Texas’ only natural lake is a refuge for abundant flora and fauna amidst boat roads, serpentine sloughs and stalwart cypress resembling hoary, ancient wizards.
By Carol Flake Chapman
I first saw Caddo Lake at its barest and stillest, deep in winter, when the mists were rising at dusk, and that spectral image of the lake has stayed with me like a recurring dream. In February, Caddo was a study in charcoal: a haunting vision of shimmering silver and gray and taupe. At first glimpse, the lake appeared to be trapped in suspended animation — its surface so motionless that a breath of wind ruffled up a small patch of water to resemble a moving school of tiny fish. Breaking the spell, a longnose gar rolled, and a great blue heron glided by like a relic from a lost world. It was enough to make me shiver. But then, my inadvertent baptism in its chilly waters might also have something to do with that lasting impression of Caddo.
Although it may inspire a chillbump or two at any time of the year, Caddo is a lake for all seasons, and I have yet to see all of its faces. “You’ve got to come back in April and again in November,” I was told in February by Dave Lomax, owner and operator of Caddo Canoe Rentals and Boat Tours. Lomax has been guiding people around the lake for more than 30 years and renting out canoes at Caddo Lake State Park for 22 years. And even then, I realized, I would barely ripple the surface of this mysterious maze of cypress-laden bayous, sloughs, backwaters, ponds, channels and open waters hidden away in the Pineywoods. Caddo is the state’s only naturally formed lake of consequence, and it’s had a long headstart on the manmade reservoirs elsewhere in Texas in acquiring layer upon layer of history and biodiversity.
For countless centuries, it has been a lure for migrating birds. For the Caddo Indians, who built a complex culture here when the lake was little more than a seasonal swamp, as well as for the white settlers who later found escape here from their pasts in other places, it was a refuge. And Caddo is a refuge still, though the world around it sometimes appears to be impossible to escape.
Any lake in Texas is an occasion for celebration, since we’ve had to create so many reservoirs of our own, for a thirsty, growing population. During the last century, for the sake of flood control and more predictable water sources, engineers transformed ribbons of rivers into broad blue basins that were soon filled with fish and boats and swimmers. Even the youngest of our lakes have worked their way into the fabric of our lives, lending us the element to float away for a while from everyday duties and doldrums. But murky, dynamic Caddo, with its infinite variety, inspires the kind of devotion reserved for the world’s ageless beauties.
The most flinty and practical of Caddo veterans acquire a lilt in their voices as they wax poetic about the growing riot of green that surrounds them in spring, from the carpets of spadderdock lilypads that spread over the water to the yellow-green buds bursting out on the bare boughs of the emergent baldcypresses and the overcup oaks on the banks and the burgeoning canopy of the surrounding woods. It’s then that the bass move into the shallows, and then that so many migrating neotropical birds arrive for a sojourn on their way north, showing brilliant flickers and flashes of color as they wade and flutter along the lake’s shimmering green-black surface.
Take Dave Lomax, for example. As we chug along on his pontoon boat past a swampy peninsula known as Hell’s Half Acre, where spooky movies like “The Legend of Boggy Creek” have been filmed, he goes on about the way things will leaf out soon, turning the spiky boughs of this aquatic arbor into a lush green tunnel. And just when I’m ready to concede the superiority of Caddo in springtime, he pulls out some photos of his favorite spot on Caddo in late October or November. I can just picture it, on the way up Cypress Bayou, when the distant honking of the geese and ducks flying over is echoed by the scaups and grebes on the water that have decided to stay, and the fringe-like leaves of the cypresses take on a russet tone before they drop, in contrast to the colors on display among the oaks, dogwoods, chinquapins and hickories lining the surrounding banks and hills. “There’s at least 38 different trees around Caddo,” says Lomax, “and nearly every one of them turns a different color.”
Winding through a labyrinth of boat roads, marked with numbered posts, we pass beaver lodges so big they could house some prehistoric-sized rodents. On a map, the big ink blot of Caddo resembles a Chinese dragon sprawled across the state line, with its head aiming west and its tongue, Big Cypress Bayou, unfurling toward Jefferson. Its rump and tail extend east into Louisiana, with its tail curling toward Shreveport. Caddo, which covers 26,800 acres, is so convoluted that just going with the flow can easily lead you astray, even if you have one of Dave’s maps pointing out the lake’s better-known spots, like Whangdoodle Pass, Stumpy Slough and Old Folks Playground.
