Hulking swamp monsters sprung from tiny seeds set adrift on black waters by ancestors that may have lived before the birth of Christ cast eerie, sunrise shadows over the Hog Wallow.
Spanish moss drips from every limb, a fluffy beard of gray vegetation that swallows up sound and wind. Only the songs of the pileated woodpeckers and barred owls, red-shouldered hawks and great blue herons, penetrate the shroud of silence.
Caddo Lake's giant cypress trees soar four and five stories into the sky and are 15 feet around where their feet are planted in swamp muck. So great is their mass that each tree begins to build its own ecosystem, to become the sun in a solar system. Around it rotate its planets: the bass and pickerel that fin among its submerged roots, the water moccasins and nutria, sliders and stinkpots (wretched little turtles that emit a foul odor) that lurk in the dark folds of bark and pulp at water's level, all the way up to the raptors and water birds that nest in its crown.
"The cypress trees are the deal here," says Rick Lowerre, president of the Caddo Lake Institute. "They are 100 to 400 years old."
Perhaps they remember me. I fished here when I was a kid, completely unaware of the history of the swamps along the Big, Little and Black Cypress bayous, knowing only the distinct, powerful swirl of a goggle-eye after it swallowed my nightcrawler.
These trees were just something to fish around or use as a bridge across the dark waters of the bayou, when I was certain the fishing was better on the other side.
Caddo Lake is a special place, hidden away on the Texas-Louisiana border about 145 miles, and at least that many years, east of Dallas. Sprawling across nearly 27,000 acres, it is a maze of waterways and wetlands, a soggy cocoon, protecting and nurturing hundreds of types of mammals, birds, reptiles and fish, while keeping most of modern life at bay.
It is, I believe, one of the 24 places that every Texan should visit before they die.
Particularly in their silent shadows, they can be intimidating. Many of these trees were 200 years old when the great New Madrid earthquakes of 1811, the strongest ever felt in the U.S., ripped apart the earth and changed the course of rivers, from the Red to the Mississippi.
Some were relative youngsters when Caddo was part of the busy shipping route between the Gulf of Mexico and Jefferson on Big Cypress Bayou. Boats would come up the Mississippi to the Red River, then north on the Red before cutting across Caddo to Jefferson. Caddo was a lake even then, the only natural lake in Texas, though it's taken a man-made earthen dam to keep it that way.
In those days, Jefferson was a booming city and a shipping point for goods for the Confederacy. Some of the boats were small river runners. Some were mighty steamboats, none of which ply these waters any more. Today the closest steamboats sit idle 30 miles away on the Red River at Shreveport, flashing gaudy lights and measuring commerce in bundles of cash, not bales of cotton.
At the Caddo Grocery Store over on Cypress Drive, Uncertain Mayor Sam Canup and wife Randie greet many of Uncertain's 150 residents on an average day. Folks stop in for a six pack, a 25-cent cup of coffee or a smoke and conversation on the porch. Some may munch on a pulled-pork sandwich from the counter in back.
It's a slow and easy kind of life that hasn't changed much in the last 100 years. Many of the river rats' squatters' cabins have been replaced by modern homes on stilts, but life onshore retains a remarkable sameness: fishing, drinking beer, tending a garden in the rich alluvial soil.
There is wireless Internet access in the grocery, but I'm the only one using it. Mostly folks talk about the weather, the floods this past winter and the bumper crop of mayhaws that will become jelly in Randie's kitchen.
A Seattle couple wants to know the name of the red flowers they've been seeing since they got to East Texas. We tell them they're crimson clover.
Most of the change around here is intangible, held at bay by the forest, one of the largest bald cypress stands in the world. Demand for potable water from the growing metropolitan areas of north Texas is putting indirect pressure on Caddo. Its main artery, Big Cypress Bayou, has been dammed west of here to create Lake O' The Pines. Now water flow through Caddo is a concern.
New residents, drawn by the same abundant fish, wildlife and solitude that attracted Caddo Indians and early settlers averse to city life, continue to migrate toward Caddo Lake. With population growth comes congestion, noise and pollution.
Somewhere along the way, invasive plant species such as hydrilla and giant salvinia took up residence, threatening to choke the lake and its creatures to death.
There are efforts to protect land around Caddo. The state has parkland on west side of the lake. The federal government has a national wildlife refuge on land that once was an ammunition plant. The Nature Conservancy has a preserve on the lake. And longtime residents are organized and vigilant. But that's all onshore business.
I want to cruise down a couple of Caddo's cypress-lined canals and try to remember whether I was ever "right here" in a john boat with my father. I want to peer down into the tannin-stained black water and see the lazy turn of a largemouth bass inside the hollowed out stump of tree logged long ago, to drop a plastic worm on his head and feel the thunk as he sucks it down.
Guide Paul Keith maneuvers among towering cypresses, always cypresses, so many they might disappear into the background if it weren't for the constant reminders of life around them.
A large alligator blinks and slips out of view. A diamond-backed water snake floats on a partly submerged branch, letting the sun bake him into wakefulness, when he'll slither off and hunt for perch in the shallows.
We catch 15 bass or thereabouts, the way Daddy and I once did 50 years ago, and then Keith agrees to take me up against a shoreline, where I might have a chance to catch a chain pickerel. Ancient swamp residents that resemble gar but are relatives of the great northern pike, pickerel are common in Caddo and a fish I remember from my childhood.
Within five minutes I manage to entice one out of his weedy hiding spot in the shade. He strikes viciously at my spinner bait and comes into the boat all gnashing teeth and slithering body.
The bass were for Dad; the pickerel's for me.
Updated: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Jefferson, Texas, during the Civil War. It was a shipping point for goods for the Confederacy, but not capital of the Confederacy.