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Neches River
Nov. 5-7, 2010
John Rich
On the morning of Friday, Nov. 5th, eight members of the Houston Canoe Club met at a U.S. Forest Service office parking lot in the small northeast Texas town of Zavalla.  Thus would begin a three-day, two-night, 27-mile canoe expedition on the nearby Neches River, which flows through scenic National Forest land.

Houston & Zavalla     Neches River
Zavalla is about a 4-hour drive from Houston.  Almost everyone chose to make the drive by starting very early Friday morning from Houston.  But the unpredictability of the long drive, and Houston traffic jams, caused several members to be late for the 09:00 am meeting time.  John Rich drove up Thursday evening and camped overnight at a nearby Forest Service campground, to avoid the early rise and be on-time, and still managed to be 15 minutes late, by getting confused driving through Lufkin.  Tip: "Take the loop".

Nancy Christian
Joe Coker
Coleen Connely
Ken McDowell
Mike Pollard
John Rich
Paul Woodcock
Charles Zipprian
Once we got everyone rounded-up and accounted for, we had eight participants in seven boats.  Ken and Joe, the HCC Commodore and Vice-Commodore, would go tandem.  Everyone else was solo.  There were four canoes and three kayaks.  The shuttle service was provided by Piney Woods Outfitters, who were waiting for us with a giant pickup truck, a canoe trailer and a passenger van.  For $50 per person they provided the shuttle to the put-in location, and were waiting for us at the take-out site at the end of our trip. Our personal vehicles were left parked at the Forest Service office for security, and the outfitter drove us back to that location after take-out.

 Boats loaded on
 Gear loaded in
 The shuttle service.

The put-in location was a private property boat ramp, about seven miles upstream from the Highway 69 bridge, which is the usual starting point for paddlers on this stretch of river.  So we had the privilege of seeing some extra scenery that most people don't get to view.  The location is a cabin deep in the woods, which we got lost several times trying to locate on the spiderweb of unmarked dirt Forest Service roads.  Finally at the put-in, we busied ourselves loading all our paddling and camping gear into our boats, for three days on the river.  After the hours of driving and hard work, we were finally about to have fun.
 Ken McDowell
 & Joe Coker
 Mike Pollard
 Nancy Christian

And with the preparations complete, we pushed off into the Neches River on a gorgeous sunny day.  Downstream a ways, we crossed under Highway 69, followed a short distance later by an 1899 railroad bridge, built by the lumber company for the exclusive purpose of getting logs out of the forest.

 Paul Woodcock
      Typical Neches
    River scenery
  1899 Railroad bridge

At the second bend in the river after the railroad bridge, a grassy campsite was selected for the night.  The temperature would be dipping to below freezing, and a campfire was sorely needed, but this was Forest Service land and they had instituted a fire ban because of the lack of rain.  So there was no warming campfire for the evening.  Everyone spread out to find their own personal space and soft, flat spot, upon which to setup their tent.  Paul  broke out his custom-made wood kitchen set, designed to fit nicely into the bow of his canoe, and unfold into a table and utility shelves.  Mike fired up his portable charcoal grill and cooked a huge steak.  Others were combined into prearranged "food groups", combining resources for fancy meals.  John used his simple Kentucky Fried Chicken meal plan, whereby a bucket of chicken provides a ready-made three meals per day for three days, with no pots and pans, no cooking, and no dirty dishes.

     Camp, Day 1
   Paul's kitchen
       Mike's steak

Sure enough, the temperature had dropped below freezing overnight, and water left inside boats had frozen solid.  Droplets of dew and condensation on the outside of the tents were frozen into tiny dome-shaped ice cubes.  And putting on those wet river shoes in the morning, now cold as ice, was a task saved for dead last.

Morning fog
 Charles, in a
 canoe for a change

As the sun rose, day two warmed up into another beautiful sunny day on the river.

    Joe, Ken & Paul

Nancy at Rocky
Day 2 is when you encounter Rocky Shoals, the only rapid on the river bigger than a very tame Class I.  The water level was low enough this year that no one tried to run the ledge, as it looked like you would hang-up on rocks before getting to it, and be unable to float enough to be in control.  So people teamed up to carry boats one at a time around the ledge, or to line the boats without passengers over the top. 

The only mishap of the trip was coming around a bend, where the current swept the boats towards a barely submerged log.  One paddler broached on the log sideways, and the next thing you know, he's over in the water.  After emptying the boat of water and a change into dry clothes, we were back on our way again.

A pair of bald eagles
About a half-dozen bald eagles were sighted along the way, most of them circling alone high overhead.  The special treat was to find a pair sitting in a tree, and they took to flight as we approached underneath.  If you're having trouble spotting the second eagle in the photo, below, look on the right side in front of the leaves.

Camp, Day 2
After a full day of paddling, we stopped at another nice sand bar for a campsite at the end of Day 2.  There was plenty of room to spread out, and an ample supply of firewood.  This time we were on county land, opposite from the National Forest, and where there was no fire ban, so dead wood was collected and a campfire was stoked-up to ward off the cold, until time to crawl into our sleeping bags.

Once again it froze overnight, as evidenced by John's towel in the photo below.  The wet towel was laid out on top of the cooler to dry overnight, but instead it froze solid, and it could be held out horizontally like a board.  After a leisurely wake up period and breakfast, we broke camp, packed our boats, and readied to finish our trip on Day 3.  The fire ashes were doused with water and covered with a dome of sand.
Charles, Joe & Paul
warm-up at the fire
John's frozen towel
Charles' boat,
 packed & ready

Coleen tries to keep
sand out of her
Mike loads up
 Paul waits and

Hat & paddle,
ready to go
We finished off the trip with a 5-mile paddle on Day 3 to the take-out location, at the R255 bridge.  The outfitter transported us back to our vehicles, where boats and gear were sorted out and loaded back into the correct vehicles for the trip home.

Some paddlers headed home immediately, while others stopped at the local small burger shack for lunch, before heading south on Highway 59.  The sign says "This is not fast food, it's good food."  Unfortunately, the owner was short of help that day and was overwhelmed.  With the owner's permission, Nancy pitched in to retrieve goods from the store room outside and the refrigerator in back, while John stepped behind the counter and sliced lettuce, took orders and made french fries.  The backlog of orders was soon caught up and we had our own food in hand to enjoy on the picnic tables outside.

This was another fine trip on the water, with spectacular scenery, shared with amazing people.

The author, John Rich