It's something that we drive over, or worry about after too much rain, or that we talk about at the water cooler when we hear the police have just retrieved 20 submerged vehicles from its murky depths. But Buffalo Bayou – which begins west of Katy and flows for more than 50 miles through our fair city out to the Port of Houston and Houston Ship Channel – is a beautiful and thriving natural resource that serves as home to numerous flora and fauna.
Buffalo Bayou Partnership, which focuses much of its energies on the ten-mile stretch from Shepherd Drive to the turning basin, is also host to Texas's largest canoe and kayak race: the 44th Annual Buffalo Bayou Partnership Regatta.
We checked in with avid paddler Helena Finley, who'll be racing in the Corporate Cup Challenge in this year's Regatta, to see what it's like to navigate H-town along the bayou.
“One of my favorite things to do is to take people on the bayou, and they’re amazed at how beautiful it is,” says Finley. “[Some of them] have lived here all their lives.”
Finley, who has done the race “many, many times” over the past ten to 15 years, says it begins near Woodway and Voss [7700 San Felipe] and that there are a tremendous number of bends along the route, “more than you expect,” which is how the race stretches out to 15 miles. Those who participate are a mix of competitive and recreational paddlers. “You see a lot of people having fun; it's pretty crowded, tons and tons of boats,” says Finley. “You have super-fast, super-competitive [racers], and then people with a cooler in their boat; they’re set for the day, speakers blowing. You get all opposite extremes.” She says that what everybody has in common is a love and passion for Houston.
As far as what the city looks like from the bayou, Finley says that the landscape changes along the way, including skyscrapers and passages through Memorial Park and then River Oaks. “There are points on the bayou where you feel like you’re absolutely in the middle of a tropical jungle, nowhere near civilization. It’s an awesome feeling.”
She has also encountered a lot of wildlife along the way. “We’ve seen beavers, raccoons, of course 'gator gars, you see a lot of turtles – we’ve actually seen really big turtles – birds, I happen to love birds, night herons, kingfisher,” says Finley. “If you keep your eyes open, you’ll see quite a bit. What’s fascinating is how much fish is jumping; people perceive that the bayou is unclean.”
She says the race can take between two and four hours, and that there are other factors that affect the course, including whether there has been a recent release from the Highway 6 dam. If they hold the dam, it slows down the current.
Participating in the Corporate Cup Challenge (for The Morgan Group, Inc.) means that Finley can't race in her fastest boat; the rules dictate that the corporate entries meet specific requirements and weights. “If I was paddling by myself, I have a tandem Kaskazi boat that I brought in from South Africa,” says Finley about the kayak designed for both stability and speed.
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She's also got an insider tip for the end of the race. “Do not forget your beer and food ticket in your car at the start. Put it in a bag, put it in your pocket.” Finley says that some people use the shuttle or count on rides from friends and family to get back to their cars. “The party at the end is one of my favorite parts. They always have a great zydeco band, lots of beer, a band, tents and then you just see this massive sea of boats."
She says they're also exhausted by the time they get to the finish line. “Thank goodness they pull the boats out for you; they have a crew, and then they lay them all on the slope of the park, and it’s just this brilliant scene of all these brilliant boats. And you’re right in the middle of downtown.”
Fans can cheer on racers at several parks and bridges along the race route or be there for the finish line festivities at Sesquicentennial Park at 400 Texas.
7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, March 12. The race has five starts, beginning at 9 a.m. For information, visit buffalobayou.org. Registration fee is $55 or $60 (day of); free to watch.