead-ends at FM 563; go left (south on 563) about a mile and a half, watching for the boat ramp signs and the park on your left.
James Jackson settled in the Double Bayou area in 1847, establishing a ranch of 26,000 acres. In 1880 Joshua Harmon operated a cotton gin on the site of present-day Beason Park. Job Beason, for whom the park is named, was the lightkeeper for Double Bayou Lights in the early 1900s. He was found floating facedown in the water in December 1909. When the hurricane of 1915 destroyed the lighthouse, it was not rebuilt. Hurricane Ike in September 2008 devastated the town of Oak Island.
As the name implies, Double Bayou is a two-pronged bayou, with an East Fork and a West Fork that converge very close to their mouth on Galveston Bay at Oak Island. This part of Chambers County is still fairly undisturbed, although the lower end of the West Fork has been dredged for about 3 miles from Oak Island to allow shallow-draft commercial boat traffic, typically barges and shrimp boats. The depth of the natural stream has made it a popular sailing destination for smaller sailboats in the Galveston Bay area, and it isn't unusual to see one or more of them moored several miles upstream even on the natural East Fork bayou. Cattle ranching is the most obvious use of the coastal grasslands along the bayou. Historically there was a lot of rice farming in the area as well, although saltwater flooding from tropical storms wiped out many crops. Much of the stream bank is forested with oaks, elms, gums, and some pine trees, particularly in the upper reaches.
* Paddling Note. Paddling Double Bayou is somewhat of a gambler's choice for routes. Current is typically negligible, so from either park you can travel upstream or downstream and return to your put-in, or paddle one direction only to the other park. A recent Houston Association of Sea Kayakers (HASK) trip put in at Beason Park, paddled upstream to Double Bayou Park for lunch, and paddled back to Beason Park in 5 hours. We were all paddling sea kayaks, which move upstream with relative ease; I would expect the same trip in a canoe to take longer. All of my first experiences on Double Bayou were in canoes. The upper stretches in particular are well protected from the wind by large trees that in some places actually touch across the water. A nice relaxed trip for a family or youth group outing would be paddling from Double Bayou Park down to Beason Park. If the youth have an overabundance of energy for such a short trip, run it in reverse.
Double Bayou Park is wooded. Many of its largest trees were destroyed by Hurricane Ike, but within months the park was cleaned and many new oak trees planted.
An unusual feature of the bayou in the fall is the large number of golden orb weaver spider webs high up where the overhanging trees provide a framework. In September 2004 many belted kingfishers were flying from bank to bank and along the bayou. Little blue herons and osprey were numerous; cardinal flowers flushed red blooms, and pickerelweed bloomed blue.
On a canoe trip several years ago we observed a crab and small snake locked in a deadly embrace. The crab won this duel, and we paddled on to end the trip with a friendly lunch of beer and burgers in a restaurant overlooking the bayou in Oak Island.
East Shore, Trinity Bay
I have not paddled the stretch between Beason Park and Fort Anahuac to the north. From observation and maps, the Anahuac/Beason stretch goes by fish camps and homes, both Ike survivors and new construction. The spoil island downstream of Double Bayou's entrance to the bay looks to be the most substantial or perhaps the only island along this stretch until you are within 3 miles of Fort Anahuac Park. Also of interest along this stretch is Round Point, at one time home of Anson Taylor, whose three sons were killed in the Battle of the Alamo, and after that, home to Thomas Jefferson Chambers, for whom Chambers County is named.
For a description of Fort Anahuac Park, see chapter 2.CHAPTER 2
Trinity River System
The Original human inhabitants of the lower Trinity River were the Bedias and Orcoquisac peoples. They were hunter-gatherers living off the largesse of the land. Many cultural middens remain as signatures of their occupation. The most obvious middens are of rangia clam shells, a species whose off-flavor was not appealing to Europeans and whose numbers have decreased as their growing areas have increased in salinity. Middens appear all through the lower Trinity River and along the shores of Trinity Bay, and many are now submerged on the continental shelf even miles out from the current Gulf shore.
When René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle came to the mouth of the Trinity in 1687, he called it "River of the Canoes," so it would seem entirely appropriate to make this a modern travel destination. Spaniards in Mexico wanted to keep the French at bay in Louisiana and hoped to prevent their encroaching on what today is East Texas by building missions. Without large numbers of émigrés from Spain, the hope of the missions was to convert Native Americans to Christianity and have them take up arms to support the Spanish claims. One such mission, El Orcoquisac, was established in 1756 as the site of a Native American village near present-day Lake Miller. It displaced François Simars de Bellisle's outpost. The mission sat next to the Camino del Bahia trail, which connected through Moss Bluff to Atascocita and to the west to the Camino Real. Exposure to European diseases decimated the Native Americans; bad water from the swampy lake, biting insects, a fire, and tropical hurricanes made life a misery for the Spaniards. They abandoned the mission and presidio in 1771.
The Trinity's watershed covers almost 18,000 square miles in its 715 miles to Galveston Bay. It is a slow-moving river, dammed to form Lake Livingston 120 miles upstream of the bay. Its waters are used for rice field irrigation for most of that stretch, so Livingston dam is discharging throughout the rice-growing season, providing plenty of water for paddling activities. Heavy rainfall events have created major floods in all sections of the river; not even Lake Livingston can hold enough to prevent them. The riverbanks are heavily wooded, and sandbars are common. The backwaters and cypress swamps that drain to the river add to its mystique.
Included in the Trinity complex are its old meander beds, the Old and Lost rivers. Lakes Charlotte, Miller, and Mud are here; and lower still, Cotton Lake and Lake Anahuac. The Trinity is the largest source of freshwater in the Galveston Bay system. The oyster reefs downstream of its mouth are some of the most productive in the bay.
When I first paddled the lower Trinity, one had to be cautious about barge traffic. Historically, barges ran as far as Liberty, and proposals were afoot to make it navigable as far upstream as Dallas. Frequent shoaling and large loads of sediment to feed shifting sandbars made this economically unfeasible. The dynamic atmosphere of the Trinity has made for many "interesting" trips for me, finding to my chagrin that maps and actual navigable waterways are not always in congruence.
Excerpted from Canoeing and Kayaking Houston Waterways by Natalie H. Wiest. Copyright © 2012 Natalie Wiest. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
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