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Mastering Matagorda

Destination: Matagorda

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Travel time from:

  • Austin - 4 hours /
  • Brownsville - 6 hours /
  • Dallas - 6.25 hours /
  • El Paso - 12 hours /
  • Houston - 2.5 hours /
  • San Antonio - 4.25 hours /
  • Lubbock - 11 hours

Kayak through pristine wetlands, stalk redfish or soak up some history along Texas’ central coast.

Though the water’s less than 2 feet deep, we’re dutifully wearing life jackets — not to mention hats, sunscreen and plenty of insect repellent — as we paddle our kayaks through pristine protected wetlands at Matagorda Bay Nature Park, located at the mouth of the Colorado River channel.

Ahead of us, a crowd of laughing gulls hovers above a wide spot in murky water that’s boiling with fins and scales.

“A pod of redfish is feeding there,” observes Marcus O’Connor, recreation program coordinator at the 1,600-acre park, opened earlier this year by the Lower Colorado River Authority. “So the birds come and feed off the organisms that the fish stir up.”

As we glide past, the commotion dies and the gulls dart away. Meanwhile, along a marsh edge, I spot a great blue heron, standing perfectly still in the partially submerged cord grass. Overhead, two roseate spoonbills soar by while a pair of royal terns twitter at one another.

“These kayaking trips help people have a better understanding of the Colorado River and the importance of our bays and estuaries,” explains Betsy Terrel, the park’s programs coordinator who’s paddling alongside me. “If you experience a place firsthand, then you have more of a bond with nature, and you want to take better care of it.”

Visitors may access these wetlands only via a guided kayak or birding tour. Currently, the park offers hiking trails, three fishing piers, restrooms and showers, picnic shelters, beach access and an RV park with full hookups. Future amenities will include a natural science center and exhibit hall, a group pavilion and a half-mile, pedestrian-only beach.

As a native Texan who grew up in Corpus Christi, I’m embarrassed to admit that this is my first visit to Matagorda Bay and Matagorda County, a region — as I’m to discover during my three days of exploring — that’s rich in history, wildlife, fishing and great food.

Speaking of history, a French explorer by the name of Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, mistakenly landed in Matagorda Bay in January 1685. Five months before, he and a fleet of four small ships had set out from France with colonists. La Salle’s goal was to reach the mouth of the Mississippi River, where a new settlement would ensure King Louis XIV’s claim to North America’s western territories. Alas, Spanish pirates captured one ship along the way. Then, thanks to bad maps and poor navigation, the remaining ships reached landfall in Matagorda Bay.

Within the shallow Gulf waters, a second ship was lost when it ran aground. A third ship returned to France, leaving one lone ship, La Belle. The surviving colonists stayed behind in a small fort while La Salle left to find the Mississippi. Within a year, more tragedy followed: La Belle sank during a storm, La Salle’s men murdered him, and Karankawa Indians massacred all but a few children at Fort St. Louis.

The area remained largely inhabited by nomadic Karankawas until 1827, when Stephen F. Austin convinced the Mexican government that a fort was needed near the mouth of the Colorado River to protect incoming settlers. Later that year, one of Austin’s surveyors, Elias R. Wightman, platted a city there, then journeyed to New York to gather 50 or so colonists to inhabit the new town. Two years later, Matagorda — Spanish for “thick brush” — was founded.

Following the Texas Revolution, Matagorda County was established in 1836, one of the first 23 counties organized by the Republic of Texas. The town of Matagorda served as county seat until 1894, when founders of Bay City successfully lobbied voters to move the county seat to their yet-to-be-built town.

Back in my car, I head north to Matagorda. But first I have to sit in line and wait for the old Highway 60 swing bridge to reopen. A tugboat is pushing a long barge along the Intracoastal Waterway. Once the two reach the bridge’s other side, the tug blasts its horn four times. The bridge’s middle section moves back into place, barricades rise, and a green light gives drivers the okay to cross. More than a half-century old, the swing bridge is one of two left in Texas.

Tonight, I’m staying in Matagorda at the Stanley-Fisher House B&B. Built in 1832 by Samuel R. Fisher, the two-story, white frame house still retains its original pinewood floors, staircase and hand-carved scroll trims. In the home, Fisher — who served as the first secretary of the Republic of Texas Navy — likely hosted his cronies, Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston. Fisher also signed the Texas Declaration of Independence.

For supper, I order a soft-shell crab sandwich served with fries at the Waterfront Restaurant overlooking Matagorda Harbor. From my table, I watch the gulls and boats as I enjoy my meal.

Back at the harbor the next morning, I meet James Arnold with Day on the Bay Services. We’re going to fish aboard his small scooter boat in East Matagorda Bay. Along the way, we stop at an oyster reef, where Arnold steps into the saltwater, scoops up a specimen, and pries it open with a knife. Tiny stone crabs drop off the oyster and into the water.

