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Neches River Rendezvous

Thrilla of a Flotilla
Written by Lou Ann Dean.

The East Texas sunrise casts a hazy red-orange hue in our rearview mirror as my husband, Keith, and I drive west along a foggy Texas 103 out of Lufkin. As the car pierces the thick morning mist, rolling pastures dotted with live oak and hickory trees give way to gigantic longleaf pines. The highway merges with Texas 7, and we near Davy Crockett National Forest. Around another bend, the object of our destination is upon us: the Neches River. Two hundred years earlier, we’d be plunging headlong into the drink, but the highway bridge safely handles our crossing.

We begin slowing down as we approach a queue of cars toting shiny metal canoes and brightly colored kayaks. Keith points out a tall white heron standing in a marshy swirl of water and mist to the left of us. We’ve reached Temple-Inland’s North Boggy Slough, the meeting point for our day’s excursion: the Neches River Rendezvous. It may be early (7 a.m.), but the parking lot is practically full! Over 300 nautical, back-to-nature registrants are primed to access their inner Lewis and Clark.

Gina Donovan, communications director for the Texas Committee on Natural Resources, along with the Lufkin/Angelina County Chamber of Commerce, organized this 10-mile floating excursion in 1994 to promote “keeping the Neches wild.” Over a decade later, the Rendezvous has become a popular East Texas nature-tourism event. “The Neches is one of the last free-flowing rivers in Texas,” Gina tells me. “We need to see that it stays that way.”

Once out of our car, I wind my way through clusters of shorts-clad people both young and old, gathered around a group of canoes. Although participants don’t have to provide their own boats, many choose to do so. Others, like me, have rented theirs from either Shawl’s Canoe School in Lumberton or Tack-a-Paw Expedition of Leesville, Louisiana, which have provided canoes and kayaks since the Rendezvous’ inception. Vendors also transport individuals’ outriggers to the put-in point.

I can’t help but notice the smell of burning mesquite in the air, then I see smoke rising from a concession trailer. It’s parked near Temple-Inland’s hunting lodge, which is on the grounds of North Boggy Slough. I walk over to investigate and see that Smokehouse Catering of Nacogdoches is readying the coals for lunch. Although I’ve brought along granola bars, other snacks, and plenty of water, I begin anticipating their legendary burgers.

Since it’s not feasible for the Rendezvous’ many participants to access the river simultaneously, all watercraft are given a designated put-in time. A volunteer tells me that Keith and I are scheduled to board the shuttle van at 8:30, so there’s time for mingling.

I notice an attractive young woman wearing sunglasses reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn’s in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Her fashionable straw hat with a melon-colored band accentuates her neon-bright T-shirt, which reads “Rendezvous Volunteer.” I see her nametag and note that this is Heather Kartye, the event’s coordinator. Heather is chatting with Lufkin nature photographer Dick Pike and his wife, Geraldine.

“We’re out birding today and were just passing by,” says Dick, his Nikon camera dangling around the neck of his khaki-colored shirt. “I saw all the cars and wondered what the commotion was.” This is a great place for birders, since East Texas lies in the path of warblers, vireos, and other species of neotropical migrants.

Eventually, we’ll be shuttled about 10 miles away, where our canoes await. From there, the Neches River Rendezvous’ route will wind along the borders between Cherokee, Houston, and Angelina counties. This portion of the river also serves as the eastern boundary of the Davy Crockett National Forest.

When I wonder if recent storms have created unforeseen obstacles along the Neches, Heather assures me that the organizers have made sure that the river is passable. “There are two places that you’ll have to portage, but the Boy Scouts will be there to help you,” she says. There’s nothing more assuring than a Boy Scout helping you cross the street, whether the street is made of concrete or water.

Keith signals for me to board the shuttle van. Nine of us fill the vehicle as Dennis Clark of Lufkin enthusiastically proclaims that this is his fifth Rendezvous. “The first time I went, I had so much fun, I went out and bought myself a canoe,” he says.

As our driver turns left out of the parking lot and heads west on Texas 7, I ask Dennis how he deals with the Texas heat and humidity when he’s canoeing. He quips, “You mean your canoe doesn’t have air conditioning?”

Lively conversations soon start throughout the van regarding the history of the Caddoan mounds, Spanish missions, and sawmills. Barge traffic and riverboats loaded with cotton and timber once floated down the Neches.

We turn right onto a bumpy, reddish dirt road and in minutes, we’re at our Rendezvous starting point. Here, all of our boats are lined up and ready to go. Outfitters hand out life preservers, and a rocky path leads us down to the river, where members of Boy Scout Troop 136 of Lufkin assist everyone into their boats for the journey. Once it’s our turn, our canoe is slid into the slowly moving, tea-colored water. Keith sits behind me and soon we’re off. The next group of two men have a harder time with their vessel. One sits firmly in the canoe, but the other overestimates the craft’s steadiness. The canoe careens and tips over, dumping the men into the waist-deep water.

