W.G. Jones: Sweetleaf Nature Trail

20151212_095430We’ve had quite a few walks in the woods this year, but all seemed to have a sub-text to them. We’re walking in the woods with a group from Hike It Baby, or like the weekend before, with a Meet Up group composed of people with similar interests. We were there to walk, but also to make or deepen existing friendships. Walking was something we did as we talked. I had this idea that perhaps I wanted to get back to the roots of what drew me to the woods: a time of introspection, a time for mutual wonder, a time for quietness and reconnecting with the physical world around us, the spiritual world within us, and the emotional world between us.

So it was that my husband and I found ourselves alone with the baby on this fall day in the woods to do exactly that.  We had left the older boys with grandparents to go shopping, and we were escaping.  However, there were qualities about the morning that were less than ideal.  The weather had been nice all week and now had turned overcast and threatened to rain.  So also had our emotions, and truthfully we had gotten on each other’s nerves so much that by the time we got to the hiking location, I wasn’t really sure I was in the mood to go hiking with him (and it was probably mutual).

I had decided that we had spent enough time exploring W.G. Jones State Forest on the south side of 1488, and that I wanted to explore the north side, the side that claims the Sweetleaf Nature Trail.  Here are some tips about this trail that we learned the hard way: 1) it is not really stroller friendly, so if you are bringing a baby, you best bring that baby in a carrier and 2) you really need to call the office and make reservations to park in the area, and make sure you have the combination for the lock for the gate that allows access to this area.  It is probably best to call in advance of the weekend, since the office that would give you the combination is not open on the weekends.  We found this out the hard way, and if we didn’t have a vehicle with four wheel drive (and a man who knows how to use it creatively), we would probably still be there.  No, not really, we probably would have called a friend to come pick us up and recover the vehicle later, but it was a close call.  I really had no idea when we followed a troop of cub scouts into the parking area that they were going to lock us in when they left.

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In a way, I wished the cub scouts had never been there, but their leaders probably planned this in advance and had called to make the proper arrangements, unlike us. If the Scouts hadn’t opened the gate, though, we would have parked on the south side and walked over, creating a much longer but in some ways safer walk. At any rate, there had been two troops of them, plus leaders and various cling-ons, so whole hordes of slow-moving and loud-talking people were on the trail with us. It wasn’t the best way to enjoy peace in the forest, although some of the children made me smile in their cuteness. At one point, we had to hold off on crossing that suspension bridge in the pictures because the scouts were crossing it instead, so we pulled off to the side of the trail and held this impromptu photo session that resulted in some favorite pictures.
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We had two missions for the morning, which kept us engaged in a mutual task. We were looking for geocaches (the initial common interest that drew us together to begin with), and also half-heartedly searching for the endangered red cockaded woodpeckers that are supposed to live in the forest. We didn’t talk much, but had to help each other get the BOB stroller up and down and around various roots and inclines. There was one point when we reached a different section of trail, one composed more of tall pines with wide open trails versus the knobby knees of the cypress down by the creek section, where we spread out from each other a bit more, as we needed each other’s help less. A storm was approaching, and the tops of the pines were swaying in the wind. I felt the excitement in the air, and considered what the woodpeckers did when the rains came, and if they were clinging to the branches or safe in little holes. I thought about my husband, who sometimes in the night seems to me like a solid oak, the kind that stands for years unswerving in face of the storm, and how he had said recently that he felt like this year and all its challenges had brought us closer, and yet sometimes I felt, further apart. Like this day, where I knew as I watched the wind that he was also watching and enjoying the same scene, even though he was a few hundred feet ahead of me, and perhaps he even thought like I did that it brought back memories of some forest we had discovered on one of our road trips.
The rain started right as we reached the car, and the mosquitoes started in just a little before that. We reached safety barely, out of the storm, and back to some level of peace. I appreciated that he was willing to get up early with me and drive an hour and a half to spend the time with me here, and then drive back, stopping to try a fun mid-eastern restaurant on the way home without grumbling, and by the time we were home, we were in a much better mood.  And this, my friends, is part of the reason why the forest draws me on the weekends, even when it is hard to get to, even when I don’t always feel like it on the way, even when it is hard; because in the end, the reward always make it worth the struggle.   Although, I think I would have been just a teensy bit happier with the trip if we had actually seen one of those elusive little black and white woodpeckers.

