Monday, April 28, 2008

Paddling Angelina

Wherein Merriwether tells of his trip down the Angelina river rather than a movie he watched one night alone in his hotel room.

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Unfortunately it wasn't exactly the weekend spent exploring nature I had hoped for...

Thirteen of us had been planning this trip for over four months. Then Fuzzy Buster had a Great Fall and his clan had to back out. Then others had had more minor problems pop up until we were down to four. Then Kmat smashed his foot under a peice of pipe and we were down to three. A very worried three at this point. It seemed the expedition was cursed before ever starting.

It was to be a grand trip down the Angelina River from the Sam Rayburn resevoir down to Martin Dies, Jr State Park. It's billed as a peaceful, scenic river flowing through deep forests where Native Americans once roamed. Beau, Beau's wife and I met up Friday night at Martin Dies, Jr State Park, a two hour drive from Spring, Texas. To get there just head up hwy 59 to 190. Head east on 190 to 48 North. 48 North takes you to the park's main headquarters where you need to get your camping permit, then you head back out to hwy 190, turn left and then almost immediately right onto hwy 48 South into the main campgrounds. It's a great campgrounds with all sorts of ammenities including sites with water, water & electricity, and RV spots. I definately plan on taking the family up there some weekend. The bathroom/showering facilities were AMAZINGLY clean! Like, "better than many hotels" clean! If all State Parks are like this it'll be easy to get Misseswether out in the woods more.

Uh, but I digress (slightly).

Anyway, we cooked up steaks for supper, chatted and listen to several really horny bullfrogs. Thes guys were looking for serious action, which considering all the signs warning people about the large number of alligators in the area, seemed like risky business. But then I know how I get when, uh,...but I digress.

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Our campsite in Martin Dies, Jr. State Park. Being lazy, I just slept in Red Rider rather than set up a tent. I really hate putting up/taking down tents.

The next morning Firefly was loaded onto Beau's truck and we made the 20-mile drive up to the Sam Rayburn Dam to launch. The launch site is actually a pretty steep cliff about 20' high and cement blocks at the bottom. It was also filled with very friendly fishermen who chatted with us while we got ready to set out. They also took great delight in pointing out alligators to us as they swam by.

Big alligators.

With lots of teeth.

Which was really cool. Unfortunately they were all to far out to get good pictures.

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So here's a picture of Beauu loading his canoe. The dam floodgates are behind him to the left. The Army Corp of Engineers releases water from the dam into the Angelina every morning at 9:30am and then again as needed to control the reservoir level. This doesn't have much effect on the Angelina as it's already a large river and the extra water doesn't change things much.

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Firefly loaded up with camping gear and two day's worth of food & water. She's an AWESOME kayak!

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Heading down the Angelina.

It was a beautiful river with a nice current and beautiful trees on either side. Then after about a mile or less it turned into a river with houses, cabins, mansions and shacks on either side. Also, not a sandbar to be seen. It turns out once you are on the Angelina you are pretty much stuck, so be sure to go potty before launching.

Seriously.

After a little over an hour we came to the hwy 63 bridge where there's a nice bar right on the river. We considered stopping in for a hot lunch and cold beers but decided to stick to our original plan of finding a sandbar, building a fire and cooking lunch.

I already mentioned there turned out to be NO SANDBARS.

There were a lot of boat launches, however. Which meant there was also a lot of boats. Big, flashy bass boats with huge engines that tore through the water at high speeds and throwing up huge wakes.

"Peaceful" is not the word I'd use to describe the Angelina on Saturday.

About five hours after launching we came to the one sandbar that we had positively identified on Google Earth. It's almost exactly half-way through the trip and our plan was to camp there that night. So of course it was filled with a bunch of drunk partiers (first picture in this post). I hung with them a little bit and cooked my lunch over their fire while Beau and his wife chatted with a proudly racist fellow with a 7th-grade education. Soon afterwards we packed up and headed downstream in hopes of finding someplace else to crash for the night. Considering this was the first sandbar we had seen in about over ten miles we figured we might end up sleeping in our boats.

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Looking for a campsite of the beaten path...

I suggested we paddle up one of the many tributaries to look for a place to spend the night. Most were beautiful cypress swamps which I thought held a lot of potential, but Beau's wife was concerned about alligators. Considering we are currently in alligator hatching season when female alligators are at their most aggressive, this was probably a valid concern of hers.

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Still, they were very pretty and not easily travelled into by drunks in speedboats (thought that would have been REALLY entertaining!).

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We eventually did find a small clearing just big enough for two tents and a fire just upstream from the small "town" of Bevilport. Oh, to camp along the river you need a free permit from the Army Corp of Engineers which you can get from their office next to the Sam rayburn dam launch site during normal business hours. You can also call them at 409-429-3491 for the permit. They actually have a number of nice campsites set up along the river, but most are just a few miles upstream from Martin Dies, Jr. State Park which would have made for a long long first day and way too short of second day on the river.

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Supper. Mmm-mm good!

Supper was hamburger mixed with assorted stuff, wrapped in foil and cooked over the fire. These are often called "Hobo Dinners" or "Silver Turtles". Make 'em and freeze them before you leave on an adventure and they'll be good for sseveral days if kept in a cooler on ice (Thanks Kat!). Easy to cook, no dishes to clean up, just about the perfect camp food.

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Two pounds of hamburger, barbecue sauce, onion flakes, Worchistererer-er-er-whatever sauce, and seasoning salt all mixed up. Serve a chunk on a bun and that's some mighty fine eating! Beau caught a catfish but it wasn't big enough to eat.

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Night falls on Beau, his wife, and me (not in picture).

It turns out there was a small, stagnant pond right behind our camp and once darkness fell the thickest swarm of mosquitoes I've ever seen in my life descended upon us. Luckily we had plenty of bugspray with which twarted them them. Woo Hoo for chemistry!

Along with the mosquitoes came a brilliant night sky. There weren't as many stars as over Big Bend but way more than above my backyard in Houston. Better still, fireflies came out a danced through the trees and over the river. It was magical and I took it to be an omen that I'd given my kayak the right name.

Morning came to a still and quiet river. Yesterday's power boats and jet skies were gone...

Then a helicopter showed up and started flying a search pattern just around the bend from us upstream. It flew back and forth as we had breakfast. it flew forth and back as we loaded up. It flew forth and forth as we set out down the river. It flew back and back for the next two hours. We were wondering if there was and escaped convict in the area or if someone had drowned. The river twists back and forth on itself so as the crow flies we didn't get very far away from this noisy air-beater.

Finally the copter broke off its pattern and zoomed by just over our heads. Turned out it was a crop dusting bird.

The stretch of river from Bevilport down to Martin Dies is much nicer than the pervious day's section. There weren't any boats, though most of yesterday's boaters were either hung over or at church (or both) and the weather report called for rain. Better still (though too late for us) there were a number of offical campsites set up along the banks of the river. They were very nice looking,with picnic tables, areas cleared for tents, fire rings, etc... and they were only accesible from the river. Supposedly they only ever get used by hunters so the rest of the year they sit empty. You do need the free permit I mentioned earlier.

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Campsite.

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Close-up of campsite sign.

By this point we were almost back to Marten Dies, Jr. State Park. Rather than paddling into BA Steinhagen Lake to get to our final landing spot we were able to cut through a swamp channel directly from the river over to the boat launch. The morning paddle took about four hours though we could have stretched it out exploring many more side swamps. However, a cold front was blowing through and it was supposed to bring rain. Beau and wife took off in her car to get his truck from the Sam Rayburn dam while I loaded Red Rider. The rain hit just as they returned. We quickly loaded up his stuff and then parted ways until our next adventure.

