Not From Texas

Touring Houston by kayak: The 39th annual Buffalo Bayou Regatta

Posted in Birds, Environment, Houston, Places by Jennifer Peebles on March 14, 2011

There’s a lot to see in Houston, but one very cool way to see the city is by kayak — and that’s what I did Saturday, taking part in the 39th annual Buffalo Bayou Regatta.

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Qik – lining up for Buffalo Bayou Regatta by Je…, posted with vodpod

Bank of America Center

My favorite building on the Houston skyline, the Bank of America Center, with its stair-like roof.

Buffalo Bayou is the largest of several bayous that drain the veritable swamp on which America’s fourth-largest city was built, and the regatta route began in the suburbs and ended at Sesquicentennial Park in the heart of the downtown theater district, behind the Gus Wortham Theater building.

The towering skyscrapers of Houston sure are neat to see from the vantage point of the bayou water. This was my second (or maybe it was third — can’t remember) kayak trip on Buffalo Bayou, but it was my first-ever time in a kayak race (even though I was in the not-really-racing category) and at 15 miles, it was maybe twice as far as I’d ever tried to paddle in one day.

The starting line was where the bayou flows under San Felipe Street, near the intersection with Voss Road, west of downtown proper. It was fun to watch the competitive kayakers and canoers make the mad dash down the banks when the starting horn blew, scrambling to get in their vessels and get going.

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Launching the canoes at the 2011 Buffalo Bayou …, posted with vodpod

Buffalo Bayou is, at different places, beautiful in its own way and also yucky. It functions as Houston’s big ditch, and in to it Houstonians have thrown old tires, Whataburger Styrofoam cups, paper, a zillion of those flimsy plastic grocery bags, cans, shoes, broken plastic lawn chairs — and that’s only the readily identifiable solid matter that I could spot. Lord only knows what kind of liquid pollutants are in the water. (A den mother for a scouting group that was ahead of me at the very end of the race, as we wound our way between the massive concrete supports for I-45 and I-10 above us, kept telling her scouts, “Breathe through your mouth and not your nose.”)

Litter

Someone messed with Texas: Litter washed up on the shores of Buffalo Bayou.

But if the bayou is yucky, it’s yucky because we humans made it this way. The bayou itself probably wasn’t that yucky before we put trash in it. So the regatta is another reminder of how it’s important to dispose of litter and to refrain from putting harmful chemicals in the water or ground, because it all eventually ends up in the bayou (and later the ship channel and Galveston Bay).

It was fun to try to pick out the landmarks visible from the bayou as we went along. After about an hour or so, two ladies just ahead of me said they were sure the traffic noise we heard was coming from Interstate 610, Houston’s manic-paced inner ring road. But we were really nowhere near that close to downtown; the traffic noise turned out to be Chimney Rock Road, which regatta volunteers had thankfully marked with a vinyl sign hanging off the overpass. (The bridge at the 610 Loop is much, much wider, and traffic noise is a lot louder.) We went under the Waugh Drive bridge and heard all the bats in the crevices cheeping.

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Contestants lining up for the 2011 Buffalo Bayo…, posted with vodpod

We saw a few people near River Oaks sitting out on the porches of their super-swanky homes, waving to us and cheering us on, and got occasional waves from people walking and biking on the park trails along the bayou. I saw one cool bird, a lone egret who flew away when he decided too many humans were coming at him in wildly colored plastic boats. No turtles this time, though I had seen them in the bayou on previous trips.

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Going under the big bridge, 2011 Buffalo Bayou …, posted with vodpod

It took me nearly five hours to finish the race — my assigned race number was 519, and although I don’t know if they had 500 participants this year, I sure felt like I had come in about 519th place. By the time I got to the finish line and two big men from the Port of Houston Authority helped pull me out of my kayak at the wharf at Sesquicentennial Park, I was dog tired and sunburned badly on my forearms, my shoulders were killing me, and the hot dog vendor had given out of hot dogs already. But I had a good time, and I hope to do it again next year.

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2011 Buffalo Bayou Regatta slideshow, posted with vodpod