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HomeNL-2014-04 HCC History John Ohrt

My History in the Houston Canoe Club
by John Ohrt

I have been asked to relate my history of membership in the Houston Canoe Club. This will be from memory so the timing and dates might be a little off. It is the way I remember it.

I first made contact with the Houston Canoe Club in the mid 1970's. Pat Simmons from Dickinson was the Commodore, and the big club project was building a wooden boat pier at Armand Bayou. Pat got the lumber donated, permission from the park folks, and the club members pounded in the posts and nailed down the walkway. It was a great improvement because Armand Bayou had some of the stickiest muddiest mud in existence, and it was impossible to get in and out without having large clumps of it stick to your shoes. We used to bring extra shoes to Armand Bayou because of the mud. The pier lasted for many years and had a sign with the HCC name and phone number. Yes, we did have a phone number. Another big HCC project was the "Cruise with the Blind" in which a sighted club member would paddle a blind paddler around Armand Bayou.

Back then almost everyone paddled a tandem canoe. There were a few fiberglass kayaks, but mostly tandem canoes. My first club trip was on the San Marcos River. On that trip Tom and Paula Goynes gave a slide show about their guided Rio Grande trips. This lead to my first trip down the Lower Canyons. It also showed me one of the benefits of the HCC. Not only did I get to go on interesting club trips, but I also met people or learned things which got me to go on numerous private trips. Over the years I guess I’ve gone on about 50/50 HCC trips and private trips, but the private trips came from the HCC.

I drifted away from the club for awhile and came back Labor Day, 1978. It was a three day trip on the Medina. What I remember was how welcoming everyone was and how much we enjoyed it. Our second trip was on the upper Neches which was interesting. First, we bit off more than we could chew miles-wise. Second, we stopped too soon the first night. Third, two of our group decided to take an exploratory look at the Big Slough after supper, and did not come back. They spent the night huddled under their boat. Everything turned out all right; it was a beautiful trip and I learned the importance of proper planning. I also learned how to spot spiders in the dark. I also learned that trips that go smoothly rarely produce good stories.

The big trips were Thanksgiving trips to the Big Bend and Easter trips to Arkansas. I got to do the Colorado, Santa Elena, Mariscal and Boquillas Canyons, and several rivers in Arkansas. It was not unusual to get back to Houston at 5:00 am Monday morning. There were also lots of local day trips and weekend trips, mostly to the hill country. I remember the time when about forty club members got arrested (almost) for paddling the Blanco River just outside of San Marcos. That also turned out all right.

The meetings were held at the Fonde Recreation Center down by Sabine Street. They started at 7:30 pm and could go until 10:00. Some people felt unsafe in that area, but I never did as there were always police officers around. The newsletter was typed on a legal size piece of paper, folded, stamped and mailed. I think the first one done on a computer was in the early 80's. Programs were often 8mm movies from the public library or slide shows. One of the best programs was the live snakes brought in by a member of the Houston Zoo. He turned a small rattlesnake loose on the floor and the first few rows of members headed for the rear. The snake was just as scared and got under a table and rattled.

In the early 1980's I took up white water kayaking in my trusty 13' 2" Perception Mirage. This was a time when the Guadalupe in New Braunfels would run 800 cfs all summer. Yes, it really did. I knew people who would not paddle it unless it was at least 500 cfs. Through other kayakers I got to take my first trip to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) in North Carolina in September, 1982. I enjoyed it so much that Carolyn and I went back in August, 1983 and took a four day tandem canoe class in which I got to canoe the Ocoee for the first time. The club had a good number of white water paddlers, and in November, 1983 about a dozen got together for a week long Thanksgiving trip to NOC. We caravaned in four cars to North Carolina and rented a big cabin. I was introduced to the French Broad, the Hiawasee, Chattoga Section III, the Little Tennessee, and several runs on the Nantahala. It was cold. We had a great time.

