December 26-31, 2016
Put In: Little Webberville Park
Take Out: Matagorda County Jetty Park at Gulf of Mexico
Total Distance: 268 miles
First I want to thank my family for their support of this trip. I drove down to Austin and with two of my boys and they returned my truck to Plano then my wife picked me up in Matagorda.
I have had a bucket list item for many years to paddle one of the major Texas Rivers from the last significant dam to the Gulf of Mexico for some time. The Colorado made the short list for some reason rather than the Brazos or Rio Grande. The Brazos is a much longer trip and the Rio Grande many times does not have flow to the Gulf any more. I had wanted to start at Hwy 183 rather than Webberville. I had planned on paddling in the dark for the first 20 miles but when we arrived it was fogged in as is typical for the river bottom and the Austin water flow gauge was at <200 CFS. So I went to a ramp I knew well to start my adventure with plenty of river flow. There was no moon and paddling in the dark is a challenge, paddling in both dark and fog even more so. I used my old standby Ocean Kayak Trident 15 for this trip. All human waste was buried under a min of 6” of sand and at least 8’ above the river level and >150’ from the river and TP was burned and I made use of toilets in parks along the route when I need them. All trash was packed out and placed in receptacles along the way. The only thing I left were two bungie cords around a tree at the first nights camp.
What I have learned over the years is that there is no such thing and trying to get all the conditions aligned to make one of these trips, weather, time off, water flow, you just have to set a date and go. As it worked out the weather for the week was near perfect but a little warm for me the first 3 days. The water flow was less than I had hoped for but enough to get on downriver.
I got on the water at 6:50 just as it was getting daylight; I was on my way to complete what I had planned for a long time. This first 30 miles of river was very familiar to me as I have made it a yearly event to make a 3 day trip over the New Year’s holiday with the Dallas Downriver Club that I belong to. It was a very warm morning for Dec 26 (72). Soon I was down to no shirt just my shorts, pfd, and my paddle.
I like to travel light so only 1-2 days of water at a time and dried meals for dinner and cliff bars and peanut butter for breakfast, tortilla and peanut butter for lunch with lots of snack food such as almonds, cashews, trail mix, payday and snickers candy bars, venison jerky with two luxury items. I had two cans of Wolf brand chili and some Fritos. I saved my Chili and Fritos for cooler nights to come later in the week. As you paddle this many hours per day you burn through a lot of calories and you must pack calorie dense. After the first 3 days of caloric burn and eating peanut butter and cliff bars for breakfast, PB and tortillas for lunch then a dried meal for dinner your mind is now owned by FOOD. I would round a bend in the river and smell some rancher cooking breakfast; yep that is bacon and another morning unmistakable buttermilk biscuits. The mornings were fabulous, I was well rested and full of excitement that here I was doing what I wanted to do. The afternoons were worse now you are really hungry and the ranchers have their smokers fired up and you can smell that meat is a cookin. Now you are like a bear drawn to camp thinking I wonder if I would get shot if I just walked up and asked what is for dinner and wondering why am I doing this? All this to pass the time with the continuous rhythm of the paddle in your hand and the motion of it sliding through the water, plop plop. After singing 99 bottles of beer on the wall a few times you have to find something to occupy the hours of exertion. In the afternoons I really had to watch my paddle form and not slip into an inefficient form as that builds the fatigue faster and slows you down. Oh, I forgot to mention I did make an extended stop in LaGrange for some food. I pulled the boat up at a ramp at the old hwy 71 bridge then walked up Travis Street through downtown. Across from the courthouse I found a café and ordered coffee first then a bacon, egg and cheese panini and a chipotle panini for lunch later. After that I walked down to the HEB for a couple of apples, Dr. Pepper, and the one thing I forgot, toothpaste. This stop cost me about 90 minutes but mentally the food brought great joy later that day.
The first 3 nights were in my hammock along the rivers edge and were very warm and no campfire. I just lay on top of my bag rather than in and watched stars and listened to coyotes and owls until sleep took over within minutes. In order to make the daily mileage I wanted (40-50) I needed to paddle in the dark some. I choose mornings because I am an earlier riser and I like to use daylight to find a suitable campsite with trees for hammock if possible with a gentle slope to the river without mud but rather a mix of sand and gravel. The latter nights I was not able to find suitable hammock sites and the wind was dictating finding sites out of the wind along a lee side of the river. I managed to find some beautiful sandbars with ample firewood to heat my cans of chili. The recipe is really simple, light fire, open chili can, set can next to fire then turn and stir occasionally, heat to desired temperature then consume. By the way, I did not use a single match on this trip; all fires were started with dried material I found, some dryer lint soaked in Vaseline and the use of my handy fire steel.
