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.
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.
The canoe hurtled around bends and through the churning races beneath bridges and railroad trestles, through a jungle of swamped elm, green ash and sycamore on the current of spill from the gates of the Addicks. Beside us Helm's righted craft threaded massive unmoored logs and strands of bush rope hanging into the water from above, its small global positioning system logging a clip of 7 mph into Memorial Park, nearly four times the speed of a normal paddle.
At 10:18 a.m. Helm reminded me to call the Coast Guard. A few days before an officer had miraculously granted us a permit to paddle the bayou on through the Turning Basin and the Ship Channel; he'd only asked that we dial him today by cell phone. But now the man who answered the phone seemed not to understand that we were in paddlecraft. "What did you say?" he asked, "You're titling?" "Paddling," I said as trees blurred past. "Oh." There was a pause. "You'd better go ahead and give me that permit number." Two minutes later he called back and asked us to ring again at the Turning Basin. "I still think we're going to get a showdown," Helm said.
As we floated past a River Oaks backyard and the curious gazes of a llama and a burro, I began to feel a deep sense that things weren't right. In 1843, the Englishwoman Matilda Houstoun paddled up the bayou with similar sentiments. "In passing over this singular body of water," she wrote, "...one cannot but imagine that he is drawing to the abode of some evil spirit, whose genius is stamped upon everything that meets the eye."
We shot under the Shepherd bridge through the flotsam of a Dasani bottle, a tennis ball and a can of Coors, heading towards a smell that biologist Scott Barnes describes as "sweet corn tortillas." Three hundred thousand Mexican free-tailed bats chattered beneath Waugh and squirted pungent poop from the span.
My worries were mounting. As we approached the Enron building, nearly 20 miles of paddling remained and Kramer was still barely rowing at all. Crushingly, we'd just been informed by Helm that we'd been laboring all morning while holding our carbon-fiber paddles backwards.
Fresh sod and wild petunias soon announced the newly renovated stretch of waterway known as the Sabine-to-Bagby Promenade -- but it was really just the same old bayou dressed up. A wet track suit and tattered boxers were strung from a line between I-45 freeway columns like Tibetan prayer flags. Japanese tourists photographed us as we slipped around the boils behind pillars. In 1997, convinced that her son was possessed by the devil, Evonne Rodriguez strangled him with rosary beads and threw him from the Commerce Street bridge. Just ahead of it something broke the surface and slammed into my paddle. "Holy shit!" I yelled. But it was only a fish.
At 11:49 a.m. the current slowed and we reached Allen's Landing, the downtown confluence of White Oak and Buffalo Bayous and the city's former port. A brutal heat beat down. In the 1830s, when sun and mosquitoes "as large as grasshoppers" drove a group of swimmers here, the water became alive with alligators, according to one settler's account. A swimmer scrambled up the bank and came face-to-face with a panther. Houstoun found the spot sinister. "One cannot enter these shades without being reminded of his impressions of the Stygean (sic) pools," she wrote, "or without being imbued with such feelings as Vergil (sic) would wish his reader to imagine possessed the bosom of his hero when he descended into the shades of Avernus."
Some 150 years later, Allen's Landing would be better known as the site where Houston police officers beat up Joe Campos Torres, handcuffed him and threw him in the water to drown, sparking the Moody Park riots. The shaded banks had by then given way to cement bulkheads. But as these enduring oven bricks baked us in the noon sun, I still couldn't shake Houstoun's sense of drifting towards the devil-god of the river.
The current died. We plowed towards the pillars of U.S. 59. Ramps thundered above the water and bent together along the bank like contrails speeding towards a war. In 1997 a van missed this curve and plunged into the bayou, killing the driver. A year later a pickup hurtled over, killing two. Deep thuds echoed from above as Helm passed a mortally wounded shopping cart.
