The South's biggest natural lake
By Ernest Herndon
July 19, 2004
My wife Angelyn and I were canoeing Caddo Lake, Texas, at sunset when I heard
what sounded like heavy breathing coming from the woods.
"Huff! Puff! Huff! Puff!"
A bull alligator in distress? A herd of wild hogs?
Just then a paddlewheel steamboat rounded the point from behind the trees.
The steam puffing out its stacks explained the heavy breathing.
Angelyn and I sat in the canoe as the crowded boat wheeled by on a tour
through the intricate maze that is Caddo Lake.
At 25,000 acres, Caddo is said to be the largest natural lake in the South.
It was apparently created during the earthquake of 1811, which also formed
Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee. There is now a dam on the eastern end.
Caddo sprawls across the Louisiana-Texas border northwest of Shreveport, La.
The Louisiana half is more of an open lake, but the Texas side is a maze of
channels among stands of swampy forest.
After the steamboat passed, we paddled across the channel into flooded
cypress forest and came face to face with a raccoon. The critter, perched on
a leaning cypress trunk, watched curiously as Angelyn talked to it like she
does our pet cats. Then it crawled into a hole in the trunk.
We were staying in a rental cabin at Caddo Lake State Park (903-679-3351)
near Karnack, Texas. The small park has nine cabins and two campgrounds for
tents and RVs, plus a canoe livery.
Our main purpose on this trip was to see the American Rose Center near
Shreveport, La. -- at 118 acres the largest rose garden in the nation, bigger
even than the ones at Portland, Ore., or Tyler, Texas -- since it was my
wife's birthday weekend and she's a plant enthusiast. I love plants too, but
as an outdoorsman I was using the occasion to scout Caddo.
On our first evening we ate at one of several catfish restaurants in the
vicinity. The window by our table looked out onto Cypress River, which feeds
the lake. First thing the waitress did was bring a platter of lemon wedges,
pickled jalapenos and slices of raw onion. Then came a big bowl of slaw,
whole and filet fried catfish, French fried potatoes with the peel on, and
regular and jalapeno hush puppies.
After supper, we got ready to launch from the park boat ramp onto Cypress
River. A couple of personal watercraft cruised slowly by, respecting the "no
wake" markers. Next, a pair of sea kayakers paddled in from a swamp trip,
enthused about what they'd seen.
If you had a full day you could go down to the lake and make a lengthy
circuit through the swamp. But with just an hour or two before dark, we
headed up the currentless river for a short jaunt.
We passed several camps and houses, plus a number of fishermen at the Highway
43 bridge. We explored a couple of little swamp lakes that adjoin the river,
venturing up them until logs or weeds blocked our way.
As we eased back downstream in the dusk, herons and egrets passed overhead en
route to their roosts in the swamp. Soft air, pink dusk and frog sounds made
this a fine place to be.
The next evening -- after Mexican food at Jefferson, the "bed and breakfast
capital of Texas" -- we launched at the lakeshore town of Uncertain. I hoped
to make about a three-mile loop, using the "Caddo Lake Map" I'd purchased at
the state park.
The map shows a grid of numbered "boat roads," and we found plenty of
numbered signs on the water. Unfortunately, there was little correlation
between the numbers on the map and those on the signs. I gave up on the
number system and tried just to keep up with what boat roads we were on.
But as we paddled deeper into the swamp and the sun disappeared behind the
trees, I became increasingly uncertain about whether we could find our way
So that's how the town got its name.
Ernest is the author of Canoeing Louisiana and Canoeing
Mississippi, both published by University Press of Mississippi
and is outdoors editor at the McComb, Mississippi,