Thursday, June 22, 2006


There's a fine line between genius and insanity but in your case it's more of a fence.
-Quote from coworker to me today.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Merriwether: Beginnings

I was cold, but even when the hail started I wasn't too concerned. I had my favorite "Minnesota Twins" jacket on and I pulled my knit cap down over my face for protection. I was one mile out of town and had another mile to go to get to grampa's farm. A week earlier my folks had brought my cat, "Snuggy", out to the farm because it had developed an issue with marking his territory. I really, really missed Snuggy and during class that day I decided I was going to go see him. So, when my kindergarten teacher let us out I headed north out of town instead of to home.

Of course, I didn't tell anyone of my plan.

I really missed my cat. The cold wind and dark clouds of that early Minnesota spring day didn't deter me in the least. I knew where grampa's farm was. I knew it was "two miles away" and in a car we got there right away. Walking there didn't seem like a problem. I really, really missed my cat.

The hail was small but it was starting to hurt and the rain had soaked me. I could see a large hubcap in the ditch and thought I could hold it over me for protection (I also thought it'd make a cool toy flying saucer!). When I picked it up several small field mice scattered from underneath it. That was really cool! I think I might have felt bad for the mice though because I put the hubcap back down. I don't remember exactly why I did that.

Back then my dad drove a little, blue 4-door Dodge Dart. When I saw the car pull up I was a little relieved and a little bummed. I was proud that I made it as far as I did but I was soaked and freezing. Dad's warm car was going to feel nice and I'd get to see Snuggy that much sooner. I ran up to the car and...

It wasn't my dad. It was some stranger that had a car like my dad's.

He asked me what I was doing and I stood in the rain and hail and told him about Snuggy and how I was walking to my grampa's farm to see him and there were field mice under the hubcap and...

He had me get in the car. He said he knew my father. He drove me to grampa's farm.

Grampa and several of my uncles were there. They had me stand in the kitchen so the water dripping off me wouldn't hurt anything. I stood there wet for a long time. They might have given me some hot chocolate but that part of the memories are fuzzy.

They sharpen up again with the memory of dad's little blue car racing up into the barnyard. It was still raining when dad got out of the car in his own storm of anger and relief. It had been hours since kindergarten had let out and mom/dad had been worried sick. He marched me to the car and then memories get fuzy again. He may have lectured me or maybe we drove home in silence. I do remember rain running down the car's windshield and I remember being sad because I never did get to see Snuggy*.

When we got home mom and dad put me in their bed and covered me in blankets. Dad returned to work and I think mom brought me something warm to drink. I was still in their bed when dad got home that evening and he lectured me more about how worried they had been and that I should never do anything like that again. The words "catch pneumonia and die", "worried sick" and "mom was in tears" were used.

That all happened thirty-three years ago. Last week I got an e-mail from my dad. In it he asked that I stop messing around alligators because I might get eaten. My poor parents have had thirty-three years of me wandering off into the woods, blowing stuff up, encountering dangerous animals, getting trapped in New Orleans with a hurricane heading towards it, etc...

And that's just the stuff they know about. =:-0

Dad & mom, I'm sorry. I know I've put you through a lot. If it's any concillation, my stomach clenches up whenever I see Miniwether running down the driveway in her flipflops. She's fast but kind of clumsy and has had some pretty spectacular wipeouts. She may well be your revenge for all I put you through. Or maybe that's just a normal reaction to a normal kid.

Adventure! Excitement! Child endangerment!

*Epilogue: The next day dad drove me back to grampa's farm. Just before we got there we spied a shape in the road. I got out of the car and kicked it into the ditch. Then we turned around and went home.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Running the border

Texas includes 267,339 square miles, or 7.4% of the nation's total area.

It's an eight hour drive from Houston to the bordertown of Rio Grande City, Texas.

Eight long, flat, boring, empty, dusty hours.

But now things were becoming exciting.

