Bois d’Arc GoodbyeNew reservoir brings a flood of memories of childhood explorations along a creek.
By Russell A. Graves
If I close my eyes, I can almost hear the old country songs drifting through the dilapidated farmhouse near the tiny Texas community of Edhube.
Thirty years ago my family lived in this old dwelling. It came complete with well water, a barn with a loft, and a screened back porch, where I would sleep when the weather was mild. Out in the country, there wasn’t much to do except roam the pastures and creek bottoms at the northern edge of the Blackland Prairie. That brings us to this story.
This is a story about how a creek, muddy and I suppose insignificant to most, transforms. The transformation affects not only the landscape, but people as well. This is a story about a creek’s cultural, natural and historic importance to a rural part of Texas. This is a story about an attempt by me and my brother Bubba to record the creek in film, still images, writing and any other way we can before a lake project floods 16,000 acres of old-growth bottomland hardwoods and permanently alters the flow of the creek that helped shape who I am today.
This is my story of Bois d’Arc Creek.
As creeks go, Bois d’Arc is a big one. With headwaters around the soft, white-rock washes east of Whitewright, Bois d’Arc meanders quietly through deep, black dirt and cuts an impressively wide valley northeast through Fannin County before it empties into the Red River just northwest of Paris. The upper and lower parts of the creek have places where the water runs relatively clear because of its rocky bottom and steeper flow. Along the creek’s long midsection, the topography flattens, the current slows, the bottom muddies, and so does the water.
Virtually no one lives along the creek’s edge because of its propensity for occasional flooding. Therefore, most people identify the creek only where the highways intersect it. While I can’t say I know the creek better than anyone else, I can say that I know it well. For the past 30-some-odd years, my brother and I have floated, fished, hunted and explored most of Bois d’Arc.
“Supper’s ready!” Mama’s voice resonated through the old-growth oaks and the giant ragweed, signaling it was time for Bubba and me to climb the hill and head back home. We were never too far away, but that didn’t matter. As long as we couldn’t see the house, we may as well have been out in the wilderness. Boys like us could imagine high adventure even though we remained within earshot of our mother.
We were and still are bona fide country kids. While I haven’t thought about it much, I suppose a great deal of my wanderlust formed as a boy in that old farmhouse near Edhube.
On one occasion, I can remember walking to the creek with Bubba. While he was checking some steel traps he’d laid to catch raccoons so he could sell their pelts, I stayed on the bank and looked for cool stuff. What I found was a big bur oak tree. Scattered underneath were huge, golf-ball-sized acorns. I can’t remember what fascinated me more — the sheer size of the acorns or their perfectly formed caps, which looked to me like ornate, basket-weaved cups. Whatever attracted me to those acorns didn’t really matter as I filled every pocket with them and took them home to smash them with a hammer to see what was inside.
Those acorns, small and insignificant to most, I suppose, are one of the things that attracted me to the outdoors. Things like that still do.
We didn’t live in that little farmhouse near Edhube very long. For a short time, six months maybe, my family moved to the Dallas Metroplex so my dad could be closer to his job. It wasn’t long, though, until we moved back to Fannin County. This time, however, we moved farther down the creek, on a small patch of ground north of Dodd City. The place where I spent my remaining days growing up was just across the dirt road from the 250-acre farm where my grandparents lived.
While my family’s lineage doesn’t go back to the original county pioneers, the Graveses have been in the area for some time, starting with a land transaction my uncle made back in the 1960s, when he was the superintendent of Whitewright schools. When he bought the land (which then became my granddad’s home, along with a few hundred more acres about a half-mile away in the Bois d’Arc Creek bottom), parts of my extended family slowly filtered into the area. In 1979, my parents made our permanent home atop a black-dirt hill overlooking the Bois d’Arc Creek valley.
Well before 1979, I’d spend summers, weekends and school breaks at my grandparents’ house. Trips to PawPaw’s almost always included trips to the creek. My brothers and cousins and I would float the creek and run trotlines for catfish, follow coon dogs through the damp woodlots, or catch grasshoppers for fishbait off the “bloodweed” that grew in the small clearcuts in the ash woods, where PawPaw cut firewood. Some of the best times came around Halloween when we’d take a hayride through the bottoms, and my dad would tell us that we were in search of the Bois d’Arc Creek monster (in reference to the campy, 1970s docu-flick, The Legend of Boggy Creek). We’d all shriek when Daddy would shine his spotlight in the weeds and we’d see a pair of eyes glowing eerily and staring back. While now I know we were seeing a cow or a deer’s eyes, I think about those great times every time I head to the creek.
