Best Texas rivers: Angelina River

The Angelina was the last of the larger Texas rivers traced during our 10-year program to follow 50 of them from their sources to their mouths, or vice versa. Actually, it was also the last river altogether.

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We had to stop in Looneyville. Had to. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

RELATED: How to Trace the Medina River.

It rises in an area with a lot of history in Rusk County not far from Nacogdoches, winds down into the giant Sam Rayburn Reservoir before wriggling down to join the Neches River at B.A. Steinhagen Lake.

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Angelina River near Douglass, Texas. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

RELATED: Repost: Texas River Tracing: Neches.

We left civilized Nacogdoches early and found the river at Douglass, a not very wide spot in the road that was the location for several Spanish missions. A little collection of historical markers with their backs to the road gave a detailed history of the Spanish presence in this area.

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Lots of history on the Angelina River. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman.

We picked up the Angelina through some gentle bottomlands that glowed with late fall colors.

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Angelina River not far from Lufkin. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

But pretty soon we hit the Sam Rayburn Reservoir, a vast lake that we had spied the day before at the mouth of the Attoyac. Once again, we found the perfect spot to view its expanses, an Army Corps of Engineers park laced with pines and brightly colored hardwoods high atop a bluff.

Related: Tracking down good reads on Texas rivers.

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Sam Rayburn Reservoir on the Angelina River. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

It’s easy to see why this stretch of lake would be a recreational magnet, especially during the summer. But why not in the winter? At every park during this December trip, we were typically the only guests. Couldn’t be a better time for camping, picnicking or boating, as far as we were concerned. The air was comfortably cool and dry, and — more to the point — there were no mosquitos.

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Love the Army Corps of Engineers parks all over Texas. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

Right below the dam, we found a river community that rightly hugs the shores of what must be an ideal stretch for fishing and exploring. The Angelina at this point is broad and slow-moving as it approaches the Neches.

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Angelina River below Lake Sam Rayburn Dam. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

Finally we ended up at B.A. Steinhagen Lake. We’d been here before on our Neches tracing, when a drought left it a meager patch of water. Now it’s full and clear and ready for visitors.

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Angelina River as it drains into B.A. Steinhagen Lake. Michael Barnes/American-Statesman

That’s it. We traced 50 Texas rivers in 10 years. We saw a lot of the state that very few people have seen. We took a lot of backroads and saw a lot of back country. The sense of accomplishment is, needless to say, mixed with nostalgia.

The question comes up now: What to do with all these experiences? Book? Digital guide? We honestly don’t know.

For 10 years, it was just about the roads and the rivers.

Best Texas rivers: Attoyac Bayou

Attoyac Bayou is only 60 miles long. Yet it often appears on lists of significant Texas waterways. So we attacked it with our usual vigor.

RELATED: How to Trace the Medina River.

It rises in Rusk County and flows into the Angelina River in Nacogdoches County at top of the Sam Rayburn Reservoir. For much of its course, we found ourselves in what truly can be called backwoods Texas, including sandy, slurry roads on a rainy day.

Leaving Marshall, we didn’t easily find the Attoyac. We spent over an hour in dense thickets looking for the source our maps said was there. We we saw various rivulets, but without signage, we couldn’t be sure we were looking at the true source.

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The Attoyac outside Caledonia. Contributed by Joe Starr.

Eventually, much farther downstream, we found that it’s a lazy course with soft banks and hardwood overhead.

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Caledonia looking upstream. Contributed by Joe Starr.

We kept getting the impression that this had been cotton country at some point, but it had played out long ago, leaving small, isolated country churches, some of them African-American. But not much else.

Related: Tracking down good reads on Texas rivers.

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Shelby County. Contributed by Joe Starr.

One of the near-ghost towns was Arcadia, a place that seemed trapped in a past life. We wouldn’t have run across it if we hadn’t been forced to take backroad after backroad to reach the river.

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Outside Grigsby, looking upstream. Contributed by Joe Starr.

The Attoyac doesn’t get very big, even as it descends into the giant lake that is the Sam Rayburn Reservoir. The weather got cloudier and mistier as the day wore on.

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The Attoyac just south of New Hope. Contributed by Joe Starr.

You really get a sense of its wildness and isolation here. Very quiet, too, the bird song muffled by the gathing fog; nothing but the quiet muttering of the river.

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Right about here under this misty Sam Rayburn Reservoir, used to be the confluence of the Attoyac and the Angelina Rivers. Contributed by Joe Starr.

We finally found Jackson Hill Park along the lake across from the confluence of the Attoyac and the Angelina. We lingered here trying to take pictures of dewy spider webs. No luck. So we got back in the car and headed for Nacadoches for a nice dinner with an old chum at Maklemore’s Ale House and Bistro.

After several days and nights in East Texas, it was relief to be in a town — or small city — that seemed a part of the 21st century.

