The Upper Coast
Sabine Lake area offers choices for getting civilized or going wild
By Dan Oko
You know what a gambusia is, right?” asks Michael Hoke, managing director of Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center in Orange. “It’s a small fish that eats mosquitoes. Look closely and you can see them.” I peer down at the slack vernal puddles of Adams Bayou, a tidal waterway that borders parts of Shangri La as it flows through the town of Orange on its way to Sabine Lake, a 14-mile-long inland bay on the Louisiana-Texas border. I don’t actually see the gambusia, also known as mosquito fish, but I do glimpse some pollywogs as they spin into the muck below. So it goes. With its birding hotspots, museums, historic sites, and parks, Texas’ upper-most coast holds impressive charms if you know where to look.
Whether you are simply on the hunt for an afternoon break from traffic on I-10, or organizing a weeklong adventure close to home, the Cajun Coast, as this section of Southeast Texas is often called, offers ample opportunities for exploring. And as the local communities along the shores of Sabine Lake (and elsewhere in the area) continue to rebuild after recent hurricanes, they are happy to befriend visitors and show them a lesser-known side of East-Texas life.
Even a simple driving detour offers surprises, carrying travelers over scenic bridges, including the breathtaking Rainbow Bridge between Bridge City and Port Arthur, which, at 176 feet above the water, is the tallest bridge in the South. Nearby, the 165-foot-tall Martin Luther King Bridge connects Port Arthur to manmade Pleasure Island, an 18.5-mile-long strip of land constructed out of dredging deposits from nearby waterways. The high bridges accommodate ship building and allow passage of floating oil platforms constructed nearby. And, in addition to engaging driving tourists, the bayous, rivers, bays, and coastline offer boating enthusiasts, beachcombers, and anglers a wet-and-wild playground as well.
Back on my own Upper Coast excursion, I’m heading for Adams Bayou, following Michael Hoke down the gangplank into one of the custom-built boats that Shangri La designed for sightseeing and school groups. As we leave the manicured gardens and cruise quietly along the bayou into the depths of the 252-acre nature center, a hidden world opens up. Moss-draped cypress form their distinct knees where tree roots poke through the lime-rich marl along the bayou’s muddy banks. Yellow-rumped warblers flit about the undergrowth. We disembark at a quiet spot in the woods, where students get to experience hands-on, outdoor classes. Here we see houses for bluebirds and silos constructed for bat roosts while nearby solar panels generate electricity. The contagion of learning seeps into my mind.
Shangri La, opened in 2008, is just one of several institutions operated by the Nelda C. and H.J. Lutcher Stark Foundation, a charitable, 50-year-old nonprofit dedicated to improving life in Orange and Southeast Texas. The Stark Foundation also operates the Stark Museum of Art, which features a fine collection of Western paintings and sculpture, along with the 1,450-seat Frances Ann Lutcher Theatre for the Performing Arts. The theater hosts traveling Broadway productions and a range of musical events, as well as children’s programming, year-round.
It makes quirky sense that Shangri La takes its name from the hard-to-reach, legendary Himalayan paradise first featured in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon. The property was originally a private sanctuary owned by Stark, whose family had made its fortune in the East Texas logging industry before expanding into diversified business interests. Stark’s private botanical gardens opened for visitors in 1946, but an unexpected winter storm in 1958 devastated virtually all the plants in the gardens. Shangri La remained closed for decades before the Stark Foundation decided to restore the facility in 2002.
In 2005, however, as the site renovation began, Hurricane Rita rocked the upper coast, including Orange, wreaking havoc, flattening vegetation at the garden, and uprooting thousands of trees. After the storm, Hoke and his team, including San Antonio’s award-winning architecture firm of Lake|Flato, continued the project of remaking Shangri La as a showcase for environmentally sensitive green construction and education. After the doors reopened following the reconstruction project, Hurricane Ike flooded Shangri La in 2008.
The 2008 storm damage was approximately $5 million, but the restored development received Platinum Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, one of only 50 projects worldwide to reach that high environmental standard. In addition to a total of 36 solar panels to provide electricity, nearly all the construction materials were reclaimed or recycled. Wood for buildings was salvaged from trees felled by Rita, and walkways were engineered from recycled plastic.
“When I was hired to do this job, I told them I wanted to make this the greenest spot in the whole state of Texas,” says Hoke, with evident pride. “Rita helped us get there.” Hoke is a patient and keen teacher, who before working at Shangri La was a K-12 science educator for three decades. During our tour, East Texas’ notoriously hawk-like mosquitoes give us a break. The unseen gambusia must be eating their fill.
In turn, I could not escape how Shangri La mirrors the region’s appeal. Everywhere, water is as much a part of the landscape as the land. Then, you’ve got the handsome Stark gardens, planned, planted, and maintained by a busy staff. In contrast to the orderly planned gardens, the natural, untamed world arrives reflected in the beaver ponds, bird blinds, and bayou boat trips. Given the down-home, often downright rural vibe of the Golden Triangle (another nickname for the area), where the famous Spindletop gusher kick-started the state’s oil boom in 1901, I was delighted to find the cultivated and the wild constantly side by side.