At the next railroad bridge, near a cluster of banana trees probably seeded from some thrown-away snack, the biologist Barnes recently discovered the bayou's only known flock of red vented bulbuls. "Let's kill them," he told his colleagues, "before they devour everything." In Hawaii, the colorful little bird from India has been a notorious terrorist, a voracious hoarder of all manner of seeds, bugs and fruit favored by native avifauna. Along the bayou, it's only the latest in a long line of invaders that includes the Chinese tallow tree, the South American nutria and the Jurassic-looking Amazonian plecostomus fish.
We paused before the trestle and watched it carry a train of six-wheeled military vehicles off to war. Still, another battleground was right here. Between the bridge and a few miles past the Turning Basin, workers have found the floating corpses of at least 150 pit bulls and nine humans in the past decade. Last year, Barnes found a dead man east of York Street; he wasn't really shocked until the Harris County medical examiner arrived, casually pried open the corpse's mouth and peered in. As we approached York, the bayou welled up with bubbles, inspiring Helm to discuss his own experience working for the very same medical examiner's office 15 years ago. "The examiner was talking about going to eat catfish with his wife," Helm recalled, eying the bayou for a foot or hip. "And a buck-naked hot chick was lying there with a bullet hole in her head."
At 12:59 we reached the city's largest handling place for the remains of the living, the sprawling 69th Street Wastewater Treatment Plant. Close to the bank loomed seven excrement dryers, towering chromed edifices where centrifuges wring moisture from sewage sludge, 1,200-degree flames sterilize it with heat and roaring vacuum fans suck it up five-story chutes and convert it into fertilizer pellets. From the water it smelled like roasted almonds. An outflow of warm, leached-off water was supposed to be clean enough to drink, though last year the plant was cited by the state three times for "unauthorized discharges." Helm paddled back alongside our canoe. "See any floaters out there?" Kramer asked. Helm smirked. "Bodies or wet chunks?"
Amid all of the casualties and invasions in this stretch of bayou, I'd begun to wonder if anything that originated here remained as more than fertilizer. But around a bend the bulkheads gave way to a thick stand of cottonwoods, home to the bayou's only wood ducks -- a particularly timid native species. As if guarding this last vestige of native wildness, a mullet leaped out of a drift of 40s and slapped Kramer in the face. "Shit!" he yelled, "a fish just hit me!"
A car alarm wailed. The neap tide carried us to a placard standing in the water. The mouth of Turning Basin at last. "Warning," the sign said in bright orange letters. "Do Not Enter."
I told the Coast Guard over the cell phone that we were entering. "Have a safe trip," an officer said. And at that we moved past the forbidding signs and the berth of the Port Authority's M/V Sam Houston tour boat, where on a recent outing I'd apprised the skeptical crew of my plans, adding that I'd call the police on my cell if anything went wrong. "By then," a crewmember said, "it will be too late."
The channel widened and we were engulfed within a deep valley of ancient cement wharves. They were inscribed with cryptic graffiti: tebor, m/t mariposa, the rat pickle pete. We hewed close to them alongside the tires of Caterpillars strung up as fenders that had crumpled despite their size. I considered what this meant should a vessel sandwich our canoe. A skiff only slightly larger than ours floated ahead. It was moored to the towering hull of the Amige and supported a brawny painter in a Swiss-cheesed T-shirt and red overalls streaked with blue. He seemed deaf to our calls.
Beginning here amid the diesel-engine drone of ships, the inert water was a Sargasso Sea of trash. A tool box, soccer ball and Adidas sneaker dotted a film of scoured plastic bottles and wrack. It felt as if we were descending into Hell's third circle where damned gluttons live in rubbish. Barnes would call this a "dead zone." For a year he has examined the movements and inertia of trash in the bayou underworld: "Like KFC, Subway, we document that," he said. A Marine Debris Grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will help him learn how bayou refuse drifts in currents, wind and storms -- and will give him ammunition for confronting the worst litterbugs, such as Shipley Do-Nuts. Some sinners are more criminal than others. In 2003, one of Barnes's trash collectors in the Turning Basin discovered a chrome 18-wheeler gas tank brimming with marijuana.
