We briefly came through the Big Thicket around Christmas of 1989 and really liked the area. It was well located to spend some time before beginning the main endeavor of the year, our tour of prairies from south (northeast Texas, in March) to north (southern Saskatchewan, in August), and we looked forward to a spring visit. We stayed for 7 nights in Village Creek State Park, using it as a base for exploring the Big Thicket, which does not have any other public camping, nor any dispersed camping.
The Big Thicket is the westernmost extension of the great southeastern forests, with cypress swamps, sandy pine uplands, and occasional bogs. This was the first serious botanizing that Eileen and I had done in any “eastern” habitats since moving to California in 2006, so it was great fun becoming reacquainted with a number of species we had not seen in a long time, as well as seeing a number of new species. Overall, the southeast U.S. has a higher density of potential new species for us than any other area of the U.S. or Canada, because it has high diversity and we have done only a moderate amount of field work south of Virginia.
The high point of the week followed Eileen’s hearing a rustle a bit off-trail, and locating a rabbit in the dense understory. We had just split up, taking two different trails, but fortunately she was able to phone me and ask what the key field marks were for Swamp Rabbit. I told her and she said it looked good, so I hustled over. Sure enough, the eye-ring was cinnamon rather than white, and the ears were wider and shorter than those of Eastern Cottontail. Lifer! This is a fairly hard species to see, and was one of the animals we would have looked for at Laguna Atascosa, which, as mentioned in the last post, we skipped because of flooding.
Some of the plant highlights included: Sweetleaf (Symplocos tinctoria), Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus), and Silverbell (Halesia diptera), all trees with white flowers that open before or at the same time as the leaves; new species of pitcher plant (Sarracenia alata), sundew (Drosera brevifolia), butterwort (Pinguicula pumila), and bladderwort (Utricularia subulata), all carnivorous plants found in acidic bogs; and Carolina Jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens), a yellow-flowered vine. The Sweetleaf and Carolina Jessamine were representatives of two new families for us, and so were especially exciting; we may not encounter any more new plant families in 2017 in the U.S., as our missing families are largely restricted to the southern states.
We spent two days canoeing on Village Creek. The first day we paddled upstream from the state park where we were staying, partly to gain experience with our new canoe mounting arrangement, and also to get an idea whether the current was strong enough that we should arrange a shuttle for the second day of paddling. Our flatbed is several inches higher off the ground than a pickup bed, and our camper is a couple inches taller than our previous one, and our new boat rack sits higher off the roof than our old one, so in total the canoe is quite a bit farther off the ground than previously. So the old method of my climbing a ladder at the center point of the canoe and loading and unloading from there is no longer practical – and it was an invitation to back injury or falling anyway. This time we’ve mounted Thule Hullavators on the boat rack; they are a pair of articulating arms (like unfolding letter Zs) with air springs. They bring the canoe down to the side of the camper, still perhaps 7 feet from the ground but far more manageable. It’s a pretty complicated process loading and unloading but we expect that we will become proficient at it and it will become second nature with a bit more practice.
The first paddle went well. We covered 9 miles total, with the difference between our average paddling speed upstream (2.2 mph) and back downstream (3.4 mph) suggesting an average current of 0.6 mph. I felt pretty tired at the end, even though this is about half the distance we typically used to paddle in a day. But a decade with little paddling in California has left us a lot of room for improvement of upper body strength! Our second paddle was a similar distance, but we had a local outfitter pick us and our canoe up at our take-out, then drive us to the upstream put-in, so we could paddle one-way downstream to our truck. On this day we canoed the length of Village Creek through the Roy E. Larson Sandyland Preserve, owned by The Nature Conservancy (TNC). This organization is a primary benefactor of our estate; Eileen volunteered for them for eight years and we regard them as the best conservation organization in the world. They are heavily science-oriented and have preserved an astonishing array of lands containing rare plants and ecosystems.
Both paddles were delightful and we saw many magnificent trees, especially Water Oak, Swamp Chestnut Oak, Sweetgum, and River Birch. Eileen managed to get a diagnostic photo of a Sabine Map Turtle, one member of a large taxonomic complex where populations in different southeastern river drainages have evolved to form new species and subspecies. A young White-tailed Deer seem very curious so we stopped the canoe and he walked up and licked the bow! Eileen could have touched him. We also watched a flock of maybe 70 Cedar Waxwings completely denude a densely fruiting Yaupon Holly tree in a matter of minutes.
Leaving the Big Thicket, we stopped in Livingston, Texas, to pick up our accumulated mail – this is the main site of the Escapees RV Club, which handles our mail-forwarding. Next: the prairies!