Running the River: Secrets of the Sabine

Running the River: Secrets of the Sabine


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781623490379
Publisher: Texas A&M University Press
Publication date: 02/27/2014
Series: River Books, Sponsored by The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, Texas State University
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 1,268,230
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

WES FERGUSON is a journalist, freelance writer, and newspaper editor in Kilgore. His work has been published by the Texas Observer, Texas Co-op Power, Longview News-Journal, Hays Free Press, and other newspapers. JACOB CROFT BOTTER is an award-winning photographer and photography teacher. He has served as adjunct faculty at Louisiana State and Tulane Universities and worked as a photojournalist for the Longview News-Journal. He has exhibited at venues throughout Louisiana and Texas and is the co-founder of The Backyard Gallery in Baton Rouge.

Read an Excerpt

Running the River

Secrets of the Sabine

By Wes Ferguson, Jacob Croft Botter

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2014 Wes Ferguson and Jacob Croft Botter
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62349-127-7


A Bend in the River

YOU NOTICE THINGS when you come home after being gone too long: the way the pine trees sprout from the hills, or the curve of a narrow river as it winds through the forest.

One fall afternoon before Jacob and I had ever considered boating down the Sabine, I found myself driving into town when the pines gave way to the boggy floodplain. The Texas Highway 31 bridge approached where it straddles the river, just outside Longview. In no hurry to be anywhere, I eased off the gas and peered over the guardrail, down to the river below. From the bridge I could see tangles of brush and a few downed trees. Beer cans littered the muddy banks, and a ribbon of brown water disappeared around a bend. I had surely crossed the river here a thousand times and had never given it much thought. Today, as usual, the Sabine appeared stagnant and dirty, like an oversized drainage ditch.

But then I noticed something smaller. A twig in the water drifted by and was soon followed by another. The twigs bobbed in the current and were swept beyond the bend. This river was not stagnant at all. As I realized how swiftly the water was flowing, I began to wonder what lay beyond my field of vision. I was struck by a desire to follow those twigs around the bend and see where the current led.

I grew up near the Sabine River and graduated from Sabine High School, but no one I knew had ever talked of traveling the river. It seemed like such a novel idea that I could find a boat and set off to explore a section of my home where none of my friends or family had ever gone. Then I told my girlfriend about it. She crinkled her nose, not even trying to veil her disgust.

"Nothing but snakes and dead bodies in that river," she said.

Many East Texans dismiss the Sabine as a dump for dead bodies. They tell each other that snakes writhe across its waters and dangle from the branches of hardwood trees, where they have been known to fall into the laps of unsuspecting fishermen. There had to be more to it than that, I thought. I pulled out my Texas road map and traced my finger along the wiggly blue line marking the Sabine's course. It rises in a soggy spot in a cow pasture in the blackland prairie about fifty miles northeast of Dallas, then meanders southeasterly through the Piney Woods of Northeast Texas before elbowing Louisiana and bending hard south into Toledo Bend, the largest human-made reservoir in the southern United States.

Over the next several days, I took alternative routes into town so I could scope out the Sabine from different bridges in the area. No matter where I looked, the little river offered only glimpses of itself before turning the bend and ducking out of sight. On those country drives I also began to think of possible companions for the journey. In the end I realized only one person would do: my buddy Jacob. He has a beard. He wears flannel and seems kind of outdoorsy, and he comports himself with a quiet earnestness that I respect. At the time he was working as a photographer at the Longview News-Journal, the same newspaper that put me on the payroll whenever I came home and needed money.

After leaving East Texas again for a winter job in another state, I sent Jacob an e-mail suggesting that he and I take an "epic" boat trip down our stretch of river when I came home the following summer. "Why should anyone care about the Sabine? What purpose does it serve besides filling up Toledo Bend?" I posed the questions. Then I offered the best reasons for our trip that I could think of: "Because it's there, and I like to explore. Because it's muddy and slow and people take it for granted, but I know we can find some beauty there, or at least a few stories that have yet to be told. Because it's our river, and we should celebrate it. We should know it."

I hit send. Jacob never responded. A few days later, I passed a message to him through my girlfriend, who had stayed in East Texas when I left. "He says that's a terrible idea," she reported. "He says, 'What about mosquitoes?'"

Over the winter, my thoughts kept returning to home and to my desire to see the river that runs through it. Despite the initial rebuff, I was eager to come back and plan my trip, but I felt some trepidation, too, because I knew almost nothing about the Sabine other than its negative reputation. The research I did was not exactly comforting. The literary references were even worse.