It was hard to believe the Basin we were seeing could have at one time been a popular spot for wholesome family entertainment. To inaugurate the opening of the Ship Channel in 1914, the city held the first annual No-Tsu-Oh Deep-Water Jubilee, a weeklong carnival presided over by King Nottoc, in which everything was spelled backwards. Flower-decked ships drifted through a Turning Basin that was adorned with streamers, banners and flags. But according to The Houston Post, the floating parade also included a waterborne Zulu grass hut housing 200 howling savages who dunked captive missionaries into a fire-licked cauldron and danced around them waving spears and gnawing on human ribs. Family fun la Apocalypse Now.
Even now the Basin hadn't been completely purged of its wildness. From the lips of bulkheads, cliff swallows dropped out of mud nests and swooped overhead hunting insects. A fish splashed. "I'm starting to smell salt water," Helm said. We pushed alongside the imposing bluff of another argosy, its flesh-colored paint showing rust where it had been scratched off as if by a nail of Talos. A shirtless sailor high above yelled down a question. "Where the fish at?"
He wasn't the only person watching us. Banned to anyone without a permit for the next 14 miles, the channel was rigged with 32 security cameras; one of them probably swiveled to see us round the moored military cargo ships Cape Taylor, Trinity and Texas. Signs warned, "Keep Clear." Past the gray freeboard the bulkhead crumbled for the first time in a half hour and sprouted sunflowers and goldenrod. For a moment, we relaxed.
We soon reached the mouth of Brays Bayou and Harrisburg. Founded years before the first street was laid in Houston, Harrisburg supported a lumber mill and two dry goods stores stocked by schooners from New Orleans. "They had no use for a jail," the settler Dilue Rose Harris wrote in italics in 1833, "everybody honest." Three years later Santa Anna's Mexican army burned Harrisburg to the ground. The hamlet still hasn't recovered its prominence or peace; two bodies have been found in the area in as many years, including one near the Brays Bayou sandbar where we gunkholed past a maggot-filled catfish and an empty bottle of Mad Dog 20/20.
We entered a narrow oxbow between Brady's Island and what must have once been Harrisburg's downtown. The site was given over to a shipyard where a thickly fouled barge rested and sparks dripped from the torches of welders. We passed a shipwreck, crossed a low bridge and stopped at an old house sandwiched between dry docks and a jumble of oil pipes. I climbed up to it and wiggled an ancient glass doorknob that was jammed on with an oversized rusty screw. A sticker on the window said, "A supporter of the Texas State Firemen's Association."
Fire of any sort in the inlet was now prohibited by signs proclaiming, "No Smoking. No Open Lights. No Visitors." As we were heading back toward the main channel past a dozen oil spigots arching out to the water like egret gullets, the Coast Guard called. They'd momentarily lost sight of us on their cameras and also wanted to confirm once more that we were indeed paddling all the way to Morgan's Point. "You know that's 20 miles?"
"Yeah, I know, we've got plans," I replied, not mentioning that we intended to camp overnight in the middle of the security zone at an abandoned munitions dump.
"All right," the captain said. "We'll keep an eye on you."
Exiting the inlet alongside a diesel barge, we inhaled the powerful odor of aerosol. In 1990, a Panamanian freighter dumped napthaline near this spot and a spark from a welder ignited the Channel like the Cuyahoga. Three sailors were burned. Two years later, a truck punctured a pipe at the nearby Rhone-Poulenc Basic Chemicals Company, releasing a toxic cloud of sulfuric acid over the water and sending 30 workers to the hospital, including a man who passed out and fell from a 15-foot platform.
Ahead, next to the 610 bridge, four-legged cranes were positioned on the wharves like Imperial Walkers awaiting Ewoks. Rhythmic metallic thuds from a giant maul echoed beneath the span. As we left the bridge behind, the first gas flare of the day burned off the starboard and the first moving vessel, a tug-pushed barge, plowed by. Helm's flimsy craft easily took the small wake. But three minutes later a 25-foot Coast Guard Defender was speeding upchannel towards us, kicking out rollers.
