By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Can't budge. My 22-year-old son, Will, is standing in the bow of the canoe breaking branches to allow us to go forward. I'm trying to paddle backward so we can turn, but the stern of the canoe is locked in a fist of vines and trunks, meaning we have managed to lodge both ends of the boat at the same time. A first for me.
We are no longer on the river. We are lost in floodwater in the middle of a forest. The world around us is a dense puzzle of trees and undergrowth. We know we are at least a quarter-mile from the main river channel. It's late afternoon. We should be far from here by now. Spiders literally are raining down on us from a thick canopy of trees and vines.
The worst is this: Will tells me we've been in this very spot before. He says we have been going in circles. That makes me mad. I tell him he's starting to imagine things. He says no and points to particular fallen trees. He reminds me this is where, when we passed the first time, he had told me that the spiders falling on us, which had been long-legged and slender up to that point, were becoming "fatter and hairier."
Damn. He's right. This is, indeed, the fatter, hairier spider place. I thought I was steering us due east through the flooded forest, back to the river, but somehow in trying to find clearings through the trees I have caused us to go in a pointless circle.
We've been on the Neches River (pronounced NAY-chez) in East Texas for two days, mostly having a wonderful time until about an hour ago. Now it's not so good.
The Neches originates in underground springs just east of Colfax, about 60 miles east of Dallas on Interstate 20, and flows 420 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. We put in yesterday where the river crosses U.S. Highway 79 between Palestine and Jacksonville, about 130 miles southeast of Dallas.
Some of the land along the Neches is in old family farms, but most of it, tens of thousands of acres in Anderson and Cherokee counties, is undeveloped because it was held for the better part of a century by timber companies and leased by hunt clubs. Weeks before we made our trip by canoe, Andy Jones, director of the Texas office of The Conservation Fund, a private environmental group that buys natural areas to protect them, told me that the combination of timber companies and hunt clubs may have been the best thing that ever happened to land in East Texas.
"These large forest products companies like Temple-Inland managed the land better than anybody could ever manage it," Jones said.
Turmoil on Wall Street and unfavorable tax policies are forcing these timber companies to dump land, Jones added. In some ways, he said, it's a good thing, giving the conservation community the chance to purchase land, but in other ways, the piecemeal selling off of large holdings in East Texas is bad for nature, because fragmented land is more likely to be developed. "What once was a 4 million acre landscape now is being fragmented at a rate that is unprecedented in our lifetime."
The Neches River, which lies at the heart of that rapidly changing landscape, is also at the heart of a legal battle between the city of Dallas and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Dallas wants to dam the river to create a reservoir in exactly the same area where the USFWS is seeking to create a national wildlife refuge.
Dallas city manager Mary Suhm told me that Dallas just needs more water. Population is slated to soar, and for that there must be water. The city has an aggressive water conservation program, she said, "but that won't get us there."
Chris Bowers, Dallas' first assistant city attorney, told me Dallas' search for water is the same basic quest for survival of all cities throughout history. "This practice goes back to ancient times when the Romans built more than 600 aqueducts to convey water to some cities, including Rome itself," he said. An entire body of law authorizes the city to go far away and acquire land by eminent domain for water, Bowers added.
The USFWS has argued in court, successfully so far, that this part of the Neches is a unique national treasure that should be protected—and that the USFWS has first claim to the land. The USFWS says it began proceedings to create a refuge before Dallas launched its process to acquire land for a reservoir, and therefore Dallas is out of luck.
Both ideas—the refuge and the reservoir—are focused on the part of the river where Will and I are now lost.
We're not novices. On my last outing with my son, we canoed and portaged the lakes of Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario. He has canoed other Texas rivers. I have canoed the rivers of Michigan and the Intracoastal Waterway and Everglades in Florida. But neither of us has ever seen anything like this.
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."
I'm slow. I thought the age-old question was: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? He says, yeah, but now we know what it sounds like if someone is there to hear it. Fine.
For some years I was peripherally aware of the controversy over Dallas' proposed reservoir on the Neches. But I never got interested in the river itself until recently, when I read Richard M. Donovan's 2006 book, Paddling the Wild Neches.
Donovan, a retired wood-buyer for a timber company, grew up fishing and trapping on the Neches. He wrote the book, his first, as his personal contribution to saving the river from more dams. Wrapped around the saga of his 235-mile solo-paddle down the river in 1999, the book is an entertaining history of a region where the American frontier culture extended well into the first half of the 20th century.