The river looked a long way down, but as the bridge bounced I could easily imagine the water rushing towards at, uh, whatever the terminal velocity of a Ford 150 truck would be after falling 100 feet. One arm of a guardrail had already broken off which allowed me to guage just how much the bridge was flexing. It wasn't reassuring. Six inches seemed like a lot of flex.

There river below us was the Rio Grande, infamous border between the United States of America and Mexico. I and a coworker were spending a week analyzing oil for Pemex. They were having problems with asphaltenes. We were there to fix the problem. Each morning we would leave our hotel on the USA side of the border and drive an hour to the "lab" in Mexico. Actually, it was a pretty good lab for Mexico. It had a fume hood and real glassware, not just an open window and empty Coke bottles. It also had air conditioning!

USA side of the border.

The Bridge.

The Rio Grande River.

Mexico side of the border.

Camargo, Mexico.

Who ya gonna call? Asphaltene-busters!

Now, I love borderlands. I love their mystery, their freedom, their "blood-in-the-mouth" beauty. I love poking in ruins and prowling through unclean places. I love not knowing what I'll find. But Lord have mercy, the USA-Mexico borderlands are a hellish place indeed. Well, the Mexican side anyway.

The bridge between Rio Grande City, USA and Camargo, Mexico is not used by tourists. This is a bridge for 18-wheelers loaded with goods crossing to and fro between Mexico and the USA. Trucks loaded with Mexican bricks cross the bridge to feed our mad construction market. In the other direction American 18-wheelers loaded with compressed stacks of cardboard enter Mexico on their way even farther south. Apparently Guatemala can't get enough high-quality American cardboard.

I don't know why they want the cardboard.

All I knew was everytime a truck got The Wave from the customs offical it would thunder across the narrow, highly-flexible(!) bridge. Everyone wanted The Wave from the customs man. It meant, "we trust you, come on through". No searching. No questions. Just a wave. The truck would roar by and the bridge would bounce. We learned to keep the windows rolled up so we wouldn't hear the"skkkkkkrrrrriiiiiinnnn" sound made by the straining metal. It was very un-nerving. We just wanted to get back across the bridge, have supper, then crash in our hotel rooms. Please mister USA Custom's Man, we survived crossing the damn bridge of doom, now just wave us on through.

Crap. We got The Point.

The Point means we pull over.
They search the truck (Mexican license plates, loaned to us by the field engineer).
They question us.

No sir.
Loaned to us sir.
No sir.
Yes sir, April of 2004.
No sir.

Crap, they want to look in the truck's toolbox, but we don't have the key. The border agents search us and the truck for keys that'll fit the lock. No luck. The agents glare at us then huddle to discuss what to do next.

They give us The Wave!!! What the heck? Don't they know we could hide a nuclear bomb in that giant toolbox?! You search the truck but if there's a locked box you just let it slide through?! Ye Gads!!

Of course, I don't push the issue.

It was a heck of a week. Up early, work late, pick random things off the menu to eat for lunch in Camargo's only restaurant, try to avoid the Mexican "police", hope for The Wave, spend half the night on the toilet, etc...

On the other hand, the guys in the lab were really awesome and treated us like family. We never had to clean a dirty piece of glassware or breath the fumes in the solvent storage, and if we needed a Coca-Cola, Bam! An ice-cold one was in our hand before we could finish the request! More importantly, they really knew their chemistry and the unusual characteristics of the Mexican oil. Their extensive knowledge of the problem coupled with our chemical products knocked out a solution in one week rather than the expected one month! Eric, Javier, Paul and the rest totally rocked. The next time I'm in hell I hope they are along for the ride.

Of course, word has it I'll be going back soon.

And not just one more time.

They have six more problematic wells.


Adventure! Excitement! Borderlands!!

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Sweet interlude

It was a busy weekend involving a birthday, a wedding and work so I don't have any tales of adventure. Instead, you get pictures of Miniwether and Misseswether:

Miniwether at relatives in California.

