The rocky hills of the Ozarks are my home and favorite spot in the whole world. The deep valleys and clear rivers are just hard to beat. Nowhere else do rivers have bluffs like ours. Our fall color may not match New England, but it isn’t bad at all. Then add in our lakes and reservoirs and you have the formula for an outdoor wonderland. There is just no better place to spend a weekend. Over the years, I must confess, I have become very Ozark-centric.
However, sometimes you just can’t be where you want to be. Business and family obligations have to be met. For several years now, I have had to travel to Texas three or four times per year. My son now lives in Houston, and my mother-in-law lives on Lake Palestine southwest of Tyler. Don’t take this wrong, I love visiting family. But sometimes when the weather is great you just want to get outdoors. Sitting around fretting about not being in the Ozarks is a waste of good time. So paraphrasing a line from Stephen Stills, if you can’t be in the hills you love, love the hills you’re in.
Lake Palestine sits in the ranch country of East Texas about 15 miles southwest of Tyler. The lake is a reservoir formed in 1962 by a dam on the Neches River. The lake was built and is operated by the Upper Neches River Municipal Water Authority (UNMWA). Currently the reservoir provides drinking water to the City of Palestine, Texas. Dallas and Tyler, Texas also have contracts to withdraw water from the lake. Palestine is a typical East Texas lake, which is to say it is wide and shallow. At 25,560 acres, Palestine’s surface area is similar to Arkansas’ Beaver Lake. However Palestine’s average depth is only 16 feet compared to roughly 60 feet at Beaver. Now that means Beaver has about four times the volume of Palestine. Palestine is also only 18 miles from headwater to dam compared to 65 miles at Beaver. So Palestine is much wider and shallower. At my mother-in-law’s house on the lake, the lake is over four miles wide.
The weekend before Thanksgiving I once again found myself traveling to Texas. This time I planned ahead and loaded the kayak on the red truck. The original plan was to get up Saturday morning and drive up to Lake Caddo. But the weather forecast kept going downhill. It looked like some really crummy weather was going to move in just after noon. Besides, Arkansas and Ole Miss were on television at 2:30.
A Google Earth tour of Lake Palestine revealed a stretch of shoreline along the Flat Creek arm that was about two miles long and for some reason had not been developed. So at daybreak Saturday morning, I found myself in my red truck heading down Smith County road 315 headed for Flat Creek Landing on Lake Palestine. The countryside around Lake Palestine is kind of a rolling savanna. It’s cattle country. The ranches have vast pastures with scattered trees. Then where the forest has been left, it is really dense. Thicket is the word that best describes the forest in the area.
The sign at the landing said “Flat Creek Grill” but apparently the grill closed several years ago. I headed on down to the lake and unloaded the kayak. Another sign warned about spreading invasive species. Zebra mussels like to hitchhike in boats as the boats move from lake to lake. The kayak had been thoroughly washed and dried since it was last in the water and my wet suit booties were completely dry, so I was good to go. I made a mental note to do my part by being sure the kayak dried out before I used it again.
At eight o’clock I was ready to launch. I headed upstream into the Flat Creek arm going under the highway 315 bridge and across a bay. Upstream from the bridge, the UNMWA did not clear the forest before the lake filled. Over the last 50 years or so, all of the old trees have broken off just above or below the water surface. The result is that not many boats head up that direction.
The sky was mostly overcast with just some breaks. A fair breeze blew from the southeast heading into Flat Creek. The water was choppy. The tip of my paddle blade was barely visible in the green water. That is another difference from Arkansas’ Beaver Lake. The water in Beaver is mostly very clear. Limnologists would say that the water in Palestine is more productive than that in Beaver. By that, they mean the water has more organic content. Likely, the fishing is better in Palestine because of the higher productivity. I didn’t get a chance to check that hypothesis out. It is really impossible to compare water quality from different reservoirs. Palestine and Beaver are in two entirely different ecosystems. Some people around Palestine likely wish the water was clearer, but clear water is just not what nature provides in this situation.
Around the bay upstream from the bridge, there were several cormorants standing on the stumps of long submerged trees. The kayak never got very close to a cormorant. As I moved along, one after another, the cormorants would take off from their stump running along the water flapping their wings until they had enough air speed to fly. Landing on the other hand is precise, each bird lands on its own stump with no hassles.
Fifteen minutes later, I was across the bay at the start of the undeveloped shoreline. Coming from the Ozarks, I don’t think of East Texas as a place to go for fall color. But I was wrong, wrong, wrong. The forest was full of bright red, or vermilion maples, brownish-yellow cypress, reddish-brown cherry bark oak, green post and water oaks as well as American red holly, deep wine-colored gum and light green pine. It was certainly the equal of the fall color along Beaver’s shores.
I poked along the shoreline for about an hour checking out this nook and that cranny. Every once in a while I would pick a leaf off or a tree or bush to identify back at the house. Lots of birds were around, but the dense forest left them well hidden. I did see kingfishers, several types of ducks, lots of great blue herons and several black vultures. And I heard lots of birds singing, including white-throated sparrows, cardinals, phoebes, chickadees, titmice and red-headed woodpeckers.
Eventually, I came around a bend to an expanse of grassy flats. I never did identify the grass, but it was about six feet tall and in clumps. I poked around in the grass for a while. Then I spotted some white wings flapping like crazy. After a bit of confusion, I realized that I had been duped by a couple of “robo” decoys. Duck season was open on Lake Palestine. Poking around grassy flats in a small boat out of sight of guys with guns trying to shoot things was likely not the best plan at that point. Respecting the hunter’s space, I backed out into open water and headed on out along the shoreline.
Another hour poking along the shore and it was time to head in. The bridge at Flat Creek landing was still visible, but just barely. It was going to take at least an hour and a half to get back. The other side of the lake was more sheltered from the wind so I headed across, cormorants scattering along the way. I moved along into the wind at a steady pace and arrived back at my red truck just in time to get back for the ballgame.
Nature happens where you find it. And, beauty is spread around this world for everyone to enjoy. An opportunity to get outdoors is a unique experience every time.