By Carol Flake Chapman
Coming home to the mid-Gulf Coast, where the ocean meets a primeval forest brimming with wildlife.
Travel time from:
- Austin - 3.5 hours /
- Brownsville - 5.5 hours /
- Dallas - 5 hours /
- El Paso - 13.25 hours /
- Houston - 1 hour /
- San Antonio - 4.25 hours /
- Lubbock - 10.5 hours
“Look at the size of that water oak,” says Warren Pruess, spotting the dark trunk of an enormous forked tree through a tangle of vines. “It could be a champion.” Pruess is one of the Brazoria County Muckers, a group of inquisitive naturalists who love to muddy their boots in the area’s marshy wildlife preserves, making careful notes of nearly every living thing they encounter, from prodigious trees to reclusive birds and elusive butterflies. I’ve been hearing about the Muckers for years from my dad, who joined the group’s weekly forays a few years ago. We’re tramping through Hudson Woods, a recently opened section of the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge. Though much of the flora is in the process of restoration, it feels like the forest primeval, with its towering, moss-draped oaks and heavy-laden pecan trees. As we near a hidden oxbow lake, an owl flies by so quickly we can’t get our binoculars up fast enough to identify it.
Although I grew up amid this maze of river bottomlands, lakes and marshes along the mid-Gulf Coast, I’ve been away from it since high school, and my three-day excursion here to my old stomping grounds feels like a journey of rediscovery. There’s so much to see and do, in fact, that I’ve had to carefully budget my time and map out my itinerary so that I can get to all the new places that have opened up to visitors in recent years.
The area known as Brazosport, which includes my hometown of Lake Jackson as well as the port of Freeport and the beach community of Surfside, is defined by water, from the Gulf of Mexico and its bays and inlets, to the mighty Brazos and the lazy San Bernard Rivers. I grew up along Oyster Creek, one of the many creeks, bayous and densely forested wetlands that punctuate this low-lying coastal prairie. Despite the chemical plants that line parts of the coast, Brazosport has become a haven for birders as well as anglers. Freeport regularly vies with Lake Jackson for top scores for the number of species spotted during the annual Christmas bird count. This is a place that can test your dexterity in switching back and forth from fishing rod to binoculars.
I’ve chosen Roses and the River, a charming bed-and-breakfast inn on the San Bernard, as my base, and I’m glad of its cozy warmth on this unusually blustery November weekend. My first stop, though, has one of the most controlled environments in the area — for fish, that is. Sea Center Texas is an unusual combination of fish hatchery and aquarium, with a fishing pond and wetland walkway added for good measure. The result of a partnership between Dow Chemical Company, the Gulf Coast Conservation Association and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Sea Center is known for its array of willing and knowledgeable volunteers, including my dad, who enjoys teaching kids how to fish. Today I join a tour with Roy Morgan, who explains how the aquarium exhibits demonstrate the varied marine ecosystems of the mid-Gulf Coast, from the salt marshes and coastal bays to the jetties and deepwater beyond. I make the acquaintance of Sea Center’s most famous resident, Gordon the Grouper, whose birthday is celebrated at the aquarium. Gordon appears to make eye contact with a group of school kids who are mesmerized by him, and he does an odd little dip, rubbing his fins in the sand, as though taking a bow.
I make my own unexpected eye contact with an enormous redfish, a broodfish looking out on the world from the window of her well-monitored tank inside Sea Center’s life-support room. Her offspring, which are hatched in the center’s incubation room, will be transported from the center’s grow-out ponds to various points along protected bays, including Christmas Bay, where I plan to go fishing the next day.
I can’t linger as long as I’d like at Sea Center because I want to make a stop before daylight fades at the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, located on the edge of Lake Jackson along Buffalo Camp Bayou, across from Wilderness Park. The observatory is clearly a work in progress, as director Cecelia Riley points out a wetlands area being created from a former baseball field where Dow Chemical employees once shagged for flies. Already, though, the observatory, which will co-host 2005’s Great Texas Birding Classic, has become a stopover for migrating birds, including 12 species of hummingbirds, and a bobcat has been spotted making regular visits to the new pond.