Today's most prolific writer of the Piney Woods, Joe R. Lansdale, has plumbed his neighbor's dread of the Sabine in many of his chicken-fried horror stories and murder-mystery thrillers. One of Lansdale's recurring characters is a black, gay Vietnam veteran named Leonard Pine. Leonard is no fan of the river, as demonstrated in the short story "Night They Missed the Horror Show."

Lansdale writes: "Finally they came to where the woods cleared out a spell and they drove along the edge of the Sabine River. Leonard hated water and always had. In the moonlight the river looked like poisoned coffee flowing there. Leonard knew there were alligators and gars big as little alligators and water moccasins by the thousands swimming underneath the water, and just the thought of all those slick, darting bodies made him queasy." Further into the story, Lansdale continues: "Sometimes you could see water moccasins swimming in a school down the river, their evil heads bobbing up like knobs on logs. And woe unto the fella fell in amongst them, and bless the heart of the fool who believed if he swam down under them he'd be safe because a moccasin couldn't bite underwater. They not only could, but would."

Swarms of moccasins are not how most people die in the Sabine. Most people drown. Sometimes when I reflected on my coming adventure, I couldn't help considering the possibility that I would meet my end in the Sabine. Death by drowning is horrifying to contemplate: the terror and panic as you thrash to free yourself from the churning river, the instant when your need to breathe trumps all else and you gasp for air, only to inhale muddy water. Cough it up, and you inhale more, choking for several minutes—minutes, not seconds—until you lose so much oxygen you slip into unconsciousness. More than half an hour can pass until you finally succumb, and cease to be.

I kept imagining myself leaning over the riverbank, or the side of a boat, and falling into the abyss. It's no idle concern. Countless fishermen and swimmers have been sacrificed to what the writer Jack Kerouac, in his 1957 autobiographical novel, On the Road, calls the "evil old Sabine River."

If the Sabine is evil, it is also unappeasable. A couple of years ago, a seventeen-year-old girl from Shreveport, swimming with her family, stepped into a steep drop-off and was swept away. A year earlier, a man from Deweyville, trying to retrieve something from the water, went under. And the year before that, a teenager from Orange was paddling with friends when the wake of a passing boat tipped his canoe and threw him in. They all drowned.

In 1989, the congregation of the First Assembly of God Church of Vidor, Texas, was settling into a Labor Day picnic on the western bank of the Sabine. Ten minutes into the outing, seven of the flock's youngest members waded into the river. "They had no intention of swimming," the sheriff of Newton County, Wayne Powell, later told the Beaumont Enterprise. "It was shallow and they were just going to play in the water." Instead, an undercurrent swept them away. Five of the children were carried across the river to the Louisiana side, and they survived because they grabbed overhanging bushes and tree limbs and clung to them until a neighbor could fetch a boat and save them.

"This can be a mighty mean river," a forty-year-old carpenter named Bubba Lynch told the newspaper after he pulled two of the children to safety. Two of the other young ones were not so fortunate. The bodies of a fourteen-year-old girl and eight-year-old boy were found by rescue divers in depths of thirty-eight feet.

Consider also the fate of the Owens brothers. On the morning of June 2, 1966, fifteen-year-old Kenneth Owens and his ten-year-old brother, Michael, rode their bicycles to the river, where they had been running a trotline for catfish below the Interstate 20 bridge south of Longview. At the family farm a mile away, the boys' parents kept waiting for them to return. But the brothers never did. "The father said that he had cautioned the boys, before they left home, about swinging from a rope that was tied to the north lane bridge," the Longview Morning Journal reported the following day.

"The boys on previous occasions had swung out over the water when their father was with them. When the father went to the river to look for the boys, when they failed to come home about 11 A.M., he found the bicycles that the boys had ridden parked on the bank of the river with the trotlines and hooks in the basket. He found the rope, which he had cautioned the boys about, broken from the bridge, and one of their small black dogs was sitting on the bank's edge staring at the water. No manner of coaxing could get the dog to leave the river's edge." When divers failed to locate the boys, rescuers were forced to drag the river with weighted hooks. "It was a grim and heart-wrenching sight," the newspaper reported. After dark that evening, divers finally found the bodies of Kenneth and young Michael around three hundred yards downstream from the bridge.

"We used to go to drownings all the time and help drag for bodies," says Glenn Elliott, a retired Texas Ranger from Longview. In addition to the drownings, "I've worked three or four murder cases where the Sabine was used to dispose of a body." Elliott delivers the second reason the Sabine has such a bad reputation: It's a convenient place to get rid of an unwanted corpse. Criminals go to the river for pragmatic purposes, according to Elliott. "It's not thickly populated," he said. "There's access to it, and most times someone's not likely to see the police."

