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Visions of Mustang Island

The beauty of this barrier island is sometimes in plain view and sometimes just beneath the surface.

By Carol Flake Chapman

“Mustang Island has its moods,” says Tony Amos, the veteran oceanographer who lives on the island and has been studying its vicissitudes for 26 years. Right now, the island is demonstrating one of its blustery autumnal moods: mood indigo, maybe, with everything shading into deep blue and gray. It’s dawn in early November, but the sun is nowhere to be seen. The lyrics from a Pat Green song come to mind: “Might stand out in the wind out on Mustang Island.” Yes, there is a reminder this morning of the storms that tend to rearrange the landscape here periodically. The gray skies blend into the gunmetal gray and navy of the tumbling surf, and the wind is blowing hard at our backs, as we drive down the shore near Port Aransas in Tony’s truck, heading roughly southwest as he carries out what he calls his ongoing “everything beach study.”

At first we appear to have the deserted beach to ourselves, but as the skies lighten the profusion of life along the shore soon comes into focus. Sanderlings skitter like windup toys at the water’s edge. A great blue heron is standing sentinel just offshore, and squadrons of brown pelicans are swooping over the waves, seemingly impervious to the strong winds, as Amos leans out his window, peering out with his powerful binoculars. The pelicans, Amos observes, have made a strong comeback after DDT nearly wiped them out. In general, he says, the birds here, including the endangered piping plovers, have been able to survive fairly well, despite the increasing development on the island.

Amos counts nearly everything that moves, from birds to people, along with the odd bit of tide-borne trash, deposited on shore along with the seaweed. He’s been known to rescue just about anything, too, from beached dolphins and maimed sea turtles to injured great horned owls, pelicans and a parakeet, many of which he rehabilitates with the help of volunteers at the ARK, or Animal Rehabilitation Keep, at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute. As we go along, he enters the data into his ancient but serviceable Hewlett Packard HP75 computer, noting that this is survey number 3,521 for this seven-mile stretch of beach. Theoretically, Amos has recently retired from his job at the institute, although he still runs ARK and officially serves as a research fellow. But his surveying and rescuing activities have continued unabated. At each mile marker he emerges from the truck with his surveyor’s wheel to measure the distances from the swash zone and high-tide line to the dunes. You get the feeling he’d count each grain of sand, too, if he could.

This is my first morning on Mustang Island, and I’m feeling lucky to be viewing it through the eyes of an expert observer. On a barrier island, everything seems to be in motion, changing moment by moment, subject to wind and tides as well as the whims of its human inhabitants. But there is a subtle order to things here, I’m learning: a hidden interdependence, from the lowly crustaceans of the tidal flats to the lords of the skies that feed on them. Even the piping plovers, though they seem to be arrayed randomly on the beach, actually have their own specific bit of territory. And there’s always something new to see, if you know where and how to look.

“There’s seldom a time I don’t find something intriguing,” says Amos. This morning, we’re graced with the presence of three white-tailed hawks, which appear ghostly against the gray skies. We’ve already seen, according to Tony’s count, 47 piping plovers, when the survey is cut short by a call for help from a resident who’s discovered a disoriented, dark brown bird in his yard. “Ah, mad cormorant disease,” sighs Tony, who recognizes the bird as a double-crested cormorant suffering from a common condition that renders the bird temporarily defenseless. The bird’s luck is about to improve as it finds refuge at the ARK until it can fly away on its own accord.

As for me, I can’t imagine why it’s taken me so long to get here. Although I grew up near the Gulf Coast, farther north, I had never ventured to this narrow stretch of sand and marsh that forms an important link in one of the longest chains of barrier islands in the world. Anchoring the space between Matagorda Island to the north and Padre Island to the south, Mustang has always had its own distinct identity. Even the name Mustang Island carries a romantic ring, evoking a sense of wildness and the island’s deep entwinement in Texas history. It was the horses left here by the Spanish to roam wild — the mestenos — that gave the island its name, and its interior coastal prairie served as ranchland well into the 20th century.

The island, once the home of Karankawa Indians, was first charted by Spanish explorer Alonso Alvarez de Pieda in 1519 and was probably visited a few years later by shipwrecked chronicler Cabeza de Vaca, who understood the importance of knowing how to see clearly on these islands. De Vaca wrote of the Karankawas, “I believe these people see and hear better and have keener senses than any other in the world.”

Like so many islands, Mustang evokes the legends of pirates and treasure, as well. In 1553, a Spanish treasure fleet was lost in a hurricane off these barrier islands, and only two survivors made it to shore. In the 1830s, the remains of a pirates' camp, with large iron rings implanted in the sand, were found on nearby St. Joseph’s Island. According to legend, the seemingly omnipresent Jean Lafitte buried a Spanish dagger with a silver spike driven through the hilt somewhere on Mustang Island to mark the location of a treasure chest. It’s more likely, of course, that the only Spanish daggers on the island are the sharply pointed yuccas that once were used by the Karankawas as the tips of spears.

Although the mustangs and pirates are long gone, there is still a kind of rakish, romantic aura to this place, particularly when you approach it by water. If you arrive from the south, by way of Corpus Christi, there is no dramatic transition to Mustang from contiguous North Padre, as you simply drive across Packery Channel, then cross the washover of Corpus Christi Pass on your way to the welcoming dunes of Mustang Island State Park. But coming at it from the north, you arrive at Port Aransas by ferry. As the ferry churns across Corpus Christi Channel, the diving brown pelicans and surfacing dolphins seem to be the gatekeepers to this distinctive island world, signaling a transition to a different state of mind.