 

Best Texas rivers: Big Cypress Bayou

Big Cypress Bayou is perhaps best known these days as the source of scenic Caddo Lake, often called the only natural lake in Texas. Yet, as the displays on the walls of Caddo Lake State Park demonstrate, its water level has been manipulated by man more than once, including the current Caddo Dam in Caddo Parish, La. So natural? Not really.

RELATED: How to Trace the Medina River.

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Stately cypress and pine trees along the edges of tamed Caddo Lake. Contributed by Joe Starr.

Before we got to Caddo Lake to begin the tracing, we couldn’t resist stopping at Lady Bird Johnson’s childhood home in Karnack. While a historical markers stands in the center of this scruffy town, it is nowhere near the house, and there was no indication of where it might be. We were not deterred! Once we found the stately manse on a highway to the south, we discovered that the current owners of the home did not take kindly to unannounced visitors, or so their signs screamed. Still, we pulled over to take a quick snap in Lady Bird’s memory.

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Childhood home of Lady Bird Johnson (née Taylor), Karnack. Contributed by Joe Starr.

Caddo Lake might be the best place to find archetypical East Texas swamp scenery. Stands of bald cypress line the shore and rise from the shallow lake. There are pleasant lakeside paths and boardwalks extending over the lake for unobstructed views. The main entry point, however, in the state park is an oxbow lake should make for a pretty tame, but beautiful boat ride.

Related: Tracking down good reads on Texas rivers.

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Bald cypress in Caddo Lake State Park. Contributed by Joe Starr.

The bayou also famously served the river port of Jefferson, which, before the arrival of the railroads, was the fulcrum for East Texas transportation and distribution. Now a tourist magnet, among its many improved, renovated or restored sites is a park at the turning basin on the bayou. In Jefferson’s historic district is Excelsior House, a hotel in continuous operation since the late 1850s where Oscar Wilde once stayed during one of his American tours.

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Excelsior House Hotel, Jefferson, TX. Contributed by Joe Starr.

To confuse matters at this point, three miles west of Jefferson, Big Cypress Bayou is met by Big Cypress Creek. Which to follow? We followed the creek to Lake Bob Sandlin. More on that later.

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Defunct railroad trestle bridge at the turning basin, Jefferson. Contributed by Joe Starr.

Upstream of Jefferson, we stopped by the gorgeous Lake o’ the Pines, which attracts anglers and recreational boaters and gave us the opportunity to do a little nature watching. Amazing how the river changes so quickly once a few hills begin to define the terrain.

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Lake o’ the Pines on Big Cypress Bayou? Creek?

We remained uncertain — and there was a town, Uncertain, that echoed our concerns — about the bayou/creek designations at this point. But we ended up in Bob Sandlin State Park, a quiet place with, this December, an unusual number of large seasonal decorations. It also features an historic cemetery near a now-disappeared fort. We asked at the front desk, of course: Who was Bob Sandlin? Turns out he was a car dealer from the area who lobbied for years for the lovely lake that accompanies the park.

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This day of river tracing was fairly short. After two nights in Texarkana, we took refuge in Marshall, which turns out is not a very welcoming place for tourists. Dry as a bone, it did offer a tiny barbecue place, Porky’s Smokehouse and Grill, which reminded us how far away we were from Central Texas.

Best Texas rivers: Sulphur River

Like the Nolan and the Pease, the Sulphur River was unknown to us before we began to systematically trace the state’s waterways.

RELATED: How to Trace the Medina River.

For much of its course, the Sulphur tracks the more northerly and much larger Red River, running generally east from Lamar and Delta counties, while flowing into Wright Patman Lake in Titus County. Almost right away, it then wanders into the state of Arkansas and ultimately into the Red River.

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Cooper Lake State Park, just below the confluence of the South and Middle Forks of the Sulphur, Birthright. Contributed by Joe Starr.

At 183 miles, it’s not a particularly long stream, and, like several other East Texas rivers, it rises among hardwoods and prairies before cutting through pine forests and swampy lowlands.

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Just east of Copper Lake looking upstream, Hagansport. Contributed by Joe Starr.

Before hitting the river, we made a base camp at the Hampton Inn in Texarkana. There, we had the good luck of finding two local eateries — Cattleman’s, a traditional steak house with a traditional clientele and satisfying food, and La Fogata Bar & Grill, a family spot on highway on the Arkansas side of the border.

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Hagansport, looking downstream. Contributed by Joe Starr.

At our first stop in the morning, Cooper Lake, we ask the state park warden about water levels. She told us that they had been low for a long time and that the lake was vulnerable to yo-yo-ing supply. Now, however, the water line was pretty high and we lingered at a high point by the lake.

Related: Tracking down good reads on Texas rivers.

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Near Talco. Contributed by Joe Starr.

As we headed downstream, the only access to the Sulphur was usually along lonely county roads and bridges of dubious integrity. At places, it looked like recent floods had inextricably tangled the trees and brush along the shore. Slowly the hardwoods turned to pines as we reached Wright Patman Lake, a lovely spot, if empty on this winter day. We did encounter a flock of pelicans on an arm of the lake, an exciting turn of events.