“One oyster can produce a million eggs,” says Arnold, who previously owned an oyster and shrimp company. “They have to be at least 3 inches long to harvest. The season runs November through April.”

Four hours later, we haven’t had any luck snagging a redfish with shrimp as bait. But we did reel in numerous hardheads, a croaker and one tough-looking stingray. Besides guided fishing trips, Arnold — who’s extremely knowledgeable about the bay’s ecosystem, wildlife, natural resources and history — books customized outdoor adventures for visitors wanting to oyster, crab, kayak, birdwatch or photograph wildlife, to name just a few activities.

From Matagorda, I head north to Bay City to visit the Matagorda County Museum, housed downtown in the former 1918 federal post office. Here, I learn about the “La Salle Odyssey,” a joint venture of seven Gulf Coast museums to tell about the French explorer’s ill-fated expedition and the recovery of his ship. This museum’s exhibit highlights the 1996 excavation of La Belle in Matagorda Bay and features a bronze cannon recovered at the site, in addition to dozens of artifacts.

Local history displays include the compass used by Wightman when he platted Matagorda. Another exhibit tells about a 19th-century steamboat that sank during the Civil War in Caney Creek, once used as a major thoroughfare for sugar cane plantations along its banks.

In the basement, a series of themed rooms create “Our Town,” a hands-on children’s museum that depicts pioneer life. In the general store, for instance, kids can stand behind an old-fashioned soda fountain, shop for (plastic) fruits and vegetables, and buy a bolt of calico fabric. In the opera house, they can sit in antique seats or give a performance.

Next on the afternoon’s agenda is a tour of the Matagorda County Birding Nature Center, located west of Bay City. Because time’s limited, Rhonda Vallely and David Sitz wheel me around in a golf cart so I can see the 34-acre park’s three ecosystems — wetlands, prairies and woodlands. I also get a quick look at the center’s six gardens for butterfly, cacti, hummingbird, roses, herbs and palms.

This afternoon, Ethel, the 4-foot alligator who hangs out in the upper wetlands area, keeps out of sight, but I do spot a swamp rabbit and a red-shouldered hawk, one of more than 300 species of birds seen in the area throughout the year. In fact, since 1997, Matagorda County has topped the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, an annual daylong bird census taken across the nation. In December 2005, volunteers counted 251 species in the county.

Tonight, I’m staying at the Main Inn B&B in Palacios. The innkeepers’ home, built in 1915, and two bungalows once housed military personnel and their families from nearby Camp Hulen, decommissioned in 1946.

More seafood sounds good to me, so I head for Outrigger Restaurant, where I choose a half order of crunchy coconut shrimp, which comes with pineapple salsa. For a buck more, I substitute sweet potato fries. No leftovers tonight.

In the morning, I scope out six murals painted around Palacios by artist Dayton Wodrich of Independence. Each illustrates the city’s history and heritage, such as the La Belle shipwreck, coastal birds, ranching and the seafood industry.

Next I visit the temporary quarters of the Palacios Area Historical Association Museum. A limited photo exhibit recounts the La Belle excavation. The museum plans to include a display of items recovered from the shipwreck.

My last stop in Matagorda County plunks me down at the century-old Hotel Blessing. Since 1977, owner Helen Feldhousen has cooked up a noon spread that attracts folks from as far away as Houston. Customers help themselves from steaming metal pots and pans set on two antique stoves. Today’s menu: chicken-fried steak, meat loaf, hash, a slew of fresh vegetables and salads, rolls, cornbread and strawberry shortcake.

“We serve Christmas dinner (turkey and dressing) every Sunday,” Feldhousen says. “Actually, Christmas is the only day we close all year.”

My plate’s empty; time to go home. I duck back into the dining room, where I ask Helen if I can snitch a cellophane-wrapped cinnamon roll.

“Sure!” she exclaims. “Then you’ll have something to snack on driving home.”

Oh, no, I protest, it’s for my husband.

With a sly grin, Helen nods. “Then you’d better take another,” she advises, “just in case!”

Details

Matagorda Area Chamber of Commerce, <www.matagordachamber.com>

Bay City Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 803-8333, <www.visitbaycity.org>

Palacios Chamber of Commerce, (800) 611-4567, <www.palacioschamber.com>

Matagorda Bay Nature Park, (800) 776-5272, <www.lcra.org/community/matagorda.html>

Day on the Bay Services, (979) 244-6787, <www.dayonthebayservices.com>

Stanley-Fisher House B&B, (979) 863-2920, <www.stanley-fisher.com>

Matagorda County Museum, (979) 245-7502, <www.matagordacountymuseum.org>

Matagorda County Birding Nature Center, (979) 245-3336, <www.mcbnc.org>

Main Inn B&B, (361) 972-3408

Palacios Area Historical Association Museum, (361) 972-1148, <www.palaciosmuseum.org>

Hotel Blessing, (361) 588-6623

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