October 21, 1995: A Visit to the Dallas Arboretum
October 1, 1995: A Bike Ride to the Dallas Arboretum
Return to the Index for 1995

October 14-15, 1995
A Weekend at Possum Kingdom Lake


Fred went down to his mother's the first full weekend in October, and on the second weekend we took Mike up on his invitation to go camping with him at Possum Kingdom Lake west of Fort Worth. Mike has a small boat and is also an avid camper, so we relied on him for most of the equipment and supplies, and we split all the costs with him when we got back on Sunday.


Getting to Possum Kingdom

Possum Kingdom Lake is a reservoir on the Brazos River out in Palo Pinto County, about 65 miles west-northwest of Fort Worth, or about 100 miles from Mike's house in Irving. I had never been out this way before, although Fred and I have traveled west o I-20 a number of times to go to New Mexico and Arizona. We left the interstate at Weatherford and angled northwest to the lake.

Possum Kingdom Lake actually spreads across parts of three counties, and is the largest reservoir on the Brazos River and one of the largest in the state. It was also the first water supply reservoir constructed in the Brazos River basin. The lake has an area of approximately 17,000 acres with 310 miles of shoreline. It holds 750,000 acre feet of water- some 220 billion gallons, with about two-thirds of that available for water supply (due to the height and construction of the dam).

Mike had planned on using one of the public boat ramps near Graford, Texas; these are maintained by the Brazos River Authority and a small fee is charged. But they are convenient; Mike loaded everything he had brought (as well as the tent equipment he told us to bring) into his boat and we cruised out onto the serpentine lake. The Dam is at the eastern end of the lake, and the area where Mike wanted to camp was towards the western end of the lake, across from Possum Kingdom State Park (where there were facilities we could use).


A Description and Short History of Possum Kingdom

The Morris Sheppard Dam was a WPA project, begun in 1938 and completed in 1941, and its completion created the lake which too three years to fill to capacity. The dam is 2,700 feet long and 190 feet high and originally generated power (although this is no longer done). The dam was named for the then Texas Senator who helped obtain funding for the project.

The lake is located where the Brazos River cuts through the Palo Pinto Hills. The canyon thus formed provided a favorable site for impoundment of the reservoir and accounts for the unusual depth of the lake (150 feet), the clarity of the water and the stunning cliffs that almost completely surround the lower portion of the lake.

The most accepted story about the origin of the lake's name attributes it to Texas immigrant Ike Sablosky, who settled in Mineral Wells from Indianapolis; he came originally to see if the local water could cure his chronic stomach troubles. It did, apparently, and he stayed, going into the fur and hide business. He dealt in, among other things, possum pelts. His best suppliers of these hunted in the canyon of the Brazos and Sablosky began greeting them by saying, “Here are the boys from the Possum Kingdom.” Sablosky went on to be a prominent businessman in Dallas, leaving millions to charity before his death.

The lake is home to the famous Hell's Gate, a sheer break in the cliffs around the lake, and also Possum Kingdom State Park, which covers some 1500 acres at the west end of the lake. Possum Kingdom is a popular recreation area for people from Dallas, Fort Worth and the many small towns surrounding the lake. When we were there in 1995, I was impressed by how green everything was- even in mid-summer. But by 2010, the droughts of the 2000s began to result in wildfires, and the area has seen a repeated succession of them. As a result, open fires, like the ones Mike used to cook, are often banned.


Getting to Our Campsite

Fred and I are certainly not newbies to camping, so we were able to do our share in helping set up the campsite. Getting there was more Mike's doing.

There are actually quite a few places where boat ramps have been built to allow boaters to put there boats into the water and take them out. One of these is in the State Park, but there is another one near the Sheppard Dam that was also nearer to our route to the lake, so that is where Mike put his boat into the water.

In the picture at left, Fred has captured Mike and I standing beside his boat, just before he backed it into the water. Once it was in the water, Fred and I held onto one of its lines while Mike went to put his truck in the parking lot.

With everything now in the boat, we headed off up the serpentine reservoir to find the campsite that Mike liked to use.

Possum Kingdom Lake (popularly known as P.K.), is a reservoir on the Brazos River located primarily in Palo Pinto County. It was the first water supply reservoir constructed in the Brazos River basin. The lake has an area of approximately 17,000 acres with 310 miles of shoreline. It holds 750,000 acre feet of water with 550,000 acre feet available for water supply.

Possum Kingdom Lake was formed when the Sheppard Dam was constructed on the Brazos River. The Dam was a project of the Brazos River Authority and the Works Progress Administration; construction was begun in 1936 and completed in 1941. The Lake began to fill immediately, of course, and reached its planned height by the end of 1942.

The lake is located where the Brazos River cuts through the Palo Pinto Hills. The canyon thus formed provided a favorable site for impoundment of the reservoir and accounts for the unusual depth of the lake and the resulting clarity of the water.

On the way to the campsite, we passed one the most famous feature of any lake anywhere- the famous Hell's Gate, a sheer break in the cliffs around the lake. As we passed, Fred was able to get a good picture of it, and you can see it at right. These bluffs used to form the bank of the Brazos, but the water eventually ate through the thin rock formation and flooded a small area beyond. I estimate the bluffs to be between one hundred and two hundred feet high. We took the boat through that opening, and then around the back side of what is now an island (the bluffs to the left in this picture). We planned to come back and hike up to the top of them later in the day.

Back out on the main part of the lake, we continued upstream about a mile and then beached the boat on the north side of the reservoir at the campsite Mike had used before.


