On Matagorda Island, camp at a deserted Army Air Corps station

12:00 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017 Travel
A jack rabbit pauses in the grass at Army Hole, a camping area on Matagorda Island. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

Between the jack rabbits and scavenging birds, I felt like I’d slid down a Texas version of Alice’s spiraling Wonderland abyss when I visited Army Hole on Matagorda Island this summer.

I popped up my tent on an expanse of grass near the little harbor, then strolled across a field of green as big-eared rabbits the size of beagles gazed placidly back at me. A cluster of turkey vultures, their wrinkled red heads glowing like runway lights, eyeballed me from their perch on a decaying metal stand along the long-abandoned World War II-era airstrip.

I’d hitched the 8-mile ride from Port O’Conner to the old Army Air Corps Station on a sailboat so I could camp with sailors participating in a five-day cruise up the Texas coast. All I could think while I was camping there was how much I wanted to return for a few days so I could paddle around Espiritu Santo Bay, taking pictures of wildlife and enjoying the quiet.

A small ferry once delivered passengers to this spot back when this spit of Matagorda Island operated as a state park in the 1980s and 1990s. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service owns it today, but the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department maintains it as a wildlife management area and manages public access.

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And then Hurricane Harvey hit.

Curious about how this overlooked destination had fared, I checked in recently with Texas Parks and Wildlife officials. Despite a battering from wind and rain, they told me, Army Hole is open for business. After all, there weren’t many amenities there in the first place.

You won’t find flush toilets or electricity or any kind of services at Army Hole, but you will find eerie old military facilities, wide-open skies, cactuses poking their prickly arms between slabs of a crumbling runway and, with a little luck, a little bioluminescence when you stir your hand in the surrounding waters.

It’s favored by sailors skipping up or down the Texas coast, kayakers and fishermen casting for trout and redfish. A wide expanse of soft grass provides ample carpet for comfy camping, and covered picnic shelters that were knocked down in the hurricane will soon once again block the searing Texas sun.

Some of the old military structures at the site were damaged, including the old bunkhouse and shop, where two garage doors buckled and one of the walls was blown out. Heavy rain caused some flooding, but the storm surge didn’t come up high enough to do serious damage, according to Daniel Walker, project leader for the Coastal Bend Wetlands Ecosystems Project at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Crews have already pulled up the remnants of picnic shelters and are busy installing new ones in time for the fall hunting season.

“If you like to get out on your own, it’s a great place,” Walker says. “There’s no electricity, no water and no facilities for anyone to use. When people call me and ask about it, I tell them how remote it is.”

After the U.S. Air Force pulled out in the 1970s, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department opened a park there in the early 1980s. A ferry shuttled passengers from Port O’Connor to the island for years, but it burned in 2005. The Parks and Wildlife Department contracted out ferry service for a while but eventually canceled the service. Soon after, the state park became a wildlife management area.

Today, not much happens there besides the occasional hunt. Visitors will find a semi-maintained campground, plus a few meandering trails to the beach and a 3-mile path to the old Pass Cavallo lighthouse, a 92-foot structure built in 1852, damaged during the Civil War and moved to its current site in 1873. The lighthouse was restored in 1999.

Matagorda Island is also a landing spot for about 300 species of birds that fly through during annual migrations. More than a dozen threatened or endangered species have been reported.

In all, Matagorda Island stretches 36 miles long and covers 56,000 acres. An area called Sunday Beach at the north end of the island was washed out in the hurricane. “Now it’s Sunday Beach Pass,” Walker says.

A quick online search uncovers comments about the pesky mosquitoes and varmints brazen enough to board boats tied in the harbor to scavenge for food. If you go, just make sure you pack the bug spray, and keep an eye out for snakes and alligators.

And come ready to stare down the jack rabbits and vultures.

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