Wading barefoot into the sun-dappled river, I slide my kayak away from northeast Houstonís Forest Cove marina and climb into the front seat of a blue tandem kayak. My husband, Matt, follows behind, giving the kayak a gentle shove as he climbs in at the rear. We bobble slightly but balance comes quickly, and together we glide toward the opposite riverbank. I gaze around at the crew of experienced and neophyte paddlers in a rainbow of canoes and kayaks. The sixteen of us include people young and old, couples and singles.
We're embarking on a moonlight paddle on the West Fork of the San Jacinto River, led by SouthWest PaddleSports owner Patti Carothers. She is slender and quiet, her strawberry blonde hair and light freckles hiding her forty-something age. Carothers will lead the group down river toward Moonshine Hill, where oil was first discovered in Humble in the early 1900ís, at the start of the Texas oil boom.
As Carothers leads the group across the river for a brief paddling lesson, I ask if she always joins the moonlight paddles. "Having time to go paddling is part of the reason I started this business," she grins. Carothers tells me she started the company with her husband, James Graham, in 1992. Photo © Wendee Holtcamp
"We lived practically next door to the unkempt marina," she says. "We made a proposal to the Forest Cove Property owners and they allowed us to clear it out and rent some canoes, kayaks, and jon boats." Within a year, their fledgling business grew from eight boats to over a hundred. On top of running their paddlesports store, Carothers teaches canoe, kayak, and whitewater paddling lessons, including workshops at TPWís Outdoorswoman conferences, and she leads annual trips to Matagorda Island and Alaskaís Kodiak Island.
We arrive at the opposite riverbank where Carothers shows us how to grip the double-ended paddles with both fists. "Keep your arms straight as you paddle, and they shouldn't get sore," she explains. "That should also keep you from getting wet."
As we take off, I splash water onto the lap of my husband, who is behind me. Lucky for me, heís a good sport about it. Before long, the strokes come easy -- and with less backsplash. We head toward the setting sun, the horizon emanating an ethereal magenta. Dark silhouettes of stately pines, oaks, and sycamore trees line the riverbank, and an occasional willow tree stretches its long limbs toward the water. I lean back and gaze at the crescent moon that contrasts the darkening sky.
Photo © Matt Holtcamp
The San Jacinto River is historically considered the Big Thicketís western boundary. The Big Thicket is an extremely biologically diverse region of southeast Texas known as North Americaís "biological crossroads," where the southeastern swamps, eastern forests, southwest deserts, and central plains converge.
Most Texans have heard of Big Thicket National Preserve, unique enough to be dubbed a United Nations Biosphere Reserve in 1981, but few realize relicts of the Big Thicket spread into the eastern edge of the Houston metropolis, including the northeast Houston communities of Kingwood, Humble and Huffman. The forests remaining in these areas have a stunning diversity of tree species -- including the American hornbeam, hophornbeam, two-winged silverbell, river birch, black tupelo, southern magnolia, sugarberry, cottonwood, flowering dogwood, sumac, sweetgum, black cherry, Mexican plum, mulberry, bald cypress, hollies, elms, ashes, hickories, oaks, and pines.
In 1858, Phillip Paxton wrote the following about the Big Thicket:
Thank heaven there will long be many a dense thicket, where bears and panther, wolf and wild cat, may find refuge; many a prairie where gentle doe and timid fawn may rest in peace; many a broad league of primeval forest, where stalwart oaks and lofty pines will rear their lofty heads proudly, and in safety from the desecrating axe.
Paxton miscalculated how quickly the original Big Thicket -- and the wildlife it sheltered -- would become fragmented and disappear. Less than 150 years after Paxton recorded his thoughts, only 300,000 acres of the original 3 million remain, with but 85,000 acres of this primeval forest preserved within the Big Thicket National Preserve. The bears and panther, wolf and wild cat that Paxton speaks long since have vanished from even the most segments of the forest.
On the river, wildlife is still fairly prolific and visible. Paddlers can spot beaver, nutria, night herons and other waterbirds in the evenings. Jumping fish sometimes surprise unsuspecting paddlers by landing between their feet. Carothers says she even saw a river otter swimming along during one of the moonlight paddles. "It looked just like a swimming weasel," she says with a laugh.