The Neches is dammed in two places now—one at Lake Palestine 20 or so river-miles above where Will and I are canoeing, the second about 215 river-miles southeast of us near Jasper at B. A. Steinhagen Lake.
The city of Dallas wants to build a new dam about 13 miles downriver from where we are, midway between Alto and Elkhart, to flood about 23,000 acres. Dallas says it needs the water and insists the wildlife in the region can be protected even after the river disappears beneath a new lake.
The USFWS says a refuge is needed "to protect some of the last remaining high-quality bottomland hardwood habitat in Texas."
In court papers the USFWS identifies the Neches as "important nesting, wintering and migratory habitat for migratory birds" along what biologists call the "central flyway," a kind of super-highway for birds migrating between Alaska and Southern Mexico. The USFWS calls the region in which we are canoeing "an area of extreme importance to the diversity of wildlife in East Texas...which is being adversely affected by the expansion of urban populations and other types of development."
Dallas has included a possible Neches reservoir on its list of future projects since 1961, but has taken no steps toward acquiring land. On January 10, 2007, the city filed a federal lawsuit in the Northern District of Texas, asking the court to enjoin the USFWS from proceeding with the refuge, claiming the USFWS had short-circuited a legal process by failing to obtain an environmental impact statement. The USFWS claimed no impact statement was required, since a refuge will not change the land in question but preserve it.
In the summer of 2008, U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis ruled for the USFWS, and last March 12, his ruling was upheld by a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Will and I are not out here in the canoe to settle the lawsuit. Last winter when I read Donovan's book, it occurred to me I had no real idea what was at stake. I think I'm like a lot of Dallas types. I tend to view nature as something you find at the other end of a long plane ride. What kind of unique natural treasure can be two hours by car from Dallas?
Right now I'm at a point in our journey where I believe it's time for a beer. He agrees and waves me to a deep cut in the bank on my right. We pop open a couple cold ones. He gets a real beer and I an O'Doul's, yet more proof that life is not fair. An eddy turns us around in slow circles in the same spot while we sip. We both gaze out in silence at this rotating universe of trees and water as if from inside a snow globe.
We are at the heart of a natural system feeding hundreds of square miles of some of the most sensitive and important natural areas in the country. Downriver from us is the Big Thicket Refuge, property of the National Park Service. Covering almost 100,000 acres between Lufkin and Beaumont, the Big Thicket has been called the Noah's Ark of North America for its incredible diversity of wildlife, including 186 species of birds and 1,000 types of flowering plants.
Gina Donovan, daughter of Richard Donovan, is executive director of the Houston Audubon Society. She's been concerned about the Dallas litigation because she fears the harsh impact a reservoir would have on the Big Thicket and on marine life in Sabine Lake at the rim of the Gulf of Mexico, all of which the Neches River feeds.
"The Big Thicket Refuge is dependent, to the strongest definition, on the fresh water flows of the Neches River to keep its ecological diversity," she told me. "During the winter months when we have all of the rain, the Neches gets out of banks and goes up into the bottomland areas, which it basically fertilizes."
She believes a reservoir would spell ecological disaster. "You would in essence stand to lose the Big Thicket National Refuge.
"Then we talk about the Sabine Lake estuary. Sabine Lake is right there on the coast. It too is dependent on the fresh water flows of the Neches to keep its brackish water balanced. That's where a lot of the marine life spawns.
"If you effect the marine life's reproduction, then you are impacting the commercial and recreational fishing industry off the coast, and that's big. That's a multimillion-dollar enterprise."
In making its case for the reservoir, Dallas commissioned a study to show there were better places along the Neches to create a refuge than the 25,281 acres on the upper river that USFWS had set out. Dallas demonstrated it could build a 23,000-acre reservoir and, using money required by law for environmental mitigation, still help create a refuge on the middle Neches, downstream from the dam.
Mitigation land is an area several times the size of the reservoir itself that Dallas would be legally obligated to buy in compensation for the natural area destroyed by the reservoir. Using the mitigation land, Dallas could create a refuge three times the rare bottomland hardwood forest and six times the grassland that would be included in the proposed USFWS site on the upper Neches.
Dallas also cited recent research by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department showing that the picture painted by USFWS for its proposed site was perhaps a bit rosy: The USFWS data, based on research that is almost a quarter-century old, showed the USFWS site at 71 percent rare hardwood bottomland.
Dallas presented newer TPWD data, which showed that probably as a result of logging, the USFWS site is only 31 percent hardwood bottomland. The refuge Dallas is willing to create would have about 29 percent hardwood bottomland, but because the Dallas refuge would be three times the total size of the USFWS refuge, Dallas would wind up saving much more total hardwood bottomland.
