The Ghosts of Caddo
Destination: Caddo Lake
By Mary-Love Bigony
Travel time from:
- Austin - 5 hours /
- Dallas - 3 hours /
- Houston - 4 hours /
- San Antonio - 6.5 hours
The 21st century hasn't found Caddo Lake. Time seems suspended in the lake's shadowy cypress thickets and serpentine sloughs.
It's quiet - extraordinarily so - and there's a mysterious, even spooky, feeling as you glance over your shoulder, expecting to see a steamboat carrying passengers to Jefferson from New Orleans.
I start my visit with a stop in Uncertain, an ambiguously named town of 150 friendly folks on the lake's southern shore. Uncertain is small-town Texas at its best. Grocery stores sell bait and hardware along with the bread and pickles, and one local business advertises "grocery, cafe, beauty shop." You won't find a multiplex theater or a strip mall anywhere in town. The people are proud of the lake and always eager to share their stories about it.
Caddo Lake State Park
Next I head for Caddo Lake State Park, which is not actually on the lake but on Big Cypress Bayou, which feeds into the lake. The sun is making its way down the western sky as I pull into the parking lot. I spend some time visiting with manager Todd Dickinson, who tells me about recent improvements to the 68-year-old park. The nine cabins - built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps from native iron ore stone - have been refurbished and are more popular than ever.
Eager to get out into the park during the last few hours of daylight, I head for the hiking trail. I pass by the cabins and see smoke curling from the chimneys on this November afternoon.
Lush vegetation envelops me on the trail. Pines and hardwoods form a canopy overhead, and stands of ferns, buckeyes and sumacs show off their autumn reds. American beautyberry shrubs sport clusters of purple berries. I hear a woodpecker tapping nearby and hear, then see, a flock of cedar waxwings. All too soon, I remember that night falls quickly in these thick woods, so I head for the car. My last stop of the day is Big Pines Lodge, where I watch the sun set over the lake while enjoying a traditional Caddo Lake dinner - catfish and hush puppies.
At breakfast the next morning I meet Pud and Bobby Harper, who will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary this year. Pud Harper's father, Beer Smith, operated the Fly 'n Fish on Caddo Lake in the early 1950s. "He looked like a long-necked beer bottle when he played football in high school," Pud tells me, "so they called him 'Beerbottle' and later just 'Beer.'" As I finish my omelet, the Harpers entertain me with stories of Caddo Lake in the 1940s and '50s.
The Fly 'n Fish was "a 20-room motel that had a large dining area downstairs," Pud tells me. "Upstairs it had a ballroom with a stage that could be lowered or raised. On the other end of that was a bar. People would fly their private planes in, and we had a hanger where they could leave them. Across the street, he built a huge pier that's still there." Beer Smith was responsible for the town being incorporated in 1961.
The Harpers invite me to visit their doll museum, the M&M Doll House, named for Pud (Mimi) and granddaughter Marissa. Pud and Bobby have spent years collecting hundreds of dolls from all over the world. They display 200 or so at a time. A Thanksgiving scene graced the museum when I visited. A Christmas theme was to come in December and a Mardi Gras theme after that. Admission is free, but call before you go - (903) 789-3210 - to make sure someone is there.
More than one person has warned me that it's easy to get lost in the twisting sloughs and backwater cypress ponds. "Once you get out there, it all looks the same," says Bobby Harper. Maps are available, but for a first-time visit, it's best to go out with a fishing guide or a lake tour guide. Guides are local people with a passion for the area's history and nature. I choose the Caddo Lake Steamboat Company, which has a replica of a 19th-century steamboat called The Graceful Ghost.
With a blast of the steam whistle, we're off. Captains Jim and Lexie McMillen take turns telling passengers about the history and ecology of the lake and tending the wood-fired boiler. The cypress thickets are unbelievably dense in places, and the trees are decked out in hues of orange and red. Lexie points out a beaver lodge and a red-shouldered hawk circling above. She tells us that the thick Spanish moss draped over the tree limbs does more than add to Caddo's unique atmosphere; it exists only in clean air, making it an air-quality indicator. Caddo is primarily a fishing lake, and we wave to anglers we see casting from their bass boats.
Steamboat travel in the area began around 1845. Starting in New Orleans, these comfortable and elegantly appointed passenger ships would cruise up the Mississippi to the Red River, through Caddo Lake, and up Cypress Bayou to Jefferson. There was usually a band aboard, which would play at landings, during meals and during nighttime balls. We skirt the heavily wooded shoreline of Caddo Lake State Park and Wildlife Management Area. At more than 7,000 acres, the WMA is a permanent buffer to development on this part of the lake. The WMA offers public hunts, primitive camping, hiking, fishing and spectacular wildlife viewing.
After a morning trip to Jefferson - just 17 miles up FM 134 and filled with 19th-century charm - I head back to the lake and decide it's time to make a solo excursion. I buy a map, rent a canoe, and I'm off. Numbers on the map correspond to signs posted in the numerous boat roads that snake through the lake, so I figure that as long as I pay attention I should be OK.
I don't see any of the wood storks that inhabit the lake during the summer, but a lanky great blue heron rises just ahead of me with slow, deliberate wing beats. A belted kingfisher perches on a snag, scanning the water for fish, and a row of turtles suns on a log. A single water lily floats on the surface; come spring, aquatic vegetation will burst into bloom, so thick in places it looks as though you could walk on it. I could stay out here for hours, but heeding the warnings I head back rather than risk getting turned around.
Before leaving town, I stop in at Caddo Grocery for a visit with Betty Holder, mayor of Uncertain and owner and operator of the grocery, which also sells barbecue and gives lake tours. It's two weeks before Thanksgiving, and Betty flips through a notebook of street decorations as we talk. Will Uncertain's lampposts sport bells, Santas or Christmas trees for the holiday season? She tells me about the upcoming Christmas parade, which is held on the water, and the Fourth of July fireworks, also on the lake.
Barbecue sales are brisk, and Betty tells me about some people who came in recently, ordered barbecue sandwiches and got drinks from the cooler. She rang them up, and they handed her a credit card.
"I'm sorry," she told them, "we don't take plastic."
The group looked nonplussed for a moment, then one of them said: "Well, we've already opened the drinks, and we don't have any cash."
Betty handed them a card with her address. "Just send me a check when you get home," she told them.
Did they do it, I wondered?
"Sure did," she says, "and they sent an extra $25 for the next person who shows up without cash."
Small-town Texas at its best.
For More Information:
- Caddo Lake State Park
- (903) 679-3351
- Caddo Lake SP
- To reserve cabins or campsites, call (512) 389-8900
- Caddo Canoe Rentals and Lake Tours (in the state park)
- (903) 679-3743
- The Caddo Lake Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism can provide lists of fishing guides and lake tour guides
- (903) 679-3500
- Caddo Lake Steamboat Company
- (888) 325-5459 or (903) 789-3978
- A variety of lodgings is available in and around Uncertain.
- (888) 723-9800 or (903) 789-2067
- For information about Jefferson
- (888) 467-3529
- Other useful Web sites