Saturday, July 09, 2005

Alligators, crabs, and cows, oh my!

You ever have one of those adventures where you go in with really low expectations and end up having the an awesome time? That happened to Clark and me Friday. We had been trying to set up some adventure this week but life kept getting in the way, not to mention the brutally hot and rainless weather. Streams weren't running, the borderlands were snake-filled ovens, and the humidity made it feel like you were standing in someone's mouth. Flipping through a Texas paddler's guidebook we found a note on Lake Charlotte, Texas. It's halfway between Houston and Bueamont just off I-10, and supposedly can be paddled all year. We figured it was some ugly little lake surrounded by industrial areas, but we didn't have any better ideas. I picked up a canoe from the great people over at Southwest Paddlesports Thursday evening and Friday morning Clarke and I met up at 5am to head out. Major storms had passed through several hours earlier dumping 3" of rain on the area and bumping up the local flowrates up over 400cfs, so we discussed re-running Spring Creek through the borderlands. In the end we decided to explore Lake Charlotte instead, even though both of us had reservations about it. 5:15am we were on the road driving through occasionally spits of rain.

Our misgivings were reinforced when 90 minutes later we pulled up to Cedar Hill Park (the put in site). Across the entrance was a locked iron gate roughly large enough to keep King Kong in and us definately out. The guidebook had said the park was always open so this gate really ticked us off. A few seconds later another guy pulled up with a kayak in the back of his truck. He was just as shocked by the gate. It was a good half-hour to the next viable put-in and we were all grumbing about this together when an old guy drove up. He gave us all a happy "Howdy", pulled a big key out of pocket and unlocked the gate (we all had to help him actually open it). He said he normally doesn't open the gate unti 9:30am, but he happend to be up and saw us do a u-turn in his driveway. He immediately threw on some clothes and came to open the gate for us. We all thanked him profusely and headed down to the lake. We had to drive through some woods to get to the lake and we completely unprepared for what we saw as we rounded the last corner.

In front of us spread a glass-smooth lake reflecting the glorious sunrise and surrounded by ancient cypress trees. On the shore were piles of fresh-water clam shells left behind by generations of Native Americans. The air was twenty degrees cooler than it had been in two months and a light breeze was blowing strong enough to keep the mosquitoes away. To the southeast we could see the remains of the storms blowing away and to the northwest high, dark clouds were drifting in. It was stunning! I pulled out my camera to take some pictures and discovered to my horror that it was busted! Aggghhhh!!! One of the most beautiful views of my life and I couldn't take a picture. You'll just have to take my word for it, though I definately plan on going back with a working camera.

We talked a bit more with the kayaker. He asked if Clark and I were biologists. We answered no and asked why. He responded that we were dressed like ones. He was in cut-offs, tee-shirt, and a baseball cap. We were dressed in high-tech, quick-drying cargo pants/long-sleeved shirts and wearing wide-brimmed (non-matching!) safari hats. Hey, there's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing choices! When you are an adventurer it pays to have the right clothing.

Anyway, a few minutes later we were in the water paddling towards a small island on the far side of the lake. The clarity of the air made distances misleading and it took us longer than expected to make it over to this island. On the way over we were amazed at how shallow the lake was (under 4' deep) and how many fish were jumping out of the water around us. The "island" turned out to be the fringes of a large cypress swamp. Without a word Clark and I paddled into the swamp and left the world of humans behind. Cypress trees filled with Spanish moss towered over us, Cypress "knees" 2-4' tall looking like frozen goblins poked out of the water everywhere. Herons, egrets, and many other birds cried out their warnings as we glided through their domain. It was wonderfully spooky.

We poked around the this swamp for an hour, never daring to go too deep into it. It's a BAD place to get lost in. According to our map there was an old shipping channel on the northwest side of the lake leading to the Trinity river. We found it with little trouble and headed down it. Suprisingly, it was much deeper than the lake itself. Fish were still jumping everywhere and large gar fish could be seen swimming just below the surface. Words can not do justice to how beautiful the channel was. It had fallen from use almost 100 years ago and Mother Nature had done a wonderful job of taking it back. Trees, flowers, fish, butterflies, vines...and me without a camera!!!

The channel was only about 1/4 mile long and emptied into the Trinity river. It was still early, so we haeded down the river in hopes of finding the "Lake Pass Channel", another old channel leading from the Trinity back into Lake Charlotte. The Trinity had very different flora and fauna compared to Lake Charlotte. The cyprees trees were replaced by willows, cottonwoods, and Chinese tallow trees. More importantly, there were ALLIGATORS!!!!! Woo hoo!! I'd never seen alligators in the wild before, so this was major excitement for me. We saw two differnt ones, each about 5' long. Way, way, way cool!!

Fish continued to jump around the canoe, and while watching them we spotted another type of weird beasty. Crabs were swimming past us heading upstream for some unknown reason! they were only about 5-6" across, but still looked rather tastey. Farther down we were suprised to see a cow laying in the water watching us. We headed over to us to see if it might be stuck, but as we got close it showed us just how unstuck it actually was. Swift paddling got us out of the way of it's attack. Only in Texas can you cruise with alligators but be atacked by herbivores... No wait, Jimmy Carter was attacked by a rabbit while fishing in Georgia. Okay, maybe it's a Southern thing.

Still farther downstream we pulled up to shore to strech our legs. Looking down we noticed the ground was moving. A closer look revealed that the ground was covered in giant grasshoppers! Way cool! I quickly emptied a spare waterbottle and tossed in a dozen of these monster bugs. I took them home and Miniwether thought they were pretty neat, but Misseswether won't let them in the house. My next-door neighbor saw them and asked if I was going to try eating them. He knows me too well, I had already downloaded some recipies for them. Native Americans used to roast them after removing the heads, legs and wings.
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I'll let you know how they taste.

Continuing downstream was uneventful after the alligators, crabs, cow attack, and grasshopper rustling. We found the other channel and headed up it back to Lake Charlotte. This channel was more overgrown and not as pretty as the first one, but it was still nice and easily navigable, though a lot longer. A side channel lead off it to another small lake but we didn't explore that this time. Once back into lake Charlotte we explored the cypress swamp some more, then headed back to our put-in sight. We pulled up to shore about noon and were back in Houston a little before 2pm. What a great day. The temperature was kept reasonable by the overcast skies. The wind was strong enough to keep the mosquitoes away but didn't make paddling difficult. Fish were jumping, birds were flying, alligators were cruising, cows were attacking, and giant grasshoppers were creeping. Could a person ask for a better day? Once home I did some more research about the lake and discovered the the Sierra Club rates Lake Charlotte as one of the ten "Must See" sights in the USA. I don't usually agree with the eco-terrorists of the Sierra Club, but I do in this case. Go see Lake Charlotte!!!

Adventure! Excitement! Exploration!

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