A hundred yards out I noticed the boat carried an M-60 machine gun. Fifty yards out the crew tripped a strobe and siren. A lob away they dropped throttle and turned at us sharply. The waves surged forward. Helm angled to take them head-on. "They are going to swamp us," Kramer said. We pitched into them and they slapped the gunwale but didn't top it. Helm was still floating too. "Is the leader of this group here?" a crewman yelled out as Helm's kayak rolled in the chop. "Yes, sir," Helm answered, pointing at me. "He's the leader of this group."
"We have a permit number," I blurted, "and I've been in communication with the office." We crabbed amidships and grabbed the orange hull. The young officer was wearing a pistol on one leg and a knife on the other. "I can't believe they granted you a permit, not with these kind of boats," he said. "Have you been through here before in these boats?"
I admitted we hadn't but talked up Helm's prowess, read off the permit number, handed over my driver's license and prayed.
"Call the unit, verify that for me," the officer said to a comrade.
At the aft of the canoe Kramer was face to face with the female pilot. "Getting toasty out here, isn't it?" he said.
The officer handed back my license. "You guys are," he paused, "clear," he said, pausing again. "Um, be careful; I tell you what, I've seen huge, huge deep draft ships coming through here and just really wiping things out, so, be careful. How far are you guys planning on going?"
"We're going to Morgan's Point," I said.
"You gotta be kidding me."
"You can give us a pull if you want to," Kramer told the pilot.
"We're going to be pulling out along the way," I said. "It's a two-day trip."
"You guys are camping somewhere?"
"Oh, my God," the officer said. "I've never even ran across this."
Our two little boats pushed on for nearly an hour, past the hissing pipes and foamy sluices and whistling men of the Valero Refinery, through the noisome rain of a wharved freighter's bilgewater and the formidable wake of a honking double barge and mats of basketballs, anti-freeze jugs and Cheetos packets, bottoming out on trash in the treeless infinitum of industry. It was hard to believe that along this very stretch in 1837 James Audubon found the ivory-billed woodpecker "in abundance." Sweat stinging our eyes, we hoisted our sore bodies out onto the paved mouth of Sims Bayou and rested in the horrible sun. "What do you think about the morality of throwing trash into the Ship Channel?" I asked Helm as I unwrapped a granola bar. "Well, that's a good question," he said. He paused and added: "I can't believe we're doing this."
Somewhere around here, a chain stretching across the channel from bank to bank some 100 years ago prevented larger vessels from passing upstream without paying a toll. But only fatigue was holding us back and we labored past the former homesite of a black man who lent his floor to the Texian army to build a raft and pursue Santa Anna across the bayou. The land is now Lyondell-Citgo, more or less. Downstream was the town of Buffalo, commonly known as Pokersville after the cardsharks there, esteemed by Houstoun as "about as far advanced as most places in Texas" in 1843 and now roughly fixed by us as CenterPoint Energy.
As the Alumacraft crossed into the realm of Pasadena we seemed to be leaving the merely foul outer layers of hell and entering the Malebolge, where the damned are stewed in "pungent sauces," hurled into rivers of boiling tar, set ablaze by oil fires and punished with rashes. "It's grosser than I thought it would be," Helm said.
At the Washburn Tunnel we skated waters that had at one time been purged of fish for miles. In 1992, Mobil Mining and Minerals Company poisoned them with phosphoric acid and hydrated gypsum. Just downstream a fire last year at Superior Packing and Distribution released sodium hydroxide, ash and oil drilling mud into Hunting Bayou, prompting local officials to prohibit people from even touching it -- the first time they'd done such a thing in 20 years. And less than two miles down at Green's Bayou the contractors Williams Brothers dumped concrete and oil sludge into the water in 2002, then struck a deal with District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal to avoid conviction. Near the bayou's mouth rocks on the shore were still black. Helm spotted sea roaches.