A loving family

Miniwether's first ocean.
I'm so bummed I wasn't there for this. :-(

Small gals, big wave!

Mmmm, a man in uniform...
Miniwether started out by woo-ing the pilot, then everyone in the seats around her. She even talked several people out of the cookies from their in-flight snack!

Tired travelers.
I asked Missewether's permission before posting this picture. She said, "Go ahead, you've posted worse!". Now I feel bad.

And then she was three. Like toast landing butter-side down I can verify that when dropped, a birthday cake will land frosting-side down. :-( Luckily Missewether had frosting-topped, cake-filled ice cream cones to keep the celebration going.

Wow, Miniwether's third birthday...

Adventure! Excitment! Parenthood!

Monday, June 05, 2006

First Descent!! Part 2. (Part 1. Here)

Water that's just two feet deep can move with enough thrust to carry away an average-sized vehicle.
-Warning in AAA brochure.

Water over fifty feet across and ten feet deep moving at 600 cubic feet per second can produce, uh let's, multiple the mass of water by its approximately 8 pounds per gallon...convert the area...carry the six...well, I don't know except that it's somewhere in the Dante-newtons level of force (in otherwords, a whole hell of a lot of force!)

Clark and I were still celebrating our success when the pipeline came into view. The last time we had been here the water was low enough to let us pass under the pipline. Not this time.

This time the pipeline was half-submerged and the water was boiling over it in a roaring froth. We weren't too worried though. After successfully getting Seeker's Fate over fifteen deadfalls a little pipeline didn't seem a threat. We aimed for the middle and hit it square on. In the past Clark usually would jumped onto the deadfall then I would swing the canoe parallel to it and join him. Then it be a few seconds work of heavy lifting to get her up and over. No problem!

We pulled up to the pipeline but before Clark could get onto it the current swung us around and slammed us against the steel pipe. My innate sense of physics warned me this was not a normal situation and I yelled at Clark to start heading the canoe to shore! The force of the water had begun to shove the starboard side of Seeker's Fate down. Water started pouring in! I threw myself to port to try and raise the starboard side up! That worked for a moment but the water would not be denied! The next thing I knew I was tossed from the canoe as it and Clark were flipped over and disappeared UNDER the pipeline!

I'd like to stop her a minute to thank God and that poor, unlucky Guardian Angel he assigned to watch over me. That G.A. has hardly had a moment's rest ever since I discovered gasoline at the tender age of seven. It was so cool! I had poured gas through a small hole into a hollowed out, 5-gallon block of ice because I wanted to see fire burn inside of ice. Who wouldn't?! Anyway, I started to drop a lighted match through the small hole into the puddle of gas. The next thing I knew I couldn't see, my ears were ringing, and large chunks of ice were crashing down onto me, dad's car, our neighbor's car, the roof of our house, etc...

Actually, now that I think of it the G.A. was already working overtime well be before that. When I was five I decided to leave kindergarten and walk in a hailstorm two miles out of town to my grampa's farm.

Uh, but I digress.

I surfaced just in time to be slammed into the pipeline. Instinctively I grabbed on and tried to figure out what to do. Downstream I saw the canoe bobbing upside down followed a few yards back by Clark's head. I had a brief moment of relief when I saw his head was still attached to his body, then I was sucked under.

Tumbling, choking, slammed, tangled.

Then, the SURFACE!! Air, and light. The canoe ahead of me. Clark hanging from it. Me catching it. Sputtering. Swimming it to shore.


My seat cushion bumped into my leg and I grabbed it. We flipped Seeker's Fate over and discovered nothing was lost but Clark's bag of snacks. I make it a policy that everything in the canoe is tied to it somehow. Davy Jones is a greedy, greedy bastard and will take anything not tied to your ship. Everything was tethered to Seeker's Fate. Earlier in the trip I had been questioning this habit as it made using certian things more difficult. After this swamping I no longer question the practice.

