by Ron Bamberg
I recently completed a backpacking trip on The Trail Between the Lakes, a 28-mile track that connects Lakes Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend in deep east Texas. Toledo Bend straddles the Texas-Louisiana line and is formed on the Sabine River. Sam Rayburn, to the west, is formed by the Angelina River.
The trail lies entirely within the Sabine National Forest. A sign at the Sam Rayburn trailhead, where I ended the hike, identifies three distinct ecosystems through which the trail passes: Pine Savannah; Bottomland Hardwood Forest; and Beech-Magnolia Canyons, the latter being a new term to me. With relatively slight changes in elevation, these distinct environments tend to blend together, one passing almost seamlessly into the other. This was particularly true between the bottomland hardwood forests and the relatively less frequent beech-magnolia ones (which I saw during the first third of the trip but not thereafter).
One of the most pleasurable aspects of my backpacking trips is the opportunity to observe the natural environments through which the trail passes. This is especially true when there is a variety of terrain, flora and fauna, which was the case (well, not so much concerning fauna) on this trip.
This is in the Piney Woods ecoregion of Texas so one would expect pines to be the dominant tree species. While that would obviously be the case in the pine savannah ecosystem, there is no shortage of pines in the hardwood bottomlands. There are four species of pine: Longleaf, Shortleaf, Loblolly and Slash (sometimes called yellow pine), which is common in boggy ground.
Before continuing, I need to make a point of clarification regarding plant identification on this and other backpacking trips. Because on these hikes, I have objectives for where I plan to camp, there is generally not much time to spend on identifying plants. I do not carry guidebooks to avoid a temptation to stop and spend too much time studying. I try to observe as closely as possible while walking or stopping to catch my breath. When I stop for rest every 45 minutes or so, I may make notes or spend time looking more closely at what is immediately around me. But, for the most part, identifications are done after the fact based on what I can remember or what I’ve written in notes.
Oaks are the dominant hardwoods in these forests and include White, Southern Red, Water, and Swamp Chestnut. Other trees that were common included Sweetgum, Holly, Elm, Dogwood (in bloom throughout the hike), Beech, Magnolia and Hickory.
Ferns were common in wet areas, and I passed through a number of small cane brakes. There was a small tree (or shrub) with a beautiful pink and white flower that I occasionally saw along creek banks in one section of the forest. I had no idea what it was until I returned home and turned to Carol Clark, who promptly identified it as a wild azalea.
The only invasive plant I noticed was privet, of which there was a surprising proliferation given the somewhat remote area.
I was disappointed by the paucity of wildlife I saw. There were birds (though really not all that many), and I frequently saw small gray squirrels (what people in east Texas call cat squirrels) working on acorns and hickory nuts. I saw a lot of deer signs but no deer. This isn’t surprising, however, given the thickness of the forest and ground littered with dry leaves that makes walking quietly very difficult without slowing down to an unacceptable pace. Any self-respecting deer in this environment would hear and/or see you a good five minutes before you were close enough to see it. Although black bears have apparently moved back into this country from Louisiana, I saw no sign of them. What I did see was extensive signs of wild pigs (either that or a bunch of runaway tractors).
While the terrain was generally flat throughout the trip, it was “slashed” repeatedly by small creeks. If I crossed one creek, I must have crossed a thousand. (An exaggeration but in my mind not much of one.) The creek crossings were in many cases pretty tricky. (It was the first time I had used trekking poles and they were invaluable in creek crossing, not to mention their benefits of balance and support while walking.) The water in the creeks generally wasn’t the problem; it was the steep banks, quite often cut-banks, that were challenging. The very last crossing I made (over Little Creek) was the most difficult of all. (I’m just glad Wanda wasn’t there to see me going down over exposed tree roots with a jump to a log in the creek with an immediate required jump across the creek.) Maintaining one’s balance on these little jumps or tricky steps with a 40-pound pack on your back isn’t real easy.
The Forest Service cautioned against drinking any water along the trail even if filtered or otherwise treated, which meant a need to cache water at a couple of spots along the trail. I’m not sure why they give this warning, but I suspect it might relate to runoff from logging operations in the area. In any event, most of the water in the creeks was stagnant and scummy and far down the wrong end of the desirability scale.
I planned to cache water at two forest roads with trail crossings about a mile from the main road but found both were closed. I had to use instead crossings on open-paved roads, one further down the trail and the other nearer down the trail than I had planned. This also meant an alteration to my travel plans. I got to the campground where I planned to spend the night on Wednesday earlier than expected so went ahead and hiked in almost two miles and set up camp. (An interesting consequence of this is reported later.)This effectively moved the location of the next two nights’ campsites forward by about two miles. (It also meant that after picking up my first cached gallon on Thursday, I had to carry it for about 4 miles. (My hips and shoulders clearly felt the burden of that extra eight pounds.)
The trail was generally well marked, which was important in areas where the trail itself was barely if at all visible. There was only one point where the trail completely disappeared. The marked trail had made a southward turn when reaching a large open field, following an old logging road. After a quarter-mile or so it was to turn SW and run into a forest road. My efforts to find either trail or trail marker were in vain. I knew, however, that if the old road continued on a generally-south track, it would end at the main FM road running east-west and that the marked trail crossed that road 1 to 1-1/2 miles to the west. It did continue south and did hit the FM road. I walked that road for about a mile to the trail crossing. My next water cache was not far south of that crossing.
With the initial almost-two-mile “headstart” my last day was the shortest (you ALWAYS want it to be): 8 miles. The first 3 miles were all in hardwood bottomlands where there had been some controlled burns. There were numerous fallen trees and the ground had a deep layer of dried leaves. The upshot: There were a number of places where there was no visible trail and no immediately-visible trail markers. (Some, no doubt, were on fallen trees.) That meant a widening search to try to spot a marker. Fortunately, I eventually did in every case although in none of them did I find a visible trail; I had to rely strictly on spotting a marker. That stretch culminated with the most-difficult creek crossing at Little Creek. After that it was generally smooth sailing.
I arrived at the Sam Rayburn Trailhead at about 12:30 on Saturday, about 2-1/2 hours earlier than my initial target, which had some contingencies built in. I was met there by two cousins who then drove me to the Toledo Bend campground where I began the hike. There was one RV in the campground on Wednesday when I arrived. Shortly after they had driven away in their car, leaving their RV, soon after which I started up the trail. On Friday night Wanda got a call from the Sabine County Sheriff’s Dept. They asked if she knew me and if she knew where I was. Those campers had seen me arrive on Wednesday and hadn’t seen me at all as of Friday afternoon, so they called the Sheriff’s Dept. Wanda told them I had called her earlier saying that I was camped eight miles from the end of the trail and was just fine. She said she told them, “He’s old, but he knows what he’s doing.” I guess they tracked her down based on my license plate number.
A confession: I might say this was more work than fun. It was a challenge. Twenty-eight miles is a ways to go with 40 pounds (give or take) on your back. There were times when I asked, “Why in the world am I doing this . . . on purpose?” There is no simple answer to the question, and I guess I probably couldn’t come up with a suitable or satisfactory one if I tried. I probably won’t do another solo trek (or at least one of this distance). There were a number of times on creek crossings when I thought, “Oops, I could have easily twisted an ankle there.” (And, I don’t Wanda to worry if she’s going to get a call from some Sheriff’s Dept.) But, it’s done, I’m glad I did it, I’m not that sore, and I don’t have any noticeable injuries. There’s nothing heroic about it, just a way to test yourself a bit in an environment that you love.