On Saturday Dec. 29, 2007, 10:30 a.m., I put my canoe in at the TX hwy 63 boat ramp to begin a trip down to Martin Dies, Jr. State Park, a distance of about 25 miles. The shuttle was provided by one of the park hosts from the state park. The weather at launch time was about 50 degrees with a light north breeze under a mostly cloudy sky.
This section of the Angelina River is between two corp of engineer dams, the Sam Rayburn dam and Dam B (Town Bluff dam), which forms Lake B.A. Steinhagen. Thus, the only time there is any current is when Rayburn releases water for electricity production. During my trip, they were releasing 4352 cfs twice a day, 6-9 a.m. and 6-9 p.m.
This river runs through a hardwood bottomland in the piney woods of E. Texas, in an area once known as the "Big Thicket". On river left I noticed house after house for the first 5 or 6 miles. Many of these are kind of ramshackle. I think they are summer / weekend homes or "clubhouses" for local hunting clubs. A couple of these clubhouses are old converted school buses. On river right is the border of the Angelina National Forest. After 3 miles, I come to a couple of old R.R. pilings that now support a pipeline for water or maybe gas. They also mark the end of the National Forest land. So now for the next couple of miles there are homes on both sides of the river. The banks are about 20 feet high, steep and heavily wooded. Below almost every house, are various forms of steps or ladders leading down to some kind of water craft, usually a johnboat or an occasional canoe. A few of these places use the bank for a dump, I spot asphalt shingles and rusted appliances.
The current doesnt look strong, but when I look at my watch, Ive made 3 miles in less than an hour. I take some pictures of a blue heron. Looking ahead of me, the river is a dark gray, reflecting the sky, and the wooded banks share this somber tone. But when I look over my shoulder, I notice a clear blue sky, and a blue river. The sunlight brings out the gold and russet of the remaining leaves on the oaks and elms, and the pines which tower above them all are brilliant green against the blue sky and what white clouds remain. I look ahead, gray and somber, look behind, bright and colorful. Maybe I should turn around and paddle backwards.
At about mile 5 the houses are gone from both banks. There is almost no trash to be seen. The current is gone, and the surface of the river is like a mirror throwing back the images of the riverbanks. High above, about a dozen snow geese keep pace with me in the now cloudless blue sky, wheeling and circling lazily, never flapping their wings, natures ballet. Ahead of me a buzzard glides back and forth across the river. I pay him no mind until he lets out a scream like a hawk. Wait a minute! Buzzards dont scream like hawks. But eagles do. I look closer. His tail is fan shaped like a hawks, and unlike a buzzards. But hes too big for a hawk. An eagle! Possibly an immature bald eagle. The park host told me I might see one.
This is my first canoe trip since September, and I can feel it in my back and arms. My goal today was 7 miles, and its getting close. Seven miles comes and goes, but there is no suitable campsite. The banks are lower now, but still about 10 foot high and steep, covered with vines, trees, roots and weeds. While planning the trip, I had spotted a sandbar at mile 8 using google maps satellite view. It showed to be right in the middle of a bend, and Ive marked the spot on a topo map I brought along. Sure enough, as the canoe comes to midway through the bend, there is a long level sandbar on river right. Behind the sandbar, the ground rises a foot or so to a grassy flat about half the size of a football field. There is a semi-circle of tall pines around the clearing. Perfect campsite. Apparently many others have thought so. A closer inspection reveals beer cans and bottles, food wrappers, spent firecrackers, cot frames, tent poles and all the usual flotsam and jetsam one finds left behind by those who like to use the outdoors but do not respect them. Im able to pick up most of the trash, but in a wooded ravine behind the campsite is enough garbage to fill up the Dallas City Landfill. Either a lot of trashy people have camped here over the years or someone is loading up their boat with refuse and dumping it. Fortunately the mess is not visible from the river or the campsite unless you walk through a tree line down into the ravine.
The night in camp was uneventful, no visitors animal or otherwise. I woke up to a foggy mist hanging over the river. By the time I broke camp the sky was cloudless and blue. Across the river was the mouth of a good sized creek, Indian Creek according to the topo map. Ive allowed plenty of time for exploration, so its into the creek. Once off the river its like another world. The trees close in on you. It's dark and shady, quiet and still. The water is smooth like liquid glass. Here now are the cypress trees. There were a few on the main river. Back here they are plentiful, growing right in the creek. Squirrels chase each other along the bank and up an oak. These squirrels are twice as big as those on my land in Kaufman County. I sit quiet and still for several minutes. The longer I sit, the more birds I hear and see. One I hope to see is the pileated woodpecker, the largest woodpecker in North America. The big thicket marks the eastern most point of their range in the U.S. The park host described their call as sounding like a jungle bird. Several times during the trip, Ill hear calls that might be described as a jungle bird, along with the drumming of a woodpecker, but am never able to lay eyes on a pileated.
