Friday, October 24, 2008

Paddling Lake Paula??? Part 2

Finally, the long-awaited part 2 of exploring north of the Calvary Road causeway, into Lake Paula and up Hostetter Creek. Just to remind you of where we left off, we just finished with the line truck clearing fallen timber from a power line we didn't know existed.

Picking the narrative back up at spot E (the second of the two spots labeled "E"), this is a good place to orient ourselves for the northern half of this paddle. The photo to the left shows the view to your left as you paddle north. This is the breakwater between the inlet proper and Lake Paula. Note the dead sunken timber, some of which is still rather large and erect and not very sunken, at least not yet. There are a couple more persimmon trees in this picture, both growing on the breakwater.

If you look to your right, there's a marshy area with some convoluted pathways for Hostetter Creek water to get into the inlet proper. There's also a ton of birds up here: big herons and egrets and lots of duck. There are also some raptors up here we haven't identified yet and well as some birds we northern transplants have never even seen before. If you blow up the photo here, there's a lovely egret hiding in it.

Here we are at spot F. Now you can clearly see a lovely little neighborhood full of nice lawns, pretty houses and all sorts of little dredged boat channels all fed by Hostetter Creek. We're going to paddle north here and then turn right along the northmost shoreline.

Here we have paddled along the north shoreline to spot G, where we can go no further. This is as far east as we managed to go. And here we turned right again, to briefly go south and circle what turned out to be a little island, complete with foot bridge. We first tried to go further up Hostetter Creek, which on the Google Earth images, looks like it should keep going aways - but alas we couldn't get through and still get the kayak turned around. A little sit-on-top kayak might not have to same problem as we did. While Ascospore's 20 foot length makes her really really fast, getting something that long in and out of tight little creeks is not what she does best.

And here we are at spot H, where we've turned right yet again, to head back west, circling the little island. It was like our own little secret stream channel...though it was really a dredged canal. The little island, unexpected with it's little bridge, was cool.

Here's a view a little further along the channel around the island, still paddling west.

Having paddled a bit further and fully circled the island, we had a choice at this point to go back the way we came in or to veer to the left along another channel. We went to the left and found we could get back to the inlet proper heading through some shallow water with encrouchments of duck weed and other copious water plants. The photo is at spot I, where we discovered we could get through. It was fun since we were sure we'd get stuck and have to turn around.

At this point, we did try to go up what we thought might be another outlet for Hostetter Creek water but we couldn't ge through. Lots of fun poking around. Tons of birds through here too, not to mention sagans and sagans of fish.

We decided to make for one of the gaps in the breakwater and enter Lake Paula proper. Having done so, we turned north and found this forlorn broken and half flooded peddle boat (spot J), which obviously had escaped someone's dock and been blown to this spot during the hurricane. We debated what to do here since it look like it might be salvagable but had nowhere to leave it so someone might claim it. The peddles looked like they still worked though it was obvious the steering mechanism was broken. Poor little boat. We ended up leaving it. I never did find a spot where there might be a registry of lost and found Lake Conroe boats from the hurricane. As you can tell from the trip map, we then paddled in circles along the north end of the Lake Paula breakwater and then turned around to head back home.

Now we need to go back to the lower half of the map. After going in circles and poking down many little channels and coves, our route home went fairly straight south.

Here we are at spot K, where we found some interesting pens but up by the State of Texas Dept. of Parks and Wildlife. I have no idea what they are for.

Now according to one of my fishing maps, and confirmed by the number of fishing boats we've seen in this area, between these pens and Stow Away Marina is another hot spot for fish, especially black bass. I have yet to confirm this for myself.

Here we are at spot L, almost back to Stow Away, where we scared up a flock of ducks. Did I mention that this area is filthy with birds?

Here along the north side of Stow Away is a place where you can rent a kayak, at the North Lake Conroe Paddling Company. You can go to the website for these folks and see their selection, which appears quite substantial. Personally, I don't think I'm thrilled with the owner's choice of life preservers, but that's just my opinion. I do think your "PFD" however should be fitting firmly under the arms such that you are supported in the water without the PFD running the chance of rising above your neck and not keeping the mouth and nose out of the water in the event you get a head injury or just plain pass out. And I don't like the concept of inflatable life preservers since if you're unconscious, you can't inflate it after the fact. But what do I know? I've only been boating for almost 50 years and only had at least one friend and fellow experienced boater saved from certain death by his life preserver when he was unconscious in the water. Anyway, that's just my personal take on things like safety. You can't plan accidents - that's why they're called accidents afterall - you can only plan to be prepared for the accidents. Safety should always trump comfort, especially with PFDs. Regardless, check out the website if you think you might rent from these forks - AND call ahead too. The only day they are guaranteed to be there is on Saturdays.

