I was a lucky kid. I lived on Galveston Bay, where I could ride my horse in the surf and watch the moon pop out of the water from my bedroom window. But my luck didn’t last. The industrial pollution finally got so thick that my family fled, chased inland by waves of dead fish. I’ve held a bit of a grudge against the entire Texas coast ever since.
Three decades, however, is a long time to snub such a large swath of land, so a few months ago I went back to La Porte, my old stomping grounds. While in some respects the place remains a throwback to the old days, the only dead fish I saw were in the snapshots of proud fishermen at Linda’s Sylvan Beach Bait and Tackle, in Sylvan Beach Park. In fact, the bay water was so clear that it inspired me to prowl the rest of our vast coast, where I soon discovered that, while I had been off pouting, things had actually improved. Where once there were only dozens of brown pelicans, now there are a few thousand. Whooping cranes and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are rebounding like NBA hotdoggers. Historic buildings, once razed for parking lots, are treasured. Wetlands, finally recognized as filters for the bays and nurseries for all manner of marine babies, are being protected and replanted. Every year coastal hatcheries are pouring 30 million red drum fingerlings into the bays to replenish the once dwindling population. And you can even eat Texas oysters without making sure your will is in order.
No, I’m not saying that everything is perfect. But this watery edge of Texas just keeps getting better.
The Lower Coast
The bad news was that the car rental company at the Harlingen airport was oversold and I’d have to wait for the tuna-can-on-wheels I’d reserved. The good news was that the manager took pity on me and handed me the keys to a swank Chevy convertible, no extra charge. It was as if the travel gods were daring me not to have a good time on South Padre Island, a place I had disparaged for years as, well, shallow—nothing but characterless high-rise condos, Jell-O shots, and sun-scorched parasailors. An hour later, as I crossed the soaring causeway from Port Isabel to South Padre, I decided it was high time I learned—literally—to have fun on this brash and flashy isle.
I started my education with lessons in sand-castle building, the best way to get attention on the beach without breaking the law. Forget the packed-and-upturned-Styrofoam-cup concept. Under the patient instruction of Lucinda Wierenga, a partner in Sons of the Beach, I learned to make a “batter” of sand and water, build stalagmite-like towers by piling up scoops of the stuff, and then, using modified pastry knives and other odd little tools, carve those rustic forms into windowed turrets with stairs snaking up the side. Strangers stopped and took pictures.
My inflated ego was promptly punctured during my next lesson—surfing. Gene and Rachel Gore, the owners of South Padre Surf Company, met me at Isla Blanca County Park and, after giving me a brief talk on safety—to avoid getting clobbered by my surfboard I should stay underwater for three seconds after I fall—they zipped me up in a wet suit and I paddled through the chilly water on my big foam longboard. This time no strangers stopped and took pictures, thank God, but with Gene’s help I actually caught a couple of waves before my feet were frozen solid.
After they thawed, I decided to stay on dry land and do some field research on birds, a fail-safe project considering that more avian species—some six hundred—can be spotted in Texas than in any other state, and 75 percent of them spend time on the coast. Armed with the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail map for the lower coast, one of three guides published by Texas Parks and Wildlife, I headed first to the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, a vast expanse of brush, grasslands, and tidal flats on the mainland about an hour north of South Padre. At the entrance, I was greeted by a phalanx of roadrunners and, eyeing me from his perch on a power line, an Aplomado falcon, an endangered raptor that is being reintroduced in the refuge. My convertible proved to be an ideal mobile blind on the refuge’s fifteen-mile Bayside Drive, where I saw scores of redhead ducks and a trio of white pelicans. (Birds are less startled by vehicles than they are by folks on foot.) On the way back to South Padre, I checked out Los Ebanos, an 82-acre private preserve too new to have made the map, with paths winding through forests of Texas ebony and alongside a small lake, a prime hangout for green kingfishers and black-bellied whistling ducks. But the most effortless birding was back on the island, at the Laguna Madre Nature Trail, where knowledgeable birders kindly tutored me on minutiae like the difference between a clapper rail and the smaller Virginia rail. Even if you don’t know a marbled godwit from a garbling nitwit, you can still enjoy the sunsets over the laguna.
Although dolphin-viewing cruises abound both on Padre and across the causeway in Port Isabel, the most instructive spying may be onboard the Laguna Skimmer, captained by George and Scarlet Colley. The couple, who own the tour company Colley’s Fins to Feathers, know most of the 150 or so bottlenose dolphins who live in Laguna Madre by name. They’ve just opened a new nature center, plastered with photos of frolicking dolphins, which boasts a touch tank full of sea critters, including a lightning whelk, the unofficial poster mollusk in the Colleys’ campaign to teach folks not to collect live shells (the ones someone still calls home).
But shells aren’t the only things to gather on these shores, and just across the street from the center, in one of the island’s oldest buildings, the Beachcomber’s Museum whetted