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The Invisible Lake

The mystery, history and strange allure of Caddo Lake

By Barbara Rodriguez

Five hungry men hunker still as stumps around a tiny fishing camp grocer’s counter. A fisherman, his jumpsuit rasping new, strides in. “I just drove up from Houston to see the lake,” he says, looking confused. “Now, how do I do that?” “Well,” the grocer says, “just how much of it did you want to see?” The cramped crowd laughs. Caddo Lake laps the state park boat dock within yards of where they wait to reel in cheeseburgers, but you can’t hear, see or smell it. For all practical purposes, until you are in boat-launching distance, the lake remains invisible. That’s the thing about Caddo — for all its nearly 30,000 acres, however you approach it, the how-do-you-get-there-from-here question looms large. The appeal of the lake is as much about its inaccessibility — free public access is limited to two ramps — as it is about its mysterious history. As elusive as El Dorado, Caddo has never been a drive-your-Chevy-to-the-levy lake, serviced by scenic overlooks and paved parking. Its devotees work hard to ensure it never will be.

Go visit and you know at once you can never possess Caddo the way regular visitors feel ownership of, say, Possum Kingdom. Few can claim to know it the way fishermen and boaters predictably chart a day on Lakes Livingston or Whitney. Shallow depths, labyrinthine boat roads, moldering duck blinds, falling timber and flora that blooms, sprawls and climbs at preternatural rates mean the lake you see today is not necessarily the lake you get tomorrow. Even describing Caddo is not unlike an attempt to describe an elephant viewed through small holes in a fence — with the mammoth leaning on the fence. Wide views are hard to come by; the broadest expanses are seen from the lake. Otherwise you are limited to peep shows through the humpy knees and elbows of cypress, nets of Spanish moss and reflections in amber waters. Observation requires a keen sense of what is beyond the shaded and slivered sightlines. Your ears are witness to a slosh that might be a gator or the collapse of a card stack of turtles. A misty early morning scene wafts into memory even as you watch when the slant of light intensifies, burns off the fog and dapples the scene. The harder one strives to get an accurate impression of the lake, the more one realizes that like a David Hockney painting the big picture is in fact thousands of tiny snapshots.

Separating Caddo’s myth from its reality is equally difficult. Though consistently labeled the only natural lake in Texas, it’s not (although it is the largest and maybe the only one with public access). Unlike most Texas lakes it is a lake with a past, albeit one shaded by tall tales and time. Where and when did it all begin? As with all creation theories there is no consensus. Some say that in the beginning there were earthquakes. Others tell of a Great Flood borne of a Great Raft leading to a Big Bang — of sorts. Then there are those who claim it all began with the Fairy. The unknowable is central to the ongoing attraction of the vast wetland that is actually a maze of bayous, bogs, sloughs and backwaters sprawling along the border between Harrison and Marion counties in Texas and Caddo Parish in Louisiana.

The Earthquakes

The Caddo, Native American mound-builders, believed the lake was birthed by floods swelled by earthquakes. Recorded history testifies that as recently as 1811 a series of earthquakes around New Madrid, Missouri, tumbled and twisted the earth as far as the Pineywoods, whip-cracking rivers into new courses. Even today plenty of lake dwellers believe these temblors pooled waters into Caddo Lake. The ancient cypresses that lend the lake its distinctive character know the full truth, but they’re offering only one hint: a cypress seed will only root in water. The age rings of the cypresses that wash their knees in the Caddo give witness to a primordial puddle here as long as 400-600 years ago.

The Flood

Many geologists believe that the modern lake is the result of a behemoth log jam on the Red River. The logs that bobbed, lolled and banged themselves into a mind-boggling 100-mile geometric construction known as the Great Raft were described by the government-commissioned Freeman-Custis exploratory expedition in 1806 — five years before the Madrid earthquakes. The fallen trees, wedged impossibly tight between the banks of the Red River near the present site of Shreveport, swelled all connected waterways. By the 1840s Big Cypress Creek was deep enough to invite serious navigation, and the brief but glorious era of steamships huffing from New Orleans to Jefferson began.