And that's it, folks. We're at the end of the trip in the inlet north of the Calvary Road causeway, where much exploring and useful time killing was successfully carrieds out. It certainly beat sitting around in the heat in the non-air conditioned house waiting for the power to come back on after Hurricane Ike.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Just a brief mention:

I've put a up a small embedded, interactive Google Maps® display of our trip up the San Jacinto River from Lake Stubblefield at The Big Room, since I don't think we can do that here on Comments welcome.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Intermission: Lake Conroe Dam Damage From Ike

This is a picture of damage at one of the marinas along route 105, not to far from the dam. I swiped this photo off the Sand Jacinto River Authority website, which now have a page dedicated to Hurricane Ike pictures. It's worth checking out at:

I have no idea how long the SJRA sill leave this page up but until they take it down, go put some eyetracks on hurricane damage 80 miles inland of Galveston. I don't know if the photos are in the public domain so it's probably safe to go ahead and assume that the SJRA owns the copyright.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Paddling Lake Paula??? Part 1

Here's the GPS track of our paddle on the 20th of September, a week after Ike blew through the neighborhood. If you click on the picture and blow up the track, you'll notice we did a lot of wandering in the inlet fed by Hostetter Creek, in and around a spot called Lake Paula and up Hostetter Creek as far as we could take the Ascospore and still get it turned around (that's the downside of having a 20-footer when paddling narrow streams...).

So here are some details on the relevant geography north of the causeway for Calvary Road. First there's the non-lake called Lake Spiller, an area of water just across from the Stow Away Marina and bordered by the Loch Ness Marina and RV Park on its northside. This "lake" existed before Lake Conroe did - though some locals called it Lake Renee instead. When Lake Conroe was created, Lake Spiller was submerged into the bigger body of water. Lake Paula, on the other hand, isn't a real lake. It's a part of Lake Conroe in terms of contiguous water but it is walled off, so to say, by a breakwater. The breakwater has three gaps in it, two of which are impassable in low water and one which is good no matter what the lake level is. More on this in a bit. Let's finish the geography before we get to the trip details.

On this trip, we also headed across the lake to the inlets of a minor unknown creek and the Sandy Branch of the San Jacinto River (or at least, that's what we assume it's a branch of). Doing so involved rounding Johnson Spit, which is the little point immediately to the north of Corinthian Point. So again, we're exclusively north of the causeway of Farm-to-Market Road 1097. It's not that we dislike the south end of the lake - it's just that we haven't even caught up with all the trips we've done in August and September yet (one of which does go south - for pizza!). I'm not going to cover the other-side-of-the-lake portion of the trip today. For now, the focus is on the myriad joys of poking about Lake Paula and Hostetter Creek.

Alright, here's a triplog of padding Lake Paula, Hostetter Creek and environs north of the Calvary Road causeway. We started our trip the weekend after Hurricane Ike blew through. We were still without power in fact. Getting out of the house and onto the water was a natural escape from the dark and air condition-less house. We put in at the marina at the Corinthian Point Yacht Club and headed north to the causeway. Below are some photos of the hurricane damage along the shoreline - and keep in mind that there's been a week of cleaning up already...

This is a picture of the damage to the breakwater and docks at the Corinthian Point Yacht Club Marina

Here's the dock and bulkhead damage at the condos at Corinthian Point

Busted dock and dead peddle boat

Heading north between Johnson Spit and Corinthian Point, you soon come upon the causeway and bridge for Calvary Road. Going under the bridge takes you to our first stop, Stow Away Marina and RV Park. Let's take a quick look here at the trip map:

If you eyeball that GPS track for a second, you'll see that's it's pretty convoluted. So we have taken the track and broken it down into a series of stops shown on the next two maps. But before we move on, note that some of the paddling path is on dry land according to the USGS topo map. Guess what? It's all little inlets and swamp and dredged small craft channels in there along Hostetter Creek. There's lots to explore. There's one last thing: the topo shows dry land in the northeast corner of this trip. The Goggle Earth images are worse: it looks like we must have walked the kayak around on mushy ground to do our trip...not so! The Google Earth images were taken in 2006 when the lake level was deliberately dropped many feet to repair the damage to Lake Conroe Dam which was inflicted by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. In a way, the Google Earth images are good in that they show where the underwater obstructions and shoals are which you can't see when the water level is up.