In the early 1980's Joe and Betsy Butler moved to Houston from Dallas and continued their tradition of taking a Lower Canyons trip during the full moon in October. Many of our members got their first taste of the Big Bend Canyons on these trips. These trips continued until Joe and Betsy moved to New Mexico. Joe and Louis Aulbach wrote the first guidebook to the Lower Canyons. Also at this time we had several instructors giving classes; Joe and Betsy Butler and Richard and Pat Isely among them.

In 1983 I also continued a tradition of past HCC members and completed the Texas Water Safari. I was following in the foot steps of John Tompkins, Lewis Massingill , Stan Emmons and Lynn Larremore. I learned a lot about paddling and canoe trips from these guys. In 1984 there was a bad drought so I gave up white water and took up flatwater racing. Carolyn and I trained for the State Championship races. We got pounded but had a good time. In 1985 I did the Water Safari a second time and knocked seven hours off of the prior time. It did not pour rain this time and we did not get lost in the bay at night. We got two hours sleep in 58 hours. The Water Safari is a special event.

In the mid to late 1980's I got back into white water; tandem canoeing this time. New white water canoes like the Mohawk XL 13 solo and the Dagger Dimension tandem were coming out. It seems like the club’s focus changed to hill country white water trips. People loved the opportunity to paddle their own boat. The three day holiday trips like Easter, Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day were especially fun. The extra day in between arriving and leaving made time to relax and for people to get to know each other. By the time they were cooked everyone was so snockered that they could hardly eat. During this time the Bayou City Whitewater Club was very active and many members belonged to both clubs. With the lack of any Texas whitewater the BCWC sadly disbanded.

I remember that in this time period there were many classes in whitewater paddling put on by nationally known paddlers like Bob Foote. Chet and Lilian Tigard were especially active in this area. During this time Carolyn and I got to take two trips to Colorado to run sections of the Arkansas River. These were organized by our old friends Joe and Betsy Butler and ranged from fairly easy to very challenging - like Brown’s Canyon. We went up in the Tigard’s van having adventures along the way. We also threw in some back-packing with Louis Aulbach which was very beautiful.

This was before cell phones and the internet, so to keep in touch the club had a telphone line. It was at Mary Carter’s house and had an answering machine. People could call in and ask to be contacted for club information, or leave announcements of club events. I think we did not get rid of it until about 2003.

I believe that it was 1989 when the club put on the first Rendez-Vous at Chain of Lakes. It was ramrodded by Bob Arthur, and made possible by the hard work of a large number of club members. It was a spectacular success and went on for thirteen years. It moved first to Huntsville State Park and then to Sugarland. It became a main focus of the club. There was a separate Rendez-Vous committee. They would finish work on one RV and a few months later would start on the next one. It was truly a year round effort. If you have never seen a program of what was offered I would be glad to show you one. It was amazing. Some of the best paddlers in the country came to give lessons and demonstrations. You could actually paddle with them and talk to them. Imagine playing golf with Tiger Woods or skiing with Bode Miller. That was what it was like. You could try out all forms of paddling and test-paddle lots of boats. Several club members became very adept at freestyle paddling and the national championships became a part of the RV.

I believe that it was in 1988 that Leonard Hulsebosch organized an HCC week of instruction at the NOC. We had a large number of members go and had to split into two groups. During the 90's I was able to take multiple private trips to NOC, and some to Costa Rica, Mexico, the Grand Canyon, the Pecos, and the Taos Box. All of these came about directly or indirectly through club membership. In 2004 we had the 40th anniversary celebration at Huntsville State Park. The members worked hard setting it up and there was a large turnout.

Today the club seems to have changed in some ways but not in others since I first joined The members are a little older. Tandem canoes are rare. Everyone paddles solo: in canoes, recreational kayaks or sit on tops. We do not do much white water any more. We don’t do many big holiday three day trips. What hasn’t changed is how nice the people are and how much fun the paddling is. Hopefully that will never change.

The author, John Ohrt