An hour and a half west of Dallas, flakes of dry empty turtle shells sprinkle the crusted dirt of what used to be a pond brimming with life on the RiverCrest Ranch.
Just four years ago, six ponds scattered across the 150 acres of rustic Brazos riverfront teemed with thousands of swimming turtles. Now, ranch owner “Bayou Bob” Popplewell scans the terrain and remembers what it used to be like. The calm water would turn into a mini tropical storm at each feeding with turtles bobbing their heads at the surface and climbing over one another for food. In a good summer week, he would ship 6,000 pounds of turtles twice a week through his $2 million a year turtle shipping business. In the ‘80s, Bob began exploring different markets for turtles and began sending them to Canada, then Hong Kong, which has a large market for turtles ranging from pets to food to breeding. However, ranchers in Texas hate turtles because they can eat everything in a pond, so Bob created a cooperative team of people who collected turtles from other farms and ranches. Sometimes, there would be up to 1,000 people across three states catching red-eared sliders, softshells and common snapping turtles for him.
But the scorching Texas sun baked the earth below. No rain fell. Ponds began shriveling up. The ground cracked and the turtles crawled in every direction looking for water. He couldn’t keep enough water in the ponds for the thousands of turtles to survive. As the water started evaporating, the water on the bottom of the ponds became too hot for the turtles, causing them to die from the heat. They sank to the bottom of the ponds to deteriorate.
Unable to pump replacement water for the turtles from his dry river-fed creek, Bob began shipping them as fast as he could to save them. The shallow water made it hard for them to hide under the water’s surface, exposing them to savage wild hogs, which preyed on the turtles for food.
Bayou Bob doesn’t ship turtles anymore. Dozens of empty, plastic, blue barrels that were used to transport turtles now line the fences next to the barren ponds.
The drought is the worst that Bayou Bob has seen in 30 years. This year (2014) is the fifth driest start to the year on record, which dates back to 1895. Many portions of the Brazos are in extreme to exceptional drought situations. Some cities have put citizens on water restrictions, making them pay dearly when they exceed their limits. Farmers and ranchers are forced to cut back their number of crops and livestock.
Despite all of the hardships Bob has gone through with his ranch, he still maintains a sense of humor. Waking up before the sun every morning, he walks along the riverbank with his puppies, Tinker and Tattoo, and their mother, Sasha. He is always busy, whether it’s working out on the ranch cleaning up old barns with his friends who live in the next town over, or on a matinee movie date with his girlfriend. Like his turtles do in droughts, even through the struggles, he tries to press on.
He spends his free time hanging out at The Maverick, a travel stop on 281 South about a mile from his ranch, reminiscing with old friends or getting laughs out of the waitresses who all know him by name.
“I’m gonna go ahead and get a veggie plate. I’m about to get scurvy I haven’t eaten a vegetable in so long. And take this straw back. Real men don’t suck stuff out of tiny holes” he tells the waitress.
“You got it. What veggies can I get for you?” she says while trying to contain her laughter.
“I always like to mess with people. If I can brighten one person’s day then I have done my duty for the day,” he says.
His phone constantly rings with friends wanting to catch up or start a new project with him. He’s able to continue to live his life despite the losses he has been through, and he does it with a smile on his face. Bob says he always wants to have access to the river because his horses and dogs — his “family” — all love it. The dogs swim in the river constantly and are free to wander around the land. After a hot day of working, Bob usually heads down to the river for a swim, floating peacefully in the water like a turtle himself, and spends lots of summer nights camping on the riverbank. Even though the turtles are gone, he’s determined to keep the ranch afloat.
Bayou Bob stands tall and fit wearing jeans and leather work shoes. He always sports a little mustache and perfectly combed salt and pepper hair. For a 70-year-old man, he doesn’t look a day over 55. He strolls up the steps to the dock at the big pond at the front of his land, heads towards the end and peers out at the dry, empty pond. Once upon a time, visitors flocked to see the turtles and other wildlife. He remembers the endless visitors he had, ready for a thrilling weekend at Bayou Bob’s recreational ranch. He remembers the fun.
