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Unraveling the Big Thicket

By Charles J. Lohrmann

Destination: The Big Thicket National Preserve

Travel time from:

AMARILLO - 10 hours / AUSTIN - 5 hours / BROWNSVILLE - 7 hours / DALLAS - 5 hours / EL PASO - 12 hours / HOUSTON - 1.5 hours / SAN ANTONIO - 5 hours

The Big Thicket earned its name 200 years ago because everyone who tried to negotiate its interior found it to be nearly impenetrable and mysterious: a tangled snarl of pine forests, meandering streams and swampy landscape better suited to snakes and alligators than people.

It was easier to go around it than through it.

Once covering more than 3 million acres, the Big Thicket has been logged and pierced with roads. The Big Thicket National Preserve retains only 97,000 acres, divided into

15 units, but those remnants still hold the secrets of this complex ecosystem. Luckily, I meet up with Ranger Dave, a retired 20-year National Park Service veteran.

David F. Baker, an interpretive ranger, is the Big Thicket answer-man. He starts me off at the Preserve’s visitors center, on the edge of the Thicket, 6 miles north of Kountze. In the course of an hour — including 20 minutes for an introductory film — I meet the denizens of the Big Thicket, hear recordings of their calls and learn how hardwood forest, cypress slough and southwestern desert ecosystems have come to exist next to one another.

After I’ve been introduced to the region’s ecosystems, we set out on a 5-mile trail that displays them. The Kirby Nature Trail starts in a cathedral of loblolly pine, American beech and magnolia soaring 90 feet in height. On a boardwalk trail, we cross over a shallow, swampy, azalea-dotted eco system called a bay gall named for the wetlands shrub it supports. Then, in the quarter-mile walk to Village Creek, we traverse a flood plain where red oaks and white oaks mix with holly. Across the creek, we gain a few feet of altitude and top a sand hill. Here the rain drains through the sandy soil so quickly that the surface supports prickly pear and other desert plants, despite the fact that they’re in one of the rainiest regions in Texas.

Dave says the key to understanding the Big Thicket is to slow down and notice the details. Sometimes even walking is too fast. We’ll see only a fraction of the region’s 1000 species of plants, including 500 wildflowers and 130 grasses.

Nothing in the Big Thicket is like it once was, Dave explains. All the old-growth forest has been logged out. “We can restore natural processes,” Dave says, “but we can never restore the Big Thicket.”

One of the natural processes that the forest service follows is the controlled burn, and we see the results along the raised boardwalks that define the Sundew Trail as it winds through a wetland savannah. Ferns, coneflower plants and yellow sunnybells peek from the recently burned shrubs and charred ground. This plant community requires periodic fire to prosper.

A closer look reveals the mossy reddish lace of the demure sundew plant, no larger than a silver dollar and looking too delicate to trap an insect. But its glistening, aromatic “dew” traps and digests insects for nourishment. And nearby, the tubular leaves of the pitcher plant look more like a lily than an insect deathtrap. These are two of the four carnivorous plants in the region, the others being the bladderwort and the butterwort.

My lodging is called Ethridge Farm, a three-building hideout tucked into 30 acres just off Hwy 327 just south of Kountze. Here Bill and Ann Ethridge offer guests the serenity of their own wooded preserve. I stay in one spacious room of a renovated barn. That night, we enjoy stories, cool drinks and appetizers on the deck overlooking a pond. As night falls, the birdcalls give way to croaking frogs and a full moon glides through the pines.

I start early the next morning for Village Creek State Park, 14 miles from Kountze, near Lumberton. Only 60 acres of the 1050-acre park are developed, so I have plenty of opportunities to enjoy this patch of the Big Thicket. There’s a mile of Village Creek frontage in the park, and my first trail is the one-mile stretch to the sandbar set aside as the swimming beach. The temperature today is just a few degrees low of good swimming weather, but the white sand and cool water are inviting.

I can’t resist the next one-mile trail that takes me to the state champion river birch (Betula nigra). It’s impressive, but in the Big Thicket, a tree 90 feet tall is not a complete stand-out. Still I wonder how this one survived the logging industry to reach its championship designation in 1998. Even though Village Creek State Park offers enough options to keep me busy for the rest of the day, I don’t want to miss the migrating birds that are stopping closer to the coast. Sabine Woods Sanctuary is only an hour away.

A few miles from the town of Sabine Pass on Highway 87, I park amidst a gaggle of cars assembled on the grassy roadside. This is the Sabine Woods Sanctuary, a small coastal woodlot set aside by the Texas Ornithological Society as a haven for migratory birds. After chatting with another visitor who tells me to look for the Tennessee warbler — which never stays in Tennessee by the way — and the orange-crowned warbler, I note on the daily list posting that 17 different warblers and an equal number of other species have been identified today.

A couple of minutes later, a woman in a group of five motions me over to enjoy a scarlet tanager posing high in the oak canopy in the sights of a spotting scope. The scope lets me see the bird’s bright eyes, a detail I can’t make out with my binoculars.

On my third day, I arrive at Eastex Canoes in Silsbee to get equipment for one of the most popular paddle trips in Texas: Village Creek. Village Creek starts life as Big Sandy near the Alabama-Coushatta reservation and flows 64 miles southeast to join the Neches River. Today I’ll cover the 8.5 miles that run through the Nature Conservancy’s Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary.

Since I’m traveling alone, Perry Humphrey suggests a 15-foot canoe, and we set off in separate cars. He picks me up at the Highway 327 bridge where I leave my car, and we follow a serpentine back road to Highway 418. As we drive, Perry explains that on a hot summer day, he’ll put dozens of people in the water to make this trip, but today I have the creek to myself. For the first half-mile, the trees of the mixed hardwood community loom over the creek on both sides. The bird life is vocal but too high in the canopy and beyond the reach of my binoculars. Suddenly a belted kingfisher swoops down and zooms downstream for 40 yards, lands on the branch of a fallen tree and offers me a perfect profile.

Farther downstream, swallows dart in and out over the water from a stand of cypress. I turn into a backwater and feel as if I’ve passed into another time. As I weave between the cypress knees protruding from the water, I half expect the towering, foreboding cypress trees to speak in deep voices.

Back in the main channel, the creek follows a twisting course, with each curve offering a white sand beach. These are perfect places to stop for a swim or picnic. Nearing the end of my five-hour trip I try to imagine what Village Creek looked like 200 years ago. In my musing, I miss a great blue heron until it takes flight. Another kingfisher keeps me company for a while, and dragonflies seem to argue over which one would best serve as the bowsprit for my canoe.

More dipping and diving swallows alert me that the highway bridge is just around the next curve, and Perry Humphrey is waiting for me at the takeout. For a moment I wish I could float right past the take-out and proceed on downstream another 20 miles to Village Creek State Park and the Neches River. In three days I’ve learned a lot about the Big Thicket and its inhabitants, but I’ve only seen a small fraction of its land and water. I have barely penetrated its mysteries.

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