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Park Pick: East Texas Adventure

A trip to Martin Dies Jr. State Park offers one-of-a-kind experiences.

By D.L. Clayton

I've been working in the forests of East Texas from Paris to Brazoria for more than 30 years, but on a recent visit to Martin Dies Jr. State Park, I was pleasantly surprised to experience three "firsts" in this beautiful East Texas park.

Huge loblolly and longleaf pines (with oaks, magnolias and other trees) shaded the cabin area, where I sat by the lake’s edge, watching the sun set behind the long bridge that stretches across B.A. Steinhagen Lake. I marveled at a huge bull pine, the biggest pine tree I’ve ever seen.

A night hike, suggested by my companions, was my first “first.” I had never gone out into a state park forest at night, except to make my way to the well-lit ladies’ room.

The ranger gave us all flashlights with red gel covering the light to allow our eyes to adjust to the dark. I was amazed at how well I could see the trail and how the sounds of the forest were not only different from day sounds but seemed clearer, closer and more distinct.

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Heading to the Island Trail we could hear the loud, deep harrumph of what sounded like a gigantic frog. The interpretive ranger pointed out the creature, a little frog smaller than a golf ball, sitting on a lily pad not far from the bridge.

We thrilled at finding phosphorescent fungi (my second “first”) near the trail. After a short three-quarter-mile hike around the island, we went to the observation pier and took the red gel off our flashlights to shine the lights out across the water’s surface. Dozens of glowing eyes looked back; the alligators of East Texas were watching us.

My final “first” was canoeing down the Walnut Slough Paddling Trail. It’s such a different perspective to glide along on top of glassy water, filled with known and unknown creatures. I saw anhingas that seemed to walk on water, as well as egrets, herons and many other birds. I thought about those alligators, hiding below the lily pads, their eyes just above the water, watching me watching them. The nearly 3-mile trail circumnavigates the island, passing under bridges and through a channel between the island and the mainland, where land animals watched us, seemingly unafraid of the strange two-headed water beast gliding past.

Martin Dies Jr. State Park gave me my first night hike, my first glowing fungus and my first paddling trail. I’ll try to remember as I visit more state parks to plan ahead, be safe, stay hydrated and, for maximum enjoyment, always keep one foot firmly planted outside my comfort zone.

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