Floating Down the Bayou Into the Rising Sun
Nov. 20, 2018
It was just after sunrise on a beautiful fall day. Save Buffalo Bayou advisory board member Janice Van Dyke Walden had suggested a paddle down the bayou. We slid her wooden canoe into the water at the Woodway boat launch in Memorial Park and cast ourselves into the current.
The water was high and the flow fairly fast, about 700 cubic feet per second, strong enough to keep us moving without doing much except dip our paddles in occasionally. Janice did most of that.
The opaque brown water was roiling, disturbed by mysterious conflicts below. The fin and scaly back of a huge creature suddenly broke the surface—an alligator gar, one of the largest freshwater fishes in North America, and maybe one of the oldest, having been around for over a hundred million years.
Our route passed by the Houston Arboretum, Memorial Park, and the Hogg Bird Sanctuary. On the right bank there were private residences and the long edge of the golf course belonging to the River Oaks Country Club. We floated all the way past Shepherd (Buffalo Bayou is tidal to about 440 yards upstream of the Shepherd Bridge) into Buffalo Bayou Park, passing by numerous new and failed private erosion control projects. The best erosion control is not to landscape, water, or disturb the ground above or on the bank, to leave the trees and vegetation in place, leave fallen trees against the bank as protection against the flow and reinforcement of the bank, and let slumped material and vegetation naturally regrow. The bayou will take care of itself. And it will also seek out its historic path, which is one reason why they are having so much trouble with collapsing banks in Buffalo Bayou Park downstream, stripped and straightened in the Fifties and recently altered by Harris County Flood Control. (See also this slideshow of the historic meanders in Buffalo Bayou Park by geologist Tom Helm.)
We were pleased to see that some large trees had been left parallel to the bank with their roots towards the current. This is the science-based practice that floodplain managers recommend. We were critical of contractors hired by the Harris County Flood Control District to remove debris in the channel after Harvey. Paid by the pound, they were cutting down live trees and pulling up all the large wood. Large woody debris on the banks is essential for collecting and controlling sediment, protecting against erosion, and rebuilding the banks after floods.
Harvey made big changes in the bayou. Among other things, a small stream that drains the eastern edge of Memorial Park had shifted and cut through the sandy bank of what we call the middle meander. Further downstream another small tributary flowing through the Hogg Bird Sanctuary had likewise shifted slightly upstream and now cuts through a narrow spit of land that was clearly going to go some day. The former mouth of the stream below a high bluff in the public park had been blocked with sediment.
Watch this nine-minute video of our early morning float down Buffalo Bayou.
Or watch this slideshow of photographs from the trip.