Big Thicket by Boat
Martin Dies Jr. State Park offers swamp, river and lake paddling trails.
By Russell Roe • Photos by Chase Fountain
As we paddle down the Angelina River, I keep my eyes peeled for the entrance to the secret swampy world. The previous day, local paddler and naturalist Gerald Langham had shown me on the map where to look, and sure enough, a small break reveals itself in the dense tangle of trees and vines, inviting us into a wild and untamed place where alligators and orchids coexist and legends live on.
This is Forks of the River country, the maze of densely vegetated backwaters just above where the Angelina and Neches rivers meet, at the edge of the biologically diverse Big Thicket.
“In between the two rivers is the area called the Forks,” Gerald says. “It’s a labyrinth of channels and interconnecting waterways and islands. It’s beautiful — if you like swamps.”
I couldn’t wait. We paddle in.
The sloughs and cypress swamps around Martin Dies Jr. State Park provide endless opportunities for exploration, and the park’s paddling trails covering lake, river and bayou environments provide a paddling variety unmatched anywhere in the state.
My companions — Texas Parks and Wildlife Department photographer Chase Fountain and TPWD outdoor outreach specialist Robert Ramirez — and I paddled for four days in and around the state park, including an overnight trip along the Angelina.
The eagle has landed
We start our explorations with a paddle out to a bald eagle nest, perched high in a pine tree just over a mile from the park. Two eagle parents are raising a young eagle in the nest. Gerald and his cousin Mark Stephenson show us the way.
“Where we’re going is that lone dead pine tree that’s stuck up higher than the others,” Gerald says, fixing his binoculars on the tree. “At the top of that dead pine, there’s an eagle there. The nest is a little bit below.”
We paddle through a slough populated with cypress trees, across a portion of B.A. Steinhagen Reservoir and through some backwater channels.
It’s still officially winter, but spring has started to bust out. As we paddle, Gerald points out a splash of color — the small red spring flowers of the red maple tree.
“They bloom first before they leaf out,” he says. “They’re usually the first tree to bloom.”
We paddle to the end of a backwater channel to get the best view of the bald eagle nest. We marvel at the magnificence of the national bird perched near the nest and occasionally get a glimpse of the dark brown juvenile in the nest when its head pops up. Gerald points out that eagles mate for life and usually return to the same nest. Bald eagles migrate to Texas for the winter to nest and raise their young. They use sticks and twigs to construct a large nest, as this pair has done.
We are mesmerized, but we notice that Robert, an avid angler, has been lagging behind, trying his hand at catching fish. We think he saw the eagles, but we’re not sure. If it’s a bird and not a fish, Robert isn’t that interested, even if it’s a bald eagle. If it’s a fish, however, he’s on it.
In this slough, cypress trees rise from the water like little islands.
“This is a swamp for the most part down here — a cypress-tupelo baygall,” Gerald says. “In the upper regions, you get longleaf pine and hardwoods like magnolia and hickory.”
On the way back, Chase decides to try his hand at fishing, too. On his third cast, he catches a small bass.
“What do you think about that, Robert?” he asks, laughing.
Gerald Langham leads the way to a bald eagle nest.
The Walnut Slough Observation Bridge attracts anglers, hikers and wildlife watchers at Martin Dies Jr. State Park.
Author Russell Roe looks for birds from the front of a canoe.
Around the island
The next day, the forecast calls for rain, but we decide to put our boats in the water and take our chances. We launch straight from our campsite, and if all goes well, we’ll circle the island containing the park’s Walnut Ridge Unit to complete the Walnut Slough Paddling Trail.
As we start out, cypress trees with moss hanging down dominate the waterway — a beautiful sight with a Caddo Lake-like feel. I can see the rain before I feel it, with the drops forming intersecting circles as they hit the water. For the most part, the rain holds off. Robert’s still fishing for bass, but Chase switches and tries for crappie.
Wildlife abounds. I see a belted kingfisher sitting on a branch before it takes off and swoops long and low over the water. A great blue heron lumbers ahead and lands on a cypress branch. It flies from tree to tree ahead of us, as if scouting our way. A little blue heron flaps its way past. Great egrets wade at the water’s edge, looking for their next meal. Red-eared sliders and river cooters kerplunk into the water as we approach.
Our route takes us under the road bridge and around the bend to the Observation Bridge at the Walnut Slough Day-Use Area, a popular place for park visitors to fish, hike and watch wildlife. We continue around the island, and the paddling conditions change from the closed-in surroundings of the bayou to the wide-open feel of the lake. As we round the southwest corner of the island, the wind picks up and the waves get choppy. This outing has given us a little bit of everything. After a couple of hours of paddling, we make it back to our campsite.
With rain still looming, we head to the park’s nature center, where we find naturalist interpreter Amy Kocurek.
“This is the Big Thicket ecosystem,” Amy says. “It’s wooded, and there are huge trees. There’s lots of water, with springs that pop up everywhere. We have great plant diversity, carnivorous pitcher plants and all kinds of trees. I can’t even name them all. I tell people I know a good 20 trees, and that covers just a portion of what’s in the park.”
