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Date: January 2-8, 2021
Location: Brazos River
Put In: Hwy 7, Marlin, TX
Take Out: Boat ramp, Freeport Tx: Mouth of Brazos at ICW
Distance: 395 miles
Boat: Ocean Kayak Trident 15
Hwy 21 College Station, TX
I would like to thank my wife for putting up with my wild hair adventures and making the drive to drop me off in Marlin. I also would like to thank Dale Harris who made the 5 hr drive down to pick me up at the ICW. This trip would not have been possible without their gracious help.
This is a trip that I have had on the plan to do ever since I did the Colorado river in 2016. I have just been waiting on the right conditions and they really came together much better than expected. Those conditions were, first of all water. I did not want to spend 2 weeks on this trip and the Brazos is a low gradient river and when low it is full of large sandbars both on the banks and in the middle of the river. You would be hard pressed to make 30 miles/day on low water. The rains of New Year’s Eve were wide spread down the water shed. I watched all the gages and wanted to launch New Year Day but the river had not crested, NEVER put-on a rising river. By late evening on Jan 1, I could see the crests on the upper and lower had a double crest in the forecast for Wednesday. This meant I would have solid water the entire trip, which I did.
Second condition, temperatures, in the summer you cannot stay hydrated enough to make any time, in January both mosquitos and gators are a bit tamer. For this trip I could not have asked for better temps 60s to 30s, and very happy it was not colder. The real bonus was the moon, which was just passed full which meant bright mornings. In order to cover 50+ miles per day in January you will need to paddle in the dark. At the water levels and gradient, the Brazos it is okay to do this but it is still risk, more on that later.
I launched a bit before 9am at Hwy 7 outside Marlin, Tx, with some spotty frost in the grass and a nice full flowing river. My wife and I said our goodbyes and off I went. The first river hazard is the Falls about 5 miles from the launch. I had scouted this year’s past at low water and would need a portage at low water due to some keepers on the backside. However, when I got there the water was running over and I passed on by with a little bump and a wave over the bow but that was it. There is another fall a little further down river but again high water was a blessing. I made about 45 miles by 4pm and camped on river right up on what was left of a large gravel/sand bar. There was a large log with some wood piled up which made for the only fire I would have the entire trip. After dark I noted the high bank across the river was producing calving off into the river all up and down the approx. half mile stretch. I also noted that some spots might calve off in small and larger pieces for almost an hour at a time.
The next morning, I was up and, on the water, just before daylight. I wanted to be on earlier but that fire made me lazy and kept calling my name. My next camp would be just south of Hwy 60 outside College Station. I started looking for campsites around 3pm and it took me 2 hours to find anything remotely suitable as ALL sand and gravel bars were covered by the high water. I found a steep bank cut which led up to a farmer’s pasture. I pulled the boat up and set up a hammock just about 30 yards outside the pasture fence line. As it was nearly dark when I got the hammock set up now cooking was in the dark also.
A fair night’s sleep but up and paddling the next morning (Monday) by 6:30 looking to make some miles. I also had to pass through the only real rapid on the river, Hidalgo Falls Class II. I arrived about 1pm and tried to scout it up on river right bank but could not see around the tight turn in the river but you could sure hear the rapid. I tried to climb up to the field above but was stopped by an electric fence. So back in the boat and swung wide left into the river to get a good look before I entered the rapid. I ran this a few years back at very low water and noted that the limestone shelf on river right should be covered in high water and would make a fair sneaker route to avoid the larger formations to the center of the river. After a quick look I decided that river right run was the plan and eased on through. The water was fast and loud with some standing waves which did a great job of cleaning ALL the mud of the deck of my kayak.
The mornings I am at my best and feeling my excitement of doing this trip, good paddle form and high spirits. By about 2:30pm my paddle form starts to slip and my spirit has turned a bit as again finding a campsite without mud, high steep bank, and dry is a real challenge. I did not find a spot until about 5pm, on river right at the beginning of a large bend in the river. By now I had learned to discern the subtle color variations that differentiate between silt and sand. A mix of sand meant possible firmer ground to pull the boat out and put a tent down. I found a low spot of sand and silt mix which was not steep and had a spot to pull up the boat then a little higher semi flat spot just big enough for my tent. I put down my ground mat then put the tent on that to keep the mud off the tent. A quick scout up the hill to the top edge of the trees I found a lot of coyote track. Shortly after I laid down for the night the coyotes showed up about 30ft up the incline from my tent. I do not think they sensed me at first as they began howling and once they started every coyote up and down the river for miles both ways chimed in also, it was quite the chorus.
