From the Allens to today, Buffalo Bayou has helped define the city of Houston. Now, after decades of abuse, it may finally be making a comeback as an urban resource. If, that is, we don't blow our chance.

A few years ago, I came to live in a second-floor apartment overlooking Buffalo Bayou. The complex was situated on the bayou's flood plain, and probably shouldn't have been built there at all. But the view of the water was beautiful. Healing from a personal crisis, I would sit on a bench in the parklike setting and watch the slant of morning light on the white sycamores and cascading willows that lined the bank, and be soothed by the brown water flowing gently past.

I had a canoe chained up in a storage area, but I seldom took it into the water. And for good reason: for years, the city's overburdened sewage system had discharged into the bayou, with the River Oaks outflow being one of the worst. The result was that in some places the bayou smelled like an open treatment facility, but with no treatment. The canoe race along the bayou each spring had been given the name "Reeking Regatta," and my impression of the bayou's water quality, like the impression of many Houstonians, was not good. The bayou was picturesque. It was something to look at. But it was not something to enter into. A few months after I moved away, a heavy rainfall caused the bayou to rise and inundate the apartment complex where I'd been living. I was glad to have escaped.

I moved to west Houston, and living there my contact with the bayou was reduced to glimpses as I drove over its bridges: the green crowns of trees, a brown triangle of water and then it would be gone. Like a repressed thought, the city's foremost geological feature lived in a recess. It was powerful, alluring, but out of consciousness.

But recently, I began to wonder if such a distanced connection was still called for. I'd hear that the water was getting better; the Buffalo Bayou Coalition had even dropped the word "reeking" from its annual race, which was begun to call attention to the resource. This spring, the coalition announced that the water quality was the best it has been in many years. I was skeptical, as were friends of mine who, when I mentioned the possibility of actually going to the bayou and seeing it again for myself, wondered why I'd want to immerse myself in something so unpleasant.

The reaction was quintessentially Houstonian: Don't concern yourself with what was. Look to the future. Let Buffalo Bayou be. But I couldn't. I decided it was time to quit turning my back on the bayou.

So on a sultry morning not long ago, I slipped out of Houston's noise and bustle to paddle most of the bayou's serene western length. For a couple of weeks before, the bayou's technicians, protectors, historians and lovers had been explaining the waterway's problems to me. They tossed around riverine terms such as natural repose, riparian fringes and fluvial geomorphology. They retold the story of the successful battle to keep flood-control engineers from cutting the trees from Buffalo Bayou's banks, straightening its curves and lining it with concrete.

They all claimed to have good news about Buffalo Bayou. After decades of neglect, they told me, it was gradually coming to be seen as an urban amenity instead of a storm-water and sewage-effluent discharge system. Downtown and in the East End, the shores of the bayou were being turned into urban greenbelts, with wildflowers, tree plantings, hike-and-bike trails and historical markers. Under the pressure of fines from the Environmental Protection Agency, the city of Houston had cleaned up its sewage discharges and the water has been declared safe for "contact recreation" -- a rather bureaucratic designation meaning that it was safe to let the bayou touch you again.

There would be plenty of touching in the open green kayak I had borrowed for my trip. I packed sandwiches and fruit, a jug of drinking water, binoculars with which to watch wildlife and a camera that was supposed to be watertight. I planned to cover a stretch from the Barker reservoir near Highway 6 to the 610 bridge at Memorial Drive, a distance of a dozen miles or so by road, and longer on the meandering course of the bayou.

The experts had told me that everything was going just fine. But Houston has been notorious in the past for putting a good face on things, for trying to make the best of bad situations. I had listened long enough to the experts insisting that Buffalo Bayou was a treasure, not a nuisance. Now it was time, as one of them had said, to listen to the resource.

The early visitors to Houston had no such qualms about Buffalo Bayou. The bayou was the entryway to the new city, and visitors admired the stately magnolias adorned with huge lemon-scented blossoms and the live oaks bearded with moss that lined its banks. Traveling by steamboat from Galveston, the great naturalist and wildlife painter John James Audubon visited Houston shortly after it had been founded and Texas had won its independence, sharing a cup of grog with the new republic's president, Sam Houston. Only a few miles east on the bayou, Houston had defeated a Mexican army. Audubon was likely impressed by that, but he was more impressed by the birds he saw taking advantage of the bayou's water and foliage. Some of the birds that Audubon painted, such as the great blue heron, the wood duck, the anhinga, the green heron and the kingfisher, still live along the bayou's green, secluded banks.

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