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Winging It in Uvalde

Destination - Uvalde

By Susan L. Ebert

Travel time from:

  • Amarillo - 9 hours /
  • Austin - 3.5 hours /
  • Brownsville - 7 hours /
  • Dallas - 7 hours /
  • El Paso - 9 hours /
  • Houston - 5 hours /
  • San Antonio - 2 hours

Uvalde is John Nance Garner's hometown. "Cactus Jack," as he was known, served as vice president during Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first two terms as president, and declared that the vice presidency is "an office not worth a bucket of warm spit."

Luckily, the same can't be said about Cactus Jack's hometown – or the state park that bears his name.

Uvalde is the birthplace of other notable figures, such as silver-screen cowgirl Dale Evans, colorful Texas Governor Dolph Briscoe, the train-robbing Newton Boys and be-dimpled actor Matthew McConaughey. The area is also renowned for its rugged scenery, the clear-flowing Frio and Sabinal rivers – flowing in tandem until the Sabinal gives itself to the Frio north of Frio Town – its abundant wildlife and its diverse recreational opportunities.

So I leap at the chance to join fellow outdoor writers in Uvalde to sample its fabled dove hunting.

On a clear September morning, we gather in the pre-dawn in the Holiday Inn parking lot under a waning full moon to meet Kimbra Peirce, executive director of the Uvalde Convention and Visitors Bureau, who has organized our outing. We will be hunting in the Central Zone this morning, and it will be my first opportunity to hunt whitewings. These large, fast birds are proliferating and expanding their range in Texas, and arguably no place has more whitewings than the Uvalde area.

We caravan to La Paloma Cantina, where we meet our guides, Clint Arnold and Browder Graves. After a brief check-in, we follow them to our dove hunting spot, a caliche road lined with whitebrush, prickly pear studded with fat tunas and purple sage that is blooming so profusely that I can hardly discern any greenery among the violet explosion.

"The doves fly out of Uvalde in the morning," explains Graves, motioning to the south, "headed to a commercial birdseed farm for their morning feed. At about 7:45, they'll start coming over this ridge, high and fast."

We have about a half-hour until shooting time to appreciate the sunrise, which we spend in playful banter as we load our guns. Then, over the 10-foot rise in front of us, flight after flight of whitewings streak overhead. High and fast is right; often they are more than 40 yards overhead, flying arrow-straight, unlike the jinking, twisting and diving I associate with mourning doves. As I'm still making friends with my new Beretta 20-gauge shotgun, I shoot nary a dove that morning, although my hunting partner limits out. His strategy: a tightly choked 12-gauge, with larger than usual shot.

My friends will hunt again that afternoon, but I have other plans. Wild honey is still produced in the area, most notably by Ed Moeller, and is sold in many locations around town. After tasting Moeller's wild guajillo honey, I'm curious to see his operations firsthand.

Uvalde sports the moniker "Honey Capital of the World." In the 1870s, pioneer settlers discovered hollow trees and caves brimming with bees and honey. Later, commercial beekeepers would ship honey all over the world from Uvalde, and the bees would play an important role in pollinating crops such as cantaloupe and cucumber.

After lunch, Moeller takes me on a tour of two of his three apiary sites outside Uvalde. He leases locations for his hives from obliging ranchers, and pays them in his liquid gold. Moeller says he's a retired U.S. Army first sergeant who served as a sniper instructor in Vietnam and was a member of the 1972 Olympic shooting team. He found retirement a bit too tame for his tastes. "Then one afternoon I was just observing bees in my backyard," he says, "and I became fascinated with their behavior. A bee colony is organized quite similarly to the army structure, not unlike regiments, battalions, companies, platoons... by functions and with promotions through the ranks. They have a very complex organization. So I started with a hive or two." He smiles. "I now have 50. Each hive produces about four gallons of honey a year."

Many people got out of the beekeeping business when Africanized bees began to infiltrate the populations. Chemicals sprayed to control boll weevils are lethal to honeybees also, so an "all-wild" operation such as Moeller's is becoming increasingly rare.

Guajillo blooms abundantly around Uvalde and its nectar is the main source of honey production for Moeller's bees. Other important flowering shrubs are catclaw (its pollen is a vital food source for the bees and its nectar is also used in honey making), huisache (its pollen is a food source for bees); and blackbrush, whitebrush and mesquite, all of which provide additional nectar sources.

Moeller has brought a full beekeeper's suit for me, and before we approach the hives, we suit up, duct-taping our pant cuffs to our shoes and our sleeves to our gloves. "If there's the tiniest way in, they'll find it," warns Moeller. Being highly allergic to bee stings, I'm very careful. I notice that my pulse is pounding in my ears and my heart is thumping. Moeller has a smoke pot in hand to calm the bees and puffs out billow after billow as we approach the hives.

Still, the bees aren't too happy to see us. As we depart, happily unscathed, I decide that consuming Uvalde honey is as close as I need get again to its source.

The next morning, we stroll Uvalde's courthouse square and tour the John Nance Garner Museum. My favorite exhibit is an elephant portfolio of original editorial cartoons, spanning Cactus Jack's political career.

That afternoon, we hunt in the South Zone, under the able guidance of Uvalde Hunting Service's Lindsey Hooper. Mourning doves feed in a milo field he's positioned us around, and we set up along the tree line, both to obscure ourselves in the shadows and to give us some refuge from a driving wind. The doves pop over the treetops by ones, twos and threes and our shotguns pop as well. After I shoot my first dove, my friend points out an arrowhead lying by the toe of my boot near my spent cartridge, a sign my luck has changed.