Tuesday morning, I was up and paddling by 5am in the moonlight and noted the river had dropped about 2ft. Paddling in the dark on a river is a risk due to strainers, logs sticking up from the bottom, log jams, bridges and large eddy currents. This river there were few strainers at this level but there are some trees sticking up in the middle of the river. Even with the light current you can hear the water moving around them well enough in advance to avoid them. My principal concern on this river is log jams around bridge pillars. The jams are usually dark and silent so they are very hard to sense. When passing under bridges I would stay well away from the pillars due to potential log jams and also very strong eddy currents. I paddled a lot of rivers and know where to expect eddy currents at points in the bends. When I paddle in the dark, I run without any light as it will blind my vision, unless there is boat traffic then will turn on my navigation light. Usually about 1-2 hrs before sunrise a light fog will develop right along the waters surface which does not play well with any artificial light as it will reflect and blind you. It was a nice warm morning and I could hear the roar of Hwy 290 to the south. As noted, days prior the high banks were calving as the water was dropping. I came around a bend and saw a calve about the size of a large cooler that hit the water with a pretty good splash. Then about another half mile down I saw a calve that was about the size of a large freezer and produced a pretty good wake out into the river. I was careful not to paddle next to these high banks and was in the middle of the river. As I approached the spot and was looking at what had fallen into the river, I saw the entire bank begin to move including a fair size tree. Then wham it all hit the water and produced a breaking wave coming right at me. I had just enough time to point the bow into the wave and it broke over the bow and then broke again on the other side of the river. I estimated the volume that calved off to be about the size of a U-Haul truck + tree. If I had been paddling next to that bank it could at minimum hit and damaged the boat or worse injured or killed me. This is a real hazard on paddling this river especially with a falling river. You never know when it will happen right where you are. You would think the probability is low but the fact that it happened to me on first time down this river says, Stay Away.
By late morning the south wind had picked up and was really cutting into my speed down the river. The day was warm then about 2:30 I came around a bend and on river left there was a small amount of gravel bar with nice grass up in a cow pasture that was dry and mostly mud free. I was just south of Hempstead and north of Interstate 10 so I elected to call it a day and have a nice site and also a brisk Brazos river bath. While standing in the river finishing up, a couple cows show up for their afternoon drink, gave me a long look then made their way down to the river.
The next morning, I was no the river a little after 3am. I came by Stephen F. Austin State Park a little before sunrise then once passed I 10 could tell the south wind was already picking up. The river was particularly high in this section and only down about 2 ft from its crest. By afternoon the south wind was in full force and really cut into my distance. I also knew there was a possibility of thunderstorms from an approaching cold front. By 1pm I started looking for campsites and watching the dark sky to the west and by 2pm it was not far off with still no campsite to be found. By 3pm it was almost on me with some thunder not far off. I did not want to paddle in the thunderstorms and managed to find muddy steep bank to pull up the boat high and a small flat spot about the size of my tent. This was a small break in the high banks and there were some washouts going to the river, each with hog track in them. I have carried on a river only 2 times in 20 years and this was one of them. Just as I got the tent setup and everything thrown inside the storm hit with some high wind thunder and lightning which was all over about 5pm. I made my dinner then went to bed. About 9:15pm I awoke to what sounded like a steam engine coming right at me from the river. I laid there a few seconds before I realized it was a group of hogs swimming up the river right to me where they could get out of the river and get to the farm fields above, I was camped on their highway. The sound was their combined deep breathing while swimming. Before I could unzip the tent, put one in the chamber and stand up, there were 3 columns of pigs getting out of the river, 2 to the left and one to the right, about 10 hogs per column and 10ft from where I was standing. They were all around me and saw me stand up, on the move like and amphibious assault. I stood there with my 40 cal Glock with extra mag in my pocket and thought, if you take a knife to a gunfight, don’t pick the fight. That pistol was no match for 30 hogs and at that close a range they could turn on me and kill me in short work. I kept my cool and just watched as they were only interested in one thing, getting to their food in the fields above. After that I did not sleep well, wonder why. I was up by 1am and made my coffee, tea then oatmeal and was on the water by 2:40am. That stretch of river was thick with hogs. As I paddled in the dark I could hear them up in the woods making some of the wildest noises along with the constant coyotes and owls it was quite an active morning.
Another negative of paddling in the dark on a full river is finding a place to pull over and take a break. I paddled 5hrs without a break and found only a minimal location to get out and stretch my leg and take a break. This would be my longest paddle distance for the trip at ~65 miles, paddling on past Brazos Bend State Park and started looking for campsites by 2pm. I found a spot which had a low bank followed up to some grassy areas just outside the fence line of a pasture. The bank was a very silty mud and sunk up to my legs getting the boat pulled up to firm ground. This would be my last campsite as I was now about 50 miles from the Gulf and wanted to finish out the next day. The night was very quiet with no hint of any highway noise or hog track, I slept well.