The fate of the log jam holds the most water in the tale of Caddo’s genesis. In 1873 the Army Corps of Engineers blew the raft to bits in a Big Bang that pulled the plug on Cypress Bayou. The lake left behind is seldom deeper than 4 to 6 feet and changes character from season to season. In the winter, it is window-glass clear as vegetation dies off and settles; in the summer, water that isn’t heavily traveled is carpeted in the shady greens of spatterdock, duckweed and hyacinth. Where sediment is suspended the water is the color of steeping tea.

The Fairy

But let us not forget one last contributor to our tale. Before the earthquakes and the Great Raft, there was the Fairy. Fairy Lake. On its glistening footprint, hundreds of years before quakes or raft, some say the Caddo was born when the Fairy and Sodo Lakes flooded (today less romantically known as the Ferry and Soda Lakes).

The Certainty

Over the years Caddo Lake, the second-largest natural lake in the south, has wallowed from about 27,000 acres to an oozing 40,000 acres (half in Louisiana). The lake’s popularity and the sanctity of its ecosystems have waxed and waned with its depths. When the Caddo Indians sold their land and moved away in 1835, an era of industrial exploitation began. Sawmills set to grinding away the coveted first-growth cypress at such a rate that by the turn of the century the most desirable timber was a memory. The first over-water drilling platform in the U.S., Ferry Lake #1, was built by the Gulf Oil Corporation in 1911, producing 450 barrels a day. Oil derricks sprang up across the water before wildcatters sought slicker pastures. The oil boom gave way to the brief, but passionate, pursuit of freshwater pearls (considered spectacular even at Tiffany’s) until a dam built in 1914 flooded the mussel beds. With oil interests gone and pearl profits drowned, the first efforts to protect the lake’s fragile ecosystem were launched. A 483-acre state park built in 1934 soon seemed a small stand against the deleterious effects of manufacturing TNT at the Longhorn Army Ammunition Plant from 1942-97.

Preservation Efforts

Preservation efforts gained momentum in 1993 when The Nature Conservancy purchased 7,000 acres to be merged with the Caddo Lake State Natural Area (they also own the 1,000-acre Caddo Lake Preserve.) The same year, Caddo Lake became one of 17 U.S. areas protected by The Ramsar Convention, an international treaty dedicated to the worldwide protection of wetlands. Caddo’s champions appreciate the biological wealth within its unique eco-niche. It is home to more than 200 bird species, 71 fish, 47 mammals and — perhaps most easily viewed — more than a dozen species of turtles, including the loggerhead. Flora includes not only the distinctive bald cypress, but 189 species of trees and shrubs, 75 grasses and 42 woody vines. There are many threatened, endangered or rare species among the treasures, although the attentions of the lake’s suitors show signs of success. Alligators, though not as common as earlier, have made a slow crawl back since the 1960s. There is talk of black bears ambling in, too. Most thrilling are reports that the ivory billed woodpecker, a whopper of a bird long thought to be extinct, has been heard, if not yet seen in the area.

Still, threats to the lake continue. As the 21st century dawned, the site of the former ammunition plant continued to draw fire. While advocates of lake preservation fought to secure the land, the City of Marshall attempted to wrangle water rights as an incentive for industrial interests. That the land the so-called Water Barons looked to develop abutted property already secured as a national wildlife refuge further rankled the conservationists’ ranks. But never has so small a lake been so loved by so many. The Nature Conservancy has been joined in efforts to protect the lake by a diversity of defenders. The Caddo Lake Institute, the brainchild of former Eagles front man Don Henley, has been working with local communities for the past 15 years. In 2001 CLI joined with the city of Uncertain, the Greater Caddo Lake Association and the Caddo Lake Chamber of Commerce as the Caddo Lake Coalition in a fevered legal battle against the City of Marshall. In 2006 the Supreme Court of Texas reversed the decision by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to grant Marshall a water right permit for industrial use. Nevertheless, according to Rick Lowerre, president of the CLI, the matter is yet to be resolved: “Marshall can still pursue it again, and I suspect will do so.”