But I digress...

Here are the trip maps with the stops labeled in order, starting with "A."If you blow up the map on the right, you'll see that stop A is Stow Away Marina.

And here is stop A at Stow Away. We've mentioned this marina before. They are the largest marina facility on the north end of the lake, with a store, extremely-overpriced gas, docks, a boat ramp, lots of parking, an RV park, and pretty friendly people. There used to be a restaurant at Stow Away but it's been closed for a while now. The owner of Stow Away would love to find someone to run the restaurant again but it hasn't happened yet. If you want to launch your kayak from here, the put-in fee is $5. Now if you recall, we took this trip a week after Ike. The photo above and to the left is of some of the Ike damage at Stow Away, namely a boat name Belle that has gone drunkenly askew in her boat lift, hence the caption for stop A: "drunken belle."
Stop B isn't really a stop. It's the site of former Lake Spiller - or Lake Renee if you prefer. I've crudely dotted in the approximate boundary of the former lake. In the Google Earth image from 2006 with the low water, you can see a remnant of a southeast shoreline berm of Lake Spiller in the form of a spit. To the right (east) of this feature is some sunken timber that is just under the surface of the water when the lake level is full. The deepest water along the former lake is along the former and current west shoreline.

Stop C is Loch Ness RV Park and Marina, which has recently come under new management. It seems like the current focus of Loch Ness is lakeside camping but they do have a boat ramp. I've not been over there yet to ask if they allow non-camper kayak launching and if there would be a fee. Regardless, it is a really pretty RV park, and as an RV owner myself, I find the lakeview-at-every-hookup concept very appealing. It turns out that this RV park is actually on old business. It's been around since before Lake Conroe was filled. It originally opened up as a shoreside campground on the edge of the national forest along the banks of a nice little lake, called either Lake Renee or Lake Spiller, in what was then a very reclusive spot, out of the way and off the beaten track. While Loch Ness is no longer as isolated, it is still somewhat secluded compared to the southern half of Lake Conroe, and since the paved roads vanish just around the bend from the turnoff into the campground, it has remained a fairly quiet spot for those wanting to get away from the madhouse of Houston.

Spot D is the persimmon tree. To get there from Loch Ness, all we did was paddle north to where the breakwater around Lake Paula meets up with the west shoreline on the Johnson Bluffs side of inlet. The breakwater does not actually shut off Lake Paula from Lake Conroe proper. It stops just shy of that but you can't see that until you are right on top of the gap. The boat channel in and out of Lake Paula goes through that gap. There are always folks here in their fishing boats or on the shoreline rigged up for bass. Almost all of them are very nice to the kayak crowd since they too appreciate calm quiet water. I've seen a lot of folks catch a lot of bass right around that gap but I haven't quite puzzled out what the water conditions are that attract the fish to this spot.

Now right at the end of the breakwater is a tree which we first though was a crab apple tree - because the unripe persimmons really looked like the crab apples I grew up with in New England. We took a sample of the fruit, almost but not yet ripe, when we realized we were mistaken about the crab apples. It didn't take us very long to identify the fruit as the American (as opposed to Japanese) persimmon. We have since discovered that there are at least three more persimmon trees planted along the Lake Paula breakwater. These persimmons were coming ripe during the last week of September and the first week of October - but next year, if you come to pick, remember to leave some for others. I know we have a picture somewhere of the persimmon tree at the end of the breakwater but I could not find it to post up to the blog.

After we visited the persimmon tree, we decided not to enter Lake Paula at the gap for the boat channel but preceded east to the first spot labeled E. (I screwed up on the graphics - there are two spots labeled "E" on the map.) We paddled to this location because we spotted something quite unusual. We heard machinery noises and saw something in the trees. So we went to investigate.
This is a photo of what we saw from across the lake at the persimmon tree - and couldn't figure out what we were seeing. We thought there were just trees there, afterall.

What we found was a electric line truck cutting down tree-fall from Hurricane Ike and fixing a power line we didn't know existed. Since then, we have found that there is no real road there but there is a power line right-of-way through the forest on the east shore of the inlet, the trace of which is clearly visible on a Google Earth or Google Maps satellite image once you know where to look for it. These utility trucks were a very welcome sight for those of us who were still without power.