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White Pelicans sailing out into Wright Patman Lake. Contributed by Joe Starr.

We made sure to stop at a little park just below the dam that impounds Wright Patman. It was there that we were reminded that the spillways enrich the water with oxygen, which attracts fish and, thus, fishing humans. This is a weird little park off a busy highway, but that didn’t stop us from exploring.

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Spillway from Wright Patman Dam. Contributed by Joe Starr.

We never really saw Lake Texarkana — couldn’t even find it on maps –but rather we stopped at a location downstream of Wright Patman just this side of the Arkansas border.

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A few miles farther east and the Sulphur flows into Arkansas and out of our purview. Contributed by Joe Starr.

We’d wager that 95 percent of our state’s citizens have never heard of the Sulphur River, but in the world of far northeast Texas, it’s a pretty significant waterway, our 47th to trace.

UPDATE: A reference to Lake Texarkana could not be confirmed.

Best Texas books: Recent on rivers

As many of you know, Joe Starr and I have traced 50 Texas rivers — by car and on foot — from their sources to their mouths, or vice versa.

RELATED: How to trace the Medina River.

Texas A&M University Press, teamed with the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University, noticed our progress. And the good folks at the Press now send us their latest releases related — sometimes tangentially — to Texas rivers.

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“Neches River User Guide.” Gina Donovan. Texas A&M University Press. Oh, how we wish there was one of these guides for every Texas river. This is the gold standard. Handy in size and format. Clearly delineated maps. Carefully notated river access points. Helpful nature samples with color photographs of many of the mammals, birds, reptiles and the trees you’re likely to see. Now, the Neches is an East Texas river that cuts through the Big Thicket and its bottomlands are periodically at risk. Getting to know the river through this guide should help the general public make a case for its preservation.

RELATED:  Repost: Texas River Tracing: Neches.

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“Of Texas Rivers & Texas Art.” Andrew Sansom and William E. Reaves. Texas A&M University Press. Virtually an exhibit catalogue, this volume is a handsome collection of representations of Texas rivers — paintings, lithographs, pastels and linocuts. Aspects of Texas’s history and culture are tied together with a riverine theme. It is particularly gratifying to see how artists saw some of the exact same views we enjoyed during our 10 years of Texas river tracing. We are also pleased to see some of our favorite artists — Margie Crisp, Fidencio Duran, Robb Kendrick — represented here. Essays by Sansom and Reaves serve as natural introductions to the subject of Texas rivers.

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“The Blanco River.” Wes Ferguson. Texas A&M University Press. While much of the book is a survey of the history and geography of the Blanco River, the final chapters are a very personal recounting of the devastating Memorial Day Flood of 2015. It bears a family resemblance to Jim Kimmel’s fine “The San Marcos: A River’s Story,” also published in the Texas A&M Nature Guides series. It tracks the trajectory of observations we made of this Hill Country river — so rugged and beautiful for much of its run — and how its final stretch onto the plains around San Marcos is not a thing of beauty.

RELATED: A healing line a year later: The Blanco River.

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“Why the Raven Calls the Canyon.” E. Dan Klepper. Texas A&M University Press. Less focused on the nearby Rio Grande River than on the Fresno Ranch, this collection of photographs can still be grouped with these other books, for the river’s presence is never far offstage. Divided into chapters such as “Labors,” “Dogs,” “Horses” and “Haircuts,” each introduced by a brief commentary, the book’s images nearly form a narrative of the years that the author and the ranch’s caretaker spent “Off the Grid in Big Bend Country.” It’s a gorgeous book that will be appreciated by anyone who savors travel in West Texas.

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“Discovering Westcave: The Natural and Human History of a Hill Country Nature Preserve.” S. Christopher Caran and Elaine Davenport. Texas A&M University Press. With everything from caretaker families’ photos to highly technical geological and topographical charts, this book should satisfy your various curiosities about this stunning seventy-six acre preserve on the Pedernales River. We’ve visited at various stages of the rescue of this box canyon, once trashed out by casual visitors and campers. It’s now a paragon of natural education.

 

American Medical Association hails Sen. Kirk Watson

Locally, State Sen. Kirk Watson has received well-deserved acclaim for his hand in transforming the region’s medical ecology, which now includes the Dell Medical School, soon-to-open Dell Medical Center, area-wide Central Health and a host of other collaborative projects.

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State Sen. Kirk Watson. American-Statesman

But on Tuesday, a high-fallutin’ national group noticed, too. Nominated by the Travis County Medical Society, Watson was one of 10 recipients of the Dr. Nathan Davis Award for Outstanding Government Service from the American Medical Association. 

RELATED: How Kirk Watson wants to transform the aging Austin State Hospital.

Winners that night included a U.S. Senator, a U.S. Representative — both medical doctors — and others chosen as “government officials who go above and beyond the call of duty to improve public health,” said AMA Board Chairman Dr. Patrice A. Harris.