Port O'Connor Paddling Trail guides kayakers through coastal wetlands

Glimpse birds, dolphins, fish in marshes near Matagorda Island.

Exploring the back bays of Matagorda Island is like wandering through a glittering, come-to-life maze.

Cranes wade on spindly legs around one corner, a dolphin surfaces a few feet away around the next, and everywhere pelicans flap, fish splash and sea grasses wave in a blanket of greenish-gold.

But a popcorn trail wouldn’t last among this wildlife, and no ball of twine could ever stretch far enough. That’s why the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department developed a statewide network of trails to guide kayakers through some of Texas’ best paddling destinations.

Seven trails — including the Port O’Connor Paddling Trail — opened along the coast in the 1990s, followed by a series of inland trails. Closer to home, trails are located in Lady Bird Lake, the Upper Guadalupe River near New Braunfels and the Colorado River in Bastrop. The 61st trail was recently unveiled in Beaumont, says Shelly Plante, nature tourism coordinator for Texas Parks and Wildlife.

Each is marked with numbered signs. GPS coordinates are posted on the department’s website, along with information about how to access the trail and any hazards in the area, like riffles or rapids. There’s also information about fishing, wildlife, habitat, river ethics, safety tips and trail conditions. And every trail is associated with a local sponsoring group. It’s all designed to give paddlers confidence when they set out in an area they may not be familiar with, Plante says.

We drove to Port O’Connor, about 170 miles from Austin, because we wanted a taste of saltwater kayaking instead of the usual river kayaking available in Central Texas.

With local kayak guide Alan Raby leading the way, we pushed our long, narrow sea kayaks into the water at the end of 16th Street. You can also put in at the city’s Fishing Center on 13th Street for a small fee, or at the public boat ramp across from Froggie’s Bait a half-mile farther inland.

We waited for a gigantic barge to pass, then slid across the boat channel and into the network of bayous and pathways that splice the back bays.

The Port O’Connor trail is made up of a main spine trail, plus two smaller loops that total about 25 miles as they wind through the marshes along the edge of Espiritu Santo Bay and Saluria Bayou. The main trail extends all the way to the northern end of Matagorda Island, a Wildlife Management Area where primitive camping is allowed (with proper permits).

Puttering past a collection of tiny islands, we caught a glimpse of the historic Matagorda Island Lighthouse in the distance. We glided through narrow sea grass-lined tunnels and past fishermen busy casting for redfish and drum.

Three hours later we paused for a snack at an old abandoned Coast Guard station, where we could see out to Pass Cavallo, where French explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle sailed into Matagorda Bay more than 300 years ago. We thought back to the day in 1686 when his ship, La Belle, sunk in the bay. (An exhibit featuring the ship’s remains will open at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin Oct. 25.)

“Kayaking is not a get-there-itis sport, especially when you’re touring. It’s seeing what’s along the way,” says Raby, 37, who owns Dolphin Kayak and Water Sports in Port O’Connor. “If you have to get there you might as well take a power boat.”

This area is part of a flyway for migrating birds, and we see plenty of them — big white cranes standing on legs that look like fishing poles, squawking great blue herons, white ibis with their curved orange beaks and osprey circling high above, looking for prey.

We push on for four more hours, covering 12 leisurely miles in all. But you don’t have to spend the entire day on the water — and shouldn’t, if you’re not reasonably fit or an experienced paddler — to enjoy the area.

“Anyone can get on a kayak and make it go,” Raby says, and the Port O’Connor Paddling Trail offers options for beginners.

“It’s nice and quiet, and basically you can go as fast or as slow as you want,” says Bonnie Benson, 66, another local kayaker who lives in nearby Palacios. “In Port O’Connor there’s all those wetlands which I had no appreciation for. Those are fascinating to kayak.”

Long-time paddler Allan Berger, 64, a retired petroleum engineer who now lives in Port O’Connor, heads up a local group that is working to expand the paddling trail, adding about 16 more miles of marked trail to the system. He’s been exploring the marshes for 50 years, spotting sea turtles, sharks, schools of rays and bright pink roseate spoonbills along the way.

“You can get out and experience nature in a way you can’t get in an urban environment,” Berger says of paddling along the coast versus inland. “It’s therapeutic to me. It’s just a connection with nature you don’t usually get.”

Raby, our guide, agrees. “To me it’s a disconnect from the drudgery of daily life,” he says. “I feel like I’ve escaped and I’m free.”

The two are teaming up to encourage more people to paddle in the area. They organize monthly group outings; the next, “Paddle the Lagoon,” is set for Oct. 26. Cost is $20, and proceeds benefit the nonprofit San Antonio Bay Partnership, which works to protect and restore this estuary system.

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