For this trip there were 3 portages around dams two of which I had not seen before. The first was the Garwood dam is at about river mile 105, 28 miles below Columbus. The portage is on river left and is very steep but not far down the rivers edge. It took me about 30 minutes to unload enough weight to pull the boat up about 15 feet then down the rivers edge and back down 15 feet to the water. The rapid that was there in the shoot on the just left of center is runnable but is a good class 3 and most any other circumstance I would have run it. The second dam is about river mile 55, 10 miles below Wharton with portage on river right. This was very straight forward up and over a 2-3ft concrete barrier down some concrete and back into the river. I took me 15 minutes. This rapid is runnable but not advisable as it is a good class 4 with a pretty significant curl on the entry to the first wave that might be boat turning keeper. It is not worth the risk for 15 minute portage. The third is at river mile 30 about 1 mile down from Bay City. This one is marked by LRCA as not portagable. About 0.1 miles upstream on river left there is a small section of mud and slope to pull one boat up to. From there it is about 20ft up to the pasture then another 0.3 miles downstream to a reasonable slope to re-enter the river. This required 1:40 hrs and significant physical exertion on my part to make this portage but I had come 237 miles and NO was not an option. The bank was slick from that mornings rain and the mud hugged the hull of the boat like a suction cup so I had to lift and push or pull every foot for the climb to the pasture. Once to the pasture I used myself as the reindeer and the boat was the sled to pull it across 0.3 of miles about 75 ft at a time then rest and repeat. Once I got the boat to the top of the river bank I knew I could get it done it was just a matter of pulling it. Once back in the river at 1:25pm I knew I had 30 miles to the finish and my blood was pumping with anticipation, get this done. Also I might note that the LRCA has some really great maps of the river from Austin to the Gulf with items like boat ramps, parks, highways, transmission lines, pipelines marked so you can really pretty much follow your location with these landmarks.
I was just upriver from Columbus when that strong front came through about 2:30 Thursday morning lying in my hammock and then the wind went slack and awoke me shortly after that the wind changed direction and I knew it was game on. Get the tarp down fast and pack up. There were some brief showers and by 6am the wind was steady 30 and by 7am gust to 40. I got on the river about 5am with the wind mostly at my back. I made some stops at the ramps in Columbus looking for water but there was none so that meant I had to filter later that evening at camp. I managed to find time paddling the longest northern track of the river the morning of that front. I had a good 2-3 miles into the wind through Columbus and it took what seemed like all day. Once past Columbus instead of cursing the wind I was now one with the wind.
I thought I would devote a brief paragraph to the topic paddling a river at night. The Colorado is a slow moving river so paddling a river at night does not get much easier but not to say it is still not a butt puckering endeavor. Of course I would have preferred moonlight but the trip dates could not be planned around that. I had navigation light but did not use it; it was there only if there was other boater coming, which never happened. At night you must dwell on what night vision you do have and use what light there is to make out the edges of the river and rely on your hearing and feel of the boat movement in the current. Your most significant concern is a getting swept down into a strainer. You listen for the sound to the water and stay away from that and keep mostly to the center or the highest bank. If you feel the boat being pulled by the current across the river beware as you are likely on a shallow sand shoal and getting pulled to even shallower water keep the boat pointing downriver and provide some resistance to the side pull. I also kept the boat slowed down to provide more reaction time. I was wearing my headlamp but only turned it on as I approached objects I could make out in the river, mostly logs but some rocks also. I only hit one log which was just submerged over the 5 mornings I paddled in the dark. The things you cannot see are islands and the paths around them and looking downstream for significant log piles and routes which may be blocked or hazardous, once you get into those it is hard to make a change of plans. Also, you cannot see current patterns to know how the river is following, we call this reading the river so at night you are paddling by brail. I had one morning of getting caught in a large eddy current with the boat doing a twirl in the current. Finally, as I mentioned you dwell on your heightened sense of hearing to tell you where there is fast water or water moving through a strainer or around logs. When it is raining all that is now drowned out by the white noise of the drops hitting the river. I had one morning when it started raining on me about 30 minutes after I got on the water and continued for about an hour. I elected to keep paddling rather than pulling over and it all worked out for me.