Now I've been writing up this blog and pulling together all the photos and GPS tracks for the last several days - and at this point, I'm going to go ahead and post and finish the rest of the trip log in a day or two. I think at this point, there's enough here to justify doing this in parts.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Where to put in, part 2: Lake Stubblefield

If you have the time and the gas, up by the Stubblefield campground in Sam Houston National Forest is a great place to put in for no money. Now a 20 foot kayak like ours can be a bit of a challenge to manuvere in the some of the tighter spots this far north in the narrow channel of the west fork of the San Jacinto River which feedw the north end of Lake Conroe. Officially, the water up here is wither the river or Lake Stubblefield, an ox bow lake connected to the river. Officially, Lake Conroe is considered to start 5 miles to the south. There are power boats up here, but nothing like the south end of Lake Conroe proper, even in the Summer. There are a lot of places to paddle and and explore and fish up here. Did I mention fish? Not that I like to fish or anything like that, but there is fishing up here and lots of fish to catch too. You do need a state fishing license to fish at Stubblefield. As far paddling up here, well, that's another post...

Directions: Stubblefield Campground and the adjacent bridge and boat ramp and river bank are on the north half of Stubblfield Lake Rd. To get there, you can either take your best route to Farm-to-Market Road 1375 and go north on Stubblefield Lake Rd. about 3 miles, or you can take your best route to Farm-to-Market Road 1374 and go south on Stubblefield Lake Rd. about two miles, depending on whether you're coming up from Houston and points south or from Huntsville and points north, respectively. Both FM 1375 and FM 1374 connect up with I-45, so either way, it's pretty easy to get to. Be warned that it's very very popular with the fishing set and on a Summer day, the walkways on the bridge bristle like porcupines with fishing rods.

Standing on the bridge on Stubblefield Lake Rd. looking west. There's a NFS notice board on the left right before the walkway over the bridge. Behind it is my SUV parked on the south side of the road, along the one place you could easily put into the water. Behind is where you can park along the road - both sides of the road. In the far distance is the entrance to the NFS Stubblefield campground. The campground is a fee area. The parking along the road, the river/lake bank and the little boat ramp on the east side of the bridge is free.

This is what the end of the little boat ramp looks like on the east side of the bridge at Stubblefield. The top of the little ramp is paved with aging asphalt. The bottom is dirt with gravel.

There is even more free parking on both sides of the road on the east side of the bridge too. Just don't park too close to the bridge in the no parking zone, which is adequately marked with no parking signs

I just can't leave this with no mention: I have to protest this sort of blatant discrimination! No fishing with more than three Poles? What are they afraid of? Air pollution from four Poles farting after eating too much kielbasa? What about three Poles who are overweight? Or three Poles and a Ukranian? The Ukraine used to be part of Poland after all...

I have to wonder: what if I'm fishing by myself and four Poles wander by. If a ranger stops at the same time because there are four Poles present, am I guilty by association? These rules and regulations are getting really ridiculous.

Where to put in, part 1: Forest Service Road 204 south of FM 1375.

One of the most annoying things about paddling Lake Conroe is the lack of free and easy access for paddlers. Almost all of the boat ramps cater to the powerboat crowd and charge accordingly. You might think that a person could just drive to one of the developed Forest Service areas like Cagle or Scotts Ridge and put in their small craft without using the actual ramp to do so - but the Forest Service already has a clever dodge in place to collect fees from paddlers who avoid the ramp: the fee they charge is not for the ramp but for parking your vehicle at the ramp parking lot. Clever little bastards...

Not that you can blame them much for charging fees for something that used to be free, at least back when I was a kid. Both the Forest Service and the Park Service have been hammered by budget cuts and inadequate funding ever since Reagan took office. They do a huge job with cookie jar cash flow. To make up the short fall they have to charge fees. To be honest, I don't begrudge them for their fee collection though I do recall grumbling a bit about it when I was a starving grad student and had a lot less money to spend.

The boat-ramp parking-lot fee at Scotts Ridge is currently $5 (subject to change without notice). If you have one of the federal omnibus access cards (@$80/yr for non-senior citizens) for federally-managed lands like national parks, forests and wildlife refuges, the parking fee is $2.50.

Let's face it, there's always going to be someone who loves paddling but is short on cash. This article is for you. There are places to put in for free. The first is the boat ramp at the end of FM 830, also known as Seven Coves Rd. The good part is that it doesn't cost anything. The bad news is that it's powerboat city on the powerboat-dominated southern half of the lake. You need to paddle a ways to get to quieter water or you want to paddle at times when powerboat traffic is low, like earliest morning, rainy days, non-Summer weekdays and most of the Winter.