Big Creek Scenic Area

20150926_101826There’s a quiet place along an old dirt road, not far from the cities of Conroe or Cleveland, where a small parking lot off Forest Road 217 provides access to a great big forest.  In this forest, there is a trail that runs for 140 miles, making it the longest continuous hiking trail in Texas (see Lone Star Trail).  There are also other smaller loop trails that this trailhead provides access to, one or two of which we hiked today with a small group (two other couples and their young children) from Hike It Baby.
When we arrived in the morning, it was in that golden moment of morning sun, where all is fresh and exciting.  The birds we20150926_101101re chirping in the forest, and I was hoping to see some of the noted residents of this particular area: the Red Cockaded Woodpecker or some more exotic warbler species.  I heard birds, but I didn’t end up taking the time to try to find them with the binoculars.

This portion of San Jacinto County also is home to over 90 species of dragonflies and damselflies, and seemed to have a high level of plant life as well.  We took a few shots of some interesting flora and fauna that we saw, but did not stop to catalog our bug and brush finds, either.

20150926_104350There is a time and a place for nature discovery, and although we were in the right place, it was not the right time.  I decided we should come out again in the spring, by ourselves, no group hikes or other agendas, to spend some quiet time in nature solitude.  We can bring our identification books, nature journals and favorite music to chill out to.

Today, 20150926_105419though, was for making friends and exposing babies to the wilderness.  Sebastian tolerated his baby carrier for about half the hike, and then lost it.  Jason ended up carrying him in his arms, feeding him a second bottle of our journey, while I carried the now-abandoned Baby Bjorn as well as one bag of
supplies and another bag with Jason’s (heavy) camera in it.  Both of the loads we were carrying seemed heavy towards the end, but I think it was good practice if we ever actually intend to do longer hikes or real backpacking with Sebastian.

I still want to get out there and actually hike the whole Lone Star Trail one day,20150926_101853 and I would like that to be practice for an eventual segment hike of the PCT or AT.  I have high hopes that someday we will have the stamina, time, money, equipment, and desire to stick it out for one of those real trails.  We’ve been saying that for a while, though, without any real progress towards it.  I hope this doesn’t turn out to be another one of our pipe dreams.

I have spent a little bit of time lately reflecting on dreams and intentions for the future.  I don’t want to be one of those people who doesn’t make their dreams come true.  However, as I age, I am starting to consider if we should hold so tightly to our dreams, or if we should let them evolve over time.  I believe that what you spend your time doing is a reflection of what is truly important to you.  I don’t see us investing time in obtaining the dreams I thought we had: saving our money for a ranch where we could have lots of animals.

20150926_105814We do spend most of our spare time exploring the wilderness around us, and as a result, that has become who we are – explorers of the great outdoors.  Lately, the question has been raised that if that is actually what is important to us, where we invest our time, then maybe we shouldn’t worry over a piece of land and obligate ourselves to hordes of animals.  Jason is suggesting that instead we get a smaller place and manage less, so we can do more.  I am trying to wrap my mind around this.

I want to invest my time in hiking, exploring, learning, geocaching, birding, camping, and finding my joy in the nearby forests each weekend, and what I realized today was that sometimes in order to do some of those other things, I am20150926_103505 going to have to let go of some of the others.  We can’t do everything we want to do at once, so we have to pick what is important at the time and let the others sit. For the short term, though, I still want to invest my time in Hike it Baby, because I am accomplishing my goal of making new friends for myself and Sebastian who have something in common with us – a desire to spend time in the outdoors with the kids.

That is exactly what we did today at the Big Creek Scenic Area.  Although Sebastian slept through about half of it, he did have some more contact time with both the forest and his new friends Max and Miles (who is just one day younger than him).  We got to know the Zubers and the Goods just a little bit better, developing those friendships slowly over time.  We got some exercise and fresh air, and found a new favorite place to come back to some time in the future.