And now for "What Did Merriwether Learn"

1. Martin Dies, Jr. State Park is very nice.
2. Be careful when launching your kayak after it's been beached for several hours. A very large snake may have decided to curl up underneath it.
3. With the proper motivation, I can walk on water (see #2 above).
4. You need a strong bladder to paddle the Angelina river.
5. It's a pretty river but it's not a place I would reccomend taking a watercraft with under 125 horsepower.
6. "Silver Turtles" rock after a long day paddling.
7. Bug spray!
8. There are nice campsites along the river but they are all close to the end. One could either paddle upstream from martin Dies, Jr. to them and then explore all the swamps. That would be fun.
9. My "Liquid Logic Manta Ray 12" kayak is great, but it's hard to keep up with two people paddling an 18' fiberglass canoe.
10. It is possible to make instant oatmeal by carefully pouring boiling water into the oatmeal's pouch, letting it sit a few minutes, then digging in. Yummy and no dishes to clean up!
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All in all it was a good trip, just not what I had expected. I prefer to get away from people and explore new places where few have ever gone. It's hard to feel like an explorer/adventurer when jet skies are whizzing by you at 60 mph. Oh well, it's still WAY BETTER than sitting home watching TV.

Unfortunately, due to the large number of overnight adventures I've been on lately. Misseswether and Miniwether have asked that I refrain from adventuring for ten weeks. I agreed, but with the stipulation that if Spring Creek gets a enough water to paddle some weekend I'm taking Firefly down it. Suprisingly, Misseswether agreed to take that into consideration. Man, she's the best!

Peace be with you.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Bats of the Congress Ave. Bridge

I spent last night in downtown Austin so I could attend a conference today on sequestering CO2 underground. My hotel was two blocks off of 6th St., live entertainment capitol of the world. Rock, reggae, jazz and even country/western music sailed out every door...

So I went to look at 700,000 bats instead.

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The bats under Austin, TX's Congress Ave. bridge are a big tourist attraction. From late March until until early fall hundreds of thousands of bats move into the creveses underneath this bridge. At sunset they all take off looking for food. It's most impressive. The river banks and the bridge's sidewalk are filled with people waiting for the bats to emerge. Pretty much a nightly, bat-themed party! Late in the summer the bats come out at dusk and so you can easily see them as a big, dark, squeeky cloud (assuming you can see bat squeeks). Last night they didn't come put until it was full dark. The only way we could see them was by the flash of cameras. Luckily, there were dozens of cameras going off for the whole 30-minute bat launch. I took dozens of pictures, the ones above were probably the best.

Oh, and here's on of the Texas State capitol as seen from the bridge.
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The capitol is the capitolly looking thing at the bottom center of the picture.

Peace be with you.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Some Berry Good News

Wow, last Saturday's birthday blast was amazing. Our house ended up packed wall-to-wall with people! Friends brought other friends and family to the event because:
a) they knew it'd be alright
b) they knew it'd be a good time

Thank you all for the birthday wishes. They really make me feel loved, which is a nice feeling, indeed!

Sidenote: Real, authentic Alabama moonshine kicks serious ass (and brain and liver).

Anyway, I'm not sure if any of the photos from the event are suitable for public veiwing. If so I may put one or two up, but we'll see. I'm still swampped at work plus I have another big weekend river trip coming up. Time seems to be a short as extra spending money. :-(

The good news on top of all this is it's berry season again here in Houston. The wild blackberries, dewberries and mulberries are everywhere! I'm thinking it's time to make some jelly and wine. I know the Wethergirls are pumped. For the next few weeks dessert will involved peddling down to the edge of the neighborhood and gorging ourselves on fresh, sugary berries. Woo hoo!!

Peace be with you.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Reaching Apogee

So, here I am.

Suprisingly deep in that undiscovered country.

Only, it's not so undiscovered anymore.

Basic math coupled with family history suggests I'm almost halfway through it.

Wow, it's amazing where one can end up in the blink of an eye.

In my case, it's standing on a mountaintop named "40".

The view behind me is pretty amazing, but the view ahead is covered in fog. I catch the occasional glimpses through the mist, but it's hard to tell if what I see is real or just cloud shapes...

