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Floating the Forks

Just a few hours from Houston, laid-back adventure beckons at Martin Dies Jr. State Park.

By Mary-Love Bigony

Known by generations of locals as "The Forks," the swampy forest at the confluence of the Angelina and Neches rivers seems as wild and untamed today as it must have seemed when Anglo-American settlers began moving into Southeast Texas in the 1830s. Accessible only by boat, the shady, winding backwater sloughs harbor a variety of birds, animals and legends.

"The Forks was wild country," wrote the late Dan Lay of a boat trip he took through the area in 1938. "Endless sloughs snaked among cypress and tupelo gum trees, and oaks lined the banks. Alligators sank beneath the water. A few years before, deer hunters on one of the sloughs shot a 'gator that weighed more than 1,200 pounds. According to legend, ivory-billed woodpeckers still lived there."

Today the Forks and the acres surrounding it are part of the Angelina-Neches/Dam B Wildlife Management Area. Once a month, Martin Dies, Jr. State Park offers a guided canoe trip down the Angelina and Neches rivers and into the Forks. Together, the state park and adjacent wildlife management area provide a unique East Texas experience year-round for canoeists and kayakers, as well as campers, hikers, anglers and cyclists.

On a balmy June morning, participants in the Floating the Forks guided canoe trip meet at the park's Walnut Ridge Unit. They pile into a small bus, canoes and paddles packed into the back, for a short ride to the wildlife management area. I meet up with them in Bevilport, on the banks of the Angelina River, where the trip will begin. Bevilport was an important river navigation point from 1830 to 1860. Sam Houston bought the first lot in this townsite, but today little remains except a historical marker. "Bevilport shipped cotton, hides and other East Texas products to markets in New Orleans," it says. "Its docks were busy with flatboats, keelboats - its stores packed with travelers."

Park ranger Keith Hawkins helps us unload the canoes - you can bring your own or rent one from the park - and launch them into the clear water of the Angelina River. "The river was named for an Indian girl that Spanish missionaries called Angelina," he tells us as we get underway. Keith says the park offers this trip year-round; thunderstorms with lightning are about the only thing that will deter it. "We started out one winter day when the temperature was 28 degrees," he says. "By the afternoon, though, it was in the 60s."

Our canoes glide along the clear river. Thick stands of oak, birch and sweet gum line the banks, and graceful branches of willow trees hang over the water. Lotus and water lilies dot the surface and moss-draped cypress trees provide an Old South ambience. A green heron takes flight, followed by another heron, the little blue.

After an hour or so, Keith motions the canoes to follow him to a nearby sandbar where he hops ashore and, with a mischievous grin, grabs hold of a rope tied to a tree, gets a running start, swings out over the river and drops in. A couple of enthusiastic youngsters take their turns on the swing, followed by young-at-heart grandmother Joyce Bush, a park volunteer who is helping Keith with today's tour.

After the swimmers and we less-adventurous waders dry ourselves off, Keith unfolds a map, spreads it out on the ground and shows us how far we've come. Then we're back on the river.

An hour or so later, as the canoes approach the Forks, Keith motions toward an opening in the dense tangle of trees and vines. "This is Bee Tree Slough," he says. "Stay together, and watch out for snags."

The water is sluggish and the vegetation is thick. Hardwood bottomland ecosystems such as this are rare in Texas today, but logging in the early 20th century was selective here. We wind around snags and cypress knees as if navigating an obstacle course, all the while keeping an eye out for alligators. A red-winged blackbird perches on a low cypress limb. Warblers sing a late-spring chorus, but are hidden from sight in the thick hardwoods. A woodpecker's tapping echoes through the trees and somewhere in the distance a bullfrog croaks.

Emerging from the Forks into the Neches River, we paddle for a while longer before pulling off the river for a quick lunch. As we relax and chat, Keith points skyward and I grab my binoculars just in time to see a swallow-tailed kite soaring overhead.

Back on the water, we see a baby alligator swimming down the middle of the river, but that would be the only 'gator spotted on this trip. "There have been days we've seen 12 or more alligators," says Keith. "You just never know."

