Slither Through the Swamps
SABINE RIVER BELOW TOLEDO BEND Many miles from the modern-day hurly-burly and rich in primeval border mystique, the Sabine slips down the Louisiana line past forests and swamps like a giant water snake slithering through an ancestral dream. On a recent canoe trip my guide and I put in at the spillway below Toledo Bend Reservoir, the largest man-made lake in the South, and took out on the Louisiana side 21 miles and a day and a half later. Our traveling companions were bald eagles and herons. We passed fishing shacks and second homes lining the eastern bank of the river, but the Texas side, where we camped on a sand berm, was empty. Despite its lack of white-water challenges, the adventurous among us will relish the Sabine’s isolation and natural beauty.
Toledo Bend access: From Jasper, go north on U.S. 96 for about 12 miles, turn right onto FM 255, drive 31 miles to FM 692, turn left, and the spillway is on your right. The Sabine River Authority Web site ( sra.dst.tx.us) lists other put-in and take-out points. Outfitter: Adventure Canoeing and Outfitters, in LeBlanc, Louisiana, provides canoes ($16 per person per day, includes shuttle) and a take-out point with camping; 337-207-6936, justcanoeit.net. Charlie Llewellin
Canoe Colorado Canyon
RIO GRANDE IN BIG BEND RANCH STATE PARK If you’ve had only one floating experience in the Big Bend area, chances are it was down the famed Santa Elena Canyon. But if you’re willing to go slightly farther afield, a 35-mile drive west from Lajitas will take you out of the national park and into the equally rugged and far less traveled Big Bend Ranch State Park, where canoeists and kayakers can take another spectacular ride. Home to the steepest gradient of any stretch of the Rio Grande in the region—meaning less paddling and more whooping—the 9-mile Colorado Canyon can be run in one morning. If river levels are up, you’ll race through a jagged canyon carved from volcanic rock and over several class II and III rapids.
Desert Sports (888-989-6900, desertsportstx.com) and Far Flung Outdoor Center (800-839-7238, farflungoutdoorcenter.com), both in Terlingua, offer guided trips (from around $175 per person) and take care of permits, equipment, and other logistics. To do it yourself, call Big Bend Ranch State Park (432-229-3416) or go to tpwd.state.tx.us/park/bigbend. Christopher Keyes
Catch a Crappie
BIG CYPRESS BAYOU In the nineteenth century, you could take a steamboat all the way to New Orleans from Jefferson, which lies on Big Cypress Bayou halfway between Lake O’ the Pines and Caddo Lake. These days, its lifeline cut a century ago by the railroad and the Caddo Dam, the city survives on its air of bygone Southern gentility, and the bayou slides quietly past downtown and disappears into a thick tangle of hardwoods. Beneath its surface, bass, crappie, and catfish await your jig or spinner. Creek mouths are good places to look, though in any season you’ll find fish in the tailrace below Lake O’ the Pines; optimal water flow is between 500 and 1,500 cubic feet per second (cfs). But you might want to practice catch and release: Because of mercury contamination, you shouldn’t eat more than one fish per month from these waters.
Lake O’ the Pines access: From Jefferson, head west on Texas Highway 49 for about 4 miles, turn left onto FM 729 and go 3.4 miles, then turn left onto FM 726 and go 3 miles to the dam. Jefferson access: at the Polk Street bridge downtown. For information on fishing guides and boat rentals, call 888-GO-RELAX or go to jefferson-texas.com. Charlie Llewellin
Spy a Flycatcher
LOWER RIO GRANDE The Lower Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge, which protects some of the most biodiverse habitat in the lower 48 states, consists of 115 parcels of land totaling some 85,000 acres along the
last 275 miles of the Rio Grande before it spills into the Gulf of Mexico. Home—or at least winter getaway—to 484 species of birds, the whole refuge is a mecca for international wildlife viewers, but no single tract is more prized than Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, outside Mission. Headquarters of the World Birding Center, the park offers a two-hour early-morning birding tour two days a week—get your caffeine fix at the WBC’s coffee bar—guided by a naturalist who will help you spot everything from Acadian flycatchers and blue-winged teals to yellow-crowned night-herons and zone-tailed hawks as you stroll the ash- and elm-shaded trails beside the broad Rio Grande.
From Mission, head west on U.S. 83 for about 4 miles to Bentsen Palm Drive, turn south, and continue for 4 miles to the park entrance; tours Friday and Sunday; for information and reservations, call 956-585-1107 or go to worldbirdingcenter.org; $5 entrance fee. Christopher Keyes
Shake, Paddle, and Roll
GUADALUPE RIVER ABOVE GRUENE You have probably heard that the Guadalupe is a sort of paradise for rafters and tubers, drunken and otherwise. But it also has some of the best white-water kayaking in Texas, and most of the time its rapids can be negotiated by beginners. This is way, way more exciting than tubing. The ideal run starts a few miles upstream of Gruene at a place known as the First Crossing. Over the next four and a half miles, you will paddle through five rapids. In between are pretty, open expanses of river. Its flow is determined by how much water is being released from nearby Canyon Lake; 500 to 1,000 cfs is ideal. You can do the trip in less than two hours.
Outfitter: Rockin’ R River Rides—from Interstate 35 in New Braunfels, take exit 189 and head west on Loop 337 for 2.3 miles. Just after you cross the Guadalupe, take the Gruene Historical District exit, turn right onto Gruene Road at the stop sign, and continue for three quarters of a mile; 800-55-FLOAT, rockinr.com; kayaks $35, includes shuttle. S.C. Gwynne
Pack a Picnic
MEDINA RIVER AT CASTROVILLE As