The kitschy storefront shark sculptures of Port Aransas only add to the feeling of getting away from it all. If you drive along the waterfront, you’ll come to the Tarpon Inn, surviving from the golden days when tarpon was king and reminding you of one of the island’s very real remaining treasures: its great fishing. Drive toward the bayside and you’ll discover the Port Aransas Birding Center, where a startling variety of migrating birds alight.

Continuing down the coastal highway, you arrive at Mustang Island State Park and head for the generous stretch of beach hidden behind the dunes, where you can camp or just settle in for the day.

“You’re in a different world here,” says park ranger Juan Sanchez when I arrive for my first visit. “Most of our visitors come here to unwind. On the other side of the dunes all you hear is the waves, and the sun rises over the water right in front of you.”

Sanchez points out how the dunes keep growing and shifting along the beach, sometimes edging into the area reserved for shelters. “We learned that you can’t really fight nature,” he says. The park’s jetty seems permanent, however, at least for now, with its huge pinkish granite rocks, the same kind as those used for the state capitol. He pulls out a chart of brightly colored fish to show me the astonishing varieties that visitors have caught here. Redfish are running now, according to Sanchez, and I’m hoping to revive my rusty fishing skills.

But first I want to try out a segment of the Mustang Island Paddling Trails, with markers that can be located by GPS coordinates. The next morning, my husband and I drive our rented kayaks to the inland channel known as Wilson’s Cut, which allows access to the maze of marshes abutting Corpus Christi Bay. There are so many birds out here, Tony Amos says, that they are almost impossible to count, which was one reason he decided to count those on the beach instead. We can easily see the distinctive white silhouettes of the great egrets stalking the marshes, and we can hear a tantalizing variety of bird sounds beckoning us. We note a bit belatedly, though, that we’ve set out at low tide, and we’ll be doing more portaging through the muck than paddling along the narrow waterways that cut through the marsh grasses. We startle some marsh and sedge wrens that have been nestled in the nearby rushes.

Although the air is chilly, the water is still fairly warm. But it’s not temperature that’s the problem this morning. It’s the wind and the currents. You can’t fight nature, as Juan Sanchez said. Far better to go with the flow. The winds are gusting at what seems like gale force, and we seem to be paddling in place. When we finally begin to make progress, however, I finally notice something I should have noticed before: the duck blinds that line the marshes. Duck hunting season has just begun, and there are so many ducks flying overhead the sky seems to be engraved with chevrons. There must be plenty coming down to land, too. We hear shots in the distance, followed by the happy cheers of some hunters who’ve probably just bagged their limit.

Rather than running the gauntlet of hunters, we decide to wait until duck season is over for our next trip on the trail. Perhaps the time is right for jetty fishing, so we exchange our kayaks for fishing poles. Everything in its season, I tell myself. Heading out for the jetty at the park, we notice that the high winds and churning surf are probably more a lure for surfers than anglers. There are dozens of surfers on either side of the jetty and a lone fisherman braving the crashing waves at the end of the jetty. The surfers look at us as though we’re crazy. We join the fisherman and get some tantalizing bites, but soon get a thorough soaking from the waves. As the wind drives our lines back toward us, we manage to lose our small supply of tackle and bait to the rocks. I think of the young boy Juan Sanchez told me about who had caught a 640-pound tiger shark from the jetty on the Fourth of July, and I sigh.

The next morning, my husband heads reluctantly back to civilization, and I decide to try one more bout of fishing. I am rewarded with one of the more glorious mornings I’ve ever seen. The front has finally passed through, leaving the skies a dazzling pink and gold. With my last supply of bait and tackle, I decide to cast my line from the long jetty at Port Aransas, which on this morning seems to lead out to the end of the rainbow. At the end of the jetty, a birder has told me, she had seen sooty terns, apparently a rare sight. I settle on a promising slab and begin casting. Within moments, and a few promising tugs, I’ve lost my last remaining mullet and squid to the rocks.

An elderly fisherman standing on a nearby rock shakes his head knowingly and gently points out that my equipment is all wrong for jetty fishing. My hooks are too big, and my weights are too heavy. I’d do better with a cork or bobber, too. Just a couple of days ago, he says, he caught more than a dozen redfish, just a few feet from where I’m standing. He’s not gloating, either. He suddenly heads for his casting net, pointing to an incoming wave. Where all I see is water, he can see the school of mullet that are arriving. He’ll have no problems replenishing his bait, obviously, while I’ll head back to my car empty-handed.

But all isn’t lost on this beautiful morning. I decide to join a company of pelicans lining the jetty, my approach about as subtle as that of a front-end loader. The birds are so numerous and so completely at home here that it’s difficult to imagine that, had things gone differently, they might not be here at all. I simply can’t envision Mustang Island without them. Eventually I’m close enough to one of the birds to note the odd little spike at the end of its bill. It turns and looks at me dismissively, then turns back to face the water and appears to be sleeping. But suddenly it dives into the water, and something is wriggling in its pouch, something below the surface that I couldn’t see, obviously. And it occurs to me that here is one of the real survivors on this island. I’m just glad to know there’s also a place on the island for unseaworthy visitors such as I, even if I’ll be the last one to catch a fish.

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