2010 RUNNING & TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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  BRAZOS BEND STATE PARK, PART 2:
"AN ISLAND OF NATURAL DIVERSITY"

FRIDAY, MARCH 26

 
"[The park] includes 5,000 acres of bottomland and upland coastal prairie just southwest
of the rapidly expanding Houston metro area. The park's wetlands, prairies, and
forests bustle with birds, raccoons, white-tailed deer, and alligators . . .
In a rapidly changing landscape, the park endures as an island of natural diversity."
 
~ from the park's interpretive guide
 
 

This area of southeastern Texas is one of those "convergence zones" where different regions merge and provide an intriguing mix of terrain and habitats for a wide variety of plants and animals. If you're into learning about a different environment, it makes a great classroom for children and adults alike. If you just want to relax and have fun without taxing your brain too much, Brazos Bend is a great place to do that, too!

The entire park is a nature preserve for over 800 kinds of plants, 300+ kinds of native and migratory birds, 23 species of mammals, and 21 species of reptiles. There are numerous species of fish, insects, and amphibians, too.


Jim reattaches two of the signs we painted near the entrance to the park.

In this entry I'll give you a synopsis of the terrain and bio-diversity in the park. My information is from the park website, interpretive guide, various brochures available in the park office, and exhibits throughout the park.

NATURAL PHYSICAL FEATURES

Except for deep channels cut by the Brazos River and Big Creek, Brazos Bend State Park is quite flat. The average elevation is 104 feet. The park lies in a region of Texas called the Gulf Coastal Plain.  Park property includes mostly Brazos River floodplain, or "bottomland," and some areas of flat upland coastal prairie.

Fortunately, we've found a few hills to relieve muscle monotony on our walks, runs, and bike rides.

Below is a teeny version of the park trails map to give you an idea of the location of the Brazos River, Big Creek, the lakes, and trails. You can see a larger pdf. version of this map here and a close-up version of the campgrounds, lakes, picnic areas, and facilities at this link.

Look on the right side of the map above. That's where the eastern side of the park borders the wide Brazos River for over three miles.

I took the next photo in early March when both the river and Big Creek were quite high and full of sediment from upstream:


Big Creek (R) flows into the Brazos River in the southeast corner of the park.
This is also the point of  lowest elevation in the park.  (3-5-10)

After talking with rangers I soon learned that the river and creek can get much higher. Southern Texas got so much rain in January and February that both streams were reportedly fifteen to twenty feet higher than this! It was so high that I couldn't have taken that photo a month ago -- a low spot in the trail leading to the overlook was flooded.

I took the next photo the same day as the one above:

We have seen the water level drop during March but many trees along the banks are still in the water.

The other major water course is Big Creek, which is aptly named. I've seen rivers that are smaller than Big Creek! I took the next picture of the creek today from the bridge that crosses it near the campground. Even though the water level has dropped considerably since we got here, some trees are still in the water:

Many miles of Big Creek meander diagonally through the park, forming sloughs, bayous, and several cutoff meanders (oxbow lakes) along the way. I think you can see some of these features in the map above, even though it is small.

Sloughs and bayous (both rhyme with "stews") are low-lying depressions with very slow-moving or stagnant-looking water. They are common in swampy wetlands.

The next photo shows Pilant Slough in one spot along the trail of the same name. The trail didn't open to foot traffic until just a few days ago because it has been under water this winter.

In some parts of Pilant Slough the water is more open, as in the photo above; the current is apparently moving moving a little bit more in that spot, although the surface looked perfectly still when I stood still and watched it for a couple of minutes.

Other places in the slough appeared more stagnant, like below, with more green and reddish brown plant life growing on top:

Dave Heinicke, the ranger who is the most experienced naturalist in the park, explained during his "Pond Life" nature talk that wetlands don't percolate well and can dry out during a drought. Sloughs stay wet because of their slow-moving water. Even if you can't tell the water is moving on the surface, it's moving slowly below.

Meanders, also known as oxbow or horseshoe lakes because of their U-shape, are interesting. The next photo shows one of the two lakes named Horseshoe at Brazos Bend SP:


New Horseshoe Lake; there's an Old Horseshoe Lake to the left (see next photo).

A nearby exhibit explains how the horseshoe shape is formed by a meandering stream. I know you can't read the text in this small picture but you can see how the lakes form in the diagram to the left:

Two of the meanders at Brazos Bend form natural oxbow lakes. Two other oxbows are man-made by the channeling of Big Creek in order to prevent flooding. You can see an example of that in the photo above, where the creek now goes in a more straight line to the right of New Horseshoe Lake.

Other lakes in the park, such as Elm and 40-Acre, were created by levees that dissected the main channel of the ancient Brazos River. The levees make nice, broad multi-use trails around both of those lakes.

The levee/path below is at the SW corner of Elm Lake near the Spillway Trail, which connects to 40-Acre Lake. Elm Lake is to the right. Many acres of swamp (Pilant Slough) are on the left:

Pilant Lake is a shallow freshwater marsh west of Elm Lake on the map above and just north of 40-Acre Lake. You can get great views of it from the trail at ground level


Marsh between Pilant Lake and 40-Acre Lake. The tower in the background is on private property.

and from an observation tower at the NE corner of 40-Acre Lake:


View  of Pilant Lake and marsh area looking north from the observation tower


Observation tower and alligator (circled) between Pilant Lake and marsh
on the left and Elm Lake on the right. The Spillway Trail is in the background left.

I took the last four photos on March 3 before the grass and trees really greened up.

I like this dramatic shot I took over the marsh on March 20, a morning when we got drenched during a run (Jim) and walk (Cody and me):

Happily for us, there were only three or four days of rain or gray skies while we were at Brazos Bend. The rest of the time it was sunny and in the 60s to almost 80 every afternoon.

Elm and 40-Acre lakes are the largest of the seven named lakes in the park. The trails, which are levees, are the widest and smoothest around these lakes and they are both easily accessed by two of the picnic/parking areas.

Elm Lake also has several fishing piers around its perimeter. The next picture, taken near the end of March, shows one of the shady covered piers at Elm Lake (I lightened it so it's easier to spot):

All those features, combined with the near-guarantee of seeing lots of alligators and birds, make these the most popular lakes in the park (i.e., the most heavily traveled by foot or bicycle).

Another lake that sees a lot of visitors is scenic Creekfield Lake, close to the Nature Center and campgrounds. It has two fishing piers and is another good place to view birds and alligators. It also has a half-mile wheel-chair accessible paved trail around its perimeter:

I'll show more lake photos in sections featuring plant life, wildlife, trails, and popular park activities like fishing and birding.

Next entry: the diverse plant zones and a story about literally draining the swamp!

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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2010 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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