The next morning, I head out to Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge for its annual family day and the grand opening of its new nature center. The pond alongside the wetlands boardwalk is fairly throbbing with activity as moorhens cluck and cackle in the rushes, and a common yellowthroat warbler darts in and out of view. Under the observant eye of volunteer Dennis James, who also happens to be a Mucker, a student dips a net into the water to examine the wiggling varieties of larvae and tiny shrimp that help keep the food chain moving in these still waters. I hurry to the nearby van that will take the next group of visitors along the refuge’s paved drive, with stops along ponds and marshes to view the multitude of migrating ducks and geese and busy shorebirds stalking for food. We spot an avocet and a couple of speckle-bellied geese paddling alongside a large flock of snow geese.
That afternoon, the winds are still gusting strongly over Christmas Bay, whose waters look far choppier than usual. The bay, which lies between the marshes of the Brazoria refuge to the north and the sands of Folletts Island and the Gulf to the south, has been designated a coastal preserve, and several routes through its sheltered waters have been marked with GPS coordinates on a TPWD paddling-trail map. Tom Betczynski, an expert fisherman who knows the bay intimately, and who keeps his friends’ refrigerators full of fresh filets, has joined my dad and me. We put in my dad’s bass boat at Ernie’s Too, a baithouse and café adjacent to the cut that also happens to be the first stop on the kayak trail.
We’re soon drenched with spray as we make our way along Churchill Channel to the edge of Cold Pass, where Tom says he usually finds redfish. The wind and waves pick up, and we have to retreat to more sheltered waters, where I manage to hook a cattail and a huge oyster shell before finally hooking something more promising, which turns out to be a very lovely redfish. Unfortunately, it’s an inch too short to be a keeper, and back it goes into the bay. I find myself wondering if it might even be the offspring of the big mama redfish I had met the day before.
We decide to call it a day for fishing, but my dad and I have one more stop here along the Gulf. We drive to Quintana Beach, further down the coast, where a tiny village lot, maintained by the Houston Audubon Society, has become a regular stopover for an assortment of migrating warblers. There are times, my dad says, when a Hercules Club tree on the lot looks like a Christmas tree, with the bright warblers as ornaments. With such high winds, though, we spot only a hawk too far away to identify and a white-winged dove.
Rain the next day cuts short my trip to the main San Bernard Wildlife Refuge, where I drive along the partly paved Moccasin Pond road and make a quick foray by foot on the Bobcat Woods Trail, through palmetto-dotted woods and along quiet ponds and sloughs, where great blue herons and egrets complain loudly about my intrusion. I spot a comical-looking black and white duck, which I can’t yet identify. Later, I take refuge indoors at the Lake Jackson Historical Museum, and I recognize a mounted specimen on the wall as the duck I had seen earlier. It turns out to be a bufflehead. The museum also features a good fossil collection, an exhibit of Native American pottery and arrowheads found in the area, and one of the finest shell collections in the country. Soon it will house the reassembled bones of Asiel, a mammoth whose remains were uncovered by a bulldozer near here, in the town of Clute.
The next morning, when I join the Muckers before heading home, I realize that all these woods and waters, which I found so magical as a child, are still as magical, though in a slightly different way. I’ll never again take them for granted, as I once did. I’m grateful that these wild places are still here for others to come along and rediscover, as I have, perhaps feeling at times that they are following in the footsteps of the Native Americans who once hunted and fished here and watched as the owls and herons took wing.
For more information, contact the Brazosport Chamber of Commerce at (979) 265-2505 or visit www.brazosport.org for Sea Center Texas, call (979) 292-0100; or visit www.tpwd.state.tx.us/fishboat for the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, call (979) 480-0999 or go to www.gcbo.org.