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Falling for Canadian

Destination: Canadian

By Larry D. Hodge

Travel time from:

  • Amarillo - 1.5 hours /
  • Austin - 8 hours /
  • Brownsville - 14 hours /
  • Dallas - 9 hours /
  • Houston - 10.5 hours /
  • San Antonio - 7 hours /
  • El Paso - 9.5 hours

I have forgotten how long dawn lasts in the flat country of the Panhandle, and how the dry prairie air deceives you about the temperature.

I have been roaming the Gene Howe Wildlife Management Area near Canadian in the soft light of dawn for what seems an impossibly long time before the sun vaults into the sky. I'm here for the annual Fall Foliage Festival, which is scheduled to catch the cottonwood trees that unfurl a ribbon of gold across the top of Texas.

I drive up on 17 Rio Grande turkey hens sleepily picking at gravel in the middle of FM 2266 and spend a while photographing them against the backdrop of cottonwood trees with leaves turning into golden nuggets in the sun. As I kneel beside my camera tripod watching the turkeys lazily mill about as though sleepwalking, I find my fingers burrowing into the pockets of my insulated vest, seeking warmth. When I get back into my truck and look at the thermometer, it reads 36 degrees.

I'm back in the Panhandle, it's October, and while all is far from being right in the world, I wouldn't change a single thing in the little corner of it where I am right now. Well, maybe one thing. This part of Texas doesn't have all the sandburrs in the world, but there were not many left over for the rest of creation after they were distributed here. My knees still smart from the half-dozen burrs that pinned my jeans to my legs when I rose.

I ease down the blacktop as the sun draws the color from the trees in the Canadian River bottom to my right. The highway travels the transition zone between sometimes marshy bottomland next to the river and sandsage-covered sand hills to the north. The Canadian could be described as other Plains streams have - an inch deep and a mile wide, too thick to drink and too thin to plow - but such aspersions spring from human prejudice and ignore the rich wildlife habitat such streams nourish. White-tailed deer flick their tails nervously at me as I roll past. They are heading back into the thick brush of the bottoms to bed for the day. I'll go chasing them with bow and arrow later.

Late in the day I head for the prairie dog town in Gene Howe's Middle Pasture. (Obtain a map of the WMA from the sign-in booth at area headquarters on FM 2266. The road to the prairie dog town enters the De Arment Pasture half a mile east.) As I draw near, about to pass by a windmill that feeds both a watering trough and, through its overflow, a small dirt pond, a ferruginous hawk flushes from the pond and flies a short distance before landing in the sagebrush. He does not reappear, and I think it odd enough to warrant investigation. Camera in hand, I follow, and he flushes again but soon drops back to the ground. I jog toward the spot where he disappeared and almost stumble into him. No more than eight feet away he steps from behind a sagebush, opening his beak and spreading his wings in a defensive posture. You have not been the subject of a steely-eyed "Back up, Buster," glare until you have cornered a wet, 2-foot-tall hawk.

It's obvious this bird is unable to fly, and I'm afraid he might be injured. I shoot some pictures before heading back to report the sighting to wildlife technician Bob Rogers. We return and find no hawk; Bob speculates the bird had been bathing and was simply too wet to fly. I'm agog at finding a beautiful hawk in its bath and then running it down on foot. This rarely happens to me.

Sitting outside the WMA office later that afternoon, a squirrel scolding incessantly from a nearby tree spoils the tranquility. I look for the source of his irritation but see none. Suddenly, about 10 minutes later, another squirrel sprints down the trunk of a fallen tree near me - with a bobcat in hot pursuit. Both dart into tall grass; I hear a scuffle, and no squirrel climbs any of the trees in the vicinity. The bobcat has his supper, and it's time for me to seek mine, though I'm already sated on the day's sights and sounds.