Signs along the river bank indicate locations of Corps of Engineers campsites. Keith says these are primitive campsites, most of them accessible only by boat. For anyone looking for a genuine Huckleberry Finn experience, this would be it.

By early afternoon, the state park's Walnut Ridge unit is in view. When we reach the park everyone helps carry the canoes and paddles ashore. Some folks will head back home to nearby Houston, while others will spend the night at the state park.

The park has units on both sides of U.S. Highway 190, and most of the campsites have a picturesque view of 15,000-acre B.A. Steinhagen Reservoir. Built in the early 1950s, Steinhagen was at the vanguard of reservoir construction in East Texas and has a more intimate atmosphere than many of the larger impoundments. Large boats are absent in Steinhagen, due to the shallow water of the lake, and trees and other vegetation are dense, much like the nearby Big Thicket.

The Walnut Ridge unit, on the north side of the highway, has campsites along the scenic lakeshore, as well as some screened shelters and an air-conditioned mini-cabin. Park superintendent Ellen Buchanan says that families planning reunions often rent all the screened shelters, along with the nearby dining hall, which has a complete kitchen. The Hen House Ridge unit, south of the highway, also has lakeside campsites as well as some sites along the wooded shores of Gum Slough.

What do people come to this park to do? "Relax," says Ellen. "You can see it on their faces as soon as they drive through the gate." That does seem to be the case throughout the park. Canoeists take a leisurely paddle in the lake; visitors can rent canoes, kayaks and boats from the park for periods of a half-day up to two days. Each unit has a lighted fishing pier and a boat ramp, and anglers catch largemouth bass around stands of baldcypress trees. They also reel in plenty of catfish, crappie and sunfish, as well as the occasional chain pickerel. The Hen House Ridge unit has a swimming beach complete with sand. "When the lake is low," says Ellen, "the swimming area looks almost like the Gulf of Mexico with all the beach umbrellas and sand castles!"

Martin Dies, Jr. State Park has an extensive network of trails, all of which are heavily used. The trail in the Hen House Ridge unit loops through the swamp area on the eastern edge of the park. The trail in the Walnut Ridge unit crosses a boardwalk over a slough, which is an excellent place to see a purple gallinule in the summer, waterfowl in the winter and dozens of other birds at all times of year. At the other end of the boardwalk, the trail continues into the wildlife management area, where there are two loop trails, one of which goes through all the ecosystem types on the WMA.

On the first, second and fourth Saturdays of each month, a park employee leads a guided nature hike called "A Walk on the Wild Side," pointing out natural features unique to this part of the state. "The hike changes throughout the year, depending on what's in bloom and what birds are in the area," says Ellen.

Bicycles are an excellent way to explore the park and WMA. Visitors can bring their own bikes or rent one at the park. Vegetation changes with the seasons. Springtime brings blooming dogwood and magnolia trees. In the fall, cypress trees take on a golden hue, as do some of the beech and gum trees.

If you're looking for scenic destination away from crowds and the demands of daily life where you can enjoy some solitude, this is it. If you're looking for a park with knowledgeable folks to take you on a hike or a guided canoe trip, this is it, too.

Getting There

Martin Dies, Jr. State Park (SP) is located about 21/2 hours northeast of Houston. From Woodville take U.S. Highway 190 for about 17 miles. From Jasper take US 190 for about 12 miles.

Reservations are required for the Floating the Forks guided canoe tour, which takes place on the third Saturday of each month. Cost is $30 per canoe per two people. For those who bring their own canoe the cost of the tour is $25 per canoe per two people.

No reservations are required for the Walk on the Wild Side guided hike, and there is no fee.

To reserve a spot on one of the guided tours, call the park at (409) 384-5231. For more information about the park go to Martin Dies SP. To reserve a campsite, call (512) 389-8900 or go to Park Reservations.

For state park information call (800) 792-1112 or go to Find a Destination.

Martin Dies, Jr. State Park is site UTC 013 on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail. For more information about the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail go to Great Texas Wildlife Trails.

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