We sat on shore for a bit catching our breath. Seeker's Fate was filled to the brim with water, but on the plus side all the twigs, leaves and spiders had been washed away. In fact, the canoe was looking cleaner than ever. I'm going to have to remember that trick...

We bailed out the canoe, reattatched our gear (yea, tethers!) and set off once more down Spring Creek. By this time it was well past 1pm. We were battered, bruised, waterlogged and tired. As we shot the mini-rapids under I-45 we decided to cut the trip short and pull out at Riley-Fuzzel (is that a great name for a road or what?!). It's only an hour from I-45 to Riley-Fuzzel through peaceful, deadfall-free, pipeline-free waters. Halfway through it we caught up to some fellow paddlers and swapped stories until reaching the takeout point. We dragged our canoe up the hill then went back and helped the other canoeists. Clark called his wife, she came and got us, we loaded up and went home.

Well, we didn't make the whole journey. But we did succeed in going where no one else had and that was the whole point.

Yesterday we discovered that The Woodlands is going to build a new neighborhood along Spring Creek in the area between Kuykendahl and Gosling roads. They will be putting in a 1,700-acre park along Spring Creek with all sorts of ammenities including several canoe/kayak landings. They'll trim back the brambles, remove the deadfalls and lay down concrete paths. The alligator will probably be driven out. Weekend paddlers in $1,500 kayaks will coast sweat-free past beautifully maintained flowerbeds and think they found heaven...

But Clark and I did it first with blood and pain in a battered, forty year old canoe named Seeker's Fate.

Ready to launch at Kuykendahl.

Behind me, the Kuykendahl bridge.

We tried sawing through the first deadfall, but that didn't work.

Brute force saves the day.
(Note to readers, my ass isn't really that large, it's just a bad picture!)

Oh, another one.


More beauty.

Followed by another deadfall...

And another...

And the biggest deadfall of all...
(Note: The banks of Spring Creek through here were spotless, though mainly bacause the floodwaters washed everything up into the deadfall dams.)

Oh bouy!
It's hard to make out, but I'm holding a 2.5-foot diameter fiberglass bouy. We haven't the foggiest idea as to how it ended up here!

Gosling Road Bridge.

More beauty


Behind me is the pipeline which flipped us.

I-45 Bridge.

If you bleed on it, it is yours...

Adventure! Excitement! Exploration!

Saturday, June 03, 2006

First Descent!! Part 1.

God protects fools, little children and ships named Enterprise Seeker's Fate.

I read once that to become legendary, great success is not enough. In the end you must fail spectacularly. This was not a particularly comforting thought as I clung to a partialy submerged pipeline crossing the raging floodwaters of Spring Creek. Downstream I saw Clark bob to the surface next to the swamped Seeker's Fate but I couldn't tell if he was okay. I couldn't hold against the force of the water any longer and with a final gulp of air I was swept underwater. My face struck the bottom of the pipe, knocking off my glasses, yet somehow in the maelstrom I felt them hit my hand and I caught them. Tossed and turning under the water, feet hitting the branchs of downed trees, cord on my hat choking me, then bursting to the surface in a gasping spray of water!

Cool, I'm alive!

Clark was ahead of me clinging to the flooded, upside down canoe. I caught up to them and we swam Seeker's Fate to the muddy bank. We struggled ashore and tied the sunken canoe to a tree. Then we burst out laughing. For the third time that day (if you include the alligator "incident") we had danced on the razor's edge and sustained only shallow cuts.

Let's go back six hours. Our plan was to paddle from the Kuykendahl bridge to Jesse H. Jones Park. To our knowledge nobody has ever paddled this section of the stream from Kuykendahl to Panther Branch Creek. So at 6am and brimming with explorative excitement, Clark and I tore our skin off dragging the canoe a quarter-mile through thorny bramble to where Spring Creek passes underneath Kuykendahl Road. It took us an hour to get Seeker's Fate through the undergrowth, but at 7am we launched the first descent of this stretch of Spring Creek. Cypress Creek is considered passable from this road, but I've found no record of anyone launching into Spring Creek this far upstream. Recent rains had Spring Creek flowing at just under 600 cubic-feet-per-second. According to the lady at Southwest Paddlesports Spring Creek is best paddled between 150 and 400 cfs. 600 cfs was only 50% higher than recommended. We figured the extra water would make it easier...