The miles passed and the clock drew toward 5 p.m. and the trash grew to tricycles and televisions, the wake to graybeards.
The Coast Guard called. "We're kind of concerned for your safety because this is an industrial area," the captain said. Vessels much larger than barges were fast approaching, he added. "One of them draws 39 feet of water, so it's going to be throwing you around a lot."
We were exhausted but were suddenly paddling like crazy.
A half hour later we shoaled up to a beach under the span of Beltway 8 and dragged the boats into a flock of gulls just as the first cargo ship passed and sucked the water out like a giant wet vac. A comber thrust back up the foreshore. The swash rolled the sand with dozens of mud balls that looked like huge eggs from a vestigial elephant bird.
We'd reached the overgrown munitions dump and we searched for a campsite. As Helm scouted by kayak just downriver, I climbed a dirt bluff to cast about for a dry spot. Halfway up I noticed I was standing on a car-sized mound that was a fire ant pile. I bolted uphill furiously slapping my ankles and crashed into a brake where mosquitoes set upon me. After a moment Helm returned and led us under the bridge to a beach across from the Shell Oil refinery. "The approach is kind of disgusting," he said as we scrambled landward over dense wrack. "Once you get there it's all right."
The Coast Guard had never said we could camp here, or that we couldn't. I left a message that we'd pulled out and hoped they wouldn't call back. On the rise near the water where we'd stopped, Helm was stringing a jungle hammock from the thorny trunk of a prickly ash. He cut his finger. Kramer laid out a tent nearby amid Japanese yaupon and hackberry. Two armadillos ran up to him like they'd never seen a human, tussled playfully, and loped off again.
"I bet nobody ever comes out here," Helm said. "That's awesome."
No toilets or water spigots were around. (Hoping to avoid the fate of early settlers who succumbed to fevers, I visited the Water Purification Center at REI on Westheimer. A salesman claimed a $70 Hiker Pro water filter would render the dirtiest slop potable. "It's going to kill everything," he'd said. But apprised of our destination, he paused nervously, halfheartedly pitched the $145 MSR WaterWorks ES and finally conceded that I'd best lug in a few jugs from civilization).
A kitchen was assembled on the beach from the bounty of detritus. Helm laid a slab of plywood across a Dean Foods crate for a table and pulled up two stumps and a completely intact plastic lawn chair. A citronella candle, naked doll with punked hair and head of a teddy bear on a stake formed a shrine to ward off demons. "What's that garbage can for?" Kramer asked as Helm washed off the find. "Trash," Helm replied flatly. "I know, it kind of doesn't make sense."
Venison sausage and catfish hissed on a skillet. The tangled pipes of the refinery hissed, growled and blended with the whine of frogs and insects. The sun set; the dusk fell on the Channel, and lights began to glow along the shore. The bridge shone strongly across the mud flat. Lights and ships moved in the canal -- a great whisk of lights going up and going down. And on either side of us on the upper reaches of the bank were marked ominously on the sky, the glare of gas flares obliterating the stars.
Earlier that evening Helm and I had shambled down the bank past a strand of salt cedar and swashmarks laden with baseballs and tampon applicators and pondered the idea of swimming. In 1998, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group named the Ship Channel the sixth most polluted water body in America. It would have ranked much higher if the study had looked at the ratio of discharges to water volume (the Pacific Ocean placed second). Almost every feeder that we'd passed had funneled out poop from overflowing water treatment plants during recent floods.
And yet we'd worked so hard to get to the heart of this place that it might have been foolish not to know it. I'd waded in, held my breath and plunged into the darkness. "It tastes salty," Helm had said.
Through the night I felt incredibly clean, almost as if I'd scoured off a thin layer of skin. My arm later sprouted a weeklong rash.
In the morning I stumbled out of my tent and was attacked by giant mosquitoes. Helm said his jungle hammock had been useless against them; they'd bitten him through the nylon. To escape the swarm I walked down the shore past a marooned buoy and a purple basket flower growing alongside an oil pipeline. I saw the fresh tracks of crabs, raccoons and a solitary coyote. Helm caught a banded water snake in his hands.
