Walk Through the Bottomlands
Destination: Lake Jackson
Travel time from:
Austin – 3.5 hours
Brownsville – 6 hours
Dallas – 5 hours
Houston – 1 hour
San Antonio – 4 hours
Lubbock – 10 hours
El Paso – 12.5 hours
Old-growth forests provide a backdrop for wildlife watching in Lake Jackson.
By Wendee Holtcamp
I left the ’burbs of northeast Houston, and after driving through rush-hour traffic — not a well-thought-out plan — I am now cruising down a narrow country road after dark looking for the Quiet Oaks Bed & Breakfast, just miles from the Gulf Coast.
I’m here to spend a few days with my writer friend from Colorado, Cheryl, a first-time Texas visitor. We will hike, kayak, bird-watch and explore. We will also see the recovery this area has made since Hurricane Ike slammed into the coast in September 2008, devastating beach, roads, houses and trees.
As I drive, I notice the brilliant stars twinkling through a pitch-black sky. Less than an hour south of Houston proper, it feels like a million miles from the cares and worries of home. My GPS says I’m nearing the B&B, near tiny Danbury, and thank heavens, because I’d have driven right by the hidden turnoff.
Innkeeper Mary Jean Adams greets us at the door, a farmhouse-turned-inn nestled on 50 acres of pasture and woods. I would be remiss not to mention that Alaska Snow Bear, her Pyrenees, greeted us at the car first. Walking through the front door, I admire the tasteful country chic. Whitewashed ceilings and walls with stripped pine wood floors give a cozy feel to the 70-year-old home. I stay in the remodeled attic — the perfect mix of comfort and privacy.
Adams raised her daughter here, and turned the home into a B&B as a way to channel interest into her kayaking business, which she began six years ago.
“I never thought I’d like the ocean,” she says, having grown up in Canada, but she quickly fell in love with it. “The ocean is living and breathing. I love to take people and show them what we have.”
Giant thunderclaps shock me from sleep in the middle of the night. I fall back asleep, and in the morning I am surprised that Cheryl slept right through it, because this Texas storm was LOUD. For breakfast, Adams serves up a roasted veggie frittata, fresh fruit and coffee.
The rain affects our hiking plans, so we head first to Sea Center Texas in Lake Jackson, a few miles south. The Sea Center acts as both a working hatchery and a marine aquarium for Gulf critters. The day we visit happens to be the annual Nature Day, with educational displays, so we explore a bit, petting a baby alligator and peering into the 20-foot-long touch tank.
Next, Cheryl and I take a tour of the hatchery led by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist Jennifer Bixby. The rain has stopped, so we duck outside to glimpse the saltwater reservoirs, stocked with red drum, spotted sea trout and sheepshead.
“The hatchery is truly a collaborative effort,” Bixby explains. Its operation involves Dow Chemical, the Coastal Conservation Association, the City of Lake Jackson and TPWD.
Back indoors, we peer inside large blue tanks, each filled with red drum, sea trout or southern flounder of different ages. She shows us fish at every stage, from eggs to mega-mamas. The hatchery seeks to improve numbers of these species in the wild through captive breeding.
Since opening in 1985, the hatchery has raised and released millions of fingerlings along the Texas coast. Along with two other hatcheries, it helped turn red drum into one of the Gulf’s biggest conservation successes. Every year the hatcheries produce a combined 15 million red drum and 10 million sea trout, and have now added 50,000 flounder fingerlings to supplement wild stock. Bixby explains that flounder mariculture is in its infancy. There is concern over declining numbers, but Bixby feels confident that hatcheries can help keep flounder populations up.
By midday, the rain subsides to a cool breeze, fair enough for outdoor adventures. But first, we grab lunch at the Grape Taste Wine Bistro down the road. I select fish tacos, topped with cabbage and chipotle cream sauce on grilled corn tortillas. While eating, Tom Taroni shows up, a birder extraordinaire who will join our explorations of the Columbia bottomlands. Taroni serves as a board member of the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, a nonprofit in Lake Jackson dedicated to research, conservation and education related to the birds of the Gulf Coast (and a great place to visit for its bird-watching platforms, though I didn’t have time this trip).