My travels had circled back to East Texas, as they always do, when I called up Elliott one day and asked if I could stop by and talk to him about the Sabine. The old lawman said yes, and he left the garage door open for me. "Come on back!" he called from a small side room when I arrived. He was eighty-three years old, with silver-white hair, and though he remained seated for the duration of our talk, he filled his armchair like the tall, burly man he had always been.

Over the years, Elliott worked some of the grisliest murders in the region. One early morning in the fall of 1976, he received word that a man's body had washed up near a remote highway crossing. The body was completely naked and covered in tattoos: flowers and a shark on one arm and birds on the other, a five-point star in the palm of his left hand, a coiled cobra above one knee, a line of text on the other knee, and a swastika on his left leg.

But one thing was missing—the man's head. It was nowhere to be found. After searching for hours, rescue divers spotted the severed head around five hundred feet downstream from the body. The face was bearded and tattooed and had been shot three times. One of the shots had been at point-blank range. By the time the head was recovered, the body was en route to a crime lab in Dallas, more than two hours to the west. Elliott lay a sheet of plastic in the back floorboard of his car, placed the head on the sheet, and sped to Dallas.

The crime lab identified the victim as a twenty-eight-year-old, drug-addicted man from Nevada named Nathan James Koon. The case led investigators to a fellow Nevadan named Gerald Bowers, who quickly admitted to the killing. He said he and Koon had been trying to catch some sleep beneath the Sabine River bridge, but Koon had kept making unwanted sexual advances toward him. So Bowers pulled out his .22 pistol and shot Koon three times in the head.

Investigators wanted to know why Koon was naked. Bowers claimed to have stripped his victim because the clothes had some form of identification in them. A monogram, one supposes, or his initials scrawled in permanent marker on the tag of his underwear. Bowers had severed the head because he thought, Well, if I could cut his head off, nobody would ever be able to identify him. And he dumped it all in the Sabine, with the naive hope that it would float downriver and wash into the Gulf of Mexico. It didn't, and Bowers received a sentence of twenty years in prison.

Six years after the murder, the Sabine earned another distinction. The river played host to the first crystal methamphetamine lab bust in the region. Elliott and two other lawmen stumbled upon the operation while serving a warrant at a hunting and fishing camp in the river bottom. The place reeked of poison brewing, and several people were lying around in a drug-addled stupor. After the officers confiscated the drugs, chemicals, and equipment, they hauled it all back to the sheriff's office inside the Harrison County courthouse building. The fetid smell filled the courthouse and took months to dissipate, Elliott recalled.

While Elliott was telling me about his experiences alongside the Sabine, his son, Dennis, stopped by to relay a few stories of his own. Dennis's impression of the river is the one I had grown up hearing. "The Sabine has always been a nasty river—just snakes and gar," he said. "I wouldn't even go swimming in that nasty old thing. I like the Sabine, don't get me wrong, but it's nasty." To compound the nastiness, he added, many of the river bottom's inhabitants and visitors over the years have been less than reputable people. "Back in the old days," he said, raising his eyebrows, "if you went down on the river, you had better be ready to deal with folks with guns."


Ignored, but Essential

IN THE SUMMER of 1716, a Spaniard named Domingo Ramón led an expedition of seventy-five men and women into the forests of East Texas. His orders, issued to him by the viceroyalty in Mexico City, were to counter the French influence creeping across the border from Louisiana. Twelve friars traveled with Ramón, as well as several dozen civilians, soldiers, and their wives—the first time Spanish women are known to have stepped foot on Texas soil. They brought livestock, established missions, and apparently gave the Sabine River its name, calling it the River of Cypresses, or Río de Sabinas, for the many bald cypress trees that grow along the lower river.

The name doesn't fit where I am from. There are no cypress trees on the upper third of the Sabine, a narrow and twisting stretch of river that I remember visiting only once as a kid when a couple of friends and I discovered a rope swing dangling from a tree that protruded from a bluff overlooking the brown water. I grabbed the rope and swung over the river, let go, and fell in. The water was chest deep, and I sank to my shins in squishy mud. My friend Burwick went next. He ran and jumped, and the tree limb supporting the rope snapped in two. He tumbled down the bank and nearly landed on a craggy tree stump.

Jacob's ties to the Sabine are much stronger than mine. Though I hadn't known it when I asked him to join my expedition, his family has lived for generations on property that adjoins the river, and his ancestors once operated a ferry across it. And for the record, when I tracked down his telephone number and gave him a call, he told me the mosquitoes did not deter him in the least.