At 8:48 a.m. Helm heaped the trashcan with the last of our rubbish and we left it there and stemmed the tide towards Galveston Bay.
The Alumacraft labored beneath the teat-like hawses of giant ships. Anchors protruded from the bulges like pierced nipples. We dragged ashore again onto a beach of castoff televisions. Huge tug wake crashed in. "You-all could have made it," Helm said, "but I would have been swamped."
The parade of vessels was nearly constant; we were entering the infamous zone of shipwrecks. In 1986, the tanker Vardaas slammed into a dock here and crushed 12 pipelines, spilling 1,600 gallons of chemicals. A month later a gasoline barge exploded nearby and blocked the entire channel for three days. Just downstream in 1998 the 250-foot Floreana sank. And down from there the Ievoli Splendor collided with a barge two years ago and spilled 2,000 gallons of fuel oil.
I wondered if the Channel was really a navigational improvement over what it used to be. "This is the most remarkable stream I have ever seen," wrote early settler Nicholas Clopper in his journal in 1827. "...The water being of navigable depth up close to each bank, giving to this most enchanting little stream the appearance of an artificial canal in the design and course of which Nature has lent her masterly hand; for its meanderings and curvatures seem to have been directed by a taste far too exquisite for human attainment."
Pushing through waves between a dock and a moored ship, we turned and sprinted out across the channel towards the San Jacinto Monument. "I blew my wad," Kramer wheezed. Our boats had crossed the outer limit of the Security Zone.
The long bulkhead of the park was lined with fishermen despite an all-species fishing advisory for dioxins. They were the first people we'd seen so close to the water all day. We climbed out by the snout of Battleship Texas near a man dragging a blue ice chest through the weeds. He opened it to reveal a trout, a drum and ten redfish. But wasn't he worried about the fishing advisory? "It's just crabs and catfish," he supposed. "If they live here, it's good."
Farther down in a small embayment a man yelled at us from the shore as we nearly hit his crab lines strung from dead trees in the water. He yelled again. I looked up to see a massive freighter speeding around a bend. Helm was out of sight. The wake crossed a headland coming towards us and arched into the tallest waves we'd seen. There was no time to flee ashore. We turned up into the first plunger. The canoe knifed down into the second wave, sending water splashing over the prow onto my feet. We jacked in this way up and down taking on water until the waves melted into chop and the man on shore cheered.
Moving on, we skittered around the idling Lynchburg Ferry and joined with Helm and the mighty San Jacinto. It was here in 1937 that 17-year-old H.L. Ward, possibly the last person before us to paddle a large part of the route, hitched his canoe to a splinter on a wooden barge and rode it all the way to the Turning Basin to look for a job. The barge captain noticed him there and made him paddle back.
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The ships put on speed in the wideness of the river. We rolled on following sea for two hours past islands of yucca and Indian blanket and multicolored gas pipe.
Beneath the lofty span of the Fred Hartman Bridge, Helm climbed out of his kayak and rested next to a column. Stepping out of a johnboat at the same spot in 2002, a man in camouflage pushed a cardboard box up to the pillar. A tugboat captain saw him and called the Coast Guard; the Coast Guard called the FBI; the FBI called a bomb squad. It turned out the man in camouflage was a hunter. He had also wondered if the box contained a bomb. "They opened it up, and inside was a dead cat," Captain Richard Kaser, Commanding Officer of the Port of Houston, told me. "And on top of the lid it said, 'Bill was a good cat.'"
I'd begun to accept a fragile sense of relief. Beyond the bridge the chemical plants thinned and gave way to patches of green. Speedboats zipped past kicking up white spindrift. The Coast Guard checked in. They called me "General Josh."
But paddling into the shimmering light of the bay, I still didn't feel like I was in command of this place. Back up the river, a plume of smoke rose from the shore and over the city -- its darkness blending into the afternoon haze.