Dark Water

A reporter, a photographer and canoeist Tom Helm paddle from the Galleria to Galveston Bay by canoe and kayak, finding beauty, danger and urban debris in equal measure

And farther west on the upper reaches of the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.

"And this also," said Marlow suddenly, "has been one of the dark places of the earth." --Joseph Conrad

The roiling floodwater of Buffalo Bayou was high in the trees. My crewmate held our canoe against it with a pale-knuckled grasp. Massive logs sped past like torpedoes. And then I saw from the corner of my eye Tom Helm's upended kayak shooting past us next to his bobbing head.

Entering the jungle-like banks of Memorial Park, the floodwater of Buffalo Bayou was high in the trees.
Daniel Kramer
Entering the jungle-like banks of Memorial Park, the floodwater of Buffalo Bayou was high in the trees.
Entering the jungle-like banks of Memorial Park, the floodwater of Buffalo Bayou was high in the trees.
Daniel Kramer
Entering the jungle-like banks of Memorial Park, the floodwater of Buffalo Bayou was high in the trees.

It was a terrible start to a trip that had been in the works for months, a trip that was supposed to begin on tranquil waters and only later carry us into the pit of something darker. In early spring I'd announced plans to mount a two-day, 40-mile Ship Channel expedition -- the first canoe trip in modern history from the Galleria and down the progressively industrialized run of Buffalo Bayou all the way to Galveston Bay. (Click here to view a map of the expedition.)

I'd canoed very rarely prior to the trip, but it wasn't for a lack of interest. Houston and Texas aren't known for their parklands. Among their peers, the state ranks 49th and the city near the bottom third in percent of public land. There was simply no wilderness plotted out, at least not officially.

"Wilderness" is often thought of as parkland, but Webster's Dictionary calls it a "tract or region uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings...empty or pathless." It's "a waste," according to American Heritage Dictionary, "...something characterized by bewildering vastness, perilousness or unchecked profusion." Reading these definitions, I realized they perfectly described the Houston Ship Channel. Defiantly noxious, almost entirely given over to machines, teeming with dubiously mutant wildlife, a colossal invention of men uncharted on the human scale, the Channel is wilderness like Dante's Inferno is hell.

News of the plan reached members of the Houston Canoe Club. They confirmed nobody in memory had made the trip, and added that it would kill me. "You should know that you are illegal paddling a private boat through the Turning Basin," warned club member Natalie Wiest, who is writing a book about Buffalo Bayou. Phil Steffen, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department boater education coordinator, furthered: "If you enter that area, you are subject to being fired on, particularly in a paddle boat, because that's an (explosives) delivery system -- that's how they blew up the USS Cole." Buffalo Bayou Partnership biologist Scott Barnes pointed out that "just the wake alone on a vessel can literally suck you down 30 feet under and slam you onto the bottom of the channel." Buffalo Bayou canoe outfitter Don Greene called it "a very, very bad idea."

Canoeing Buffalo Bayou wasn't always so ill-advised. One hundred and seventy-five years ago, explorers who tracked its cypress-lined banks described crystalline waters flanked by fat deer, skimmed with dainty waterfowl and flashing at great depths with the buffalo fish.

But now, few outfitters were even willing to rent me a canoe. "Guys from the fire department will have to come rescue you," said the man at Canoesport on Bissonnet, "so probably go somewhere else." There was no way I was going to use my own canoe, a craft I'd bought for $100 from a man who'd mounted deer antlers on it and raced it under the name Taxidermy in the Buffalo Bayou Regatta, finishing drunk and last. Fortunately I knew Tom Helm, a rock-solid geologist who'd finished the same race in first place. Probably the only person in Houston who enjoys shooting channelized White Oak Bayou during tropical storms, Helm suggested leaving Taxidermy at home and paddling with him in his 17-foot Alumacraft.

Floods had canceled the first trip before we'd even hit the water. The night before the second attempt, our expedition's photographer, Daniel Kramer, discovered a crack in the hull of his kayak. I called Helm in a panic. Even though the bayou was flooding again, he bravely offered to install Kramer with me in the Alumacraft and join us in his solo boat, which is about as stable as a toothpick.

At 9:30 a.m. the next day we carried Helm's boats down a steep dirt singletrack flanked with man-high ragweed, past a homeless camp beneath Woodway, where a salvaged table held a tube of Pepsodent, two rat traps and a shard of mirror. Two homemade bamboo fishing poles leaned against a bridge column as their owner slept on a slab of plywood jammed up in the girders. Kramer eased the canoe into the floodwater and jumped in behind me, paddling like hell as we drifted sidelong in the current towards a snagged log. We shot around it and couldn't stop.

A fraction of a mile downstream Kramer managed to grab a willow branch. And then we saw Helm's head in the water. He smiled at us as he frantically kicked shoreward and said, "This is not the recommended way to paddle down the bayou."

I wondered if I too was in over my head.

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