We figured we would camp on sandbars and fish for our dinner, just roughing it, and would go as far as we could in four days. We decided to ignore a weather report that called for rain, and we gathered our camping gear, food, fishing poles, and bug spray. We had a boat on loan from a local dealership and a shotgun, too, just in case.

But then, we weren't sure how far upriver to put in. I had been calling every expert I could think of to ask for advice, and people had been warning us about the many hazards inherent in Sabine River travel. In particular, they had warned us about the logjams. From time to time, floods on the Sabine wash the banks out from under trees. The trees cave into the water, where they snarl debris in a current that can run from lethargic to raging in minutes. Where the river narrows, the logjams make navigation tricky and often impossible.

"It can get dangerous," said Shaun Crook, a state wildlife biologist whose research carries him up and down the river. "If the river's real high and you don't know what you're doing, you can get in a pickle real quick. I've almost flipped several boats when you get out in that fast current."

Crook is a tall man with a dark, shaggy beard. He wears a denim shirt, tucked into denim jeans, tucked into knee-high rubber boots. It gets muddy where he works. Crook had explored the river along the Old Sabine Bottom, a fifty-one-hundred-acre state wildlife area where he works as the staff biologist, and he didn't think we stood much of a chance boating through the debris in the water. Spring floods had receded, and the channel was full of downed trees.


Excerpted from Running the River by Wes Ferguson, Jacob Croft Botter. Copyright © 2014 Wes Ferguson and Jacob Croft Botter. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword Andrew Sansom

Introduction xi

Part I

A Bend in the River 3

Ignored, but Essential 9

Born and Raised 15

Lost Towns 22

Hidden Fellowship 29

Part II

In Pursuit of Old Outlaws 41

The River Rat 45

Too Much Snake 49

Meeting Tidwell 54

The Favored Sister 68

Diving in Murky Water 72

A Sheltered Cove 75

Part III

The Final Journey 85

Surviving the Stake 93

Hospitality and Horror 99

Guru and the Gator 108

Little Boat, Big Lake 116

Acknowledgments 127

Index 129

What People are Saying About This

Van Craddock

“It’s about time the Sabine River got its due.   Through Wes Ferguson’s witty prose and Jacob Botter’s terrific photos, readers will learn some history and meet many of the East Texas “river rats” the duo encountered on their 500-plus-mile adventure.  There was a story around every bend and sand bar as their tiny boat snaked its way through the Piney Woods to the Gulf of Mexico.  A must read!” – Van Craddock, Longview News-Journal columnist; author, East Texas Tales

Joe R. Lansdale

800x600 “The Sabine River has been like an artery to my heart for many years, and I felt I knew it, but Wes Ferguson’s new book, which compares favorably to John Graves Goodbye to a River, is a shining example of travelogue, history, and a fine piece of Americana, and it taught me I know far less about the Sabine than I thought. I adored this book. It’s a good clean picture of a long, brown snake of a river. I heartily recommend it.”—Joe R. Lansdale, author, The Thicket

Stephen Harrigan

"Anybody can love a lovely river, but to love the muddy, sluggish, dangerous, corrupted Sabine you have to first understand it. In this highly engaging tribute to an underdog river, Wes Ferguson proves that the places we might not think merit a second glance are the very places that  reward our attention the most."--Stephen Harrigan

O. Rufus Lovett

"Writer Wes Ferguson and photographer Jacob Botter take us on an adventure that perhaps only an innocent child filled with wonderment might imagine possible.  Ferguson’s words flow like the water beneath him as he chronicles the Sabine River quest, intertwining science, history and folklore that parallel the human condition of the river culture with what nature presents at each bend in their path.  Botter’s interpretive documentary photographs reveal essential visual nuance throughout the voyage. They arouse our senses of beauty, sadness and humor."--O. Rufus Lovett, Photographer, Educator, Author

Steve Davis

“In this rollicking narrative, Wes Ferguson profiles the hard scrabble souls drawn to the Sabine’s haunted currents. Ferguson writes with sly humor and a generous heart, bringing this neglected corner of Texas to life.”—Steve Davis, author, J. Frank Dobie: A Liberated Mind and Texas Literary Outlaws

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Running the River: Secrets of the Sabine 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wanna go hunting? Meet u in the forest! *snivel*
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hi (p) hi (p)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
*Jumps and scratches a tree.*
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She decided to teach him an important move. Lavender, as Tealpaw batted her, thusted forward and knocked himboff balance. With a quick jump, she put a gentle paw on his throat.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Padded into the clearing to test out more battle moves.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"Ok. Want to do something else?"
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Lays down painfully and goes to sleep.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Igtgtb bbt