Best rivers in Texas: Upper Sabine River

Time got away from us. Road trip buddy Joe Starr and I planned to trace the entire Sabine River — 550+ miles of it — Easter weekend. We managed half of it. Friday was spent driving to Houston to pick up Joe, then up U.S. highways 59 and 69 to reach Greenville in Hunt County, where three branches meet to form the Sabine.

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Greenville, a former cotton center on blackland prairie 45 miles east of Dallas, is experiencing something of a rebirth. That may be so. Still, if I follow the dictum that, if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it, then my posting on our time in Greenville proper ends here.

The next morning we rose to seek the source of the Sabine, just north of Celeste, home of World War II hero Audie Murphy (we passed the bunting-draped memorial). A helpful state historical marker points to the Sabine’s headwaters — a gentle hill amid pastures topped by a water tower. Interestingly, rainfall on this hill drains into three separate watersheds, the Sabine’s being one. (Sort of like Glacier National Park, on a much less dramatic scale.)

At the appropriate location, we found ruts with standing water, choked with cane. Above, a female dicksissel clung to a wire. This is a bird common to the prairie, but the first one identified by Joe and I. We headed south. Before reaching Greenville, the Cowleech Branch of the Sabine (named after an Indian chief) is already a significant stream. Below Greenville, it’s a river.

Here, underneath the oaks and other hardwoods, circled by barn and bank swallows, we encountered the first of many holiday fishers. Next we dropped by Wind Point Park on Lake Tawakoni, a private recreational area offering an array of family activities. Then we contacted my sister, Valerie Koehler, who was spending the Easter weekend with in-laws on Club Lake, a small, exquisite body of water surrounded by a gated community. (Sorry Luke Wilson, AT&T’s spotty coverage made the detour problematic.) Our visit there was far too short.

Following this respite, we crisscrossed the Sabine near towns with names like Grand Saline (Morton’s still mines there), Mineola, Fruitvale and New Sandy, some these once-thriving commercial centers. Here, the river, already at spring flood stage, engulfed small trees and it was easy to imagine the Sabine disgorging the highest volume of water to the Gulf of Mexico of any Texas river.

Longview, with 200,000 people spread out over its metropolitan area, is the largest city on the Sabine. Just south — not far from Kilgore, where I was born — the river is broad and the current swift. The river is marred by industrial sprawl, but doesn’t seem to suffer directly from it. From there, we angled toward the Louisiana border, as hardwoods gave way to pine forests. Redbuds, dogwoods and, especially, wisteria splashed the countryside with welcome color.

This is true backwoods Texas. For miles, we encountered trashed-out encampments, interrupted by breathtakingly beautiful valleys carved into green pasturelands, or employed for large-scale plant nurseries. Pilgrim’s Pride factories hid behind tree screens. Communities shrank in size and austere churches dominated the roadsides (frequently seen sign: “Prayer: America’s only hope.”).

We followed the Sabine only as far as Logansport, La., just above Toledo Bend Reservoir. Here, steamboats chugged up the Sabine in the 19th century. Now, boaters returned from a full day of sporting. Our Saturday was coming to an end. And, given Easter family commitments in Houston, we ran out of time for the nearby national forest or the Big Thicket swamplands below that, much less Orange, Port Arthur and the Battle of Sabine Pass monument at the mouth of Sabine Lake. (We’d come that way when we traced the Neches, which enters Sabine Lake from the west.)

So we left the lower Sabine for a later tracing, perhaps in conjunction with the Angelina and the Atoyak, or the Cypress and the Sulpher. We do know the last stretch of this historically crucial border river will take at least a full day.

Despite its prominence as an international boundary, going back to French and Spanish rivalries, the Sabine was — and, in some ways, is — more mysterious than most Texas rivers to us. It rises among Midwestern scenery, low, rolling prairie hedged with hardwoods. It dips into deep forests and passes, but does not dissect fair-sized cities (Longview and Orange, with Tyler not far off).

The presence of Toledo Bend is a mystery in itself. Was it really necessary to flood all that land? Did the Sabine threaten Orange? Who is using all that water? Meanwhile, Dallas is damming the upper Neches to slake its limitless thirst, wiping out more hardwood bottomlands. More research is necessary. And the casual destruction of the Big Thicket, condemned by no less a figure than J. Frank Dobie, the most popular Texas author of his day, is another scar on the land.

Like MacArthur, we will return.