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Caddo’s Primordial Calling

Spook up the season in Caddo Lake’s enigmatic environs.
Written by June Naylor. Photographs by J. Griffis Smith.

Bald cypress  trees flourish on Caddo Lake, as seen near Big Pines Lodge. (Photos by J. Griffis Smith)

My boyfriend seems unusually skittish as he peers into the utter blackness beyond our cabin door at Caddo Lake State Park. I’ve prepared two hot cups of ginger tea for us to sip on the porch in the crisp night air. But Marshall, willing only to open the door a crack, suggests that we enjoy our tea in the cozy confines of the cabin’s interior.

“What if Sasquatch really is out there? Look at those spooky trees. That’s a good place for him to live, dontcha think?” My sweetheart—an NFL veteran who stands six feet, seven inches—confesses that he’s just a smidge afraid of the dark.

This just goes to show how anyone can find the primordial environs of this East Texas lake country downright frightening at times. My own years-ago experiences here as a kid instilled a healthy respect for the forceful way that Piney Woods nature can impose sinister concerns, so I’m cutting Marshall some slack. Over the years, I’ve read enough Caddoan lore and tales of pirates like Jean Lafitte in this no-man’s land that hauntings don’t seem a bit far-fetched.

A relaxing ride on the Graceful Ghost touring paddlewheeler.Experiencing Caddo Lake for the first time remains one of my favorite memories, and seeing it again through new eyes brings fresh thrills, kick-starting my passion for the place. I’m delighted that the weather turns cool for our visit, when shivering at just the smallest startling sound comes naturally.

It occurs to me that no place seems more appropriate, as Halloween approaches, than eerie Caddo, a 26,000-acre lake surrounded by dense forest and towering bald cypress draped in heavy Spanish moss curtains. Like a little kid, my heartbeat quickens when I pass the darkened woods and look into a shadowy slough, feeling the hair on my neck tingle at the roots, as when someone tells a particularly gripping ghost story.

As a place to tell ghost stories, Caddo Lake makes perfect sense to Sam Canup, an innkeeper, merchant, and barbecue pit-master at the tiny lakeside town called Uncertain. Sam has been the mayor of Uncertain for a decade, and he notices that visits to Caddo seem especially popular around Halloween.

 “I think it’s the night sounds out on the lake,” says Sam. “When you go out there and it’s really dark and quiet, you hear all kinds of critters. First there’s the hoot owl. Then you hear a splash in the water—you jump and say, ‘What was that?’”

Experiencing Caddo Lake for the first time remains one of my favorite memories, and seeing it again through new eyes brings fresh thrills, kick-starting my passion for the place.

Whether Sasquatch lurks in the deep, dark woods around Caddo, Sam seems, well, uncertain. Acknowledging that international groups holding organized searches for the legendary creature have covered the area, Sam says he doesn’t personally know anyone who’s made such a discovery. But as the Uncertain mayor, he’s pleased that people want to explore the area in search of mysterious sights.

 “We love it when visitors want to come look for Bigfoot. Chances are they will find lots of things to enjoy,” he says.

Close to Sam’s lakeside lodging and store, we spot a sign that brings us up short: Similar to an official sign alerting motorists to deer or other wildlife crossings, there’s a Bigfoot Crossing sign. One of Sam’s neighbors put it up a few years ago for fun, and it’s attracted ample attention ever since.

In an effort to get on to the next scary endeavor, I direct Marshall’s attention to our canoe livery meeting site. George Cox, a local lake guide and rental-canoe vendor, meets us at Shady Glade Resort on a westerly shore of the sprawling lake. I’ve canoed these waters several times, but never with only the assistance of a map. Guides are quick to caution newbies to the area to pay close attention to posted signs that correspond to map coordinates if canoeing without someone familiar with the labyrinthine lake pathways.

Follow a ride on the Graceful Ghost with a catfish dinner at Big Pines Lodge Restaurant and Waterin' Hole.“If you’re just paddling for a few hours, I’d stick to Cathedral Trail, which goes up this way,” George says, running his forefinger over the map. My mind spins as he talks about different possibilities. I see dozens of names that intrigue. Whangdoodle Pass? Nope. George assures us we’re not going there, unless we paddle most of the day. Stumpy Slough? Only if you’re with a guide.

Marshall and I agree to stick with the mapped trail, following the signs marked with arrows and the silhouette of a paddle. We spend a couple of hours paddling into a chilly headwind, but we’re rewarded with hundreds of views of thick bald cypress, as well as numerous impressive beaver dams. We pass a few kayakers and the occasional fishing boat with one or two anglers each, tucked back into tiny coves that look to us like good alligator hiding spots.

When we turn back toward shore, paddling with the wind behind us, we agree we’d like to go searching for gators on one of George’s mud-boat tours. And from what we’ve heard, dusk is the best time for that adventure.

Later that afternoon, we meet George at the appointed spot in the fading daylight, setting out for the shallow areas that only flat-bottom boats can access. He takes us into darkly shaded stretches that we wouldn’t dare venture ourselves; who could ever find the way out of the twists and turns and dead-ends? Every log looks like an alligator. I’m terrified that in my jitters I’ll simply fall out of the boat and instantly become supper.

See animal life around the lake at Caddo Lake State Park, including Captain Ron's Gator Park and Petting Zoo. Finally George turns into Alligator Bayou, and as the name promises, he points toward a gator silently slipping through the water. Possibly 10 to 12 feet long, the gator keeps an eye on us as we keep a respectful distance. George cuts the motor and we just drift, watching the alligator submerge and resurface.

Just as we begin to head back toward our starting point, from around a giant stand of ancient bald cypress comes an enormous, rather silent, shadowy-looking thing. An apparition? No, but the appropriately named Graceful Ghost, a touring paddle wheeler that departs Big Pines Lodge, rounds a bend in one of the lake’s hundreds of turns, carrying a group of tourists to see the lake’s mysterious wonders.

“I was hoping to show you the 15-footer, the biggest one we’ve ever found on the lake,” George says of his favorite gator sighting. “Maybe next time.”

Marshall and I agree we’re game. We’ll probably be back in time for Halloween to tell ghost stories and keep watch for Sasquatch, too.

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