Had you told me a year ago that I would take a kayak — unescorted, mind you — down the Buffalo Bayou from an area west of the Galleria to Sesquicentennial Park downtown, I probably would've spit up laughing in your face.
Or choked. That was longer than my commute to work, for starters. And then I might've asked you to define a bayou, because my transplanted self has spent countless hours overanalyzing what makes a bayou a bayou. I would've gotten you completely off-topic, you see. But I certainly never would have entertained the idea of doing the water sport proposed.
Fast forward to the present day. As an avid adventure racer, I'm now quite capable of steering a human-powered boat or two. And my obsession with the Buffalo Bayou nauseates the locals.
I find it strangely thrilling that no one knows exactly what is contained beneath the murky depths of that sludge, and I shudder with an uncanny curiosity at the possibility of being submerged in its mutation-inducing potions.
I can admit with a completely straight face that I adore the bayou and the lifeblood that it represents.
I've haphazardly bobbed in the wake of retreating pontoon boats. I've nearly pierced holes in my inflatable Sevylor. I've abandoned my boat for push-ups in the soggy muck under the Waugh Drive Bridge while inhaling the fragrance of bat guano. I've even navigated the waters alone, sans my personal flotation device. Because I'm a bit reckless like that..
"If you only knew what was in the bayou, you wouldn't be so eager to paddle in it," people have often told me. I respectfully choose blissful ignorance, thank you very kindly.
I'm also well aware that the bayou flows into the shining Ship Channel, but such an ambitious trek must be relegated to a List of Things to Do Before I Die for now.
But when I'd heard about the Buffalo Bayou Regatta, a 15-mile paddling race through the heart of our fair city, I practically lost my sea legs with joy. And 600 other participants — that's 400 boats, folks — shared my exhilaration, resulting in the largest Regatta in the 38-year history of the race. I'll also posit a guess that the picture-perfect weather probably didn't dry out the waterlogged spirits any either.
While the volunteer squad was willing and able to lend a a pair of strong arms, there's no watering down the people dynamic. When people they say the Regatta is amateur-friendly, that might be the modesty talking.
Boat put-in areas were congested with tandem boats well before the solo kickoff boats were even in the water, causing yours truly to miss the starting gun for my division.Those of us straddling the line between novice and veteran found ourselves scrambling down steep, sandy banks to get our boats to the golden shores of the bayou, scratching our heads on boat launch etiquette.
However, once I was securely settled within the hull of my borrowed Necky (a hurried maneuver facilitated by an opportunely-placed volunteer) with my grips adjusted and the straw of my hydration pack thrown over my shoulder, the blade of my paddle got a taste of the sweet bayou nectar.
We were off.
Get out of the way, rook!
Perhaps the true competitors were sparse at race start, but one false move and you located them quickly along the route. Suffice it to say that I zigged where I should've zagged, and barely avoided crashing into canoes with human sharks at the helm for the first 3.5 miles. I might've even been the victim of such barked commentary as, "Learn how to paddle!" However, as much as I'd secretly hoped the race would be a giant game of adult bumper boats, both the race and I kept our cool.
I couldn't shake the word "cathartic" from my brain; the gnarled beauty, the rhythmic motion of the paddle, the serenity so effortlessly found in the middle of the fourth-largest city in the United States. Even not knowing your location until some friendly, mimosa-sipping aristocrats informed you of your whereabouts from their balcony perches was somehow soothing, as if you'd manage to disappear from civilization altogether.
The Regatta touts views along the run as indisputably scenic, but what's truly remarkable is that you'd never, ever, be entitled to such views if you hadn't put yourself in a fiberglass torpedo in the middle of a giant drainage ditch. And that oddly elite position buoys you throughout the race.
By the time you're breathlessly careening toward the Lee and Joe Jamail Skatepark, your arms just about to take leave of your body, you can practically taste the finish line on your tongue. My adventure racing team meets near Sabine Street, so I knew my home territory when I saw it. And by that time, my brain had long been on auto-pilot.
I'd paddled 14 miles! In a kayak! On my own! Swish, dig, swoop, swish, dig, swoop! Perhaps my unborn children will have three heads, but by golly, at least I'll have an explanation for it.
A bit over two and a half hours later, I was greeted by the extended hands of those trusty volunteers just past the finish line. They hoisted to shore both my somewhat atrophied self and the vessel I'd been paddling. Back on land in Sesquicentennial Park, I startlingly found a jaunty blast of zydeco and reveling paddlers, basking in their triumph in the doesn't-get-better-than-this spring day.
Not until I was gingerly plucking at my lunch did my accomplishment settle in. I'd tackled the storied bayou in the Bayou City — an artery so central to the identity of Houston — and I conquered it.
Nay; I befriended it. We'd spent the daybreak of a March Saturday together — imperfect me, and the imperfect bayou — and we'd wasted the morning away. Nothing like making a Midwestern expat feel more at home than becoming more intimate buddies with the historical fabric of a city's past, present, and future.
There were no prideful tears shed, but if you'd have patted me on the back when I emerged from that kayak, I probably would've initially winced in pain (let's be honest).
And then I would've flashed you a grin wider than the state of Texas.
All it took was a little splashing through sewage to make me feel a little more like an athlete — and a Texan.