Uncertain Beaver in Texas
One of the better ways of seeing this state is from a large, red, gas-eating Ford truck with a Bush/Cheney sticker on the bumper, more than 300 000 miles on the clock and a deliquified waterbed on the back seat. Your guide should be someone like Tom Carter, a generous self styled guv’mint hating, deep fried catfish-eating Texan orig’nily from Plain Dealing, Louisiana. (He’ll tell you he’s a redneck, but one who lives in a rather nicely furnished tract home in a ‘planned community’ with fancy fountains and plastic waterslides called Grand Heritage somewhere on the far eastern periphery of Dallas.)
Escaping the landscape of multi-lane highways and even sheets of McMansions that the locals call suburban Dallas, that really do go on and on and on, punctuated only by the odd chain ‘restaurant’, is a relief. East Texas is pretty lush without being tropical. Thick, diverse woodland dotted with farmhouses and the odd small town (you go through Harmony before getting to Uncertain) and slow moving roadside stores – beautiful. The place is so durn Texan that it’s hard to describe without committing the eighth deadly sin, Americana. Rhonesboro doesn’t have a zipcode or even a hundred citizens, but it does claim a ‘world famous’ Possum Festival. I’m not sure if that means they worship or eat Possum but we didn’t stick around to find out.
Our destination was Uncertain, as in Uncertain, Texas, pop. 445 or thereabouts, on the shores of Caddo Lake. Uncertain is very quiet, the Lone Star State with lots of turtles, 15 species in the area and much hated by the locals who accuse them of eating all the fish. This one seems to have survived a shovel attack, or perhaps an Alligator (many Texan fishermen like carrying shovels to kill turtles).
‘Mericans don’t do irony well, or so they say. Rural East Texans don’t seem to bother with it at all, and are quite content to play out their Hollywood-appointed roles as lib’ral hatin’ gunlovers. The poor ones move slowly and live in rusted trailers with a thin, mottled green film of something like algae covering the windows. The rich ones wear lots of high tech camo (made in China) and drive big (very big) shiny trucks followed by trailers carrying super expensive bass fishing boats. They will launch their boats and throw a rod around every now and again, but mostly the boats seem to be conversation starters for when they’re sitting around talking nonsense and eating way too much in the numerous diners staffed by friendly girls (some with skew teeth, others pregnant) that half hide themselves off just about every road in these parts. I’m not sure that vegetarians ever come here – there’s certainly nothing without meat on the menus – and adult East Texans are almost uniformly large. In fairness I only saw a few with large shiny belt buckles and cowboy hats, but that may change further south and west.
Caddo Lake is billed as the only natural lake in Texas, natural being somewhat relative as the water level of this 30 000 acre-plus puddle is maintained by an earthen dam wall. The lake more or less as it is today formed some centuries ago when a massive natural logjam blocked a big river. Some white folks whose names I’ve forgotten blasted away the logjam, and the lake subsided, starting a mad pearl rush (Caddo’s freshwater mussels lay exposed. Many of them contained imperfections that ladies like to drape themselves in). Some people missed the fishing the lake had provided, and a few decades ago some other white folks (I think it may have been the US Army Corps of Engineers) built a dam wall to flood it again. Today Caddo is a greeny-brown, deliciously mucky shallow lake all set about with Bald Cypress trees, the latter so consistently draped in grey Spanish Moss you wonder where they find the money to pay the squads of set dressers that work away after dark, every night of the year, to keep it that way. Many of the trees are of pretty uniform size and there are very few truly large ones – that’s because the place was logged to hell and gone until about a hundred years ago and the cypress forests of the Lake are, like the vast majority of other forests in the eastern US, decidedly second-growth.
Tom rented us a small aluminium johnboat, very dented but still apparently watertight, from Shorty at Johnson’s Ranch, where we stayed in an old, creaky cabin with uneven floors.
We set off through the lake, paddling quietly so as not to scare the natives e.g. this Great Blue Heron
Caddo is beset with exotic species. Water Hyacinth, a floating water plant from South America that also infests many South African rivers, is all over the show. Giant Salvinia is moving in. Some years ago fur farmers imported giant guinea-piggy creatures called Nutria from South America to Louisiana. The story is that a hurricane wrecked the fur farm cages, and today these rather amazing beasts that look a lot like Beaver but with slippery, fascinating, inch-thick ratlike tails instead of flat paddles, are naturalised all through the lakes of the South. Tom said they’re tame and easy for pictures, so I did not shoot the ones we saw first because the light was crap and we were far away. He said the real prize would be to get good images of Beaver because they are notoriously shy and hard to approach, but that we probably would not see them well or at all. An hour or so later we saw a couple of ‘Nutria’ nibbling about on top of what looked like a beaver lodge. We paddled closer, and they ignored us. Typical for Nutria. It was only when we were about 20 metres away that we noticed that these beasts were, in fact, headcase Beaver playing tame.
Tom skillfully and very silently manoeuvered us closer and we had an astonishing half-hour encounter with this pair. Beaver, like hippos, don’t seem to see too well, and by moving slowly and staying silent we got within a few feet of the lodge. Their teeth are stained reddish, like east Asians with bad betel nut habits, and obviously very dangerous – anything that chews its way through trees has got to have a serious bite on it. The male is the large one with its tail visible.
These animals had two youngsters with them that mostly remained part hidden in the roof of the lodge. One youngster was injured (a large gash in its side) and did not do much, but the other walked around and communicated with its parents.
Wildlife photography tends to be rather formulaic. Lots of sharp action shots, pretty colours etc. I think I want to start a trend of semi-abstract nature photography. Disjointed bits of animals in their habitats. Sort of the ‘essence’ of Beaver rather than Beaver. Don’t think anyone will publish them in a magazine, but if I enlarge them and make inkjet prints on fancy cotton rag paper and hang them on some white cube gallery wall I’m sure they’ll find buyers.
Who would have thought that a couple of guys in an old boat could get a close, wide shot like this of a pair of wild Beaver? It’s the kind of things that most wildlife shooters spend weeks in a hide to get. The youngsters are the two dark blobs of fur to the right of the adults.
Turtles, as I said earlier, are Reptilia Non Grata in much of Caddo. They tend to be incredibly skittish. Here are two.
I never did get that Nutria pic, but Caddo Lake was fantastic, worth the visit, and another visit again. Thanks, Tom!
On our second day in east Texas we found a beautiful specimen of what I consider Texas’ state flower. Armadillo roadkill, cleaned out by vultures. Tom cut off the tail-tip for me to keep as a souvenir.
Unfortunately this Black Vulture, a few yards down the road, hadn’t taken Truck Evasion 101.
PS Every image in this post bar the Gt Blue Heron shot with the Nikon 18-200 AFS VRII… who’d a thought.