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Into the Big Thicket

Written by Dan Oko.

The cozy and quiet Cabins in the Thicket, near Kountze on McNeely Lake, await visitors, just five minutes from the Big Thicket Visitors Center. (Photo by Stan A. Williams)

Deep within the piney forests of East Texas, I watch fireflies dance like tiny warriors with flaming spears. Each little flash doesn’t signal aggression, though; these sparkling bugs use their luminescence to look for love. Earlier in the week, at the Big Thicket Visitor Center, I had learned that each species of firefly has its own unique pattern, and that the males flash in flight, while the females stay put and blink only when a compatible mate turns on his taillight. It’s a mystery I never contemplated prior to this trip. As the light show continues, mirrored by the glimmer of the occasional star through the murky night sky, I am reminded once again that nature’s wonders come in all sizes—great, small, and somewhere in between.

That’s a good lesson for any visitor to the Big Thicket National Preserve to keep in mind. Comprising 15 units and covering more than 100,000 acres and spanning 90 miles of the Neches River, the preserve just added 6,000 acres in April, and with luck it will continue to acquire more. But, already there is no shortage of land and water to explore, with tracts offering the chance to study overlapping ecosystems, including ancient forests, Southern upland plains, and coastal drainage areas. If West Texas’ Big Bend is about frontiers, mountaintops, and open space, the Big Thicket is about tuning into the charisma of the micro-cosmos, unveiling the quietude of the dark woods, and appreciating the fecundity of the bayous of East Texas along the Neches. Defined by the presence of swamps, birds, and bugs, it is a place that might inspire followers of Henry Thoreau as opposed to Frederic Remington.

I arrived midweek on a route from Houston through Beaumont, and as I made my way to the town of Kountze and the nearby national preserve’s visitor center, I happily put the concrete canyons and urban hustle behind me. Nothing I had seen in my Lone Star travels prepared me for the humid hug of East Texas. I found cozy comfort in the forest, where dark woods promised romance and anonymity. I had heard rumors that the Lone Star Sasquatch might be found lurking in the Big Thicket, and that a handful of hopeful birders believed that if the long-lost ivory-billed woodpecker still persists, it might one day return to the mature mixed forests of the region.

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