Trees formed a beautiful canopy over us as paddled away from the bridge. Birds were singing, fish were jumping, and the water was flowing fast and burbling vigorously. It was unbelievable awesome and I'll have pictures up in a few days. My waterproof camera survived, but we aren't sure yet if Clark's digital camera has. It fell into the water as we were pulling the canoe over our fifth deadfall. Clark dived in after it and somehow caught it before it had sunk out of sight. But when he climbed back onto the log water poured from the camera's delicate electronic innards. The SD card is probably okay, but there's little hope for the camera.

This section of Spring Creek is stunningly beautiful, but to get through it you need to be able to balance on slippery, muck-covered dead trees while pulling your canoe over them. The banks weren't conductive to portaging around the fallen trees and thanks to Hurricane Rita, there were LOTS of fallen trees blocking our path. It quickly became apparent that this was a fool's errand. Luckily we were the right fools for the job! It was wonderfully challenging and we were having a blast. No one had done this before and quite frankly, no one probably ever will again (least of all us!).

Not every tree was touching the water. Some were suspended inches to a couple feet about the water. If there were a few inches of space between the bow of the canoe and the tree we could usually sneak under it if we I laid down backwards. Clark had an easier time as he could lay back into the canoe. I could only lay backwards across the rear bow which meant I needed more clearence to get through the "strainers". Each time we did this dozens of spiders, leaves and twigs would shower down into the canoe as we scraped through the branches. Due to the flow rate we shoot through these barriers very fast. That's how we ended hung up on a branch by my throat.

We had come around a corner and hit a strainer with just a second to react. We threw ourselves backwards and shot into a flurry of branches. Then something had me by the throat and was crushing it as the water continued to try and pull Seeker's Fate downstream! I was trapped against the back of the canoe for long seconds then suddenly the 2" wide branch snapped, releasing me. It hurt like hell but that's a small price to pay when cheating death.

Things calmed down a little after that. We reached the Gosling Road bridge a little before 10am (launched at 7am) and the number of deadfalls dropped somewhat. Instead of every 200 yards they appeared every 500 yards or so. The river started twisting back and forth in many S-curves and hairpin turns. Easterly progress dropped dramaticaly. The area was still stunningly beautiful though so we didn't mind. Every bend revealed a new paradise untouched by man. We were intoxicated by the ravishing scenery, so when the huge alligator exploded out of its burrow under a tangle of tree roots we were rather suprised.

Okay, maybe "suprised" was an understatment. Unfortunately "screamed like large, manly schoolgirls" might be a bit more accurate. In light of the recent alligator attacks, this screaming should be allowable when a 10-foot long alligator is charging towards you! Then for whatever reason it dived beneath our canoe and disappeared.

This was such an incredibly cool adventure!!!

We paddled. We floated. We climbed over deadfalls and squeeked under deadfalls. By 10am we were only 5 miles away from I-45 as the crow flies, but it ended up taking almost three hours to get there. We paddled, we floated, we climbed over trees and squished under trees. After a long, hard journey of exploration we reached known territory. We frikken did it!! We made the first descent of Spring Creek to Panther Branch Creek!! WOO_HOO!!! WE ROCK!!!

From there it was only another ten minutes to I-45 and another five hours to Jesse H. Jones. It was after noon by the time we reached Panther Branch but the weather was suprisingly beautiful and the flow rate was FAST. We figured we could make it to Jesse H. Jones Park before it closed for the evening. No suprises lay ahead.

Four minutes later we were struggling to survive.

To be continued...

Adventure! Excitement! EXPLORATION!!!