I slept a bit later than I wanted but made my coffee, tea then oatmeal then packed up. Okay, it is game on as I am now within 50 miles and time to start paddling, 3:12am. Again, the water remains high and there is no place to stop for a break and I paddle straight until about 8am and pull over for a bio break and a snack. The river is now getting wide very slow as I approach the gulf with a stiff west wind that I have to paddle into on some of the bends. I stopped at the 2004 boat ramp and put my trash in a can up on the hill, stretch my legs then get back in the saddle for the final push. I knew I was getting close to salt water due to the barnacles on the pilings at the 2004 boat ramp. I had not seen another boat on the river in 390 miles and when I round the bend in Freeport near Hopper Field there are two fellas sitting in a flat bottom boat fishing. I said my hellos and they asked where I had started. I told them I was 390 miles into a 395-mile paddle and they thought I had been drinking. I paddle about another mile and they come up behind me and offer me a beer and introduce themselves, Roger and John. Of course, I accepted and told them a friend (Dale Harris) was picking me up at the boat ramp at the ICW. They motored on downriver and when I got to the ramp they had been talking with Dale and they had run into me and said I was drinking on the river. I got to the ramp stepped out on firm ground, pulled up the boat a bit then I opened that beer, a great way to finish a long paddle.
This river is marked with many wide (1-2 mile) bends with high (30-40ft) dirt banks on the outside and usually lower banks on the inside of the bends. The stretch from Marlin to Navasota has many taller hill sides and a few bluffs down to the rives edge, some with nice houses on them. The hills flatten out and become high banks one you get south of Navasota. Much of the river looks the same mile after mile. There was one bend to the left which looked exactly the same as one 100 miles upstream. The same high bank, trees in seemingly the same location and a pasture gate at the same point in the bend with a big oak to the right of the gate, a real Deja-vu.
I completed this trip with a much-improved skillset, spotting campsites. This river at these water levels was the void of any large easy up campsites. It would take 5-10 (1-2 hours) miles of looking in the afternoon to find anything remotely workable and even then, it was still crappy. I learned to start looking early and look for subtle terrain changes, color changes in the soil, ripples in the mud next to the river, breaks in the high banks which may have small flat spots that are elevated enough to be dry. I picked up on which locations to investigate further and which to let go from my river vantage point.
Other than farms the only industry along the river is found in Brazoria county, Dow Chemical. I noted the river to be relatively clean and trash free north of Hempstead. The farmers and ranchers pretty much have avoided dumping with exception of a few single home owners who believe the dumping anything they can find will help mitigate erosion. However, south of Hempstead the story changes. There were many turns with almost everything you can imagine from buses, cars and trucks, tires, appliances, culverts, and general trash that had been dumped in the river. This did not stop until I got passed Brazos Bend State Park. Below that point it is was much improved. Also noted are the huge majestic live oaks along the banks in Brazoria county.
There are only a few rapids along the route with the most significant being Hidalgo Falls (Class II) between Yegua creek and Hwy 105 outside Navasota. There are some other fast water sections and small rapids upstream from Hidalgo around some sandstone formations and also old lock and dams but this is mostly a flatwater river.
Beyond the feral hogs I did see the normal Texas wildlife. I saw my first bald eagle about a mile from the start and my last just north of 2004 in Brazoria county, they dotted the entire river. The mornings were filled with most of the wildlife from deer, foxes, coyotes, owls, racoons all along the river banks either getting a drink or searching for something to eat.
These types of trips are not meant for comfort, you must be prepared for hardship, so no luxury gear or steak dinners. Before I describe any of the gear I used, I will do the preverbal, “I am not a sponsor or have never been paid to promotes any item I discuss below”.
Water: The single most important item. On a river I carry about 2 days worth (7 liters) at the start and then filter as I go. The past 8 years I have used the Platypus gravity filter system which has served me well even on muddy rivers like the Brazos. However, in silt laden water you must back flush it often and find a place to hang the bag or hold it. The gravity filter can be a bit slow but I have always been able to make sufficient water and have never gotten sick. I got a new system for Christmas, the MSR Guardian pump filter. I had been reading about this one for more than a year and my wife got me one. I will have to say this little piece of equipment really saved me a lot of time on this trip. I pumped silt laden water straight from the river without a settling bucket at rate of one liter per minute. The water went from chocolate milk to almost clear in my jugs.
Safety: This includes the usual, PFD, throw rope, helmet for the few rapids, Delorme InReach, spare paddle, ditch bag, navigation light, and VHF. The Delorme InReach is my position tracker with SOS capability anywhere in the world. It also allows two-way texting. I also had my cell phone which had service the entire trip. I kept batteries charged with a small Goal Zero solar panel that I put on the deck in the afternoons.
Other Gear: The usual, tent, hammock, sleeping bag, stove, small camp kit, knife, food barrel, Cgear ground mat, camp chair, Ocean Kayak Trident 15. Also, appropriate clothing for cold and rain, neoprene socks and boots.
At the Hwy 7 ramp
First paddle stroke
Looking back at Hwy 7 bridge
Train came by while taking a break and gave me a horn blow
Saturday campsite at sundown
Wednesday’s campsite in hog Ville
Highbanks, just calved off small amount
Last nights campsite
Live oaks of Brazoria county
HWY 2004 Lake Jackson
Last picture at the ICW ramp
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