Carothers motions for the group to slow down, pointing to a flock of great white egrets roosting in the trees, their white bodies almost glowing against the dark night. They eye us warily for a few moments, squawking tentative warnings to each other. We watch in silence for several minutes, until one egret spooks. The rest follow in an eruption of white wings and tails. The birds will return to their roost soon after we are out of sight. Photo © Matt Holtcamp
We continue paddling until we reach a narrow, pitch-dark cove. Branches come down so low that we have to duck to pass through. "This is where they first discovered oil in Humble," says Carothers as she points out Moonshine Hill. "Two guys [J.H. Slaughter and J.E. McWhorter] were out on the river and saw black stuff bubbling out of the water." That black stuff made Slaughter and McWhorter millionaires.
The oil discovery quickly led to a city of more than 40,000 tents around Moonshine Hill with oil derricks stretching for miles, Carothers tells me. Humble Oil & Refinery Company -- now a major holding of Exxon Corporation -- got started on this plot of land in 1905.
After the oil boom was over, oil prospectors moved on and today the town of Humble has only some 13,000 residents. The former oil fields now are mostly underwater, beneath the impounded waters of Lake Houston. A dam was constructed on the San Jacinto River in the 1950ís, creating the 12,240-acre reservoir of Lake Houston, just a few miles downstream from where we are.
Water in the reservoir, which at one time provided 40% of Houstonís drinking water, was so clean that it hardly needed purification, says Howard Edmunds, who developed Forest Cove subdivision in the 1960ís. I notice homes in the Forest Cove subdivision lining one side of the riverbank. Forest Cove and neighboring Kingwood were developed as forested communities, where the water was pure and the wildlife abundant. Edmunds says that he developed Forest Cove with the attitude that, "it had been this way since God made it, and we were going to keep that rustic, woodsy look." Edmunds built rustic homes on large lots, and maintained forested greenbelts throughout the area. "The area was like a game preserve, with lots of deer, fox, birds, and even panthers," recalls Edmunds, "often 10 to 15 deer were seen running together." Photo © Wendee Holtcamp
In the 1970ís, a new development started next door to Forest Cove: the master planned community of Kingwood. Started as a joint venture between Friendswood Development Corporation (FDC) and the infamous King Ranch, Kingwood was built as a "Livable Forest," where people and nature coexisted peacefully. "The concept behind Kingwood was very enlightened," says Gary Clark, founder of Pineywoods Wildlife Society. "Their development plan was to build in harmony with the environment."
Today, development along the riverís edge -- and throughout the northeast Houston region -- has proliferated. Large tracts of land have been clearcut and replaced with row after row of homes with manicured yards. A few scattered trees remain, like lone sentries in a battle lost. Somewhere along the line, the environmental benefits of riverine forest -- from filtering air pollutants to providing wildlife habitat and aesthetic beauty -- stopped figuring prominently into the picture.
"Thereís a couple reasons why if you drive through today it doesnít look like it did four years ago," says Liz Dantone, Project Manager of Friendswood Development Corporation (FDC). "The nature of the homes, on fifty-five foot lots with front-loading garages doesnít allow for as many trees. Second, four years ago, the City of Houston changed the regulations for water and sewer lines, requiring them to go from the back to the front of the homes. That land must be cleared to put in the lines." Still, others believe the changing face of todayís Kingwood is due to a changing of the guard: in 1994, FDC was sold from Exxon to Lennar Corporation.
After a couple hours of mellow paddling and history retelling, we arrive at a small riverine island where we gather around a bonfire that James got started while we explored the river. I notice the island has a layer of silt carpeting the forest floor. James explains that it was deposited during the fall 1998 floods. Carothers and James used to live just across from the marina in Forest Cove, but repeated flooding forced them to move to higher ground this past year. They relocated their SouthWest Paddlesports store to the Woodlands.
SW Paddlesports unpredicted move was probably just as well, since according to James, business has doubled since then. According to a 1996 Texas Poll commissioned by Texas Parks & Wildlife, an estimated 8% of the Texas population (or roughly 1.5 million people) went kayaking during the previous year. That number is surely growing, since according to the 1999 Paddlesports Industry Report, recreational kayaks are the best-selling paddlesports boat and the hottest trend in the industry. Photo © Matt Holtcamp
After relaxing -- and drying our splashed clothes -- around the bonfire, we head back across the river, to the marina. We haul the kayak a short distance to the storage racks, get in our car to head home, and promise each other that we ought to get our own kayak soon so we can do this more often.
Wendee Holtcamp is a freelance environmental journalist. A blue tandem kayak has become the latest addition to her family.
Text Copyright © 2000 Wendee Holtcamp
Photos Copyright © 2000 Matt & Wendee Holtcamp
Copyright © 2005 Wendee Holtcamp