Still Wild Water

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photo by Adrian F. Van Dellen
Adrian F. Van Dellen enjoys a solitary dawn on the Neches.

We had been warned. The meandering run of the Neches River through the “Little Thicket,” as our guide dubbed it, would disorient even the most experienced paddlers. Largely concealed behind the remnant hardwood curtains of East Texas, the slow-moving river slipped into the dark forest, its channel moving like a serpent. Spanish moss hung from tall oaks, while mid-river, smaller trees such as sweet gum and river birch trembled in the current. We kept alert for signs of wildlife, including water moccasins that might seek the comfort of our canoe. With two days of travel and miles left on the river, our getaway was feeling like something out of Deliverance.

When people talk of what’s left of wild Texas, the Neches is not necessarily the first place that leaps to mind. Partially to blame is the state’s outdoor adventure set, who let their visions drift westward, where the bend of the Rio Grande suggests a ribbon of life beneath the wide open skies of the Tex-Mex border. Still, the Neches proves a superior ecological panorama, draining some 10,000 square miles on its 416-mile journey from its headwaters in Van Zandt County east of Dallas to salty Sabine Lake on the coast. On its way to the Gulf, the Neches gives shape to myriad parcels of the Big Thicket National Preserve—considered by scientists to be one of the richest ecosystems in the nation. Elsewhere, the landscape has been logged or drilled, and signs of use and abuse increase as strip malls multiply and you approach the downstream population centers of Houston and Beaumont. Yet a bold wilderness thrives along the upper Neches, where we drifted.

Thanks to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, the Little Thicket and a 25,000-acre chunk of habitat north of Highway 84, as well as sections of the I.D. Fairchild State Forest, look like they will stay wild. As in Deliverance, there was a plan to dam this untamed stream. The city of Dallas and the Texas Water Development Board had proposed a $569-million drinking-water project known as Fastrill Dam, but it conflicted with a plan to establish the Neches River National Wildlife Refuge in the same area. Texas authorities attempted to kill the refuge by filing suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. On Feb. 22, the Supreme Court declared it would not hear the lawsuit. “I think it’s a win for society,” says Richard Donovan, author of Paddling the Wild Neches. “As our population continues to grow, more and more of our wild places will disappear.”

With deer crunching through the underbrush, wood ducks clucking in the distance, and woodpeckers thwacking nearby timber, we were soaking up a heady dose of habitat on its own terms. Faced with a flood-stage river, we drifted over trees that normally would have created a cathedral of branches above us. Though rapids were of no concern, even our guide, wiry, white-bearded Adrian Van Dellen, a retired Air Force colonel, struggled to keep track of the central run of the river. We passed wild hog wallows, and Van Dellen paused to point out the Neches River rose mallow, an endangered local plant. Later, he shared his notion based on the late theologian Thomas Berry’s “eco-zoic” theory that we are entering “a period when humans should be present upon the Earth in a mutually enhancing manner.” Arriving at camp, I discovered a pair of broadhead skink, medium-sized lizards with distinct bluish tails, and counted weird mushrooms in the forest litter.

“Me man, build fire,” my friend Scott Sommerlatte grunted with a grin as the sun edged down over the loblolly pines our first night. Our long first day was about to grow a little longer after discovering the camp stove had been left on my porch in Houston. Yet we’d been rewarded by the sights and sounds of the river. The lost pines and hardwoods of the East Texas bottomlands were a repository for all sorts of critters. Later that night, fueled by beer and whiskey (at least some of us), the conversation veered between travel, sports, conservation, and the fate of the river. The court decision not only ensured that some 36 miles of the river would continue to flow freely, it also spelled good news for the acreage where some of the last long-leaf pines in America can be found. This distinct Southeastern species of long-needled evergreen covers a mere 3 percent of the 70 million acres it once occupied. Its disappearance is one of the reasons people believe the ivory-billed woodpecker died out.

Waking in the morning mist, all was quiet. It was next to impossible to imagine what it must have been like when the Neches was still a major trade route. Following in the footsteps of the Cherokee and Caddo tribes, the sons and daughters of Appalachian clans brought their saws and axes to these dark forests. They used the river to ship logs downstream, and ferries helped move goods upstream from the Port of Beaumont. Now it’s nothing but solitude on the upper Neches.

Neches loyalists like Van Dellen and Donovan are not content now that there’s a federal refuge on the Neches. Threats to this delicate habitat remain. Dallas has already announced that the city is looking for alternative dam sites on the river, infuriating conservationists who believe that Lake Texoma, northwest of Denison on the Red River, and Toledo Bend Reservoir, along the Texas-Louisiana border on the Sabine River, would be better sources of drinking water.

With the timber industry in decline in East Texas, the wildlife service and local conservationists are looking at ways to secure more real estate for the refuge. Though the refuge plan calls for 25,000 acres, economic realties mean that the federal government is still scrambling for funds to purchase land. About 6,000 acres have been bought by conservation groups that intend to donate the land to the refuge. In a twist on the normal state of affairs, many locals are relieved to have Washington take control of the land—it beats having it submerged.

The defeat of Fastrill Dam protects 38 miles of a river that stretches over 400 miles, and the conservation community is organizing to establish stronger protections. The top priority is convincing Texas’ congressional delegation to push for a federal Wild and Scenic designation that would stop future dams. Even those who never want to sleep in the dirt, hear a wood duck or feel the weight of a paddle cutting through the water can see the Neches is a worthy resource. For those willing to cope with mud and bugs, the Neches offers a primitive paradise.

As we crossed Tails Creek, named for a Caddo chieftain, the whorls of the Little Thicket were replaced by a classic, broad-shouldered Southeastern river. I identified familiar trees including white oak, hickory and black gum, and tallied a list of birds such as the belted kingfisher, black vulture and turkey vulture, crows, and ever-present “little brown jobbies.” After three days on the Neches, we came to our takeout at state Highway 294, where logging trucks rattled the bridge. Beneath blue skies, we set about sorting our gear, feeling secure in the knowledge that, for the time being, the Neches River would be waiting the next time we were ready for a nearby escape.

Since moving to Texas, freelance writer Dan Oko has learned to love thickets, big and small. His work has appeared in Texas Parks and Wildlife, Outside and Audubon.

Houston-based writer Dan Oko is an avid fisherman who hopes never to encounter a lionfish in the wild. His work has appeared in Audubon, Garden & Gun and Texas Parks & Wildlife.