Like water, diversity is another near constant. In Port Arthur, for instance, lunch might be a savory Cajun boudin or spicy Vietnamese banh mi sandwich. Oil refineries, pipelines, and petrochemical development are a vital presence, yet thriving ecosystems range from upland piney woods to tupelo swamps and coastal marshes to white-sand beaches where Gulf breezes beckon. Sabine Lake, where fresh and salt water mix, has been called “one of the most productive” fisheries in Texas by American Angler magazine. In spots, you can catch largemouth bass and redfish on alternating casts.
There may be no better introduction to the natural and human history of the area than the Museum of the Gulf Coast, located in downtown Port Arthur. Exhibits span two floors, and explore the many facets of life on the coast between New Orleans and Houston. The various galleries offer diverse perspectives on the region’s ecological and cultural resources while pretty much standing at its geographic heart. There is a kiosk about the Sparks family (first Anglo settlers) and a gallery focused on Robert Rauschenberg, an influential, internationally renowned artist who never forgot his roots in Port Arthur.
Entering the museum, you cannot miss the 125-foot-long mural, Dawn till Dusk, the largest indoor painting in the Southwest, painted by Hill Country artist Travis Keese. Running the length of the interior wall, five panels show beach scenes that tell the story of the Gulf Coast from the age of the dinosaur to the Spanish colonial era to the discovery of oil. Artifacts and dioramas help bring the historic images to life. Each scene takes place on the same spot, with just the time of day changing.
On the second floor is the museum’s most popular section, the Music Hall of Fame, which highlights the work of 60 Gulf Coast musicians spanning pop, rock, jazz, country, and zydeco. There’s a working jukebox so you can hear what the artists sounded like, and a replica of a psychedelic Porsche driven by Port Arthur’s most famous daughter, Janis Joplin. The museum offers a pamphlet that provides a map to Joplin-related landmarks, yet regional variety comes into play again as renowned musicians of the area include not only rock legend Joplin, but hit-maker Lee Hazlewood (who wrote and produced Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walking”) and Grammy-winning bluesman Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. Additional halls are dedicated to sports heroes and to prominent politicians, entertainers, and entrepreneurs.
Back in Orange, I stop by the exceptional Stark Museum of Art, where the likes of Charles M. Russell and Yellowstone expedition painter Thomas Moran are strongly represented. Another treat is seeing the Stark copy of Audubon’s Birds of America, once owned by the famous bird artist. Under the influence of the frontier painters, though, my inner culture vulture cannot quell the impulse to get back outdoors.
I reach out to Bridge City fishing guide Captain Mike Rector, who holds a day job as a machinist at one of the local plants and specializes in fly-fishing and light tackle on the northern reaches of Sabine Lake, which covers 90,000 acres. We meet early in the morning, with the sun peeking orange over the Louisiana side of the marsh. Ospreys slice through the air, but the tide is low. Rector decides to stick to some grassy areas he knows, saving his favorite spots for last—including Bessie Heights, the northernmost saltwater estuary in Texas, where the pirate Jean Lafitte is rumored to have buried his treasure. Herons are plentiful in the marsh, and the air smells slightly acrid with hints of smoke from a grass fire.
As the day heats up, so does the fishing, and soon we’re catching redfish like clockwork, every few casts. Eventually, we turn our attention to Bessie Heights, passing beneath the Rainbow Bridge. Rector correctly guesses where we can catch a few flounder. Spying a six-foot gator is an added treat.
To wrap up my trip, I head to the beach, stopping first for a quick Vietnamese sandwich. I roll south out of Port Arthur with the tart flavor of spicy Asian pickles still on my lips. At the Sabine Pass Battleground, maintained by the Texas Historical Commission, I find a lonely, windblown spot to watch huge ships pass. A Civil War battle had been fought at the pass, but the interpretive signs were swallowed by Ike.
Next, I push on to the Texas Ornithological Society’s Sabine Woods preserve, which, like more famous High Island near the Bolivar Peninsula, offers a crucial resting spot for neotropical migrants. With a couple of big oaks and lots of brush, the woods are less of a park than a stopover for birders. But it is just a short ride to Sea Rim State Park, recently reopened by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department after heavy storm damage. (For the time being, services are limited, but there is no charge for entry.)
At Sea Rim, I follow the Gambusia Nature Trail, an elevated
boardwalk over the coastal marsh that makes a mile-long circuit. Shorebirds,
including white ibis and greater yellowlegs, work the shallows. I stare into
the water on lookout for the trail’s namesake, but still see none of the
elusive fish. Even so, now that I know more about the mosquito fish, I am
thankful for the gambusia—and the other discoveries I’ve made on the Upper Coast.
From the June 2011 issue.