Another spot to put in is at the southern terminus of Stubblefield Lake Rd., also known as Forest Service Road 204 (FS 204). The get there, take your best route to FM 1375 on the west side of the lake. The turn onto Stubblefield Lake Rd. is approx. 4 and 1/2 miles from the junction of 149 and 1375 and approx. 9 and 1/2 miles from the junction of I-45 and 1375. You want to go south on Stubblefield Lake Rd./FS204, in the opposite direction from the NFS Stubblefield campground. FS 204 heading south is paved for slightly more than 2 miles, after which it becomes a well-graveled dirt road. Just keep going straight on FS 204 until you can go no more - unless you want to tear your transmission out driving over the berm to sink your car into the lake...

Stubblefield Lake Rd., also known as Forest Service Rd. 204, looking north from the parking place next to the lake.

There are three paths from the parking area to the lake, all of them short. If you walk straight, you go over a berm onto the mushy ground between the berm and the lakeshore. When the water is at full-level in the Lake, the ground is too swampy to walk on. It will also be covered in slippery swamp grass and there will be a small pool in the way that is difficult to get around. When the level of the lake is down, the pool dries up; however, there will still be muddy ground to cross to get to the water. Wear your water shoes or a pair of shoes that you don't mind getting covered with slimy mud.

The berm at the southern end of Stubblefield Lake Rd. as seen from the parking area. Click on the picture to get a larger view.

The view of the pool that forms when the lake is full. My kayaking partner is standing on the berm in this picture. The boat launching ramp in the distance on the opposite shore is the Scotts Ridge facility that belongs to the National Forest Service.

The second route is a path to the immediate west of the parking area, not as good as a real blazed trail but slightly better than a deer track. Walk northwest on this path for about 200 feet. It curves at the end to the left and heads a short way (~100 ft) to the water. At high water, you then need to cross an apron of tall swamp grass and mushy ground to get to the water. At low water, the grass won't be there but the mud will still be around. Keep an eye out for snakes in the grass because they're there. The previous warning about shoes applies.

The way out to the lakeshore from the path to the west of the parking area. This picture has a clearer view of the Scotts Ridge boat ramp.

The third route is a path to the east of the parking area. Walk east-southeast about a 100 feet to the small primitive camping spot and then turn right on the path directly to the lake. Again there is swamp grass and mushy ground between the trees and the lake but there's a lot less of it than the other two routes. This is probably the best of the three choices since the ground is just a bit firmer and the amount of mushy ground to cross is a lot less. (I was seriously tempted to drive some old planks out there and plank a pathway across the grass to the water.)

This is a view of the path to the east taken from the parking area.

This is a view of the parking area taken from the primitive camp spot along the east pathway.

This is the path from the camping spot to the lake shore. The path goes right between the two trees in the center of the photo. The big branch that's there now is debris from Hurricane Ike. If it's still there in the future, it will easy enough to walk around though you'll have to navigate some big spiderwebs to do so.

This is the rest of the path to the lake shore from the camping spot. There's a large dead tree limb in the foreground of the photo which should make life just a tad interesting while doing portage of your paddle craft from the parking area. The tree trunk in the middle of the photo marks where the ground begins to get a bit mushy. It's mushier to the left than to the right of the tree trunk. At high water, you're less than 12 feet to putting in. While the ground here is better than the west path and the path over the berm, it's still mushy right at the shore - so some mud is unavoidable. The grass does go right up to the shoreline, though, which is the only reason why this site is workable at all for putting in.

For any of these paths to the lake, a small lightweight sit-on-top kayak is probably the best best. That way, you could at least deslime your water shoes easily in the water once you got going on your kayak. Somehow, I don't think putting your muddy shoes into your enclosed-style kayak is something anyone would like to do. At least with a canoe or a pirogue, you would be able to get the shoes to rinse them in the water once you were launched - but for a large enclosed 20-foot kayak like our tandem Ascospore, the mud is a real pain...

The mushy ground is really the problem when putting in at the south end of Stubblefield Lake Rd. That's the hidden non-monetary cost of using undeveloped access to the lake. If you have room, you might considered taking three or four 8 ft planks with you and making your own planked path across the muddy stuff. Considering all of the dead planks I've spotted in the post-Hurricane Ike debris piles around the lake, right now looks like a good time to pick up a few free pieces of planking for your very own portable launching path.

One last word: be wary of the little camping spot here. I do not know if it's an approved camping spot according to the Forest Service. The local Forest Service district bans camping outside of pre-approved areas - so if you are tempted to camp here, check with the Forest Service office on FM 1375 first.