Black mud and murky water make a good poultice for the soul, and on three occasions — separated by just a few months — Bubba and I have launched a canoe to float Bois d’Arc and slip through the sluggish creek to learn all we can about the tributary.
The politics of lakes and water law are complicated, and I do not profess to be an expert at either. Our trip and documentary projects have never meant to take a hardline stance on either side of the water issue. Instead, these trips are merely a personal project meant to capture the creek’s ecological and personal importance before it’s forever changed.
Depending on which account is accurate, somewhere between 62 percent and 90 percent of the old-growth hardwood bottomlands in Northeast and East Texas are gone. A 50-year lake-building frenzy has helped precipitate the demise of the bottomlands, and, ultimately, 16,000 acres of the Lower Bois d’Arc Creek bottomland will soon be gone as well.
I am not anti-growth, nor am I a staunch environmentalist who thinks that all wild lands should be left alone. Instead, I believe that there should be a happy medium — a way to conserve water so that a new reservoir isn’t needed every decade. The needs of rural people and places should be considered just as important as their urban counterparts. The Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex needs water, and the area needs the prosperity. However, a workable compromise could slow the destruction of these bottomlands.
That thought lingers with me as Bubba pushes the canoe from the mud and takes his seat in the back of the Old Town 18-footer. Soon we are cruising through placid water dappled with splotches of light and dark from the arching canopy of hardwoods.
It is predictably quiet on the creek, as it always has been. Even though Fannin County has many small towns and a modest population of 33,000 countywide, there’s hardly any development in the floodplain. As such, the creek creates thousands of acres of wilderness that’s made up mostly of white ash trees growing in the deep, flat soils and a variety of oaks that grow in the higher, sandier elevations.
Periodically, we pass by a huge bois d’arc tree from which the creek gets its name. The area and its abundant bois d’arc trees were noted by the Red River expedition of 1806. About 30 years later, Anglos settled the area along the creek. Bailey Inglish established a permanent settlement when he built a timber blockade on 1,250 acres along the creek. The original town he platted was known as Bois d’Arc, but in 1844, the town was renamed Bonham in honor of the fallen Alamo hero. Another Alamo hero, Davy Crockett, purportedly considered settling along the creek after the Alamo, as he wrote to his family in Tennessee extolling the richness of the area along “Bodark Bayou.” Legend has it that he even wrote his name on a huge sandstone face that overlooks the creek on its upper end.
On our trips we see white-tailed deer staring at us curiously from the bank as we silently drift past or the occasional beaver chewing on a soft willow. Over the years, we’ve seen animals along the creek’s margins that aren’t even supposed to exist in Fannin County, if you believe most biological texts. I’ve seen badgers and Bubba has seen river otters in the creek on at least three different occasions. After seeing these animals over the years, it makes me wonder what other species live in the wilderness.
We pass a few signs of human interaction, like the remnants of a rock weir dam where, in all likelihood, water was impounded for an old railroad line. We also pass a spot in the woods where, in 1982, my PawPaw felled the final trees and cut a quarter-mile road through the woods all the way to the creek. It was a feat that, as I recall, was celebrated by our family as if we’d just completed the Panama Canal.
While my family always sparingly cut the bottomland timber, I am dismayed to see the large swaths of clearcut timber on our canoe trips. While logically, the clearcutting makes sense (landowners, who know their land will be taken under the guise of eminent domain, sell off all of their timber to make additional income before their land is sold for the lake project), it is still hard to see such large patches of the woods I love, gone.
On our three trips, we never pause in one place for too long. Mostly we float. Accompanied by gars that flank our canoe, we talk about our memories we’ve made along the creek. Memories and experiences that have ultimately shaped who we are and where we’re headed. While a lake will ensure that the woods and the creek I know better than any other will soon be gone forever, there’s not a dam big enough to flood the memories I’ve made on Bois D’Arc Creek.
See Russell Graves' documentary teaser, Bois d’Arc Goodbye below: