They called it, for obvious reasons, The Reeking Regatta: The World’s Smelliest Canoe Race. Their promotional posters featured a paddler in a gas mask. This was 1972, long before Buffalo Bayou rehabbed its image and the city cleared out its sewage and sunken cars. It was the brainchild of Carl Gilson and a few friends, who hosted the 15-mile race to showcase the potential of Houston’s iconic, neglected waterway.
Over 100 Houstonians braved the stank that first year, and they discovered something interesting: The water wasn’t quite as nasty as the public perceived it to be. That said, Gilson concedes, the bayou “is a lot different today than it was then,” as is the regatta that bears its name.
Now in its 45th year, and sponsored by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, it’s the largest canoe race in Texas, and the fifth largest in the country. Over 800 people launch from San Felipe and Voss, steering canoes and kayaks through the twisting channel toward the finish line at Sesquicentennial Park. There, participants are greeted by a zydeco band, beer from Saint Arnold and adoring fans. The average race time is three hours; last year’s winner clocked in at a speedy 90 minutes.
“Some people are super-intense,” says Helena Finley, another veteran participant. “And then you get people who have a heavy cooler in the middle of their boat, and their music is blaring. They’re going to make a day of it, moseying on down the bayou.”
Gilson is the regatta’s director, and he’s thrilled his race has encouraged people to see the waterway as an opportunity for recreation and a return to nature. “When you’re in the bayou, you hardly know you’re in the city of Houston,” he says. “Except for when a Styrofoam cup floats by every now and again, which brings you back to reality.”
This year's Buffalo Bayou Regatta takes place March 11 from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Though the section of Buffalo Bayou that runs through the park is 10 miles long, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s designated paddle trail is more than twice that at 26 miles. Bayou City Adventures, an outfitter based at Lost Lake (3422 Allen Parkway), has the equipment and expertise to set you up to cover as much (or as little) of that trail as you like. The group offers all variety of watercraft rentals, including kayaks, canoes and newly popular stand-up paddleboards. For the nautically inexperienced, guides lead introductory classes and kayaking tours, while a year-round VIP pass ($150) allows for unlimited trips.