The next morning, from atop a sand hill in the De Arment pasture, I watch the sun rise. I'm hoping to see the trees in the river bottom catch fire and line the river's course with yellow flame, but fog foils me. It's 35 degrees, and the fog masses and moves in as I watch. This isn't the fog of Carl Sandburg creeping in on little cat feet. This fog is a snake, winding its way between the hills in serpentine stealth and swallowing the trees. Even so, I get lucky again. Three white-tailed deer materialize as though made from fog themselves and pass within easy camera range.

Once again I'm tempted to trade camera for bow, but instead I head for Lake Marvin National Recreation Area on the Black Kettle National Grasslands, some six miles east of Gene Howe WMA on FM 2266.

Black Kettle was a chief of the Cheyenne Indians who avoided death in the Sand Creek (Chivington) Massacre but was killed by troops led by George Armstrong Custer in 1868. The recreation area centers on a small artificial lake surrounded by wetlands, trees and brush. Most prominent are the cottonwoods, some as big as 21 feet around at the base. The ridges in their rough bark are on the same large scale, and buffalo loved to rub on the trunks. Early settlers said buffalo hair piled ankle deep in the bottoms around the trees. I would like to have seen it.

The lake is haven for waterfowl in the winter, and as I step out of the truck I can hear Canada geese honking. I estimate a million American coots dot the surface - only a slight exaggeration - and I smile as they bob for food beneath the surface, popping back up bottoms first sometimes, little butts surrounded by circles of ripples. But bigger ducks attract my attention, and as soon as I train binoculars on them I start seeing green heads: mallards, along with green-winged teal, pintails, gadwalls and wigeons. Duck season opens this weekend; I have my shotgun, waders and calls in the truck, and maybe some ducks will come visit me on the Gene Howe before I leave.

For now the ducks must remain a dream denied, so I strike out down one of the hiking trails that radiate from the camping area. There is no wind, but the dead leaves on the ground rustle constantly, and brush and trees seem to bustle. It's birds, hundreds and hundreds of birds, and one extremely anxious cottontail rabbit. Robins by the hundreds and a variety of warblers and sparrows decorate the trees and shrubs. Canada geese honk from the lake, and above me others arrive in V formation. And everywhere are those golden, glowing leaves pasted to a veil of blue.

That afternoon I finally give in to the urge to hunt. Camo-clad and bow in hand, I spend a few hours exploring the thickets along the river in the Bunkhouse and West Bull pastures on Gene Howe WMA. As the sun westers low, I earn an unexpected trophy. Crouching and worming my way through a tangle of undergrowth, I look up. There against the backdrop of the bluest of blue skies stands a cottonwood with leaves the goldest of golds. The rich contrast of saturated colors stops me in my tracks. I return to the truck and swap bow for camera. The deer will be here next year, though I may not. Thanks to photographs, memories of these leaves, and this day, will never fade. Shortly the sun gives me the day's final gift, a sunset any painter of western landscapes would have been proud to claim, set to the music of coyotes howling up a crescent moon.

My final day begins with a trip into the sandhills of the Gene Howe WMA to call coyotes. Within an hour, at three different stands, four coyotes come into camera range, deceived by the squalls of what they think is a rabbit in pain.

"Sucker," I think to myself as I snap photos of a beautiful coyote standing broadside 40 yards away. Then, thinking back over the pleasures of the last two days, I realize the coyote is not the only one who's been seduced.

For More Information

The annual Fall Foliage Festival takes place in Canadian and at Lake Marvin the third weekend of October. For dates and a schedule of events, contact the Canadian-Hemphill Chamber of Commerce at (806) 323-6234, www.canadiantx.com.

The Gene Howe Wildlife Management Area is about six miles east of Canadian on FM 2266. For information call (806) 323-8642. The area is profiled, along with 49 other WMAs, in the Official Guide to Texas Wildlife Management Areas, available from the University of Texas Press at (800) 252-3206 or www.utexas.edu/utpress. All users must register at the sign-in booth at area headquarters on FM 2266. A wildlife-viewing blind and nature trail are located in the West Bull pasture.

The Black Kettle National Grassland is open year-around; a fee is charged for camping. For details call (580) 497-2143.

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