By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
I arranged my trip with the help of Dr. Michael Banks, a Jacksonville dentist and president of Friends of the Neches River. He explained to me that the part of the river in which I was interested is in private holdings now, without any facilities for river camping. He consulted friends familiar with this stretch, and they pointed him to a spot on the map at the end of a county road where they said we could spend the night. In an e-mail chain, they had cautioned Banks that we should camp on the east bank, not the west, in order to avoid "undesirable social elements."
"Dueling Banjos" rang in my ears.
Banks, a cool, white-haired guy with a kayak rack on his pickup, meets us at U.S. Highway 79 on a Saturday morning in early April, the day before we got lost, and shows us where we can park our vehicle inside the locked gate of a friendly hunt club.
Now we have loaded the canoe and are ready. Will takes the bow. Always does. The person in the back of the canoe does the steering and is therefore in charge, so you'd think he'd want that position. But he must think I can't see, so he wants to be up front where he can spot the hazards. Fine.
As soon as we have slipped beneath the highway bridge, the current picks up, shoving us along at a good clip. Right around the first bend we find a recently fallen tree, still green, almost all the way across the channel. Will waves me to the top of the tree on the far left.
We dig our paddles in hard in order to cross the current and avoid being pushed sideways into the tree. Just at the bank we find a narrow passage barely the width of the canoe. We clear that, but a few yards ahead an even bigger tree blocks the channel from the other side. He waves me to the very center of it. I think he's crazy, but here we go, right into the thick of things. He lies flat on his back, and I put my face on my knees. The canoe shoots through a wormhole in the branches, and we emerge on the other side sailing down crinkled green water through forested banks.
Magic fills my heart. We have passed through a portal from the manmade world into another dimension, a world of swirling branches and rushing water where no right angle or straight line interrupts the rounded flow of everything. We can only paddle and stare.
Turtles plunk off logs. A white-tailed doe looks up from low browse, gazes at us, then silently flies off into deep forest shadows.
The Neches doesn't clatter like a rocky river: Its sound is more like a girl on a porch in a rocking chair humming to herself half beneath her breath. Broad-shouldered hawks and delicate herons lift up out of the forest and soar into a sky we can barely see through treetops.
And then, damn! Where are we? He turns, and we exchange a long look.
"Doesn't look like river," I say.
We are floating on a silver membrane in a black cathedral. The responsive chants of birds encircle us. We have lost the channel. Small leaves turn lazy, windblown circles around us. We're in the woods. The trick this flooded river is going to play on us, then, is that every once in a while it will stampede across a vast, flooded expanse of forest. The impatient flood is jumping banks and cutting across deep bends in the river, called oxbows. The flood jumps the banks and makes a shortcut across the oxbow through the forest, flowing back to the main channel on the other side.
Will waves to a line of current he can see in the distance, so we make for it. Once in this bit of current, we move to even stronger currents until we are rushing along again, suddenly back out on the river.
Easy. Follow the water. When we get off the river and into the forest by accident, we need to paddle out of the dead water and find places where there is current, where the water is moving swiftly down the falling land. The current will take us across the oxbow and back to the main channel.
This part of the river flows through 30,000 acres of woodland, densely forested in hardwoods laced by thick underbrush and thorny vines. Nature intends for the river to flood this kind of forest on a regular cycle, as it is now. Sheets of cool water slide between trees, uprooting them, rotting and cooking a great soup of nutrients by which everything here feeds everything else, and all of it lives and dies as one.
Fallen trees are everywhere, their gigantic muddy root balls sticking up out of the water like skulls of giants. We both flinch! A great crack and whump sound like a shotgun blast nearby. It's a huge tree crashing to the ground as we pass.
He smiles and says, "Now we know the answer to the age-old question."