“Come on in. The water’s fine!” they call out, laughing. As we watch the men get back into their righted canoe, Keith and I dip our paddles into the water and gently move downstream.

We paddle between steep, conifer-lined banks, and I scour the incline for animals. Although beavers, once abundant, have been decimated by trappers, sightings of this furry creature still occur, and white-tailed deer, raccoons, coyotes, skunks, and nutria are common. Keith’s coworker, Nacogdoches botanist Trey Anderson, had warned us to be on the lookout for wild hogs, too. On a recent canoe trip, he’d seen more than 100 drinking from the Neches’ shallow waters. On our journey, though, nary a boar nor otter nor river rat do we see. We do see plenty of dragonflies, water striders, minnows, and one curious bee buzzing from canoe to canoe, checking us all out.

Canoeing on the Neches offers plenty of time to meet others enjoying the experience. We trade leisurely “hellos” with fellow Rendezvous-ers and learn the group is comprised of various church youth groups, grandparents with their grandkids, college students, and families. One family from Lufkin sidles up next to us, and that’s where we meet Cleo.

“Who is this you’ve brought with you?” I ask Rhonda Greene of Lufkin, pointing to her curly black Lhasa Apso, who is snuggled in between Rhonda and her husband, Maxey. “This is Cleo,” Rhonda says. Cuddling up to Rhonda, Cleo looks the dandy, with a red bandana tied around his neck. He seems to be loving every second of this, although he’d probably like a chance at clambering up the banks of the river. I photograph them as Rhonda holds Cleo’s paw up and waves.

The quiet flow of the smoothly moving water gives way to sounds of singing coming ’round the river bend. That’s when we encounter the Tyler Outdoor Club, five canoes strong, singing a reprise of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary.” “Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on the river!” They pass by us pretty quickly, with the Greenes close behind.

We make a brief stopover to stretch our legs on a potentially treacherous muddy bank, then we enjoy a moment of solitude and seclusion under a small canopy of Virginia creeper. Later, we encounter trees with bulbous roots pushing out from the river’s edge where erosion and rough currents have carved away the soil. Many of these trees eventually plunge into the water, making for interesting navigational decisions. Which way should we go? With the heat of the mid-morning sun bearing down on us, we choose one and forge ahead toward a shady area, which provides a nice respite.

As we stroke the water, I consider the history of this mighty river. The Neches supposedly received its name from Spanish explorer Alonso De León, who led expeditions into the region in the late 1680s. According to one account, De León encountered a band of Neches Caddos and referred to this river by their name. By 1820, Anglo setters were filling the region, and Stephen F. Austin recognized how valuable the river was as a means of transportation.

My attention quickly diverts to a rainbow-winged dragonfly hitching a ride on the bow. I lean back and allow Keith to navigate. We approach a huge tree fallen across the water with no way around it but on land; it’s time to portage.

By the time we’ve figured out how to get around the limbs sticking out of the water, we see that three sets of canoeists are on land, scraping their canoes along the rocky, muddy beach. Since there isn’t much land to walk on here, we wait our turn in the water near the roots of the felled tree. It took a mighty strong wind to topple a tree of this magnitude.

Amazingly enough, a group of Boy Scouts step in to help us out. “Here, I’ll get that,” one says to me, taking the bow of the canoe into his hands. Keith again takes the other end, and we walk the short distance to the other side of the tree. Once they set the canoe back into the water, I step inside, and it lurches a bit sideways. I don’t want to take an unexpected bath, so I steady myself and wait for the canoe to stop rocking.

With this bit of excitement behind us, we push onward. Already we’ve been in the water for three hours, but the time has flown by. We’re now on the home stretch!

We round a bend, and as we dip our paddles for the last time, sounds of cars rumbling across the Texas 7 bridge signal that the end of our river ride is near. Yet another Boy Scout helps us out of the canoe while outfitter Mary Carter helps pull our canoe up to the shore. I feel a bit wobbly as I get my land legs back. All too soon, another shuttle returns us to our starting point. We’re ready for some juicy Texas hamburgers!

Back at the lodge, we assemble our char-grilled, one-pound(!) burgers and help ourselves to some fresh peach cobbler. We sit on wooden benches at picnic tables shaded by a large oak tree, and toast our paddling panache.

As I reflect on the day’s events, I look across the crowd of people enjoying their hamburgers and basking in the experience of a day well spent. I smile and privately acknowledge the peace, serenity, and thrills that the Neches affords. I take another bite of peach cobbler, and then Keith sweetly tells me that my keys are locked inside our car. It looks like this day’s adventures aren’t over yet. May the Neches River Rendezvous be just the right-size adventure for you. Paddle on.

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