After finishing our meal, we drive 45 minutes to the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) headquarters, where we meet the refuge botanist, Thomas Adams — no relation to Mary Jean. This region of the Gulf Coast has one of the most important habitats for migratory birds in the Americas — the Columbia bottomlands. Some 40 million to 80 million individual birds of 240 species use them. Composed of low-lying hardwood (non-evergreen) forests lining the Brazos, San Bernard and Colorado rivers, the ecosystem provides a critical food and rest stop for birds crossing the Gulf of Mexico. The Columbia bottomlands contain some of the South’s last remaining old-growth hardwood forests.
After biologists discovered the importance of the bottomlands to migrating birds, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set out on a mission to conserve as much land as possible. New parcels have been added to the San Bernard NWR, although not all are geographically connected. San Bernard NWR and nearby Brazoria and Big Boggy NWRs together conserve nearly 100,000 acres of coastal marsh, prairie and forest. Each refuge is open to the public, but some of the units are open by special arrangement only. I ask about the impact of Hurricane Ike, and Adams tells me that the forests were largely unaffected.
“Large, mature forests are an important buffer to winds and storm surges,” he says. “However, because the trees have shallow roots, a major storm event can knock them down.”
Adams takes us to see the largest live oak in Texas, the third largest in the world. We stroll down the San Bernard Oak Trail in the refuge’s McNeil Unit at a gentle pace, shooting photos and listening for birds.
The live oaks make Gulf Coast hardwood forests distinct from other regions. Along the way, Adams points out other vegetation, including the spiky toothache tree, dwarf palmettos on the forest floor, edible greenbriar vines and resurrection ferns growing on branches. Brown and withered in rain’s absence, they sprout in wild green abandon when moisture comes. We are just weeks shy of spring leaf-out and the masses of migrating songbirds that will fill the forests with color.
The woods are not silent, though. Taroni points out a red-bellied woodpecker, a savannah sparrow, a yellow-rumped warbler (“butter butt”) and an eastern phoebe in the branches.
When we reach the trail’s end, I see it: a massive, majestic oak with a fork down the center. Its base is the girth of a car, some 10 feet through or 32 feet around — a full foot wider than the previous champ at Goose Island.
I climb up in the crook between its limbs. There is something comforting about holding to my heart a tree that has survived so many generations.
Foresters estimate its age between 250 to 500 years. The constant flush of nutrients in these rich, fluvial soils allowed it to grow faster than trees in other areas. The giant tree was “discovered” only in 2003 by Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Mike Lange, and after he first stumbled on it, he could not find it again for some time because the woods were so thick. Today, a trail takes visitors right to it.
Famished and exhilarated, we head to Café Annice, an upscale Lake Jackson restaurant. I try the blue crab cocktail, since these crustaceans came from our very own Gulf. Served with avocado, pico and corn chips, it is just enough to whet my appetite for my pan-fried mahi-mahi with artichokes. A perfect end to the day.
The next morning at the B&B, we enjoy Adams’ signature Orange Blossom Waffles before a day of kayaking. Because of high winds, we kayak Austin Bayou, a slow-meandering inland slough. Other trips take paddlers near (but not too near) nesting roseate spoonbills and other water birds in Christmas Bay or down the San Bernard River through the Columbia bottomlands.
Adams says Ike destroyed the landmarks for her Christmas Bay paddle and she had to find new ones. It also destroyed the Bluewater Highway from Surfside to San Luis Pass — a popular scenic drive a few miles away, which has since been rebuilt with gorgeous sand dunes using sand fences and … recycled Christmas trees.
Nature is nothing if not resilient, though. As the sun shines overhead, we paddle by wading birds starting to nest, including a yellow-crowned night-heron and great egret, and we see a flock of whistling ducks flying overhead.
To those not familiar with the ways of bayous, the dark, brown water can be mistaken as a sign of pollution but is actually a sign of health: The sediment from upstream carries nutrients to these downstream estuaries that feed young finfish and shellfish, which grow up in the protected coastal wetlands before moving out to the bay and Gulf. In contrast, clear, blue water such as in the Caribbean is an aquatic “desert” when it comes to nutrients.
As we end our day on the water, Adams talks about her passion for kayaking, which she developed after moving here.
“I make an effort to find areas to paddle that are pristine and away from the hustle and bustle,” she says. “I want people to leave having felt like they have been on a unique and adventuresome trip.”
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