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Preserving the Mystery: The Big Thicket

Myriad species of ferns flourish in the Thicket’s damp, sandy soils.

In the deep, dark woods of East Texas resides a magical, almost spiritual place. It has been known by many names: the Big Woods, the Biological Crossroads of North America, America’s Ark, the Tight-eye Thicket, and the Bear Hunter’s Happy Hunting Grounds. But nowadays, most Texans just call it the Big Thicket.

Embroidered with countless leaves, the forests and swamps of this region harbor giant trees set among a tangle of branches, vines, shrubs, and wildflowers. Pine needles, colorful mushrooms, and carpets of moss decorate the understory, scenting the air with an earthy freshness. Yet ecosystems in the Big Thicket also sustain the unexpected: a giant luna moth balanced on yellow blooms of a rare lady’s-slipper orchid; a roadrunner stalking a skink lizard across arid, sandy uplands; patches of lime-green, carnivorous pitcher plants catching bugs in boggy wetland savannahs.

Long before Anglo settlement of Texas began, the original Big Woods covered at least 3.5 million acres. Black bears, mountain lions, red wolves, and ivory-billed woodpeckers inhabited the forest, sharing their home with Bidai, Patiri, Deadose, Akiosa, and later, Alabama and Coushatta Indians. When the Spanish explorers arrived, they gave the Big Thicket’s swamps and dense forests wide berth despite its abundant game, as did Anglo pioneers of the 1820s.

But by the 1850s, settlers had begun penetrating even the woods’ densest section, which spreads into present-day Polk, Liberty, and Hardin counties. The area was so overgrown that it had served for decades as a favorite hideaway of outlaws, murderers, and vagabonds, as well as the scene of heart-stopping tales about bottomless quicksand and man-eating reptiles.

If you enjoy spending time with Mother Nature, the Big Thicket National Preserve is for you. Stop first at the Big Thicket Information Station, on Farm-to-Market Road 420, 2.5 miles east of its intersection with US 69 and 7 miles north of Kountze (open daily 9-5, except on Wed., when hours are 10:30-5; closed Christmas and New Year's days). Wheelchair accessible. Write to 2912 FM 420, Kountze 77625; 409/246-2337. Here, you can peruse educational literature, ask questions of the knowledgeable staff, and pick up a copy of the Big Thicket Official Map and Guide, which shows the location of each unit, describes leisure activities available, and explains the region's natural history.

Customized group activities, such as canoe trips, workshops, and guided hikes, must be arranged in advance. Busiest seasons are spring and fall (especially weekends), when temperatures are milder. A booklet, available at the entrances to the Kirby Nature Trail and the Sundew Trail, provides information for a self-guided tour.

Hiking or walking shoes are recommended on the trails (boots in low areas, particularly after a rain). Bring along sunscreen, drinking water, mosquito repellent, and at least one illustrated guide to East Texas vegetation.

A variety of scenic canoe excursions are available, including a tranquil, 93-mile ride from B.A. Steinhagen Lake to Beaumont on the Neches River. A 37-mile trip down Village Creek from US 69 to the Neches (a favorite section is between FM 418 and Texas 327) offers more-adventurous canoeing. For the best back-country excursion, try canoeing the 49-mile ribbon of Pine Island–Little Pine Island bayous from FM 770 near Saratoga to US 69/96 in Beaumont. Information about shuttling services from area outfitters is available at preserve headquarters.

For general information, write to Supt., Big Thicket National Preserve, 3785 Milam, Beaumont 77701; 409/246-2337. Web site: www.nps.gov/parks.html.

The Big Thicket Association publishes a newsletter, the Big Thicket Reporter, that covers conservation efforts, ecotourism development, and plans for upcoming projects, such as the long-awaited official Big Thicket National Preserve Visitor Center (at the intersection of US 69 and FM 420) and a university research station/education center in Saratoga. For information about the Big Thicket Assn. or the newsletter, write to Box 198, Saratoga 77585-0198, call the preserve headquarters at 409/839-2689, or check the association's web site: www.ih2000.net/bigthicketassociation/bta.htm.

Camping is available at Martin Dies Jr. State Park (Rt. 4, Box 274, Jasper 75951; 409/384-5231), a facility with water and electricity hookups and tent sites on the shores of B.A. Steinhagen Lake (15 miles east of Woodville via US 190 and Park Rd. 48), where towering pines and mixed-hardwood forests accent prime lake vistas. Village Creek State Park (Box 8565, Lumberton 77657; 409/755-7322), situated off US 96 in Lumberton, is another good choice.

Primitive camping (bring your own water, pack out what you pack in) within the preserve is permitted only in designated units and on sandbars along the Neches River.

On Texas 327, at the Village Creek crossing near Silsbee, lies the Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary (see story, March 1999), owned by The Nature Conservancy of Texas. Self-guided nature trails begin at the parking lot and traverse several ecosystems. Enjoy a picnic near the trail head, where a pavilion offers a high-bluff vantage point over Village Creek. For guided tours or more information, write to Box 909, Silsbee 77656; 409/385-0445.

The Watson Pinelands Preserve and Studio, near Warren, opens to the public at no charge. Here, you will find most of the plant communities that make the Big Thicket famous, including many rare and endangered native species and the area's 7 species of orchids. Butterflies abound in spring and summer, birds and mammals year round. Guided tours, offered by owner and manager Geraldine Watson, may be arranged in advance. (Geraldine is a former plant ecologist/ranger for the National Park Service and an author of books on Big Thicket and Neches River ecology; her vegetational zone studies helped determine which sections of the Big Thicket to preserve.) Write to Geraldine Watson, Rt. 2, Box 887, Warren 77664; 409/385-7239 or 547-3543.

Several area communities sponsor other events and attractions that relate to the Big Thicket and the East Texas forest heritage. Write to the Lumberton Chamber of Commerce, Box 8574, Lumberton 77657 (409/755-0554), or to the Hardin County Tourist Bureau, Box 400, Kountze 77625 (409/246-8000 or 800/835-0343).

Books

To learn more about the Big Thicket, look for the following books in your local library or bookstore: Nature Lover's Guide to the Big Thicket by Howard Peacock (Texas A&M Univ. Press, 1994); The Big Thicket of Texas: America's Ecological Wonder by Howard Peacock (Little, Brown, and Co., 1984); Forest Trees of Texas: How to Know Them, Bulletin No. 20 of the Texas Forest Service (1963); Wild Flowers of the Big Thicket, East Texas, and Western Louisiana by Geyata Ajilvsgi (Texas A&M Univ. Press, 1979); Big Thicket Plant Ecology: An Introduction by Geraldine Watson (Big Thicket Museum, 1975; an expanded, revised edition, published by the Big Thicket Assn., will be released later this year); Tales from the Big Thicket edited by Francis E. Abernethy (Univ. of Texas Press, 1966); The Big Thicket: A Challenge for Conservation by Pete A.Y. Gunter (Jenkins Publishing Co., 1971); The Big Thicket: An Ecological Reevaluation by Pete A.Y. Gunter (Univ. of North Texas Press, 1993); Land of Bears and Honey: A Natural History of East Texas by Joe C. Truett and Daniel W. Lay (Univ. of Texas Press, 1984); and Thicket Explorer by Maxine Johnston (Big Thicket Museum, 1973).

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