IT’S JUST BEFORE SIX ON a Saturday morning in August, and I’m a little dismayed to be stuck in traffic in Port Aransas, waiting with my friend for the ferry in a long line of serious trucks piled high with fishing gear. On the other side of the Corpus Christi Ship Channel, Bill Harvey, a fishery biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife, is waiting for us by the Crab Man Marina with a trailerload of kayaks. Despite my fretting, it’s not long before we pull off the road and follow him down a bumpy track to the water’s edge, where we unload boats and paddles in the still, gray darkness. Heavy clouds hang over Redfish Bay as powerboats roar out to the Gulf in a blaze of lights and fishing rods.
What has lured us here before the crack of dawn? A rumor of a lost waterworld of shallow lagoons and secret passages where you can drift in undisturbed contemplation of nature. Like you, perhaps, I’ve shuttled back and forth between Port A and Aransas Pass many times without giving much thought to the featureless islands scattered across the estuary. But when I saw Parks and Wildlife’s aerial map of North Harbor Island, which shows a series of kayak trails looping through the Lighthouse Lakes, as they are known, I was hooked, though I have gone kayaking only a little more often than I’ve gone fishing—which is to say, hardly at all. It might not be dancing with whales, but a weekend exploring saltwater creeks in the Gulf Coast wetlands appeals greatly to my environmentalista soul.
Cheap, easy, and fun, kayaking has exploded in popularity over the past few years. For the Parks and Wildlife department, it provides a new way for people to enjoy the outdoors while protecting some of the most threatened areas along the coast; since 2000, the department has created six new paddle trails, from Port Isabel to the Armand Bayou. You can try the sport for yourself later this month during Parks and Wildlife’s Lone Star Legacy Weekend, when kayak manufacturers will demonstrate their boats and department staff will guide you around the lakes.
In my friend’s bird book, these lakes are labeled unpoetically (and inaccurately) as “mudflats,” possibly to discourage you from visiting this maze of mangrove wetlands into which—without a guide or a map—you can quickly disappear. Though the hum of maritime activity surrounds you and the horizon is dotted with landmarks—half-constructed oil rigs tower over Harbor Island to the south, and the Lydia Ann lighthouse rises over the mangroves to the east—every turn leads you deeper into the labyrinth.
Bill Harvey knows all about this. Fishing for red drum one July evening three years ago, he got lost and spent much of the night on the water in his kayak. When he flew over the bay a few days later, he could see plainly the cuts and channels through the islands that had been so hard to discern at sea level. A light went on, and he paid a visit to Parks and Wildlife’s Geographical Information Systems Lab, where he found satellite photographs of the lakes. With a friend he worked out some trail routes and used the lab’s mapping software to overlay them onto the photos. The result was the entrancing photomap of North Harbor Island. Believing in Harvey’s vision, the department put up yellow signs marking the trails and printed two thousand copies of the map, which also shows GPS waypoint coordinates (for the Lewis and Clark brigade). On the map, three main trails wander through the flats, ranging from five to almost seven miles in length, which means around three or four hours of paddling, depending on wind, tide, and the strength of your shoulders. For anybody who loves the outdoors, they sing an irresistible siren song.
But the trails are only the surface of the story, literally. Look down into the shallow water, and in most places in the lake system you’ll see that the bottom is covered with seagrass. These seagrass beds are vital to the health of the coastal ecosystem, providing food for everything from bacteria to turtles as well as habitat and nursery grounds for the fish, shrimp, and crabs that are the foundation of the local commercial and recreational economy. And over time they have suffered increasingly from human activity, especially the rise in recreational boating that has accompanied the doubling of the coastal population in the past decade.
Every summer Larry McKinney, Parks and Wildlife’s senior director for aquatic resources, lies on his belly with his camera in the bottom of a small plane and takes a bumpy ride up the entire Texas coast. About ten years ago he began to notice the damage to the seagrass beds caused by propeller scarring, especially in busy Redfish Bay. Vessels anchored over the flats would simply rev their engines to get out of the shallows, leaving long gashes across the beds. Some seagrasses can take up to eight years to grow over a prop scar because faster water flow along the scar makes it hard for the plant to get a foothold, and dead leaves (known as rack) collect there and produce ammonia as they decompose, killing formerly healthy grass on either side.
It was Harvey’s job to garner community support for the main plank of the department’s strategy for protecting the beds: voluntary “prop-up” zones over much of Redfish Bay, where boaters would be encouraged to pole or drift over the flats. Predictably, many local fishermen and fishing guides were apoplectic, and in the beginning the signs marking the prop-up zones would regularly disappear. But over time some of the program’s harshest critics have become its strongest supporters. Response to the idea of the kayak trails was also mixed in the beginning, kayakers being generally disparaged as outsiders by the local community. But the ecological and economic benefits of encouraging conservation and responsible use of the lakes have become apparent to all; the City of Aransas Pass expects to spend about $180,000 to add a trailhead and kayak trail at its Community Park.
Kayaking through the still lagoons on this summer morning is a serene and uplifting experience. A sky full of fluffy clouds is mirrored on the water’s surface. Suspended between two heavens, we paddle slowly past islands of black mangrove rimmed with marsh grass, taking in the Wagnerian sunrise as curlews circle overhead in a perfect V formation. A blue heron cronks and four magnificent frigate birds perch on a line of poles just ahead. A luxuriant submarine lawn of seagrass lies beneath us, and all around is a constant quiet splashing—the sound of mullet jumping. Harvey reaches for his fishing rod as he points toward a disturbance in the water ahead of us. It’s a red drum; his tail appears briefly above the surface, then disappears. Over three days we see night herons, white herons, blue herons, ibis, a roseate spoonbill, and an osprey and have a close encounter with a pelican.
In the knee-deep estuary you are face-to-face with the interaction between species; fish leap in the air as a bird swoops across the surface. Though the lakes feel like a closed world, their waters are in a state of constant interchange with the rest of the Gulf. Think of them as a natural battery for the region’s marine life. Go there and get recharged.