Cars hustled down I-20 West towards RiverCrest Ranch. Travelers piled out of their cars parked at the gate, eager to enjoy a day of adventure. Carrying lawn chairs, coolers, beach bags filled with sunscreen and afternoon snacks, swimsuits and other beach necessities, they headed down to the river, led by Bayou Bob himself. Though river guests were welcome to enjoy the beach and frolic freely as they please, many were there for two reasons: kayak rentals and riverfront horseback riding. The Brazos River, flowing strong yet gentle, was a major source of income for Bob’s turtle and recreational ranch businesses.
The Brazos River is the second largest river basin in Texas and flows 840 miles across the state. Many ranchers, like Bob, rely on the river to supply water for livestock and in Bob’s case, to support his recreational ranch. He’s lucky enough to have a creek that stems from the river running through his property from which he pumps water from for his animals. But for his cabin in the woods, he has to rely on rationed, community co-op water from Lake Palo Pinto, which is sitting at 60 percent empty right now (2014).
Kayakers used to float along the river, only having to paddle long enough to steer the kayak in the right direction. The 11-mile run was serene and scenic with live oak trees creating shade along the river’s edge. Most guests came from the Dallas/Fort Worth area and were thrilled by the fact that they had access to a river this close to home and didn’t have to drive halfway to Colorado to use a kayak. Bayou Bob escorted the brigades along the water, pointing out different types of trees and birds along the way as kayakers basked under the warm sun.
Horseback riders threw themselves over Bob’s trail horses and adjusted themselves on the horses’ backs, lightly kicking the horses on their sides to make them walk across the grass. Before they could ride down by the river, they had to do a test run with Bob’s ranch wrangler, Hector. “People will tell ya they’re a real cowboy, but you don’t wanna turn ‘em loose on a semi-green horse down on the river,” says Bob. Once they passed the test to make sure they could ride, it was off to the river with Hector. They would ride across the white sand along the beach and head up to a bluff overlooking the river and land. Riders enjoyed sack lunches and snacks as they took a short break from riding to enjoy the view from the top. The river looked mighty and strong from the bluff and white tail deer could be seen in the pastures below. After covering about 20 miles in four hours, the riders would return to the beach.
Back on the beach, guests relaxed in the sun. Children built sandcastles from the soft sand. Some guests fished along the riverbank while others began setting up tents for the night. Bob lead a group of fossil hunters in a search for crinoids, tiny, fossilized vertebral columns from a marine animal that resembles a washer. The horses were let loose to graze on the thick coastal grass that grew along the shore. Often, Bob had river guests seven days a week sometimes, especially in the summer. The river provided him with business ventures where he could stay at home and act as host to river guests.
He’s down to 14 kayaks that sit on dirt all year long. He used to have 40 always down by the river, ready to launch into the water the moment a visitor wanted to paddle off. Kayakers don’t visit his ranch anymore because the water in the river is too low. Guests don’t want to pull their kayaks across cracked dirt even for a short distance. “People paying for this want crystal clear water that’s smooth and flowing. They don’t ever want to paddle or steer the boat. But it hasn’t been that way in the last few years,” he says. The horseback riders are now gone too. Bob went from 26 horses as of last year to five now. He couldn’t afford to buy hay for 26 of them, so he sold all of them except his five best old trail horses “I watch in helpless hopefulness,” he says about the drought. He knows there is nothing that he can do right now.
The once white, glistening sandbars on the beach are now dull and wider than the river. Cocleburs, weeds and sunflowers grow along what was once the riverbed. The undergrowth and brush are so thick it makes it impossible to walk across the sand in some spots. Where water still flows, the streams are shallow enough to walk across, or even step across in some areas.
Along the riverbanks, wild hogs dig and wrestle their snouts in the dirt. With shallow ponds, the turtles were an easy target for the hogs that came into the ponds like backhoes at a construction site, clearing out the turtles for an easy meal. Like other animals, the hogs come to the river in search of water. They’re one of the top predators on the river and will kill and eat anything they come across, tearing up the ranch and rooting up brush and plants along the way.