A three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit did not buy Dallas' arguments. The panel ruled that USFWS had made a reasonable attempt to get the best data it could and had followed the proper process for creating a refuge.
Dallas still has several legal options available, according to Bowers, the assistant city attorney. He told me in a recent phone interview that the city can seek a rehearing before the appeals panel, a new hearing before the entire 5th Circuit or a direct appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
If ultimately the case goes against Dallas, then the USFWS will begin budgeting for land purchases to fill out the full 25,281 acre refuge, according to Jose Viramontes, a spokesman for the USFWS southwest regional office in Albuquerque.
The Conservation Fund, which has been amassing land for the refuge, is also on hold, according to Jones, its Texas director. As soon as the litigation is settled, the Fund will donate 7,000 acres to the refuge.
Bowers would give me no hint of what Dallas might do. Before we hung up, however, he related a small anecdote. At some point, he had driven the area of the proposed USFWS refuge and noted some activities along that stretch of the Neches that struck him as distinctly non-tree-hugging, including a big nasty four-wheeler park that he described as "full of mud."
Apparently that's what Will is telling me he hears now. We are on a slow, wide, treeless stretch of river, silently drifting without paddling, in hope of seeing more wildlife. "It's either a four-wheeler or a chainsaw," he whispers. I hear absolutely nothing. Or do I? No, he's imagining things.
We round a bend, and suddenly the far bank on the right erupts into a scene out of a graphic novel. Three mud-coated men on roaring, smoke-spewing, four-wheeled all-terrain vehicles explode from the brush. I can't help gawping at these giant raptors ripping small trees by the roots. Something tells me we must be near our campsite for the night, and these would be the "undesirable social elements" we are supposed to avoid.
Just as we are to follow another bend in the river and leave the mud-persons behind, they turn their vehicles straight toward us and into deep pools of floodwater. Their vehicles disappear, then blast back up into the air in glorious roaring sprays of water and mud, turning at the last moment to avoid plunging into the river.
Ahead is the clearing where a dirt county road stops at the riverbank. It's the one little rag of public land along this entire stretch where we can camp legally. Two elderly fellows on folding chairs sit at the riverbank with fishing poles. When we steer toward them they both peer at us acutely like Bernardo and Francisco, the ghost-wary sentries in the opening scene of Hamlet.
To the one closest, Will says, "Hi, how are you doing?" This man ducks his head with a jerk and stares straight down at his shoes without response.
Once we have landed, I say to the second one, "Very nice spot here."
He says, "It's usually quiet," with a big emphasis on usually. Apparently his notion of quiet is not disturbed by the roar of four-wheelers across the river but is invaded by our canoe full of gear, which he is eyeing as if it were a flying saucer. A dozen yards away from them, we set up tents and put a pot on to boil for pasta. The first gentleman is still clutching his fishing pole, staring at his shoes. The second fisherman asks me where we started and how far we intend to go. I tell him tomorrow we'll go all the way down to U.S. Highway 84. He turns away with a certain forward pitch of the face and says, "You get on down toward 84, you're gonna have trouble."
If this were a movie, his part definitely would go to Dennis Hopper.
The two eerie fishermen depart soon enough, but they are replaced at half-hour intervals by others, most of whom are bank fishermen. They all nod, friendly enough but too intent on fishing to talk. I bet every one of them has fished this spot and every other spot on the river since they were little boys.
The pleasure of Donovan's book is at least as much in its history and lore as in its description of the river. He grew up hunting and fishing out here. He writes that little of this land was fenced until the 1930s and then only because the hunt clubs leasing land from timber companies were trying to keep out poachers.
Donovan worked as a teenager for the precursor to the Parks and Wildlife Department, planting food plots for wild game, putting up fences and releasing trailer-loads of turkeys and deer to protect and boost over-hunted wildlife populations.
Now it's midnight. The fishermen have stopped appearing, and I am in my tent trying to sleep. A cool breeze swirls in through the open flap. Will is in his tent. We are calling back and forth about what we think is going on across the river, where the engine noise and loud music never have stopped.
"I think they have a four-wheeler stuck," I say.
He thinks that happened a long time ago, and they left to get a truck to pull it out, and now they've got the truck stuck too.
If a federal wildlife refuge is coming, it will mean curtains for the guys across the river. Viramontes, the USFWS spokesman in Albuquerque, said the primary purpose of a federal wildlife refuge is not to serve as a place for human beings to "recreate."