The next day I enlist Charlie Muller, the regulatory biologist for the region that includes Caddo, to help me get the lay of the land. A brewing storm keeps us off the water, and we drive in his truck to explore the scattered patchwork of land, swamp and water that makes up the roughly 7,000 acres of the Caddo Lake State Park/Wildlife Management Area (not to be confused with the neatly defined 500-or-so land-based acres of Caddo Lake State Park, which lies on the south side of Big Cypress Bayou). We travel from Goat Island, on the upper west reaches of the lake, to Potter’s Point, almost on the Louisiana line, where Robert Potter, the “bad boy of the Texas Revolution,” as he was known, was murdered by a neighbor.
It doesn’t take long to see that Caddo is ruled by baldcypresses, which to me resemble ancient wizards, with their dangling beards and bangles of Spanish moss and their bulging buttressed trunks, which suggest the long skirts of a robe. The cypresses tend to be found in clusters with their “cohorts,” as Muller calls them, of the same age. Cypresses can survive for centuries with their roots and lower trunks submerged in water, he explains, but they can’t actually germinate in water — which means that when you see a cypress, it must have spent its first two years on dry land. The youngest cypress “cohorts,” he says, are around 90 years old — when Caddo was last at a low level.
The lake was actually created some time before the early 1800s by a natural logjam on the Red River known as the Great Raft. With their roots eroded by rain and floods, thousands of trees slipped into the river, gradually building up a blockade so large and solid that horses could be ridden across it. It was said, though, that if you put your ear to the ground, you could still hear the current rushing beneath. The waters of the river backed up and flooded upstream from Louisiana, filling up the swampy basin of Caddo and submerging some Caddo Indian settlements. Indian legend had it that the lake was created by the angry stomping of the Great Spirit. And for a time, some historians theorized the lake had been created by the New Madrid Earthquake of 1811. But tests on the soil in recent times have been negative for evidence of seismic activity.
In fact, while Caddo may be a “natural” lake, humans have had a hand in its ups and downs — and still do. The uplifting of Caddo from swamp to navigable lake brought unexpected good fortune to the town of Jefferson, from which boats loaded with cargo from all across East Texas could steam through Caddo, across to the Red River, and then down the Mississippi all the way down to New Orleans. These were the years when the area around Caddo was known as the Badlands. Murders and feuds were rampant, and the few Caddo Indians who had survived the diseases and displacement brought by white settlers were removed to a reservation in Oklahoma. Although the Caddos had survived by forging alliances among individual tribes and by cooperative efforts in farming and hunting — the word Texas is derived from one of their words, tejas, meaning friends or allies — some of the settlers who replaced them obeyed a more primitive survivalist ethic. It was a time when strangers who met on the road used to ask each other, “What was your name before you came to Texas?” Things were so bad that a vigilante group known as the Regulators was warring with yet another group known as the Moderators, and Sam Houston tried to intervene, invoking the spirit of the Alamo to try to bring unity.
Eventually, the folks in Louisiana tired of the logjam and finally succeeded, after years of dynamiting, in breaking it up, leaving Jefferson and the other towns that had grown up around Caddo high and dry. Caddo reverted to swamp, and the state drained and sold much of the bottomland — making Caddo the only public lake in the state where much of the land below the surface is privately owned. Caddo even enjoyed a brief interlude as a pearl-hunter’s mecca, when pearl-bearing freshwater mussels could be dug easily from its marshes by prospectors known as pearl hogs.
In 1911, an oil boom played a role in returning Caddo to its status as a lake. Wildcatters found it impossible to get heavy equipment into the boggy bottom of the Caddo basin, and engineers constructed a crude dam — essentially a spillway — at the eastern reaches of the Caddo basin in Louisiana, causing the lake to refill and allowing oil seekers to build platforms and float equipment to its desired destination. I was startled to learn that much of the early technology of underwater drilling came from Caddo — and that Howard Hughes, Sr., the founder of Hughes Tools, developed his fortune-making drill bit while working at Caddo.
Evidence of the oil boom remains, with a smattering of oil rigs on land on the Texas side and a few platforms on the water on the Louisiana side. Clearly, Caddo has managed to coexist with all manner of human activities, including a huge munitions plant that operated on its southeast shore until the Gulf War. The area, designated for a wildlife refuge, contains a number of contaminated Superfund sites currently being cleaned up by the Army. Those sites, however, have not been directly implicated in the high levels of mercury that have been discovered in some of the larger fish of Caddo, and no one knows for sure the source of the mercury.
