Sunday, October 5, 2008

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.

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