Sahalie and Koosah Falls: The One-Hour Five-Minute Hike


These pictures are from a hike we took more than a month ago, while we were making our way through Oregon to get to my work conference.  I haven’t had time to tell the stories, though, because that baby pretty much demands most of my time at home.  As a matter of example, I have been thinking about posting this for about two weeks, and then had the page up for about four hours before I was able to sit down to actually type these words.

The trail running parallel to the stream

I still want to chronicle our outdoor adventures, though, and I am not giving up on that idea.  We’ll just have to get used to the idea that every post will be a past-tense situation, and not a regular update.

Sahalie Falls

On the day I took these pictures, we were making our way from Portland to Eugene, and then from Eugene to Bend.  These waterfalls are a short distance from parking – so the information I read said – off Highway 126 (McKenzie River Highway).  The problem was, I didn’t identify which parking coordinates/spot that was from.  We saw a sign indicating a parking spot for these falls, as well as other points of interest, so we stopped, anticipating a five minute hike.

We ended up spending an hour out here instead.  We could have make the walk shorter, I suppose, by giving up on the idea of finding a second geocache in the vicinity that was beyond the falls (which it turns out we could not find, anyways).  We thought about turning back briefly after the first find (GC3Y0R7) but then made the choice to keep going.  I don’t think any of us regretted it.
_DSC1394 There was a time on the trail that everyone wanted to stop and get their pictures taken at various places along the path.  This is one example here.  We indulged the kids at first, but then it just got to be time consuming, so we told them we were just going to get to the end, then take more pictures on the way back.  However, as per the kids typical MO, they got it into their head to whiz back along the trail at hyper speed and not wait to see if we were keeping up on the way back, without thinking about the pictures they wanted to take.  I was torn between sticking with Jason, who had his camera out and wanted to take pictures, and keeping up with the kids, and then I lost visual sight of the older boys and had to hurry up to catch up with them, being annoyed at every turn that they didn’t stop to wait for us when they noticed we weren’t right behind them (or maybe not even noticing).  I finally caught up to them, but then we were over it and just wanted to get to the car.  It’s a good thing, then, that we at least stopped to take the few we did along the way._DSC1393We took some of the other pictures that we took along this trip and printed them out for a big multi-photo frame that I had recently gotten for a Mother’s Day present from Jason’s sister.  It’s going to be a memory that will be with us for a while as a result.

As we got closer to the top of the second falls, I noticed that we were passing another parking spot, and realized that this was the one we should have parked at for a five minute walk.  My oldest son and I remarked that Jason might be annoyed that I had picked the wrong parking spot, but when AJ went to talk to Jason about it, Jason was like, “why would I be mad?  This was an awesome walk!”  I agree that this walk was one of the best times of our year so far, one we would have missed out on if it wasn’t for that location mistake.
_DSC1380 The only reasons we should have parked closer was that we had other time commitments, and we hadn’t packed any water for the walk.  We were supposed to be meeting up with the kids dad and were now going to be about an hour late, and I was going to be late for the opening ceremonies for my work conference.  We all ended up being a little parched from the walk, as well.

In the end, though, I made it to the work obligations without having missed much, and we still found their dad and made it work, and I am not going to feel regret about making him wait, considering everything I have been put through due to him past and present.

_DSC1377I think that Jason’s response to AJ’s question about the parking is perhaps a response we could apply to life: sometimes we take the long way, but if it wasn’t for the long way, we would have missed all these other beautiful experiences.  I certainly feel like that could apply to my own life.  Sometimes it is the detours that make life worth it, or at the least, things still work out in the end, anyways.

Big Thicket National Preserve

20150523-_DSC1319Last Saturday found us in the visitor center for the Big Thicket National Forest, north of the town of Kountze.  We had stopped in briefly to get information on trails, and now we were back for a respite from the muggy humidity and the bugs after an hour long hike on the Kirby Nature Trail.  I sat in the darkened theater room to feed the baby, and the friendly park ranger who was working the front desk offered to start the movie for me.  We watched the fifteen minute film that offered some insight on what makes this preserve special.

