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Touching History

Once a week, visitors can get up close and personal with the Big Tree at Goose Island.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

When the big winds blow, the Big Tree at Goose Island State Park stands strong, just as it's done for more than 1,000 years. Nowadays, though, the coastal live oak (Quercus virginiana) – considered to be one of the nation's largest – gets plenty of help to make sure that doesn't ever change.

Large posts support massive lower limbs that grow nearly horizontal to the ground. Numerous aluminum cables strung around neighboring branches brace them together for added strength during gusty winds and hurricanes. Three steel cables that run up different limbs reach the tree's highest points (44 feet) and ground it during electrical storms.

What's more, a chain-link fence keeps people at a safe distance. Otherwise, constant foot traffic beneath the canopy would pack down the sandy soil and damage the root system. Once a week, though, park ranger Mike Mullenweg opens the gate and lets visitors get up close to the former state champion live oak (one in Brazoria County claims the current title).

"They can touch the bark and see all the snakes, lizards and insects that live in the tree," says Mullenweg, who hosts a "Big Tree" program most Saturdays starting at 4 p.m. "There are also bird nests, tree frogs, bee nests and a billion mosquitoes during certain times of the year."

"I really dig this tree," he adds. "It's extremely unique in Texas and across the United States because it's so old. It was at least 500 years old when the Karankawa Indians and Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca were in the area. Pirates once used Texas bays near here to escape French and Spanish ships. Settlers and empresarios, cowboys and cattle – all that rich history has grown up around the Big Tree."

So is Big Tree - which boasts a trunk circumference of 35 feet and a crown spread of nearly 90 feet – one tree or two? "I get that question a lot," Mullenweg says. "I've been told that it grew from one acorn."

Nearby, Goose Island State Park – located at the tip of Lamar Peninsula on Aransas Bay – offers campsites with water and electricity, picnic sites (some with shade shelters), playgrounds, a double-lane boat ramp and a lighted fishing pier.

Excellent birding and fishing opportunities abound in the park. Whooping cranes winter in wetlands behind the Big Tree. Red drum, speckled trout and flounder thrive in bays around the island (fishing tackle is available through the park's Loan a Tackle program).

Goose Island State Park is located 10 miles northeast of Rockport. From State Highway 35, take Park Road 13 to park entrance. For more information, call 361-729-2858 or visit (www.tpwd.state.tx.us/gooseisland).

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