Saturday, April 19, 2008

Houston Expedition - A More Complete Review

photo by Elisa Mohr

When Chris and I left the hotel at around 7:30am, it was raining. Large pond-like puddles in the parking lot attested to the fact that the rain had been coming down for several hours.
I was worried.
During all my research and planning of this expedition, I heard the same statement from just about everyone I spoke with: "the bayou doesn't really move much unless there's a lot of rain".
You see, while the Buffalo Bayou doesn't receive much in "regular runoff" (by that I mean streams which flow into rivers), the bayou does get a lot of runoff from the rain. When Chris and I arrived at the gondola, the water level had risen about two feet, and debris was floating past us at about three and a half knots. Thankfully, the rain had stopped, but Chris and I agreed that rowing in the rain wasn't nearly as bad as wind or lightning. We had no lightning, but there was wind...blowing down the bayou.
Translation: we were in for a fast ride down and a hard fight back up.

I had five options:
1.) chicken out - no way!
2.) try to get clearance from the US Coast Guard to add an extra thirteen miles to our permit to travel through "Security Zone" waters and end at the Battleship Texas - not likely as they generally require advanced notice of several days.
3.) proceed as planned, but have the chase boat tow us back up if the going got tough - I could never look Vittorio, Enzo and Bepi in the eye again if I did that. And besides, that's not me.
4) end at Brady's Landing - at about eight miles, it seemed pretty pathetic to "ride the current" down and then cop out rather than fight.
5.) Tough it out!
It had to be option #5.
We would proceed as planned, and fight wind and current as best we could.

Philip Kropf - our chase boat captain arrived and launched his boat. We talked about the conditions and how we expected things to develop.
Some local Boy Scouts showed up and I talked and took photos with them.
Chris and I had planned on departing at 10am but finally shoved off at about 10:40 because we had to wait for a news crew.

As expected, the current carried us at speeds much higher than normally experienced on a gondola. The upper part of the Buffalo Bayou is a beautiful, lush area, with thick foliage growing out over the water in many places. Passing under the Highway 59 interchange was surreal. Unfortunately, with rain runoff, comes litter; there was an abundance of plastic bottles and Styrofoam cups making their way down the bayou too.
After a few encounters with photographers and news crews along the shore, we approached the top end of the shipping channel. Philip called the Coast Guard's version of "Air-traffic-Control", alerted them of our presence, and we cruised into the wide channel, with cargo ships moored on either side.
Rowing past the big tankers and cargo vessels was incredible. There were vessels from a number of different countries, many of which were being loaded or unloaded as we passed.

It took us a little over two hours to reach Brady's Landing, and we had taken it easy during a lot of the trip because news staff or photographers had called; asking us to slow down so they could get in place before we passed.
We celebrated at Brady's Landing, knowing that we'd covered half of the sixteen miles.
Our celebration was short-lived; once we turned back up the bayou, we were shaken back by a wind that was blowing steady at 20 knots and often gusting much faster. The shipping channel was a wind-tunnel, funneling the wind in our faces and forcing us to fight our way back up the channel. The two and a half miles of shipping channel, which had flown past us on the way down, taking about twenty-five minutes traveling "downstream", took us two and a half hours to cover on the way back up. These were some very challenging conditions; at one point Chris and I stopped rowing long enough to switch places (about 5 seconds) and were immediately shoved back down the channel at about 5 knots.

Over the years, I've told a lot of people that rowing a gondola is a lot like rolling a dumpster across a parking lot: it takes some exertion to get it moving, but after that, you can just keep pushing a little and the thing will continue to move.
This was like rolling that same dumpster - but in a parking lot in San Francisco!
Uphill, all the way.

After Philip alerted the Coast Guard that we were out of the shipping channel and back among the trees, things calmed down a bit, but it was still a fight with the wind at every other turn.
The sun, which had eluded us until about Brady's Landing, was now shining down on us, ensuring an eventual sweaty sunburn for both of us.
Fatigue was setting in. The two and a half hour wind-fight up the shipping channel had drained us, but we knew we had to press on. During water breaks, we would find ourselves washing back down-river again.
Our hope had been to arrive back at the starting point at Allen's Landing by 3pm. With a late start time, downstream winds, and a current brought on by rain runoff, we finally stepped off the gondola in Allen's Landing at around 5:50pm.
I would have been disappointed with our arrival time, but I was busy concentrating on getting the gondola out of the water, onto her trailer, and into the Reliant Arena for the Boy Scout Convention which was taking place the next day. Our tow truck operator did an exceptional job loading the gondola, we struggled a bit getting out of the landing area (backwards, through the mud, around a turn, and all the while pushing a trailer), and we were on the move.
We got to Reliant with time to spare and spent some of the last little bit of energy cleaning up the boat.
It was a great expedition, filled with adventure and challenge.
We had a fantastic time, and along the way we learned a lot about our capabilities - both physical and mental.

Thanks be to God for this awesome journey.

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