One of the features of the park that make it unique is its diversity.  The Big Thicket is actually a collection of several tracts of land spread out over several counties and 84,500 acres.  It happens to sit right at the junction of several different ecosystems.  A hiker might be able to cross through nine different ecosystems throughout a visit in the park, from the pineywoods of east Texas to the hardwoods of the Mississippi, from savannah to desert.  Due to this intersection, visitors will be able to find a wider variety of species than in any other area of Texas: over three hundred species of migrating birds, a thousand flowering plants and shrubs (including four carnivorous species), one hundred species of trees, and many species of reptiles and amphibians, including all four venomous snakes of Texas, and this cute little skink here.

Buck Moth Caterpillar.  Apparently their little barbs are poisonous and leave a vicious little sting if touched.  20150523-_DSC1331

Fungus and flowers along the Pitcher Plant Trail20150523_153955










This is the Pitcher Plant – one of the four carnivorous plants.  It digests insects that fall into the liquid inside this tube, which contains enzymes that break them down.  These plants are easily viewed in the springtime from a short quarter mile walk along an easy walking path (that can be a little tricky to get to, at least the way we drove to it).


Given that this area of the world has been designated as the “biological crossroads of North America”, one should not be surprised that of all the strange insects, reptiles and flora and fauna of this preserve, there has been reports also of elusive hairy beasts – wood apes, aka “bigfoot” or “sasquatch”.  There have been at least fifteen reports of sightings in the counties composing the Big Thicket on the North American Wood Ape website, accounts so numerous that Bigfoot researchers have been known to take up residence in the area to keep watch. (This information was not relayed in the film we watched in the visitors center). The area was also home to most species of American mega-fauna before their extinction.

20150523_132526Stories of the people of the area that were included in the official film included that of the “Dog People”, a group of pioneer-types that lived completely off the land in this area in the mid-1900s, using their pack of dogs to assist them in hunting game in the forest to survive off of.  Also, groups of Native Americans, such as the Alabama-Coushatta, have called these woods home at some point.  The Dog People and other residents were slowly kind of forced of the forest, as it started to be exploited for its oil and gas reserves, as well as its lumber.  Eventually, though, there was enough push to get the land declared as one of the nation’s first National Preserves in 1974.  Due to its status as a preserve and not a national park, there is limited allowance for these resources to be utilized, but while retaining the area’s natural resources for the future.

20150523_131501 Another story that I came across later, not included in the film, was that of the Texas “Jayhawks”, a group of local men drafted to fight in the Civil War for the side of the Confederacy, who opposed that side’s viewpoint and hid out in the forest to avoid the war.  They were arrested at one point and held in nearby Woodville, but escaped in a scheme involving whiskey, fiddling, a loose board, and the dancing of a jig by one of the Jayhawks, which allowed the guards to be distracted long enough for all the prisoners to escape through the loose board one by one.  In the chaos that ensued after, the one who had been dancing the jig just walked away, free at last.  Later, a Confederate Captain named Kaiser decided to light a fire to the Jayhawk camp at Honey Island, trying to flush out the traitors.  It is believed that all the Jayhawks escaped, but the canebrake they lived in was permanently destroyed, and 3000 acres of forest burned up in what is now referred to as the “Kaiser Burnout”.  This is one of the ghost stories that is attributed to the mysterious “Light of Saratoga”, a ghostly light that appears and disappears at random times on Bragg Road in the town of Saratoga, sixteen miles west of Kountze.   Other explanations include ghost conquistadors looking for buried treasure, a decapitated railroad worker from a nearby accident, or an eternally lost hunter looking for a way out.  Or, perhaps, swamp gas or light reflection from cars on the nearby highway.

We had decided to take the scenic route from the visitors center to the Pitcher Plant Trail, and then may or may not have lost our way.  As we worked our way through a series of back roads, the roads eventually turned to dirt.  Occasional small houses were found along this road, or sometimes just signs with a person’s name marked on it indicating a lot or way to another property.  However, most of our drive we spent in complete wilderness, with no signs of human presence.  The preserve was on our left, and private property to our right.  I felt the presence of other life out there, though, and was half-expecting to see one of the “Dog People” in the silent woods around us, perhaps sight some unusual movement in the forest.  I didn’t see anything, though, besides a few birds not already on our list for the year.

It was a place that was enlightening and intriguing, though, and we did decide it was worth coming back to another time – just not often, as it is some two hours and change drive from our house.  There is much to explore out here.