After about a quarter mile or so, the creek becomes too crowded with logs and trees to go any further. It's wide enough and plenty deep, just clogged with lumber. So it's back out into the main river.
The Angelina is wide, probably up to fifty yards, and very deep. Its a sunny day and will eventually get up into the 70s. Texas in December! There is a slight tailwind. Perfect day for a paddle.
After about 3 miles of paddling I reach Bevilport. This was once a thriving river port, shipping cotton and hides to New Orleans. Now it consists of a historical marker, boat ramp, and some houses near by on FM 2799. The boat ramp is in good condition and is very canoe accessible. There is a low wooden dock on one side of the ramp that is even with my gunwales. A small peninsula reaches out from the downstream side of the dock, and serves as a primitive campsite. First come first serve. Above the boat ramp is a paved turnaround with plenty of parking space. I take my lunch here then move on downstream.
Once past Bevilport I enter the Angelina/Neches- Dam B Wildlife Management Area. This covers 12,000 acres, including 7,000 acre Lake Steinhagen. This area is also known as the Forks of the Neches. It is only accessible by boat, and is a popular hunting and fishing spot for this part of Texas. Lots of ducks, deer, gators, beavers, and all kind of birds. Cougars, black bear, and even bigfoot has been sighted here.
The Army Corp of Engineers has several campsites between Bevilport and Lake Steinhagen. To use them you need a permit from the Corp. The permit is free.
As the river bends toward the west, I float past the first campsite. There is a tent, but no campers. Probably out hunting. The campsites are clearly marked.
As the river bends west, I hear the buzz of an approaching outboard motor. I paddle closer to the bank. This is a deep river, and the water is real cold this time of year. A large wake from a power boat can easily tip a canoe. After several minutes, a powerboat with a big outboard comes roaring into sight. The ol boy driving it backs off the rpms just a little, and then as if having second thoughts, revs it back up and tears on by, throwing a huge wake. I turn the canoe to quarter into the waves, and get a stomach in my throat feeling while wallowing precariously through three swells before they level off and are finally absorbed into the bank. Before the day is out, at least half a dozen boats will meet me on the river. Fortunately most of them are flatbottoms with small motors and wakes, and operators that have the decency and common sense to slow down.
It is about 4:00 P.M. when I arrive at my campsite. It's Angelina #1. The sites usually come in threes, and are spaced well apart. There are some hunters at Angelina # 3, and I shoot the bull with them for a while. They have a flat bottom boat tied to the steep bank in front of their campsite, about ten feet off the water. When they unload their supplies, on has to stand in the boat and chunk it to his partner up on the bank.
"We would have got your site 'cuz you got a boat launch there, but someone else had it, they left right fore you showed up."
Sure enough, some one at some point had dug a makeshift ramp into the bank, angling up to the top. I glide right on up into it, then easily unload my gear and walk it up to the campsite.
These are nice sites. Heavily wooded, a good view up, down and across the river. My site even has a rope swing, but Im not gonna use it in December!
The night passes uneventful, which is the way I like it. I read myself to sleep. "Paddling the Wild Neches" by Richard Donovon.
The next morning is a brisk 39 degrees. The morning is bright and sunny, but there is a heavy mist on the river. With a spillproof insulated mug full of fresh brewed coffee, and a rod and reel, I canoe out to the middle of the river and immediately catch two fat East Texas black bass. Theyre only about 16 inches long, but probably weigh at least 3 lbs.
The next half hour or so produces no more fish, so it's back to camp for sausage and eggs. Then clean up, break camp, and start my last day of paddling for this trip.
Bee Tree Slough comes in on river right about a half mile below camp. Here the river bends south, shortly to join the Neches. I turn north, into a large bay that is the mouth of the slough.
Bee Tree slough winds into a vast hardwood bottom land swamp, forming a passage between the Angelina and the Neches. The many species of oaks here drop a vast amount of acorns that cover the forest floor and float on the swamp, providing food for ducks, geese, hogs, deer and other wildlife. My plan is to paddle the slough through to the Neches then down to the take out at the State Park.