The Big Thicket has been described as the biological crossroads of North America, with one of the most biologically diverse collections of species in the world. It is a place where southeastern swamp collides with eastern hardwood forests, Midwest plains and Southwest desert.
At one time, black bears left their claw marks on trees, jaguars lurked, red wolves howled and ivory-billed woodpeckers flew through the trees.
Amy suggests spring and fall for paddling because those times have nicer temperatures and fewer bugs.
The state park is about to come alive this spring.
A rope swing promises a splash in the Angelina River.
Robert Ramirez and Russell Roe enjoy camp life at their paddle-up site on the Angelina River.
“Everything is just starting to sprout,” Amy says. “Spring is starting. The energy right now is anticipation, because you know things are changing.”
And, uh, what about those alligators?
“Alligators are just starting to be active,” she says. “They don’t hibernate, but they do brumate [reduce their metabolic activity].”
We haven’t seen any alligators yet, but we think our best chance will be the next day when we head down the Angelina River for an overnight trip on the Bevilport Paddling Trail.
Down the Angelina
The Corps of Engineers operates a series of primitive campsites along the Angelina River, accessible by boat only, and we reserve a site right at the confluence of the Angelina and Neches rivers to spend the night.
Most people paddle the 10 miles of the Bevilport Paddling Trail in a day (the state park used to host regular guided trips), but we decide that spending a night on the river is the way to go — especially if we’re going to explore the Forks.
The upriver put-in spot, Bevilport, was an important river navigation point in the mid-1800s as steamboats made their way upriver from Sabine Pass. Today little remains except a few homes and a historical marker.
We launch our canoe and kayak and head downriver. Thick stands of oak, birch and sweetgum line the banks, and willow trees hang their graceful branches over the water. We hear woodpeckers knocking on trees.
After a stop for lunch, we find the break in the trees that gives us access to the vast area of wetlands between the rivers known as the Forks of the River, also called Bee Tree Slough.
The area provides a splendid glimpse into a hardwood bottomland forest, filled with age-old cypress, hickories, gums and water-loving oaks. Ecosystems like this are rare in Texas today. The water turns sluggish and the vegetation thick. Chase and Robert find it to be prime fishing habitat, casting like crazy into the murky waters.
Mazes of narrow channels connect small lakes in this vast swamp. Plants and animals respond to the ebb and flow of the yearly river floods. Slight elevation changes can mean vast differences in plant communities. In the Forks, biologists have distinguished 24 distinct community types, made up of different combinations of trees, shrubs, vines and grasses. While typical forests have three layers — the tallest trees, the understory trees and the ground vegetation — rich bottomland forests like these along the Neches can have five or six layers, resembling a rainforest. These swampy, muddy bottomlands are some of the rarest, richest ecosystems in North America.
It’s an intimidating place to explore because the further in we go, the more certain we are that we’re never going to find our way out.
I plot a course using the GPS app on my phone, and we decide to press on. In our boats, we glide through the waterlogged trees, much like an alligator would. We don’t know what’s going to be around the next bend or whether we will be able to paddle on or not. I’m filled with equal parts fear and excitement as we get deeper into the interior of the Forks and leave civilization further behind. Every turn seems to bring a dead-end until we get closer and realize we can continue.
“Where are you taking us?” Chase asks skeptically.
“I wouldn’t want to be back here by myself,” Robert says.
“Or at night,” I say, imagining all the eyes that would be looking back at us deep in this swamp.
I nervously check my phone battery, knowing that my phone’s GPS is our only shot at finding our way back out of this maze. I decide I’ve pushed it far enough, and we decide to turn around.
An alligator rests on a log in the Forks of the River.
We take a slightly different way out, and in the middle of a channel sits a tree that’s been struck by lightning, its partially burned hull still standing, filled with woodpecker holes.
Not far after that, we finally see our gator.
“Alligator!” Robert shouts.
The 6-foot alligator is resting on a log, and we paddle over to get a closer look. It sizes us up while we do the same to it. After a while, it decides it’s had enough viewing time, and it slides into the water.
We make it out of Bee Tree Slough and paddle to our campsite at the confluence of the rivers. Where the two rivers meet, the clearer waters of the Angelina mix with the muddy waters of the Neches, forming a swirl of browns, tans and creams.
As we set up camp, I realize we’ve accomplished my goal of paddling all the different waterway types surrounding Martin Dies Jr. State Park. We’ve paddled in the swampy bayous, we’ve paddled on the lake, and we’ve paddled down the river. I don’t know where else in Texas you can find that kind of variety. We’ve seen an alligator, bald eagles and countless other birds.
And as Robert gets a campfire going, I realize that the evening ahead holds one of my favorite things to do: camping by the side of a river with a nice fire. If you haven’t experienced it, I recommend it highly.
The sunset provides us with a final show as the colors of the sky morph from yellows and blues to purples and deep oranges, all of them reflected in the waters of the merging rivers. We sometimes joke at Texas Parks and Wildlife that we get paid in sunrises and sunsets, and tonight there’s no denying it.
Russell Roe is the managing editor of Texas Parks & Wildlife and an avid paddler.
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