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Holy Trinity

Unlike its North Texas stretches, the lower Trinity River is an exotic shadowland of gators and giant cypresses, beautiful and forbidding.

By October 2003Comments

WHEN I WAS GROWING UP IN ARLINGTON in the forties, the upper Trinity River was a dirty joke. No one wrote love songs about the Trinity, much less ate its fish or canoed its rank and odoriferous waters. Today, the upper part of the river is a metaphor for mismanagement and neglect, cited among the top ten most endangered rivers in America. Nevertheless, for more than a century, chamber of commerce yahoos have clung to the delusion that the Trinity will someday be a 524-mile ship channel—an ersatz Port Metroplex connecting Dallas-Fort Worth to Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

So you can imagine my surprise upon discovering that the lower Trinity, that stretch of the river just north of Galveston Bay, is a place so magical and exotic that it seems right out of the pages of Tolkien. My education began last winter, while I was researching a story on Galveston Bay. My friend Shannon Tompkins, a 49-year-old biologist and outdoors writer for the Houston Chronicle, had taken me to a rookery just east of the bridge where Interstate 10 crosses the river. To my amazement, the rookery turned out to be part of an incredibly beautiful and mysterious cypress swamp, so unlike the Trinity of my boyhood that it was hard to believe this was the same body of water. Shannon grew up in Baytown, has lived near the river since he was in grade school, and knows every oxbow, slough, and bayou. The rookery is only a small piece of the vast swamp, he informed me, one of the last of its kind in Texas. Unfortunately, the Trinity was so swollen from winter rains that a trip upriver would have been foolhardy, so Shannon suggested that I come back in the spring.

Early on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, I again found myself at the rookery with Shannon. The first soft light of morning broke above the ground fog, twinkling off the shocking pink of a pair of roseate spoonbills gliding overhead. Crossing a footbridge, I stood at the edge of a shimmering world of electric-green water plants, giant cypress trees, Spanish moss, and so many snowy egrets, great blue herons, and other nesting birds that the trees appeared to be doing a fan dance. Without my noticing it, the rumble of eighteen-wheelers had given way to a chorus of birds and bullfrogs. A small alligator rustling through a cluster of water hyacinths watched us with patient yellow eyes. “We seem to have dropped off the edge of Texas and landed in some Louisiana swamp,” I observed.

“Thousands of cars a day pass over the I-10 bridge, yet nobody notices what’s down here,” Shannon said. “‘Rivers and the inhabitants of the watery element were made for wise men to contemplate and fools to pass by.’ Izaak Walton wrote those words in the 1600’s.” Shannon is that rarest of men, a college-educated swamp creature who spends most of his life outdoors and can quote Thoreau, Faulkner, and any number of Greek philosophers and make it sound like casual conversation.

Once we had launched his sixteen-foot aluminum boat and passed under the bridge, I learned that it is the official demarcation dividing salt- and freshwater. Crab traps infest the river on one side of the bridge but are illegal on the other. Shannon comes here nearly every Friday, usually alone. The river and the swamp are his touchstones of reality. “I have clinical depression,” he told me as we moved upriver. “This is the only place I don’t feel bad.”

The river is surprisingly wide and deep, sheltered on both banks by dense forests of cottonwoods and elms. Hundreds of nests of red wasps hang from the ends of branches, low over the water. I watched as an anhinga (or snakebird) plunged from the sky, vanished underwater, then reappeared with a small fish in its long bill. There are few snakes in this part of the river. “Snakes are mobile sausages for feral hogs, gators, and birds,” Shannon explained. Thanks to the lack of rain (and standing water), there aren’t many mosquitoes, either, at least there weren’t that day. In another few weeks the river would be alive with insects and unbearably hot and humid, but at that moment conditions were perfect, and a deep sense of peace settled over me.

