One of the perks of being a We Will Not Be Tamed ambassador is participating in a photoshoot with a professional photographer in a fabulous Texas location. For ambassador Dan Oko, that involved a trip to Palo Pinto Mountains State Park. Dan offered to share his experience with all of us and penned this blog post about his recent visit to Palo Pinto Mountains State Park…
As the fire died down, I laid my bedroll out like an old cowboy and stretched out beneath the stars. As dark skies go, the Palo Pinto Mountains – the first new state park in North Texas in more than 20 years – rivals some of the state’s best. My legs were tight from a couple of hours spent mountain biking, yet I felt spoiled stretched on the ground beneath the wheeling Milky Way. Nearby ridges reached 1,400 feet creating as close to a mountain cirque as you can find within two hours of Fort Worth.
Just last fall, I spent a weekend previewing the new park and discovered more than a proverbial diamond in the rough. By bike, car and foot, alongside Palo Pinto Mountains State Park Superintendent James Adams and wildlife photographer Jonathan Vail, a colleague who works for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, we spent two full days touring 4,800 acres of undulating native prairie, timberlands, camping out and fishing. Plans call for Palo Pinto Mountains State Park to open to the public by 2023 when Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) celebrates the centennial of Texas State Parks. The new park will be a great gift to Texans, especially those in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, who will have a convenient 75-mile drive to this outstanding property. High in the hills, the park showed off slim valleys carved by Palo Pinto Creek and seasonal Russell Creek surrounded by thick forest.
“If I get out of the car quick, cover your ears,” Adams warned us early on in the tour – because, amid the many wild charms of the surrounding landscape, the feral hogs count as perhaps the only aspect that needs to be tamed. Adams steered across the heart of the park and along its perimeter but never did pull his sidearm. Later, pedaling my fat-tired mountain bike along the same swooping ranch roads, I raced past a herd of pigs, weighing from 20 pounds to close to 200, which ran like dwarf mustang through the undergrowth of forest glades heavy with oak and ash. As most landowners and public lands advocates realize, feral hogs – descended from non-native domestic pigs – have devastating effects on plants, soil and water.
Eventually, 18 miles of trails are planned for the park, offering hikers, bikers and equestrians a real chance to spread out. That prospect, along with the possibility of many backcountry camping opportunities, had me salivating over the yet-to-be-discovered wilderness. The old ranch roads offered plenty of non-technical challenges, while hiking revealed a rugged, vertiginous landscape that certainly holds its own against similar “mountains” in the Texas Hill Country. Backpacking across those hills promises great training for Big Bend or a workout in its own right.
The impromptu campsite I shared with Vail sat on a clearing where the nascent park has already hosted a few star parties. If I read the blueprints right, it will eventually be a sweet spot for a pavilion. Vail woke me early to catch the morning light for a quick high-country photo shoot. Bushwhacking through cedar breaks, careful to avoid stubborn prickly pear, I saw a few mature antler sheds. Anglers and paddlers will find plenty more fun on Lake Tucker, a 90-acre reservoir.
With miles of lakefront and streamside access, my weekend stay was barely enough to take in the whole park, which boasts two sections spanning FM 2372. Access will get easier with planned improvements that strike a balance between recreational and natural resources. As Superintendent Adams points out, earlier generations of Texans from native tribes to the Texas & Pacific Railroad bent the land to their interests. Once it’s open, TPWD estimates that 75,000 visitors will enjoy the park each year, which shows just how fortunate the state has been to add Palo Pinto to the public portfolio. Under agency management, protection is assured.
After exploring the high country, Vail and I made our way back to Palo Pinto Creek and strung a couple of creek-worthy fly rods to perform an amateur fish survey. The largest sow bass was shy, but a few feisty perch took our streamers, and a couple of small LMB found the heavy flies agreeable to play catch and release.
The fishing was a fine capper to a wonderfully wild weekend – another reason that in Texas’ galaxy of state parks, Palo Pinto Mountains will shine bright.
