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Park Pick: Paddling the Forks

Veteran guides lead regular canoe trips at Martin Dies in East Texas.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

As a young man in the 1950s, Jim Garrison often paddled into Bee Tree Slough, a maze of densely vegetated backwaters of the Angelina River in far East Texas. There he'd make camp, then hunt ducks or deer, depending on the season.

"I don't hunt any more 'cause my eyesight's bad, but I still love paddling," he says.

Paddling the Forks, to be more precise. Once a month, Garrison, 84, guides seven-hour canoe trips that take paddlers through "The Forks," the swampy confluence of the Angelina and Neches rivers. The excursion starts at 7:30 a.m. when everyone loads up on a small bus at Martin Dies Jr. State Park.

"We provide the canoes, life jackets and paddles," says Katherine Crippens, the park's naturalist interpreter. "Or people can bring their own canoes. They should also pack a lunch, bug repellent, water and sunscreen. We encourage them to dress in layers, too."

Paddlers put in at Bevilport, an abandoned town that was once a bustling point along the Angelina in the mid-1800s, and then float downstream to Bee Tree Slough. "Historically, the slough had a lot of honey bees, and Native Americans would stop there and collect honey," Crippens says. "The area wasn't logged, so you can see massive trees, and there are still honey bees around."

Birds and other wildlife also inhabit the moss-draped cypress, tupelo gum and oaks that line the riverbanks. "A colony of swallow-tailed kites lives in the slough," says Phillip Hight, another guide who leads the trips. "We've also seen warblers, herons and egrets. One time, we paddled right under a barred owl that was just 8 feet above us!" Occasionally paddlers spot alligators in the water, too.

After the trip, paddlers can stay overnight at Martin Dies Jr. State Park, which overlooks B. A. Steinhagen Reservoir. The 705-acre facility was heavily damaged by Hurricane Rita in 2005 but it returned to full operations earlier this year. Campsites, screened shelters and air-conditioned mini-cabins are available. In addition to hiking, fishing and birdwatching, visitors may also rent bicycles, canoes and boats.

Trips head out the third Saturday of each month (except August). Call ahead for reservations. Fees: $30 for Texas State Parks Pass members per canoe; $40 nonmembers. Limit 10 canoes.

Martin Dies Jr. State Park is located 2 1/2 hours northeast of Houston. From Woodville, take U.S. 190 for about 17 miles. From Jasper take U.S. 190 for about 12 miles. Park entrance is via Park Road 48. For more information, call 409-384-5231 or visit <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/martindiesjr>.

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