One of Bob’s friends had such a problem with a 600-pound hog that he called Bob to come out and help him. One morning, Bob saw the hog leaving the feeder at daylight. “At first I thought it was a black bear, it was so big. I’d never seen a pig that big,” says Bob. The hog trudged over a hill a couple hundred yards away with Bob following close behind. Bob raised the gun and shot a full metal jacket bullet through the hog’s heart. Dirt kicked up on the other side of the hog, so he knew it had gone through. “You missed, you missed! Shoot him again,” said his friend. But Bob didn’t think that he had missed. He wasn’t sure though, because the hog just kept walking. Bob took aim again and shot another bullet. Dirt kicked up on the far side of the hog again.
“Dadgummit! You missed again,” said the friend, eager for the kill. The hog began to stumble as he walked, until he finally fell.
Nowadays Bob keeps a close watch on his land and especially his animals. Wild hogs are notorious for destroying fences in order to find food. He’s constantly on the watch for holes and entire sections of missing fence. Damaged fencing puts his horses, goats, donkeys and dogs at risk of attack from a group of hogs or other predators like coyotes and cougars.
Bayou Bob looks over the edge of grass that he’s standing on to see how big of a step his next one will have to be. He takes a big step and lowers himself into the dirt bowl remains of the large pond at the front of the ranch. Just as his relentless turtles used to return to the ponds in hopes of survival, Bob pokes around at the ponds sometimes too, checking for any signs of hope. The pond used to hold 5,000 turtles at a time. He walks around, picking up pieces of turtle shells across the bowl. “This one was a snapper, you can tell,” he says as he examines a shell piece with ridges down its back. Remnants of aquatic plants lie lifeless and crisp in between the cracks of the earth. His eyes drift over the pond basin as if he’s imagining. He stretches out his arm and makes a waving motion across the earth. “This all used to be filled with thousands of turtles. And now, nothing.” He keeps walking until he reaches the other edge of the pond, where he climbs out, headed for a pile of old kayaks.
The pile rests against a shed in the shade. Compared to the 40 kayaks that Bob used to have for the recreational ranch, this pile looks like an amateur’s collection. Bob picks an aqua blue and white one from the pile and rests it on the ground. He climbs into the kayak resting on dirt and starts making a rowing motion with his hands, reliving his days as a river guide. He leaves the kayak and moves on to an area a few feet away with a group of knee-high plastic containers resting under the trees. He says he needs to check on something.
He lifts the container off of the plastic tub to expose dark brown water. He sticks his pointer finger down into the water and jerks it out quickly. Tiny bubbles form on the surface of the water. He eases his hand back into the water until it covers his entire forearm. Rummaging through the near-black water with his arm, he looks ahead as if he’s thinking as he’s feeling through the tub. His arm stops moving and a grin creeps onto his face. “I got one,” he says. He gently lifts his arm out of the water and pulls a turtle out of the tub by the tail. “This is a common snapper here. It’s a good example of what I would ship to China,” he says. The turtle looks to be around 15 pounds.
Bob says he keeps a few turtles in the tubs sometimes because he has people come out to the ranch wanting to put him in magazines, or to give people an example of what he used to ship. He braces the plastic lid with his left hand as he holds the turtle in the right. The turtle is furious with its mouth open wide, ready to snap. Holding the turtle by the tail, Bob lifts his foot up towards the turtle’s mouth. The turtle bites the end of his shoe, jerking its head back and forth with its vicious grip. “Whoo!” says Bob. “They’ll get’cha!” He places the turtle back in the tub and moves on to the next.
He repeats his process, sweeping his forearm through the tub, looking for another turtle. He finds one, and pulls it out by the tail. “Aww this is a little gal here. She’s just a sweet little line dancing girl, a little cowgirl,” he says as he admires the ten pound female snapper. Like her friend in the other tub, she’s enraged, with her mouth open ready to strike. Bob takes a piece of plastic from the ground and brings it up to her mouth. She quickly snaps the plastic in half and opens her mouth again ready to repeat. “They never give up,” he says as he swiftly pats her on the top of the head before she can strike. He goes on giving her quick pokes back and forth on her neck and head as she thrashes each time trying to bite. After the fun, he lowers her back into the tub and closes the lid.
In a way, Bayou Bob is similar to his turtles. As the drought hammers down on Texas, the turtles move on to bigger and better ponds. They never give up the fight to survive, and neither does Bob. He has hope for rain and for his businesses to eventually return, but in the meantime, he watches the sky.