Houston’s best kept secret

Imagine a string of pristine lakes, connected by narrow winding streams overhung with willows. Imagine a landscape rich with evidence of the first Americans, most visibly in the form of piles and piles of shells. Imagine that these lakes are off limits to any motorized boats, and fish jump for joy. Imagine a string of lakes with nary a mosquito.

OK, maybe I got carried away just a tad. It’s a short string of lakes Charlotte, Miller, Mud, and Mac. I don’t really know why the mullet jump. Oh, and yes, about the mosquitoes, well, paddle quickly. What’s true is that not one of these lakes has a smidgeon of development on its shores. What’s also true is that these lakes are not in Canada, not in Michigan, not in Minnesota. They are astonishingly close to Houston, fewer than 35 miles east of the eastern I-10, 610 intersection. So, go to REI or ROPE at Rice and rent a canoe or kayak, or pick one up cheap from Craig’s list, get a paddle, a life jacket, a car top carrier, some bug spray, a friend, and a great lunch, and come! Oh, you will probably want a map and compass because the swamp can confuse.

One of my favorite ways to visit the Cypress Wonderland is with Linda Shead and Tom Douglas. These two, a conservationist and a professor, know so much of the biology, geology, history, and archaeology of the area and voluntarily run Sierra-Club sponsored trips a few times a year. I’m sure others run trips too, and might be worth hunting down.

It was a lovely morning. We heard the pileated woodpecker we saw last time knocking on a snag in the parking lot. Once we got out on the water, we could hear birds clearly from the nearby shore. A carolina wren sang. In the distance, I heard a red-shouldered hawk, then a kingfisher. Across the lake double-crested cormorants flew in small groups. An anhinga crossed. We paddled, sometimes hard, sometimes not. I tried to remember the tips I’d received on efficient paddling, but really, on this still water anything worked. I felt strong, stronger than before, thanks to the Women on Weights class.

But I had a specific goal, and Tom and Linda helped out. I was after wasps. I still haven’t managed to catch that single male of Polistes annularis that I need for a genome project. It’s getting late in the season, but this was such a warm day, must have gotten into the 80’s, at least as far as the mosquito index went. The wasp nests overhang the water, generally in the willows, not the cypresses. We went to the southern end of the lake, and checked out the passages down there. We made it from Lake Charlotte into Lake Miller, but only saw a small alligator, and a couple of abandoned wasp nests. I showed a few people how you could tell a Polistes exclamans nest from a Polistes metricus nest. The former has an acentric pedicel, and the cells slope down, while the latter has larger cells, and the pedicel is right in the middle of the nest. I don’t know if they cared. As we returned to the top side of the lake I saw wasps flying that could have been Polistes annularis, so sometime soon I’ll have to visit Mac Bayou and Mac Lake.

Lakes are a funny landscape feature. I’m from Michigan and up there we have lakes everywhere, small ones, large ones, huge ones. We learn things like oligotrphic and eutrophic when we are really young, the former referring to few nutrients, so a clean lake, and the later lots of nutrients, and a weedy, likely shallow lake. When I took field geology at bug camp I learned that lakes are short-lasting features, and ours were remnants of the last ice age which ended only about 10,000 years ago. In fact, Michigan is still bouncing up from the weight of that last big ice sheet, and the lake are from gouges by glaciers, and chunks of glacier left in place while debris filled in around. It seemed so counter-intuitive to me that the slightest river was a longer lasting feature than a lake.

They also told us there were no natural lakes in the US south of the glaciation zone, which ended in Illinois and Missouri, far north of here. So virtually all lakes in Texas are unnatural, the result of dams. These lakes have short, ugly lives as they flood river valley, and fill with sediment, sometimes even having tons of dead tree skeletons in them. There is a high mountain lake or two, like the one in the Chisos. And there are the lakes in these huge cypress swamps. So, y’all come on down if you want to enjoy a natural Texas lake closer to Houston than Galveston is.


Not a building, not a dock mars the pristine lakeshore, just my kayak intrudes.


The water is mostly fresh, but I’m guessing a little salt left those high water marks on the cypresses.


Tom Douglas and Linda Shead are wonderful trip leaders.


This alligator caused a lot of excitement.


Sasha and Nathan were intent on seeing the anhingas, bag worms, herons, and other things on the treasure hunt list.


About 150 white ibis had gathered in several dead trees.


Rene Colorado, and Mr. Hui were from the UT’s grad school in Houston.


Lake Charlotte was once populated.


The put-in is in the NW corner of Lake Charlotte. That is I-10 at the bottom.


I’ll be back!


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Natural areas and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Houston’s best kept secret

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I have enjoyed following your adventures. This one leaves me with a question–is Lake Charlotte a natural lake or an unnatural lake?

  2. Lake Charlotte is natural! It has had some changes over the years, and has some cuts to the Trinity River that are not natural, but it used to have natural ties to the bay that schooners could go through. It is also very, very shallow. Kayaking, I could usually touch the bottom with my paddle. There is talk of blocking a pass to the Trinity to reduce sediment filling. Ultimately, the cypresses may take over the whole lake. This whole area is part of the Wallisville project that threatened to dam the whole thing up a few decades ago when I first got to Houston.

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