"The first-priority use is to protect wildlife habitat," he said. "We're not run like a state or a national park where the emphasis is on bringing people in to recreate and enjoy. Our emphasis is on habitat value.
"However, we do have what are called priority uses, and those include hunting and fishing, bird watching and nature photography."
For the guys across the river, hunting and fishing maybe. Bird watching and nature photography? I don't see that happening. And yet the refuge has enjoyed almost unanimous support from locals, while Dallas' proposed reservoir has drawn united opposition from them.
It's a curious turn of events. Three years ago, attempts to create a federal refuge at Caddo Lake, about 90 miles northeast of here, ran into a wall of local opposition. Some of it was driven by politically connected business interests who wanted the land for development. But they were supported by a motley assortment of anti-federal-government survivalist militia-types who saw creation of a federal wildlife refuge as a slippery slope leading to domination by the New World Order.
I asked people in the area of the proposed Neches refuge why folks here support a federal refuge when people in the Caddo area did not?
Banks, the Jacksonville dentist, said the difference between Caddo and the Neches was that Dallas was coming after the Neches armed with the threat of eminent domain.
The USFWS takes land only from "willing sellers." They buy the land. In creating a reservoir, Dallas would be able to force people to sell. In fact, federal and state habitat mitigation policies and laws would require Dallas to acquire much more than the 23,000 acres for the reservoir itself. That's why Dallas is willing to create a 75,000-acre refuge on the middle Neches below the proposed dam: It has to take at least that much land anyway to meet the mitigation requirements.
Banks, one of the leading local champions of the refuge, told me, "I would have preferred for things to remain exactly the way they are now. No reservoir, no refuge."
Instead, people had to choose: a wildlife refuge of 25,000 acres purchased from willing sellers? Or a lake and mitigation lands of 90,000 acres or more taken by eminent domain?
When I asked Banks why there wasn't more anti-federal feeling around the Neches, the way there was at Caddo, he said it was because there was so much more anti-Dallas feeling. "The bad neighbor was Dallas," he said. "People still see me at Walmart or they'll see me in the street and they'll say, 'Dallas isn't going to get that water from us, are they?'"
Carolyn Salter, a physician, is also mayor of Palestine, a city of 18,000 that lies just 12 miles west of the upper Neches. She told me she thinks East Texas, once easily awed by the glamour of big new lakes, has grown wiser.
She said that with a reservoir, there would be condemnation of "family farms and ranches that have been in the same hands for generations, and that was really, really upsetting people."
But as mayor, she also thinks new lakes near small cities and towns can drain those communities the way a new, far-flung suburb siphons off energy and resources from a big city. "When they build lakes around here, we don't really see a lot of prosperity in the adjoining cities. We see an economic drain from affluence moving to the lake. Some of our leading citizens have moved to [Lake Palestine], and they no longer live in the community."
She also thinks lakes, which often are unincorporated, drive up police enforcement costs for the counties they are in without necessarily contributing an offsetting amount of new tax revenue.
Salter said the biggest hurdle new reservoirs may face in the future is a more sophisticated rural population, more concerned with conservation. "We are beginning to understand that if we don't work cooperatively, the major metro areas are going to come in and take our resources from us and leave us virtually nothing in return."
That kind of talk is music to the ears of people like Janice Bezanson, executive director of the Texas Conservation Alliance, arguably the most influential conservation group in Texas. Bezanson calls reservoirs, even the ones that offer good fishing, "an essentially urban use."
"Rural landowners are not looking for a big lake and marina," she told me. "They know that big lakes bring people who roar up and down on their four-wheelers. Some of these lakes have attracted drug-dealing operations. You have a lot more roads to maintain at county expense. They litter, they trespass. It becomes an urban use, and it totally changes the character of the area."
That may all be true, but I am drawn back to Dallas city manager Suhm's point—that without reservoirs there can be no great cities. Great cities are going to grow. So will their water needs. So must their reservoirs.
The next morning, Will and I delay our departure until 9 a.m. because we are worried about finishing the trip too soon. We are supposed to meet Banks on Highway 84 at 5:30 p.m. I brought along a handheld GPS, a device that reads satellite signals and tells us where we are, and it's telling me we have only a six-hour journey ahead. We plan to stop along the way for lunch and maybe a nap, rather than wait for our ride two or three hours by the highway.
This day is cooler, and the sun is bright and clean on the water. The river is higher and faster today, but it's broad and not too busy with fallen trees. So much for Dennis Hopper's predictions.