I have paddled many rivers across the states and every state has their shameful blight. The Colorado has sections of beauty and sections of disgust. As you paddle down from Webberville to LaGrange there is some trash and items that ranchers have dumped in but not near what is down from LaGrange. If it does not function or serve a purpose then you can tell where it goes, over the bank and into the river. I know that most ranchers think it will help with erosion but it really does not in the long term. I saw no less than 3 dozen engineered erosion control structures erected by cities or by pipeline companies and only one is still functioning for now. All of them have failed to perform what they were intended to do; the river is going to do what the river wants. It is shameful the blight that this river has is some parts. There was one sandbar south of Columbus about 42 miles from the GOM on river left which there had to be no less than 400 tires. I thought I could find it on Google Earth but the image is not recent enough. If I do find it I will send it to LRCA.
Now for the better parts of the sights, sounds and people. The river has many bluffs between Webberville and LaGrange and the trees mostly hardwoods with some pines near LaGrange. As you progress about 20 miles south of LaGrange the landscape noticeably changes to coastal prairie with the first mesquite trees and then some live oaks. By the time you reach Bay City the great majestic live oaks tower in patches along the river. As for wildlife I saw bald eagles from Webberville all the way to Matagorda. There were many deer, otters, coyotes, bobcats and a lot of cows with one stuck in the mud just outside Columbus. On my second morning I had two owls that kept flying over me and followed for about a quarter of a mile or more. I am not sure if they were curious or wondering if they could make an attempt to eat me. One thing that did amaze me is that I did not see a single hog on the entire trip. I almost always see hogs along this river in the mornings. I don’t know if it was just too warm to get them stirring or if the ranchers are really starting to get their population down. Once past Bay City I knew I was getting close to the salt water when I saw a mullet jumping in the river then a pelican sitting on a log followed by a seagull ending with the sound of angry surf. I saw only a few people fishing on the river and a few ranchers waved as I went by. I talked to a few fishermen and one wanted to know how far I was going, I said this is a dead end river; he was young and did not comprehend the verbalization so I had to explain it to him. On the last day I left the FM521 Bridge about 4:30 pm knowing I would attempt to finish before midnight and paddling in the dark on this section was straight forward as the river is wide and no detectable current flow. I did turn on my navigation light as there is some barge traffic through this section and many riverside homes. I was motivated to finish for two reasons first was food. I knew there was a seafood restaurant in Matagorda before the ICW near the base of the bridge the other was I wanted to finish in 2016. Just before dark I paddled by a home owner sitting on his dock and he asked a few questions about my day so I elaborated on my journey and my dinner plans. I wanted to park the boat at a riverside campground then walk to the restaurant. He inquired walk really? I replied I have paddled 267 miles I think I can walk one for dinner. Then he laughed and said the placed burned down a couple of months prior. My attitude immediately sunk as now dinner was going to be cooking a dried meal at the jetty very late. Then he said no worries they opened up a new place south of the ICW about a mile further down. I quickly thanked him for his conversation, time and information, wish him Happy New Year’s and said I had a dinner to catch. Of course as I paddled down the last few miles on New Year’s Eve every homeowner has their own personal cookout going. I arrived at the Riverbend restaurant about 8:30 and ordered their largest platter with all the fixings. The salad arrived and was gone in seconds then the platter with shrimp, oysters, crab, fish and hushpuppies and a baked potato. I was better now so back in the boat for the final 6 miles.
I arrived at the jetty at 10:40pm. I pulled up my kayak above the most recent high tide mark and pulled out my bag spread out on the sand and laid down. It had been a 17 hr. day with 60 miles and portage around 2 dams with one costing significant physical exertion for me. There were a number of people shooting off fireworks up in the parking lot so it was a bit loud. Then about 11:40 there was a large bang and crash up in the parking lot. I got up and there were women running and screaming then men hollering. A truck had run past the point where FM2031 ends and into the parking lot into parked cars and people. I watched as the men pulled the driver from the vehicle and commence to beating and slinging him across the parking lot. Later the state, county police, ambulance, and firetrucks showed up followed by two life flight helicopters. As the police were in the parking lot there were other drivers down on the rivers edge doing donuts and driving recklessly closer to me. I do not know the outcome of those injured nor the driver but thought to myself I had so many peaceful nights on the river only to feel in danger once I finished.
I really enjoyed this trip and I had not been on the beach 10 minutes and was already thinking of what my next adventure might be.
Here are a few photos. I did not take many as I wanted to keep the boat moving.
First nights camp
[Second nights camp
[Railroad bridge in LaGrange. Got it at the right time
Sunrise before Columbus Thursday
About to be south of I10
Sunrise before Wharton on Friday
One of many Bald eagles along the 268 miles of river
Hwy 59 in Wharton
Railroad bridge in Wharton
Dam 1 mile below Hwy 35 in Bay City
Sunrise New Year’s Day at Matagorda
Matagorda Jetty New Year’s morning
My track down the river. The change in colors represent different days and thus where I camped each night
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