Wow, 40 trips 'round the sun...it doesn't seem possible. I should still be that five-year old boy who decided to walk to grampa's farm in a hailstorm without telling anyone...

I'm not complaining, I'm just a little shocked. 40 is what my dad should be, not me.

Certianly not my ex-girlfriends!

Sidenote: Missewther is much younger than me and is still in love with me. That rocks!

So, how does an adventurer celebrate turning forty?

With a house packed with friends, laughter, the clink of glasses, and lots of hugs.

It should be a great time.

And afterwards?

Then I get to play with my new toy.

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I call her Firefly

Adventure! Excitement! Birthday!

Friday, April 04, 2008

That Which Can't Be Captured...

Clark and I took over 600 photos in our attempts to capture the beauty that is Big Bend. The following pictures are some of the best.

Compared to reality, they all suck.

There's no way to catch the wide open vistas that fill one's vision. As soon as I saw what we were up against I realized from past experiences attempting to photograph magnificant views that our pictures would be just shallow glimpses. So be it.

Let's begin.

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The road leading to our first/last night campsite, Glen Spring #2. The is limited to high-clearance vehicles.

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Glen Springs #2 campsite, The nearest campsite was about a mile away, over five miles to the next two and more than twenty to the nearest ranger station. 104 degrees F during the day (but it was a dry heat) and 60F at night. The Milky Way was almost blindingly bright once the sun went down. Coyotes sing you to sleep. The large lump is Elephant Tusk Mountain, about ten miles away.

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Another veiw of Glen Springs #2. The actual springs are about a mile to the northwest, near Glen Springs #1 campsite.

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The arroyo behind Glen Springs #2. It was filled with the tracks of javalinas and other animals.

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Clark and the Arroyo. The crystal clear air negates any ability to judge distances.

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Another arroyo.

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Something glittered out in the desert. Clark and I checked it out. It was a grave from 1917.

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Beyond the grave were the ruins of what we think was a cattle station.

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The Window to the World. After a beautiful night in the desert it was time to head into the Chisos Mountains along the Southern Rim Trail. Our goal was over 2500 feet above us along a twisty, six-mile path.

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And the views were amazing every step of the way: The Laguna Meadows

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Another shot of the Laguna Meadows.

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A view of the trail ahead of us.

We started hiking at around 5100 feet above sea level. Our campsite, SW4, was over 7300 feet above sea level. I've been working out on a treadmill for over a year so my legs were fine, but the air was definately thinner up there. I've never really been bothered by my missing a 1/4 of each lung, but this hike left me gasping. The 50 pounds of gear, food and water on my back didn't help any. It took about six hours to make the six-mile climb to our campsite.

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SW4, which is considered to be the best campsite in all of Big Bend...

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Because you are only a few steps away from the edge of the world...

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On a cliff thousands of feet high...

With a view few others than God get to see...
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There is something magical about sitting on a mountain top watching the sun set.

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Clark joins the mountain wind.

Eventually we had to go to bed. The climb up wore us out and so even the brilliant stars weren't enough to keep us awake. During the night clouds rolled in and soaked everything with dew. We were actually higher than the clouds so when they hit the cliff face tendrils of mist whipped up and over the edge towards us.

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It was absolutely amazing.

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But eventually it was time to hike back down. The trail is actually a 12-mile loop so we had new sights the entire way down.

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The rock changed every hundred feet or so.

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Sidenote: there's a reason they say "Stay on the trail!". I'm going to really miss Clark, but his cookset rocks!

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There were a number of springs along the trail, but Big Bend is currently in a drought and so the water needs to be left for the animals. Hence I had two gallons (16 pounds) of water in my pack at the start. I finished with a little over 1 quart left.

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Entering the Pinnacles.

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A view of Casa Grande Mt., still hours away from the end.

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Another view of Casa Grande.

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Back at the start. Clark managed to free himself so I gave him his cookset back.

Adventure! Excitement! Touching The Sky!