On our right a deer bounds away from us toward a group of deer deeper in the woods. They all explode off through the trees, kicking up a silver cloud of floodwater with their hooves.
Twice we find ourselves suddenly and unexpectedly off the main channel, floating through the woods on floodwater. Will cranes forward, waves me this way and that until we get the canoe back into a current. Both times the current carries us back out into the channel.
At about noon we are passing a high bank. Behind it are low, wooded hills. We pull up for lunch. We're trespassing on hunt club land. After we eat, he stretches out on a sleeping pad in the sun. The air is cool for me, so I put my tent up and take a nap inside. At about 2 p.m. we are back in the river. I check the GPS. Looks like we'll still get to Highway 84 an hour and a half ahead of our ride.
We cut across a couple more oxbows. The river is much higher here. The fallen trees are more frequent, and now we seem to have a problem with trees simply growing in the center of the channel. All of a sudden it's touch and go again, dodging through fallen trees in fast water, trying to keep track of the main channel, hoping not to capsize. Somewhere Dennis Hopper just spat.
We have paddled down a long, straight stretch where the current has slowed again. Now we are floating quietly on still water in an eerie graveyard of dead trees sticking up out of the water. We find a derelict duck blind floating crookedly on steel barrels. It's 3:30 when I check the GPS again, and suddenly I feel a catch in my throat.
The GPS shows no river at all. I punch buttons to zoom out and view the map from a broader perspective. Now I see the river. It's at least half a mile east of where we are right now. That means that the straight stretch with the slowing current, which I thought was the main channel, was not. We are nowhere.
I tell Will we have lost the river, according to the GPS. To get back to the river, we must turn to our left 90 degrees, due east.
There is water due east, but it flows off into a jungle so deep and dark, so woven with vegetation, it reminds me of the thorny vines around Sleeping Beauty's castle. He says we should not turn but follow the open water ahead. I disagree. I don't know where the open water is going. We must obey the GPS. I prevail. We turn and try to fight our way through the jungle.
Now another hour is gone. We have returned to the fatter, hairier spider spot. Our canoe is lodged between vines and tree trunks, unable to move. Will has climbed trees twice to try to see out of here, with no luck. Even from up there it's Sleeping Beauty's thorn garden as far as the eye can see. All around us, fallen leaves turn on the dead water in lazy, wind-blown circles.
I check the GPS again. Because of the thick canopy above us, the GPS has lost the satellite signals. Now, having led us here, the GPS is blind. It has as little idea where we are as we do.
It's 4 p.m. We may miss our take-out time at Highway 84 where Banks will be waiting. He knows we are city boys. He could do something embarrassing like call out a search. I have a magnetic compass in the boat. We know the road is south. If we head due south, we have to get there sooner or later. Or not. I remind myself of the outdoorsman's most sacred mantra: Do not panic.
Will is staring somewhere out ahead. He hauls on a branch. I shove against a tree trunk. We are free. He lifts his open hand behind his head and waves me to the right, then the left. I don't know where he's taking us.
Then, just as we get there, I see it. Here, the leaves in the water are moving not in circles but in a procession, going somewhere. We are in current again. The floodwater is telling us where to go.
He waves me this way and that. The current picks up. Now it's strong. Now we are barreling along, ducking beneath branches and crashing through vines. Suddenly we break through a deep curtain of Spanish moss, and we are back out on the main channel of the Neches. The water is carrying us home.
A full week later when I sit down to write, I finally realize what I did wrong. To work it out I go to Google Earth and look at the region where we paddled.
The Neches in that area is what geographers call a "braided river." It splits into multiple channels—a main channel and smaller side channels—all of which converge again at some point. The channel I had steered us down that led to the lake with the floating duck blind was a side channel. I thought it was the main channel.
Looking down from the sky with Google Earth, I see that Will was right. Had we followed the open water ahead of us, the side channel we were on would have braided us back into the main channel.
My mistake was in obeying the GPS instead of the logic of the water. Way back at the beginning of the trip when we passed through the wormhole and left human geometry behind, we began to learn how the water would lead us across the fall of the land, always back to the main channel. I learned the lesson but forgot it when I turned on the GPS. The GPS gave me a stern, straight, geometrical, manmade line to follow, and I obeyed. I should have obeyed the water.
I don't know how to do the math on the reservoir versus the refuge, if there is such math. We can't have a city if we can't have reservoirs. I also know that we can always build things, always impose straight lines on land. But how could we ever invent a place like this, so complex, so beautiful, so powerful that it can take our lines away from us?