East Texas has several hidden outdoor gems.
They are not new, and in fact they are probably what attracted the earliest settlers to the region.
Rivers, the Neches, the Sabine, Big Cypress Bayou, the Red, Sulphur and the Angelina, were for years the lifeblood of the region for those who lived off the land. There were also their recreation.
At some point, probably during the lake construction period beginning in the 1950s, that changed and the rivers became the playground of a few running them in search of catfish and maybe duck hunters looking for an oxbow away from the crowds.
There is new life coming back to the rivers, but this time they are coming in canoes and kayaks, sometimes fishing and sometimes just looking for a quiet getaway.
In recent years 57 paddling trails have been created throughout Texas to help canoeing and kayaking enthusiasts find places to go. These Texas Paddling Trails are mapped and included improved access ramps and in some cases camping sites.
A number of the trails are in East Texas, include several on Big Cypress Bayou near and in Caddo Lake, and the Neches River near Lufkin.
Plans are under way to create a new 12-mile trail on the Sabine River in Wood County. The trail would start at U.S. 69 and travel downstream through the Mineola Nature Preserve to Hoard Road, just west of the Old Sabine Bottom Wildlife Management Area.
Lumped in with activities like bird watching, hiking and off-road bicycling, canoeing and kayaking is a rapidly growing nature sport.
“Paddling is big. It is growing. We have close to a million kayakers in the state and over a million canoers, plus the people that travel here. There is also a huge growth in standup paddling as well,” said Shelly Plante, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Nature Tourism manager.
The activity is popular because it is relatively inexpensive to get into. In many cases rentals are available at a trail or from select stores around the state. Even carriers can be rented.
Plante, who recently visited with officials in Wood County to start the process toward getting the Sabine route listed as an official Texas Paddling Trails site, said the trail system is important because most of the bordering land is private property. Through the TPT users are able to identify access sites before hand and understand where they would be trespassing.
The certified trails around the state range from four to 12 miles and vary in their degree of paddling difficulty.
“That is the way the paddling trails program was developed, something easy enough for public to do. This trip is from point A to B, and it is this long and you give a range. We hope it gives people the courage to go out and try them because it is a different experience,” Plante said.
Chauncy Deller, University of Texas – Tyler recreational program assistant, is one of the ones championing the upper Sabine as a paddling trail. Among his duties at the university is to lead outdoor adventure trips. He has taken students on canoeing trips on several rivers in the state, plus and exploratory trip down the proposed Sabine trail.
“We started at about 10 a.m. and got out about 6, and that was with all the downed trees,” Deller said of the trip. “This section is very scenic. They other section (of the Sabine) I have been on is more wide open. Down near Carthage they don’t have the trees over head.”
Deller said the portion of the river just below Lake Fork is guarded by trees that provide a canopy to protect floaters from the sun. The muddy bottoms found in East Texas rivers means they don’t have the crystal clear water found in Central Texas. The Sabine is also typically slow-moving water.
“It is a slow moving river. You are going to have to paddle there. The Sabine doesn’t have the elevation to get the water moving,” Deller said.
Because of the lack of current and the protection from wind the Sabine may be a potential site for standup boards.
Possibly the hardest part of developing the Sabine River trail is cutting a route through trees that have fallen into river. Currently boaters have to portage around the trees, but supporters of the plan have contracted to have a path cleared.
Plante said she doesn’t expect to see the river completely cleared of timber because the timber snags in a way are what makes an East Texas river trail.
If all goes well, plans call for the Sabine paddling trail to official open next October in conjunction with Mineola’s Nature Fest.