By Jeff Balke
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Beyond the Bridges
Adventurers are rediscovering the wilderness of Buffalo Bayou right in the middle of the city.
By Brittanie Shey
On a recent Friday evening around dusk, a pontoon boat came to rest below the Waugh Street Bridge on Buffalo Bayou. About 20 people were on board, hoping to get a glimpse of the bridge's bat colony during its nightly fly-out in search of food. But the pontoon boat had been beaten to the spot. Seven or eight kayaks and canoes, some piloted solo and some carrying two people, had already gathered under the bridge for one of the best viewing spots of the Mexican freetailed bat colony in the city.
The pontoon boat was part of a biweekly tour organized by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, but the kayakers were part of a growing group of adventurers rediscovering the wilderness below street level in Houston — the longest urban paddle trail in the state of Texas.
"There are sections of the bayou where you can't believe you're in the city," says Rico Torres, president of Bayou Shuttle Service, the leading provider of boat rentals and tours along Buffalo Bayou.
Torres, who grew up in Florida and Texas, and was a Boy Scout, has always been interested in water sports. He surfed and boogie-boarded as a kid, but paddled Buffalo Bayou for the first time over Easter weekend two years ago. Since then, he's become one of the city's biggest advocates for sporting on Buffalo Bayou.
He started Bayou Shuttle Service in 2010 as a way to solve the inconvenient logistics of paddling from Point A to Point B on the bayou. Instead of paddlers having to enlist the help of an additional driver to drop off or pick up them and their boats, Bayou Shuttle Service will do it for them.
In addition to shuttles and rentals, Torres runs an online meet-up group for paddlers, offers free kayaking lessons on the Bayou and in the lake at Discovery Green, and leads tours such as the Skyline Tour, which covers Houston history from the Civil War to the present day from the banks of Buffalo Bayou.
Torres says he's seen everything from herons to turtles to snakes and gar in the waters of the bayou. But most people never give themselves the chance to see the water that close.
"The only thing they ever see is the view from the bridges," he says, noting that bridges are a natural place for trash and debris to build up. "They'd be surprised to learn that thousands of people paddle Buffalo Bayou."
Wade Woehrmann, owner of the Texas Adventure Racing Club, helps lead a group of about 30 of those paddlers every other week. TAR is an organization for athletes who train and compete in multi-discipline races throughout the state. Often those races include paddling, and so at regular intervals, members of TAR meet at Lot H by the Sabine Street Bridge just west of downtown for on-the-water practice. Below the Sabine Street Lofts is one of ten access points along the 26 miles of the Buffalo Bayou Paddling Trail, which starts in Fort Bend County past Highway 6 and ends near the spot where the Allen Brothers founded the city of Houston.
Four TAR coaches help the club's two groups — novices and veterans — get into the water and paddle upstream to either the Waugh Bridge or the Shepherd Bridge. Woehrmann says the club gets its fair share of funny looks.
"It's surprisingly nice most of the time. It seems like the bayou is always changing," he says. "Usually there are people gathered on the bridges or on the trails, and they can't help but turn their heads and watch the paddlers."
Woehrmann says the questions he gets from onlookers give him the chance to advocate the pleasures of Harris County's bayous to those who wouldn't dream of getting near the water.
"A third to a half (of the paddlers) have never done anything like this before. They're both terrified because they're on the bayou, and they're also grinning from ear to ear."
Earlier this year, Woehrmann partnered with the Bayou Preservation Association to put on a short adventure race in Terry Hershey Park to help bring attention to the Buffalo Bayou Paddle Trail. The race included trail running, mountain biking and a 3K paddle on the bayou. In October, there may be a similar race on Cypress Creek. That's because, by October, the Buffalo Preservation Association hopes to get a 38-mile stretch of Cypress Creek designated by Texas Parks & Wildlife as the city's newest, and longest, official paddle trail.
Katharine Lord, executive director of BPA, says all that remains is the completion of the last of ten launches before TPW can officially designate the trail.
"It's pretty exciting because Cypress Creek is just gorgeous," she says. "We hope to have it finalized by fall, but you can still paddle it now."
Soon, Torres plans to expand his shuttle service to Cypress Creek, and he also wants to start teaching surfing classes and stand-up paddle-boarding classes. BPA has partnered with Torres to record a video advocating the use of the bayous that will play on screens inside Bayou Shuttle Service's buses.