As the sun sets, the wind subsides and violet, tangerine and fuchsia tinge the horizon. The world is at peace today, and I'm among friends. We clean our doves and ice them down, and my friends depart for their various hometowns.

My third day is a planned day of solitude, exploration and observation. With The Sibley Field Guide to Birds, Kaufman's Butterflies of North America and a half-dozen other field guides to wildflowers, trees, shrubs, cacti, reptiles and amphibians, I retreat to the Bluebird Hill Bed & Breakfast on Blanket Creek, between Utopia and Garner State Park.

As the morning sun streams into the canyon, I descend from my treetop aerie, steaming coffee in hand, to the wildscaped garden below my observation deck. Flame-orange Gulf fritillaries and both black and pipevine swallowtails dance amidst the fragrant gaillardia, soft green-eyes, butterfly weed, skyrocket, lantana and mealy sage. Hummingbirds dart among the flowers – one hovers at eye level barely a foot from my face, examining me quizzically while I freeze in delight – and dozens more perch in the branches above. Nearby, a fountain burbles over rocks. A female barn swallow watches me warily from her mud nest above my door. Nearly two dozen bluebird boxes dot the meadow beyond, an ample 250 acres that beckon me to stay. But I can't; it's Monday. And here's why: Even Garner, the busiest state park in Texas, can provide satisfying solitude if you can get there on a Monday.

Fortified with fresh fruit, apricot scones, more coffee and a five-grain hot cereal with cream and maple syrup, I pull on my hiking boots and grab my field guides and camera. Garner State Park is just four miles down the road and, as I'd hoped, the park is serenely quiet. Two bicyclists and a lone jogger pass me on the park road, but no other vehicles. Many campsites, I note, are open. The morning is already turning hot, so I choose to hike along the river and the lower east trails shaded by giant cypress and pecan trees.

With its 17 cabins, 37 screened shelters, about 100 electrified campsites and ample trail system, Garner provides a popular daytrip for nearby San Antonians, and is a beloved destination for Texans throughout the state. The clear Frio River offers both swimming and fishing, and tube shuttles and a kayak/paddleboat livery add ways to enjoy the river. Today, I just hike it, slinging my boots over my shoulder and letting the icy waters furl around my legs. Minnows, smallmouth bass and sunfish suspend themselves in glassy deep pools under overhanging cypress.

In the afternoon, I walk the Blanket Creek bed, startling an armadillo that scurries to hide its face in the rocks, exposing its big armored rump.

That evening, Bain Walker, a tour guide for Hill Country Outdoor Adventures, takes me to the Frio Cave. This is a maternal bat colony, such as the one under Austin's Congress Avenue Bridge, and second in size only to Bracken Cave's colony. Nearly 12 million female Mexican free-tailed bats fly from this cave every night, spring through fall. In late spring they'll each give birth to one pup and by mid-August the pups are flying with their mothers. The Frio Cave is on a private ranch, but TPWD's Devil's Sinkhole State Natural Area, Kickapoo Cavern State Park and Old Tunnel Wildlife Management Area harbor bat colonies as well.

"I've been doing this for four years; still, every night is different," says Walker as we climb to the crest of a ridge where the cave opens, and peer downward into the cave's mouth.

At the cave's mouth are the remains of a Civil War-era furnace used to convert bat guano into saltpeter to make gunpowder for the Confederacy. During World War II, a plan – approved by President Roosevelt and code-named "Project X-Ray" – was concocted to collect bats from this and three other Texas caves. The bats were to be fitted with tiny incendiary devices and dropped in droves over Japan. Supposedly, they would roost in the mainly wood and fiber buildings and set off countless fires. The bat bomb project was scrapped for the atomic bomb.

At about 8 p.m., the sun's shadows lengthen and I note a barely perceptible coolness. Walker motions to the cave's ceiling below us, where bats begin to circle in ever-increasing numbers.

Suddenly, the air pulsates with the beating of thousands of tiny wings as the first rush of bats explodes from the cave. They are startlingly close; within an arm's length overhead, should I choose to raise a hand. I don't, of course, but stand immobile as the swarm increases and swells, forming a black river in the sky.

Walker softly snags one with his ball cap, and gently holds her so I can stroke her velvet-soft back and examine her fierce visage, tiny feet and translucent wings. He lifts her skyward and she takes wing. "Fly, little mama," I silently pray.

For tonight, she will range as far as 100 miles and as high as 10,000 feet. She will eat her own weight in corn earworm moths and other insects before returning home to nurture her offspring. I need only sleep in a soft bed, eat an elegant feast and drive home in an air-conditioned truck to nurture mine. Still, she has touched my spirit indelibly and renewed my own sense of purpose with her life force.

Some time later, I remove my breasted doves from the freezer, stuff them with jalapeños and goat cheese, wrap them in peppered bacon, brush them with Moeller's honey and grill them over charcoal. As I savor each bite, I relive my adventure – the lyrical scenery, the camaraderie of friends, the marvels of nature, the meaningfulness of time well spent.

I'm headed back to Uvalde, soon.

For More Information

  • Uvalde Convention and Visitors Bureau: (800) 5-UVALDE, uvaldecvb.org
  • Garner State Park: (830) 232-6132
  • Texas Hill Country River Region: (800) 210-0380, www.thcrr.com
  • John Nance Garner Museum: (830) 278-5018
  • Frio Lodging, Bluebird Hill B&B: (830) 966-2320, friolodging.com
  • Hill Country Adventures: (830) 966-2320, hillcountryadventures.com

For further reading:

Bat Bomb: World War II's Other Secret, www.amazon.com

Hunting Guide Services:

  • Frio Country Ranches, (830) 279-0942, friocountryranches.net;
  • Uvalde Hunting Services, (830) 591-2473

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