Of course, Caddo has its protectors as well as its prospectors, and the people who live around the lake these days are quick to defend Caddo from any perceived threats. When a proposal was made in the 1990s to create a navigational channel for barge traffic through the sensitive upper reaches of the Cypress basin, local residents united in opposition.
Among the lake’s strongest supporters is rock star Don Henley, of Eagles fame, who grew up in nearby Linden. Some of the best times of his life, says Henley, were spent on the lake as a child, fishing with his father. “Caddo was a magical, mystical place,” he recalls. “We’d get up before dawn so we could be on the lake at sunup, when the mists would be rising.” Caddo has played a strong role in his spiritual life, says Henley, as well as in his commitment to protecting the natural wonders of Texas and of the country. Caddo, he once said, was the place where he could “see and understand the divine hand of creation.” Caddo, he says, is a “great teacher.”
Henley is the key founder and sponsor of the Caddo Lake Institute, an organization devoted to studying and protecting the lake. Among the lake’s best friends, too, are the scientists who’ve catalogued its resources, resulting in its designation by the international Ramsar Treaty as one of the 15 most significant wetlands in the world and its classification as a number-one quality resource habitat by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The scientists also have pointed out the vulnerability of the lake to environmental changes, including the construction of dams that have stopped the annual flooding that used to clear the lake of excessive vegetation. As early as 1993, when the Caddo Lake Coalition was founded, says Henley, it was apparent that the lake was under stress. “The lake looks just like it did when I was a kid,” he says. “But once you get below the surface, you can see the problems.” Caddo, he says, is a treasure for the entire state and “everyone who loves that lake needs to pitch in and help keep it healthy.”
Just last December, residents made a passionate defense of the lake at a public meeting, in response to a proposal by the city of Marshall to sell some of its water rights to Caddo to a company building a power plant. A member of the Caddo Lake Chamber of Commerce pointed out the importance of Caddo as an economic asset, and another resident expressed concern that the lake wouldn’t be there for her grandchildren. Already, says Mike Ryan, fisheries biologist for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department based in Marshall, the shallower upper reaches of the lake in the lower Cypress Basin have begun to experience anoxic conditions — that is, lack of oxygen in the water that can lead to fish kills. As a result, says Ryan, “any loss of water from the lake is cause for concern.”
There can be consequences to messing with Caddo, I’m beginning to realize. On my last morning there, as I put out a rented canoe from a serene, sun-dappled point across from Goat Island, I start to get some strange feelings about the cypresses. They are cohorts, I think, not only in their common age but their common purpose. Like the people who know and love Caddo, and who will put up a fight for it, they are tejas — friends and allies of the lake. They remind me of the “ents” of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings — the tree guardians who can pull up roots and move when they get riled up. You really don’t want to fool with an angry cypress, I think, any more than you want to tangle with a Caddo resident who thinks you might be out to do harm to the lake.
As I paddle, I’m trying hard not to bump into the ubiquitous bunches of cypress knees — the roots the trees send up above the water for air and stability. But the current is stronger than I expect, and my paddling skills are rusty. Three red-shouldered hawks keep circling me and screeching, and I can’t help but disturb the quiet of the waters, scaring a sunning red-eared turtle into the water, spooking a belted kingfisher into flight, and provoking a swimming beaver, which slaps its tail on the water. Finally, as I near the bank, exhausted, I stand up in the canoe to try to push off from a particularly knobby knee that’s blocking my path to the shore. With a lurch, I manage to tip the canoe and fall into the water. When I stand up, the murky water up to my waist, I probably resemble a Swamp Thang from a bad movie, with vegetation dripping from my head and arms. I can almost hear the cypresses rustling in hilarity.
Thrashing and glubbing, I hardly go under as gracefully as Amelia Jordan, who was lost to the lake in 1869 when the steamboat Mittie Stephens burned, and everyone jumped overboard. Her long, beautiful hair, I have read, floated on the water like silk before she disappeared. My gimme cap going down with my hair bunched beneath it hardly creates the same tragic effect, I’m sure. But then, perhaps my noisy immersion isn’t for naught, since my quest, after all, is to get below the surface of this complicated lake. As I emerge sputtering from my unceremonious dunking, the ancient cohorts of the lake might approve. I have joined them, for the moment, with my wet feet submerged in Caddo and my head held high above the water.