Somewhere south of Liberty, we exited the main body of the river into an old barge canal that cuts through the heart of the cypress swamp. Fifty years ago the canal was used to transport timber and molten sulfur from a now-long-abandoned mine to the ports of Galveston and Houston. You can still see the pilings of Texas Gulf Sulphur’s loading docks, towering like ancient skeletons from the thick green water. Shannon pointed to a small rise where a single long-leaf pine stood sentinel. “Twenty-five years ago, that rise was covered with one-hundred-fifty-year-old longleaf pine,” he told me. “Then one day they were all gone.” Most of the old-growth cypress is gone too, cut down a century ago, when there were two sawmills in the town of Wallisville.

Shannon shut off the outboard motor, and the music of the swamp rushed around us. A gar splashed nearby. A brilliant yellow prothonotary warbler perched atop a piling, fluffing his feathers and whistling his reedy mating call. From the dark forest of cypress, tupelo, and pignut hickory, we heard the squall of a wood duck and the staccato scream of a pileated woodpecker. A barred owl barked and Shannon answered: Hoohoo-hoohooaw! The swamp pulsed with life. In places, the water’s surface boiled with clouds of tiny shad—”nervous water,” Shannon called it. A black-crowned night heron stood poised to strike. What I assumed were two eight-foot logs unexpectedly flicked enormous tails, revealing themselves to be alligators. Shannon couldn’t resist pulling out his fishing tackle. He hooked several nice-sized bass, which he comforted with cooing sounds as he plucked the jigs from their jaws and returned them to the river. “I bet I’ve caught every fish in this river twice,” he said.

Back in the river channel, we searched out a bayou that leads to Lake Charlotte, one of several remote, shallow, and nearly inaccessible natural bodies of water in this river system. A squadron of great blue herons and great egrets, flying at eye level, escorted us deeper into the swamp. Knees of long-dead cypress lined the banks like pickets in a fence. The swamp is a shadowland of submerged stumps, tangled branches, and fallen trees, so forbidding and otherworldly that I half-expected to see hobbits frolicking among the foliage. In the early 1800’s, when hurricanes threatened Galveston Island, Jean Lafitte and his pirates hauled their ships along this bayou to the shelter of Lake Charlotte. (One or two of Lafitte’s ships are said to be buried on the lake bottom, under so many feet of mud that retrieving them would be impractical.) The lake is so shallow now that our small boat couldn’t cross it, much less explore an adjacent marsh of cypress trees that rose out of the shifting shadows like a cathedral.

Later, we stopped to investigate an Indian midden, a steep bank filled to a depth of four or five feet with clam shells, fish and alligator bones, shards of pottery, and God knows what else. Hundreds of years ago this was a garbage dump for the nomadic Akokisa tribe. Despite the abundance of fish and fowl, life here must have been terribly difficult. In the absence of rocks, the Akokisa fashioned arrowheads from gar scales. Hardly a trace of paint or decoration enhances their pottery. “Art is a manifestation of the thought process,” Shannon explained. “The Akokisa must have needed all their energy just to stay alive.” The Spanish constructed a mission and fort near Lake Charlotte in 1756, but the friars complained of biting insects, extreme heat and cold, and the thick stinking water of the lake. By 1771, the Spanish were gone.

As magical as it appeared to my novice eyes, the swamp is only a token of what the lower Trinity was before man had his way. The last two ivory-billed woodpeckers in Texas were shot near here in 1904 by a “naturalist” named Vernon Bailey. In a ten-year period in the late 1800’s, a hog farmer named Ab Carter killed all the bears in Liberty County—182 of them—then shot his bear hound because the dog was no longer of use. Lake Charlotte was scheduled to be flooded out of existence in the seventies—so that Liberty could be a seaport—but was spared by the discovery of a bald eagle’s nest. Had the proposed Wallisville dam been completed, it would have flooded 13,000 acres of marsh, cypress swamp, and marine nursery—and turned Galveston Bay into a sterile pond. Ironically, the dam was a key element in the moronic dream of Port Metroplex.

As we ended our excursion, exhausted and happy, Shannon remarked, “‘You can’t step twice into the same river.’ Heraclitus said that.” It’s a truth I need to remember. There is no permanent reality except the reality of change. The only real state is the transitional one of becoming.

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