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Caddo Lake

I'll admit: Creeping through the Government Ditch of Caddo Lake in the pre-dawn blackness with only the bow lights illuminating the moss-draped cypress trees is an otherworldly experience. The ditch is a straight-as-an-arrow shortcut dredged by the federal government in the 1870s. It was carved through the swamp for steamboat traffic from New Orleans to service, what was then, the second business port in Texas over in the town of Jefferson. Giant, side wheel freighters would bring passengers and goods up the Big Cypress Bayou and, in return, haul out timber and cotton bales to the markets back East. Before the ditch, steamships would have to lumber around a big oxbow in the bayou to reach their destination. The ditch solved all of that. It created a channel by which the ships could cut miles from their journey traveling the Big Cypress.

Over time, bald cypress trees grew along the margin, and 150 years later, they arch over the ditch and create a tree tunnel in which we pass and await the coming sunrise. In a way, this place is spooky. It's no wonder that this legendary swamp is home to legends of bigfoot, ghosts, and other paranormal anomalies. Not far from here in 1869, the steamship Mittie Stephens ran aground after a spark ignited a cargo of hay carried aboard. In all, 61 of her passengers perished in the blaze. And over in Jefferson, bigfoot enthusiasts hold an annual conference and compare notes on their field findings. Caddo Lake wreaks of mystery.

The origins of the lake are somewhat unclear. Undoubtedly, the area's been a bit swampy for the past half-millennia as immense trees dot the area. Dendrologists confirm the age of these giants. With dense, wet, and barely fertile soils, bald cypress can find a niche to grow. Therefore, these flooded lowlands provide the perfect place for them to take root. This area is the largest bald cypress forest in the state and, as some suggest, worldwide. The tree is a bit of an anomaly. It's a deciduous conifer. That means the tree grows needles and cones like common conifers, but unlike trees like spruce or pine, the bald cypress loses its needles each fall. Its propensity to be among the first trees of the season to defoliate gives the tree its "bald" moniker.

From the banks, Caddo Lake doesn't look all that big since there is not a vast, sprawling body of water. Instead it exists as a giant swamp with backwater sloughs that wind in and out of the giant cypress trees that stand draped in Spanish moss. In all, 25,400 acres of big and mysterious swamplands straddle the Texas/Louisiana border. The lake takes its name from the indigenous Caddo Indian tribes who once inhabited the area.

Overall the lake is shallow and is only 20 feet at the deepest. Much of it, though, is shallow enough for trees to crowd the water. There are some areas of significant open water. Still, many of those places have a carpet of lily pads and other aquatic vegetation that stretch for hundreds of yards. In fact, 60% of the lake is covered in aquatic vegetation.

This place is so unique it is recognized as an internationally protected wetland. The lake is also the second-largest natural lake in the south and the largest (and one of the few) natural lakes in Texas.

While theories vary, most scientists think the lake formed gradually over time - probably due to a giant log jam on the Red River known as the Great Raft. Some geologists, however, corroborate the Caddo Indian legend that says the lake was formed by the 1812 New Madrid, Missouri earthquake. It is postulated that when the earthquake occurred, the earth's crust shifting created a basin filled with water from the Red River. In 1913, ecologist Lionel Janes examined cross-sections of cypress and hardwood trees. He estimated that the lake formed between 1770 and 1780.

The lake remained largely undeveloped until the mid-19th century when steamboat traffic picked up in the area and served the various villages on the lake. Bayous were dredged to provide steamer service that brought goods to and from the Red River and, eventually, down to the Port of New Orleans. Since cotton was king in the Old South, cotton trade routes were established through the lake.

While some villages no longer exist, you can take a glimpse back in history by visiting nearby Jefferson, Texas, which offers numerous Civil War-era structures and bayou tours that retrace the old steamboat routes.

Today, big chunks of Caddo Lake are largely conserved through agreements with The Nature Conservancy and the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. On the Louisiana side, a dam was built in the 1970s to help maintain the wetland's water levels and control flooding in the entire basin.

What's left is natural splendor. Each morning is something to be discovered anew. Location names are as colorful as the rust-red cypress needles within the lake proper. Carter Lake, Whangdoodle Pass, Alligator Bayou, and The Hog Wallow are all specific place names within the lake and is its own scene. Each moss-draped tree is a different character within the broader day-in-day-out natural drama that's unfolded for centuries. It's a boon for outdoor photographers.

Each day we'd venture out on a pontoon boat to explore the nuances of the swamps. Blue herons and white egrets hide amongst the cypress knees and sit motionless while they wait for an unsuspecting fish to swim past. The scenes are a mixture of big sky sunrises and careful studies of individual tree limbs. Therefore, an entire photographic lens repertoire is in order. It's an unconventional landscape shoot, but Caddo Lake challenges the traditional notions of what a landscape shoot looks like: grand mountains shot with a wide angle lens, foreground objects, edge control, etc. In the southern swamps, the rules of traditional landscape photography fly out the door. Intentional camera movement, multiple exposures, and long lens landscapes are all in order.

The Southern Swamps is also a place where you learn about rural Texas culture. We even visited one of the oldest country stores in Texas. The Jonesville store is a vestige of what tiny town mercantile used to be and is full of photographic surprises. Down the road, we eat a couple of meals at Bear Creek Smokehouse. Barbecue is an iconic Texas food and this place epitomizes the low and slow method of pit cooking brisket and sausage.

Each photographer's soul (and belly and memory card) is satiated by the trip's end. Adorned by unconventional beauty, the swamps and the people who call it home have a way of creeping into your own subconscious. Long after we're gone, these swamps will abide - ready to beckon a new batch of intrepid explorers.

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