Houston’s, Buffalo Bayou
Written by Terry Ward
Afloat on the Buffalo Bayou, visitors gain a unique perspective on the USA’s fourth largest city. Houston’s central waterway flows past woodlands dense with cypress trees toward the city’s sparkling skyscrapers and urban gardens, before continuing to Galveston Bay and the shipping lanes of the Gulf of Mexico.
Afloat on the Buffalo Bayou, visitors gain a unique perspective on the USA’s fourth largest city. Houston’s central waterway flows past woodlands dense with cypress trees toward the city’s sparkling skyscrapers and urban gardens, before continuing to Galveston Bay and the shipping lanes of the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve ogled Houston’s sprawling cityscape from the air, strolled past the restaurants and funky boutiques of Westheimer Road, and driven along the rushing highways of this enormous city. But today’s mode of transport lends a different vantage point entirely. I’m in a kayak, afloat beneath the steep banks of the Buffalo Bayou and paddling gently east toward the city. Suddenly, Houston feels brand-new.
In the mid-19th century, the Allen brothers, John and Augustus, founded Houston along the Buffalo Bayou. And the muddy waterway remains the city’s central artery – the lifeline to one of the largest shipping ports in the world. But Buffalo Bayou is also a natural resource of great importance, offering recreational opportunities for both residents and visitors. “It’s a great urban experience and a natural experience too,” says Trudi Smith of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership (www.buffalobayou.org), a coalition charged with developing and facilitating improvements to the waterway and its surrounds.
I start my paddle just west of Memorial Park at one of the official put-ins on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Paddling Trails system. Buffalo Bayou’s paddling trail is 42 kilometres long, but the waterway stretches 83 kilometres from Katy to the Port of Houston. In the western section, cypress trees and live oaks lining the bayou’s banks make the city seem far away. I spot a turtle in the water, then pause to watch an egret stalking the shallows.
As I approach Waugh Drive Bridge, the smell of bats and high-pitched chirping assault my senses. Crowds gather here every evening to watch the bridge’s resident 250,000 Mexican free-tailed bats make their nightly exodus to feed (they’re most numerous from March to September).
Soon, Houston’s impressive skyscrapers materialise, including the Heritage Plaza Building and the NCNB Center. At the Sabine Promenade, an award-winning park (it was lauded with the American Society of Landscape Architects Award of Excellence in 2009), a redevelopment project introduced 300,000 plants, more than 700 trees, and new access points to the bayou, along with hiking and biking trails. A bit farther downstream, a surprise artwork awaits.
In a hidden niche on the Preston Avenue Bridge, artist Dean Ruck mounted a single red button.
No instructions accompany the installation, but curious passersby who push the button are greeted with a big hydraulic bubble that gurgles up from the bayou.
“The Bayou offers a nature resource for people who want to learn more about the city, but also enjoy the outdoors,” says Lawrence Mason of the North Lake Conroe Paddling Co. (www.northlakeconroepaddlingco.com), which runs guided kayak tours of the bayou. Pontoon boat tours take place on the second Saturday of the month. And there are bat colony boat tours twice monthly, from March to October, as well as history tours and private boat charters.
My own paddling tour ends at Allen’s Landing, the site of Houston’s founding and home to the city’s first port. It’s a fitting place to finish – for paddling the Buffalo Bayou has certainly felt like a discovery of its own.
Buffalo Bayou ArtPark
Rotating public art exhibitions by local and international artists are displayed on the sloping banks of the Buffalo Bayou, near the Sabine Street Bridge. Here, too, look for permanent stainless steel sculptures of overturned canoes by local artist John Runnels; the canoes serve as gateways to staircases descending to the bayou.
Waugh Drive Bat Colony
Visitors are surprised by the abundant wildlife along the Buffalo Bayou. A highlight is the Waugh Drive Bat Colony, with some 250,000 Mexican free-tailed Bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) dwelling under the Waugh Drive Bridge. People converge nightly on the bayou’s north bank to watch the bats make their sunset exodus to feed; the winged mammals are credited with keeping the mosquito population in check.