My friend Buddy took this picture of me on the Sabine River in 2009. I hadn’t seen it in years, but I found it yesterday when going through files on my old computer. Here’s the story behind the photo—one of the weirder episodes from my first book, Running the River: Secrets of the Sabine.
About a mile from the boat ramp, we came upon a waterfall gurgling over a rocky ledge, into a sheltered green pool beside the river. The cavelike walls of the cove were painted green with moss. Sunlight reflected off the water and danced like currents of electricity through the shadows. I had never seen anything so pretty on the Sabine.
“We might have to go swimming later,” Buddy said, and I agreed.
Not far beyond the cove we came to a strange scene: an unmanned boat floating in the middle of the water. It sounded like the engine was running. When we came closer, we saw a long, white hose extending from the boat into the river. At one spot a few feet away, we noticed air steadily bubbling to the surface. Just then a man’s head bobbed up from the brown water, wearing a scuba mask, goggles, and a breathing apparatus.
“Looking for mussels?” I asked.
The man affirmed my question by lifting his bag of shells out of the water. But my camera and questions aroused his suspicion. “Are y’all from the FBI?”
We said no, and when we boated past, the diver sank beneath the water. We eased a little farther downriver, through frequent rapids where the flow quickened and the boat scraped over rocks and gravel, and we passed the many abandoned concrete and wooden oilfield structures that I had marveled at during my earlier trip with Jacob. I watched the shoreline for signs of hogs, but my attention soon began to wander, and I started to imagine the view of the riverbanks from two hundred years ago, when the first settlers arrived.
Today, East Texas is scrub country. What land has not been paved or plowed is choked with thorn vines and brush. But at one time, the forest canopy was so thick it blocked the sunlight from the undergrowth, and the smaller plants that did manage to survive in the dark forests were cleared by occasional fires, leaving trees so large and well established that early travelers called this place the Pine Barrens.
“They say the pine trees used to be so tall in East Texas, you could ride a horse for miles, fall asleep in the saddle, and never hit a tree limb,” I said to Buddy as we drifted downriver. “There used to be huge trees here on the river, too. Just think how much prettier all this would be if we hadn’t cut everything down.”
Buddy glanced up from the trolling motor and studied the brush on the bank. “You can’t think about it that way,” he said. “It’s still pretty. East Texas is still pretty. Just be thankful you get to see it the way it is, because someday all of this will be gone, too.” He had a point, but I hoped he was wrong. Growing up, I had never given a second thought to this wild river running through my hometown. Now that I had spent some time on the Sabine, I didn’t want to lose what remained.
Buddy and I never saw the hogs, so we turned back. The flow that had seemed so calm when we floated downstream was now a force we hadn’t reckoned with, and we spent most of the journey trudging through the water and fighting the current as we dragged the boat upstream. At times the water came only to my hips, sometimes up to my chest, but then I would step off a precipice and fall into a deeper channel. I learned to use my foot to feel for the firmness of the riverbed before committing my weight to a step forward. Before long, I forgot about my fear of being swept away by the river. As long as I stayed alert and moved slowly, I didn’t have to worry so much about drowning after all.
When we returned to the waterfall and the pretty little cove, we parked on some boulders at the entrance and jumped in. The water was cold and deep here and stunningly clear: I could see the bottom some eight feet below. Above us, the clearwater creek had worn the ground away to the eroded rock, cascading through a series of precipices, before tumbling into the cove. Buddy swam over to the waterfall and let it pound his back and shoulders. “It feels just like a back massage,” he said with glee. “You gotta try this.”
I did. It felt great. “Man, I could even bring a woman here,” I said.
This was the discovery of a lifetime, the kind of place that Buddy could enjoy with his wife and kids for years to come. We swam for a long while, then waded out of the cove and into the river. The water was much warmer here, around waist deep, brown, and muddy. Our toes sank into the silt.
When we returned to the cove a few minutes later, something had changed. “Wasn’t the waterfall a lot bigger when we first got here?” I asked. Instead of gushing over the ledge, the water had narrowed to a trickle. Then, as we watched with increasing horror, it began to grow again. Within minutes, the waterfall was surging at full strength. It was like someone had flushed an enormous toilet. Oh no, that was it! We were swimming in sewage—the discharge from the wastewater plant in Gladewater. No wonder the cove was so cool and clear. No wonder we kept smelling that faint odor of chlorine. I spit what I could out of my mouth.
We climbed out of the cove and then ascended a steep, grassy bank to see where the creek led. We came to an even bigger waterfall and then a series of smaller ones. We walked as far as we could through a leafy forest to a barbed-wire fence, then returned to the river and stood for a moment on the big gray rocks beside the beautiful cove.
“I don’t even care,” Buddy said. “It might be sewage, but they treated it first.”
We jumped back in. At one point, Buddy even swam under the waterfall, where he indulged in another back massage.
Excerpted from Running the River: Secrets of the Sabine by Wes Ferguson and Jacob Botter and published by Texas A&M University Press.