As I float into the slough, the banks move in close, and the tree tops come together overhead. A slight breeze sighs through the limbs, but down on the water is dead calm. Small birds are everywhere, flitting through the brush and among the fallen leaves. The slough forks at an island. After consulting my topo map, I choose the left fork.
The slough is full of fallen trees. One forms an arch, through which is the only passage available. Looking into the woods, I see everywhere huge trees laying on the ground, uprooted by Hurricane Rita two years earlier, roots and all. For a while after Rita hit, it was impossible to hunt back here for all the fallen trees. The woods were impassable.
And so is Bee Tree slough I find, after going around a bend and coming up to a barricade of logs. The only choice is to back track to the Angelina.
Heading out of the bay onto the river I run into the first strong headwinds of the trip, out of the south-southeast. Progress is slow, made slower by hugging the shore to avoid being caught in mid river during the passing of the occasional motorboat and its ensuing wake. Finally the river bends to the west affording some relief from the wind. Looking north I see the Neches joining the Angelina, separated by the point of a triangle of forest. The Forks of the Neches. A few more strokes of the paddle and the Angelina is behind me. Im now on the Neches in the backwaters of Steinhagen Lake.
The river is wide here and heads south then southeast into the strong wind. Im starting to get tired, and for the first time am looking forward to the take out. Looking at the bank, I see movement. Its a beaver behind the root ball of downed tree that blocks a hollowed out section under the bank. He lets me snap a few pictures before he eases underwater and disappears Somewhere ahead on the left bank should be the entrance to a slough that is a short cut to the State Park boat ramp. If I miss it, Ill end up having to paddle past the 190 bridge, then double back.. Ah! There it is! Two leaning dead trees with red reflectors mark the cut through. Once into the cut through, the wind stops, the channel narrows, and off in the distance is a water tower that marks the Walnut Ridge Unit of the State Park, which will be home for the night. Its 2:45, another 30 minutes or so Ill be taking out. Or so I think.
This slough is clear of logs and trees. The banks are mats of floating water vegetation with shrubs, small trees, and reeds. Calm water and easy paddling. This is more like it. Im in a world of blue and green. Soon the edges of the slough level out, and Im in the middle of a vast pasture of vegetation. Instead of cows though, there are egrets and herons. Across the blue waters of Lake Steinhagen are the cabins, fishing pier, and seawall of Martin Dies, Jr. State Park, set among tall pines and oaks .But there is a thin line of solid land between my canoe and the lake, so I follow the slough for about another half an hour until it opens up into the main lake.
The boat ramp is in sight. Its a good ramp and makes an easy take out. After tying the canoe, I walk up to Ol Blue, my Chevy truck, drop the tailgate and have lunch. A fisherman from Beaumont pulls up the ramp, loads his boat, then helps me heave my canoe onto the rack. He has only caught one "'goo" all day.
"Too windy," He says. "I can handle fishing in the cold and in rain, but that wind just beats me down."
It's now 4:30, so I drive down to the Park office and rent a shelter for the night. Good thing too, cause at about 6:00 the wind changes from south to north, blows about 30 mph, and brings the temps down into the 20s by morning.
The Angelina River is an easy relaxing paddle. The scenic woods, calm water, and mysterious sloughs are an outdoorsmans delight. . When the current stops, the surface of the river becomes like glass, and is very soothing. The put ins and take outs are well maintained, safe and easy to deal with. The personnel at the State Park and the Town Bluff Dam are enthusiastic, informative, and helpful .The Corps of Engineer campsites are in good shape and the State Park is one of my favorites out of about 30 or so Ive been to. I was disappointed that I didnt get to see any gators. Maybe the wrong time of year? There are a lot of dwellings on the first 5 miles or so below Hwy 63, but after that its remote and quiet. Lots of boat traffic as you approach the forks. A trip during the week after hunting season might avoid that. Two thumbs up and I hope to return.
Boat Ramps at Hwy 63, Bevilport, and State Park.
Primitive Campsites below Bevilport.
Tentsites, shelters, cabins and RV hookups at Dies State Park
Old Town Discovery 133
Corp of Engineers Campsite permit required - no charge
Standard State Park fees
From Dallas take I-20 East to Tyler. Take 69 South to 190 at Woodville. Take 190 east to Martin Dies, Jr. State Park
Topozone, googlemaps, my friends at paddling.com, southwestpaddler.com