Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter in the Big Thicket

When it comes to vacation destinations, I am often drawn to places where the directions advise you to keep on going once you reach the end of the pavement. Our long Easter weekend in the Big Thicket was that type of trip.

After a reasonably short drive from Houston and a tasty lunch in Kountze, we arrived at Ethridge Farm and settled in to the BlueBerry Hill Cabin. The cabin is in a great location and has a rustic charm, though the mattresses may have been a little too authentically antique.

The grounds of the farm are a lovely mix of the cultivated and the wild. Just behind the cabin, a field of blueberries is growing and guests can pick them when they're in season. It was too early for that during our visit, so the birds and rabbits had the field to themselves.

Once we'd gotten settled, we took a short drive over to the Nature Conservancy's Sandyland Sanctuary for an afternoon hike. We got our first look at Village Creek and its white sand bars while hiking through this rather unusual area. Along the creek we found cypress trees, dogwoods, and other lush plant life. But just a few hundred feet up the sandy hill, prickly pear cactus were growing. There were also signs of the controlled burns being used to try to restore the longleaf pine forest in this area.

The next morning after a hearty breakfast at the farm (complete with locally grown mayhaw jelly), we crossed our fingers on the weather, packed a lunch, and set out to paddle Village Creek. The creek level was low enough to turn the upper section through Sandyland into a minefield of sunken trees. Because of this, we chose to put in at the bridge just downstream, paddle just a mile or so up into the sanctuary, then turn and head downstream to the takeout just past Baby Galvez Island.

The water of the creek was cool and clear, but stained tea-brown in color by the tanins washed in from the east Texas woods. The low water left numerous large white sandbars exposed, available for the enjoyment of visitors both human and otherwise. A host of birds called from the wooded banks and we spotted numerous turtles and at least a couple of snakes as we made our way downstream.

We also passed a few other paddlers and a few locals playing on the sandbars, but mostly we had the creek to ourselves. The sun only peeked out a few times during the paddle and at times the gray clouds appeared to threaten rain, but luck was with us and we made it to the end of the paddle (and even to the end of the day) without getting rained on. Yay!

The evening's entertainment included a starlight hike from the cabin down to the nearby creek. We heard a host of mysterious rustlings in the woods and one brief burst of coyote song, but our only confirmed wildlife spotting was an armadillo.

Easter morning started with a lovely sunrise service on the grounds of Ethridge Farm. The clouds made it difficult to tell exactly when the sun rose, but it's undeniable that a chorus of birds started singing just as the preacher began delivering his message. It was a unique and lovely way to celebrate Easter.

After visiting with some of the other congregants over breakfast, we packed up our things and said our farewells to Ethridge Farm. Our goal was to hike a few trails in Big Thicket National Preserve prior to heading back to Houston. After a short drive up the road and quick stop at the park visitor center, we decided the Kirby Nature Trail would be our first hike. The terrain was slightly rolling and the woods were a gorgeous mix of hardwood and pines, and even some aged cypress down in the sloughs. We thoroughly enjoyed winding our way along the trail, chasing zebra swallowtails, listening to the birds, and soaking in the beautiful surroundings.

Once the Kirby hike was complete, we wanted to head a bit farther north and combine a picnic lunch with hiking an area containing a pitcher plants - a fairly rare species of carnivorous plant. Sadly, it was not to be. A quick check of the weather showed a line of severe storms was heading our way. We decided retreat was in order and turned back toward Houston. The trip home turned out to be eventful anyway, with one rainstorm that poured hard enough to reduce visibility to near zero and another that threatened to blow us off an overpass. In the end, however, we made it home safely with both kayaks still firmly secured to the roof of my RAV4.

Overall we really enjoyed our little taste of the Big Thicket, and given its proximity to Houston, I suspect that we'll be back.

More Pictures from the Big Thicket

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Sheldon Lake: Gators in the Mist

This was one of those days I where I really needed the peace I find when on the water, but the weather wasn't cooperating. As the morning progressed, the clouds hung stubbornly low in the sky and the forecast showed a good chance of rain. After dithering for a couple of hours, I finally loaded the boat and headed east a little after eleven in the morning. As I passed through downtown the low clouds dropped lower still to become a wet fog that left water droplets clinging to the windshield.

When I reached Sheldon, I found the surface of the lake shrouded in mist. After donning a rain slicker to keep off the cool wetness of the air, I shoved off into the still waters. Perhaps due to the dim conditions, it proved to be a great day for spotting alligators.

Some were slowly cruising the channel while others were floating stationary in the water with just nose and eyes showing. Over the course of the paddle, I spotted something close to ten of them. (I can't promise that one or two weren't double counted since I haven't come up with a good system for distinguishing similar sized gators at a distance)

Not too surprisingly for spring at Sheldon, it also proved to be a good day for bird watching. All of the usual suspects were there: grackles, herons, ibis, egrets, cormorants, and ducks. I also spotted an osprey sitting atop a cypress tree - a first for me at this lake. There were also a number of roseate spoonbills on the lake and for the first time I was able to get close enough for some good pictures, even with the limited zoom on my camera.

The mist never fully lifted in the two or three hours that I paddled, but the weather didn't get any worse either. I'm grateful. Even a less than perfect spring day on Sheldon Lake is better than good days many other places.

More Pictures From Sheldon Lake