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Canoeing the Big Thicket

The Neches River glows in a foggy dawn. The East Texas waterway’s 420-mile ramble to the Gulf of Mexico takes it through the state’s deepest wilderness, the splendid and mysterious Big Thicket.

In the early afternoon of a hot autumn day, I launch my canoe on the Big Thicket Corridor of the Neches River just below B.A. Steinhagen Reservoir. The take-out point for this several-day trip lies 108 river-miles downstream, on the outskirts of Beaumont.

The current is slack in this dry season, and the peace and stillness of the river at first come almost as a shock. As my recent memories of the interstate gradually dim, the Neches drifts my canoe soundlessly southward, winding past white sandbars on the inside bends. The day is nearly windless, as early fall days often are in the woods of East Texas. Only the ubiquitous sound of cicadas rises and falls around me as I slide downstream. And from somewhere low on the horizon to the west, out of sight behind the high banks and big stream-side hardwoods, a distant thunderhead occasionally punctuates the afternoon with a faint rumble.

The challenge of a long river journey like this is to gradually slow one’s mind to the pace of the current, the better to experience the place. As Big Thicket naturalist Pete Gunter once observed, stretches of this river are “so world-lost that one can, while canoeing, actually believe that one has lost touch with cities and suburbs forever.” In his 1993 book, The Big Thicket, An Ecological Reevaluation, Gunter wrote: “The joy of floating this river is not to try to reach each mile-post as quickly as possible—for that, try the Interstate. It is to paddle or trek one’s way into places where people are seldom likely to go, to find the unsuspected heron or spoonbill or stork rookery, or the bald eagle perched on a high dead limb, or the signs of river otter on a sandbar or in a clay bank. It is to see a huge alligator gar basking in the sandy shallows of a cutoff slough, or a deer come down watchfully to the edge of a darkwater pond at sunrise.”

THE NECHES RIVER, Pine Island Bayou, and Village Creek contain no dangerous whitewater, though there may be snags, brush jams, root wads, and other obstructions to avoid, especially on the two smaller streams. Even at periods of low release from B.A. Steinhagen Lake, the Neches channel normally remains wide and unobstructed. At low-water times (and especially on the lower river), the current slackens, and the paddler may choose to travel upstream from the put-in point for a daylong or overnight trip on the river, then return downstream to the put-in.

Canoe camping is allowed by permit within the marked boundaries of the Big Thicket National Preserve. Permits, which are free, are valid for 5 days for up to 8 campers. Sandbar campsites abound on the Neches in low water, especially on the upper half of the Neches Corridor, but high water is another story. When the river is at maximum flow, many campsites are underwater, and the paddler should boat elsewhere or seek the advice of the National Park Service in Beaumont. For more information on paddling the Neches River (or Pine Island Bayou), write to Supt., Big Thicket Natl. Preserve, 3785 Milam, Beaumont 77701; 409/246-2337. Ask for these key publications: Canoe the Neches River (which includes detailed river maps), Canoe Trip Planner, Canoe Cook's Lake, and Canoe Franklin Lake. The NPS also has a free list of local canoe outfitters.

Free ranger-guided canoe trips within the Big Thicket Natl. Preserve are scheduled through the preserve's Visitor Center. Note: Reserved canoe trips require a minimum of 6 people and 3 canoes. The Preserve does not provide canoes. Call 409/246-2337; Web site: www.nps.gov/bith.

Information about Village Creek may be obtained from either the Big Thicket Natl. Preserve (see above) or from Village Creek State Park (Box 8565, Lumberton 77657). Note: The state park has camping, swimming, hiking, and a canoe launch, but no canoe-rental facilities within its boundaries. For state park rates, reservations, and canoeing information, call 512/389-8900; for general state park information, call 800/792-1112.

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