Meanwhile, the ammunitions plant is being converted to the Caddo Lake National Wildlife Refuge. According to Lowerre, about half the approximately 8,500-acre site has been transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He says much of the balance may be transferred this year, as remaining portions of the site are decontaminated. There is hope that some of the refuge will be open to the public by this fall. If the wrangling over water rights begins anew, Lowerre predicts the Caddo Lake Coalition will negotiate a resolution that will allow some industrial use of water, while protecting the timing and amounts of instream flows to Caddo Lake.

The Future is in the Flow

Under best-case scenarios it is difficult for a shallow lake to keep its health. After the Corps of Engineers built Lake O’ the Pines dam on Big Cypress Creek upstream of Caddo, the regulated water flows eliminated floods that had swept out unwanted sediments, washed in nutrient-rich topsoil and inhibited invasive plant growth. Because Caddo Lake has several other water sources, it did not experience extreme drought conditions in the past five years, but water levels have been somewhat distilled. Though January’s heavy rains brought lake levels to normal, the lake’s pH balance, oxygen content and heavy metal contamination (from coal-burning plants) are long-term concerns. (Already there are warnings about excessive consumption of fish due to mercury levels.)

The good news is that the recent rainfalls have allowed the Corps and the Northeast Texas Municipal Water District to explore the effects of systematic releases of water from Lake O’ the Pines, as recommended by studies sponsored by the CLI and TNC through the Sustainable Waters program. The goal is to determine how much water is needed to maintain the ecological health of Caddo Lake as habitat for animals and plants while supplying adequate water for human needs, including recreation.

But according to Tim Bister at TPWD Inland Fisheries Division, water flow isn’t the only reason plants like water hyacinth have become problematic. Several warm winters have contributed to overgrowth, he notes. Current conditions allow hyacinth and other non-native species to out-compete native aquatic plant species.

An even more invasive non-native species is a greater concern. Giant salvinia (Salvinia molesta), a rapidly spreading aquatic fern, has the growing power to choke out the oxygen and sun plants and fish require to thrive. Bister confirms that giant salvinia was found in Caddo in May 2006 in Jeem’s Bayou, in Louisiana. TPWD treated almost 200 acres with herbicide, but the plant has since been found on the Texas side of the lake. “This past winter, a lot of the giant salvinia that remained in Jeem’s Bayou drifted into the main lake with high water flows from rain and northerly winds,” Bister writes. Herbicidal treatments will continue, but TPWD training allows members of the public to identify, remove and properly dispose of giant salvinia. “This effort will be extremely important in the case that just a few of these floating aquatic ferns end up in a new location. These volunteers can remove the plants before they become a problem. The control of giant salvinia is a main priority of TPWD.”

Back at the camp grocery, the burgers arrive. The fisherman heads off to a marina for his look at the lake. Out of sight, the Caddo continues its centuries-old struggle to survive. To the casual observer the lake today is very much the lake of the past, the silver capes of the wizened cypress rippling on in stark contrast to the dark hollows of loblolly, sweet gum, oak and sassafras. The rogues and wranglers who assaulted the lake in centuries past have been replaced by generations of families who fight today to keep the lake the way they say “it has always been.” The irony of course is that is impossible — a history of dams, industry, drought and invasive species can’t be erased. What matters is that a delicate balance between man and nature is established to guarantee a future for the lake that is with us today. The fight will be fought by dozens of champions who sometimes find themselves at odds, although in principle they all want the same thing: a healthy preservation of the somewhat elusive, somewhat mysterious character of the lake they love — even sight unseen.

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