The Lake No One Knows

The largest natural lake in Texas isn’t really natural. That’s just one of the murky misconceptions about Caddo Lake.

FRED DAHMER KNOWS CADDO LAKE better than anyone, but even he doesn’t know it all. He has spent most of his 79 years photographing, exploring, fishing, ferrying visitors, and daydreaming on the lake, which is practically in his back yard. But you can’t really understand the lake, or Fred Dahmer, by standing on the shore. Not until you get out on a boat do you begin to grasp that this is a distinct and separate world—a labyrinth of sloughs and shallow submerged islands dense with tupelo and bald cypress, their branches shrouded in long, dangling strands of moss, their wide, fluted trunks mirrored in the surface of the water. There is something wild and primordial about the place, as if a creature from the Pleistocene Epoch were about to lurch forth from the muck.

Fred has worked as a photographer, a radio repairman, a shipyard electrician, and a postman, but he has spent the past twenty years exploring and defending Caddo Lake, a 23-mile-long waterway that straddles the Texas-Louisiana border, midway between Marshall and Shreveport. When he is not attending meetings and writing letters to politicians, hydrologists, engineers, and other would-be despoilers, he can be found in his battered V-bottom boat, poking his way through the lily pads. I met him four years ago, when he was living alone on Taylor Island in the town of Uncertain, on the Texas side of the lake, in a cabin he had built himself: a small wood-frame bunkhouse covered in tar-paper shingles. To get there, you follow Uncertain’s aging commercial strip, a two-lane road with a couple of seafood restaurants, a convenience store, and some ragtag motels, and cross the bridge to the island. So dense with moisture is the atmosphere at the water’s edge that everything is damp and mossy; anything left untended slips into deliquescence—shacks with lapsed roofs, rusted pickups parked under the pines. Occasionally you come across an abandoned house that is entirely overrun by weeds and vines, its rooftop barely visible behind a frenzy of foliage.

Fred is a narrow and unprepossessing man, slightly hunched, with a left leg that was crippled in an auto accident. He has a kindly crinkled face, with large ears, green eyes, and tannish-colored skin. His voice is peculiarly high-pitched, almost a falsetto—the result of an unexplained hardening of his vocal chords twenty years ago when he stopped smoking. This, together with his lopsided gait, creates a peculiar first impression of Fred. To get to know him, you must disregard the physical strangeness; or perhaps it is the other way around: Once you know him, the oddity disappears.

I first saw Fred Dahmer on the evening news. He was being interviewed for a program on Texas travel and looked squirmy and self-conscious in front of the television camera. Several weeks later I called him up and asked if he would give me some pointers on exploring the lake. He did much more than that: When I got there, he gave me my first tour. I have no idea where he took me that day; the lake was big and bewildering. I remember only an impression of Spanish moss and shimmery waters and a feeling of enchantment. After that trip, I returned to Caddo Lake again and again with Fred as my guide.

Had he not been so willing to share the lake with me, I might not have gone back. Nothing about the lake encourages visitors. Instead, there seems to be an antipathy toward outsiders, a xenophobia almost, as if the lake and all its smothering vegetation were turning inward on itself. It is impossible to find a decent map of the lake. There is no place, at least on the Texas side, where you can get an overview of the lake, no scenic turnout or lookout point. Only two public boat ramps exist—one at the state park and another by the Mooringsport dam. None of the usual tourist courtesies are extended. The restaurants are uneven, the motels perpetually dilapidated. But none of this matters very much. No one goes to Caddo Lake for the food or the accommodations. You go because, quite simply, it is the most beautiful lake in Texas. You go because you can wander alone in a reverie for hours, never encountering another human being, believing you are in the remotest place in the universe.

This can be a dangerous illusion. Caddo Lake is not remote at all. It is threatened by the same factors that endanger inland waters throughout the country: pollution, commerce, and the presence of human beings whose escape into nature depends upon their ability to mold and shape the environment until it is no longer wild and natural but man-made, with all the problems people bring.

To know Caddo Lake you need patience and a good eye. Fred has both. Over the years he has attempted to teach me the mysterious system of markers posted on the barks of the cypress trees—signs like “2E” or “5F”—designed to guide boaters through the complicated sloughs and boat lanes. He also attempted, without success, to teach me to distinguish between the various lily pads on the lake: duckweed, spatterdock, water lily, golden club, and yonqupin. And one time, spurred by a rumor, we searched in vain for the oldest cypress on the lake, a tree reputed to be more than three hundred years old. Fred pointed out where the floating beer boats were moored during Prohibition. And he took me to the spot where Robert Potter was killed during a feud between rival vigilante groups known as the Regulators and the Moderators in the days of the Texas Republic. Pursued by his enemies, Potter propped his rifle against a tree and leapt into the lake, whereupon William “Pinkey” Rose grabbed the gun and shot Potter as he tried to swim away.

One day last spring Fred and I drove to Mooringsport, just over the Louisiana border, to see the dam that holds back Caddo Lake. It is nothing special

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