About the Author:
Avid outdoorsman and award-winning freelance writer Dan Oko is a 2021 We Will Not Be Tamed Ambassador for Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation (TPWF). He channels his passion for the outdoors into his work, and his articles have appeared in a wide range of outlets including Texas Monthly, Adventure Journal, Outside, Texas Parks and Wildlife, Texas Highways and Garden & Gun. Dan loves spending time outdoors with his wife and teenage daughter, and they’ve made many memories together camping and hiking in Texas State Parks. Dan also loves fly-fishing, backpacking and mountain biking. Currently, Dan is working on a non-fiction manuscript about climate change and recreation across the Texas Coast due out in 2022. Follow Dan @danoko
Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation is raising up to $9 million dollars to support the opening of Palo Pinto Mountains State Park and ensure this new state park becomes a first-class outdoor experience destination for all Texans to enjoy.
Some men spend their life trying to distance themselves from their fathers. And some effortlessly walk in their father’s footsteps. The older John Dunaway gets, the more he appreciates the lessons his father imparted to him, lessons he is now sharing with his children.
A merchant mariner by trade, John Dunaway guides cargo ships through the Houston Ship Channel day in and day out, just like his father did before him. As a child he used to go to work with his dad, not realizing it was a profession. When his mom broached the subject of a future career when he was in high school, the light bulb went off.
“I was like ‘I could get paid for that?’ In that moment I knew what my path would be.”
He attended the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy after graduating from Clear Lake High School in 2003, spending a year of that at sea on commercial ships as a cadet. During the course of his early career, he sailed to dozens of different countries for weeks at a time aboard heavy lift/general cargo ships, working his way up to captain. In 2017 he was selected to join the prestigious Houston Pilots, and now his workday is spent in the Houston Ship Channel, navigating huge ships through the tricky waters of the largest landlocked port in America.
Photo: John Dunaway
His latest career move allows him more time at his Seabrook home with his wife, Kim, and their two children, Harper and Haden. More time at home also allows him to pursue his passion for the outdoors, another gift from his father. He also loves cooking the wild game he brings to the table and entertaining friends, skills he learned from his mother who excelled at both.
“As a child we lived for time outdoors, and when dad was off, he would scoop us up for fishing trips to Rockport or South Padre. We would fish all day and eat our catch for dinner.”
At 12, he started duck hunting.
“It took over my life, and it’s still a huge part of my life. Like my dad, when I’m not working, you can usually find me in the field or on the water.”
Whether ashore or afield, he documents the often neglected or poorly depicted lifestyles of hunting and shipping through his Abstract Conformity website and Instragram feed. Abstract Conformity is his approach to sharing stories with details that are often overlooked by the mainstream viewer, continuously adapting this voice as he learns and grows.
“While at sea, I tried to share a narrative about what was going on that most people don’t have a chance to experience. There are so many stories to tell. The same goes for time in the field, holding a gun or shooting an animal. The passion people have for it that ends in a heartbeat. The story is so much more than the moment.”
Having children has crystallized his conservation ethic.
“It hasn’t changed my outlook. It has intensified the way I feel about it. The natural world around us needs to be here for all of us, and there’s a greater story to tell.”
In the more than two decades he has been hunting ducks near Houston he has noticed the changes that have come with urban areas pushing ever closer to hunting fields. Less habitat. Fewer ducks.
“It’s painful for me to see what is happening. What will our kids have in the future? Where are we going to take them to see nature and wildlife amidst our concrete jungle? It has intensified my passion for pushing that message out there and conserving what we have. Because when it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Being a We Will Not Be Tamed ambassador for Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation gives him a new platform to spread the word. We Will Not Be Tamed calls us to appreciate the wildness of Texas, the vastness of our Texas spirit and why we should be inspired to conserve it.
“My message to others is simple. This is what I do with my life, and how I choose to pursue my passion for the outdoors. And hopefully you can find some enjoyment of it. You don’t need to enjoy all of it by any means, there are so many different ways to embrace our natural world. This is my choice. But if you find something that resonates, you can carry that forward by getting involved and pass it on.”
Like his father before him, he hopes to share a simple message with his children as they grow up.
“I want them to see the value in the simplicity of it all and understand that if you don’t take care of it and it goes away, you are not going to it get back.”
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Mother’s Day is just around the corner. If you’re still looking for the perfect gift for the Mom in your life, we’ve got you covered! We highlight five unique and thoughtful gifts guaranteed to bring a smile to the moms who enjoy the wild things and wild places of Texas.