Our Campsite

We could have camped in the State Park, Mike said, but all the campsites there were away from the shore of the lake, so we would have had to put the boat in there so we could take it out overnight or whenever we were at the campsite. Instead, Mike said, there were a few undeveloped areas on the north side of the Brazos on a peninsula. He had camped at one of these areas before; you could just pull the boat up to the shore at night. And these areas were very out-of-the-way and so it was rare, he said, that he saw other campers.

Here are Mike and myself and Mike at the campsite on Possum Kingdom Lake. After a thirty minute trip on the lake, we reached this spit of land where Mike had camped before. It has a nice level area for the tent, and also a place for a campfire. Mike brought an incredible amount of gear; there seemed to be nothing he didn't have. The weather was absolutely perfect, and everything was dry, as it hasn't rained in about two weeks in this area.

Here are Mike and Fred and our tent. We were in a very sheltered, very quiet spot, cool and shady from all the trees nearby. Mike's tent is a two-room affair. We used one for all three of the mattresses, and the other for the gear we wanted to keep inside the tent. We built the campfire later in front of the tent. Shots with bright sunshine and dark shadow are always tricky, but this picture was pretty realistic. When there were shadows, they were very deep.

There are several stories about the origin of the name Possum Kingdom for this part of the Brazos River valley. The most accepted version attributes the name to Ike Sablosky who settled in the region in the early nineteenth century. Sablosky was a businessman, a Russian Jewish immigrant who came to America at the age of 13. He arrived in Mineral Wells, Texas from Indianapolis in 1905. Sablosky was suffering from stomach trouble and believed he was dying. Mineral Wells was then nationally famous as a health spa and Sablosky offered an employee of one of the spa hotels ten cents a day for ten days to be allowed to drink all of the mineral water he wanted. The employee accepted and Sablosky claimed that within ten days his stomach problems were cured.

Sablosky then went into the fur and hide business, dealing in, among other things, possum pelts. His best suppliers of these hunted in the canyon of the Brazos and Sablosky began greeting them by saying, “Here are the boys from the Possum Kingdom.” Sablosky went on to be a prominent businessman in Dallas and before his death he donated millions of dollars to charity.

Here are Fred and Mike at the campsite. Although there are a lot of cliff areas around the lake (the old channels for the river), the campsite area where we are was gently sloping, and ideal for the tent. We were also the only people anywhere nearby, so that was good, too.

This picture was taken on Sunday morning, just before we all got busy fixing a breakfast for ourselves. Mike enlisted Fred's help to cook the sausages, as he busied himself with pancakes. Fred and I have never cooked breakfast while camping; this was a treat.

We discovered this weekend that a new resort is going to be built on the peninsula where we are camping, so this may be the last time Mike can use this site. We did spend some time scouting for others for the future.


An Afternoon Hike on Hell's Gate

After we'd gotten the campsite set up, we set out in the boat to explore some of the lake. We headed up river to a state park area, but had some trouble with the throttle when we got near to it. We had some anxious moments before the problem seemed to fix itself, and we then landed the boat. Fred and Mike had a sandwich, and we all used the facilities. Then we got back in the boat and headed downriver to Hell's Gate. We landed the boat at a point near Hell's Gate that is fairly level, and then set off hiking the short distance to the top of the rocky outcropping, which you saw in bold relief earlier.

After walking a short distance further, we came to a point where there was a pretty sheer drop down to the water. There was a hole in the rock that led to what appeared to be a way down the cliff face, and I dropped down into it to see how far down I could go. As it turned out, I couldn't go very far without taking more chances than I was willing to at that time, and so I just climbed back up. As I came up out of the hole, Fred took the picture at left. Below, the three of us are atop Hell's Gate:

I took another picture of Fred and Mike atop Hell's Gate, trying the technique of using a flash to provide light for the nearground objects while allowing the background to be exposed normally. My mistake here was in not getting closer to Mike and Fred so that the flash would illuminate them better, but even so the picture was interesting.

Once we came out on the top of the promontory, there was bright sunshine illuminating everything, and thus there was much less of an exposure problem, particularly with the sun behind me. The lake is really quite pretty, and very similar to Lake Travis near Austin; here are a couple of the pictures we took from the top:

Here are Fred and I at the top of Hell's Gate.
I had Mike take this shot after I set the exposure.

Possum Kingdom Lake as seen from the top of Hell's Gate.
This is a great shot, composed and taken by Fred.

Possum Kingdom Lake is quite different from Lake Ray Hubbard, which is much smaller and not the result of a river being dammed. At Lake Ray Hubbard, there are no cliffs, but just rolling farmland all around, so the views are not nearly so interesting. I expected there to be lots more boats out, but there was very little traffic, and we were pretty much all to ourselves. Here are some more pictures from the top of Hell's Gate:

Here's Mike on top of Devil's Gate. I like this shot. The setting sun has lit the cliff face opposite to a deep red, and the slight reflection in the lens has accentuated that color. Mike is perfectly exposed, and the sunlight is providing interesting highlights to both him and the rocks and plants around him. Behind him, you can see part of the inlet formed when the river broke through its original channel.

Mike joined me on a point of land to look down the cliff face to the water; Fred was on an adjoining point of land. Between us there was a sharp drop off of about sixty feet down the slope of the promontory. I tried to photograph Fred, but the sun was directly behind him, and the shot would have been impossible. Fred, however, was able to take this shot of the two of us returning from the point instead.

Being here at the top of Hell's Gate was immensely interesting. One might have expected bare rock, but there was lots of vegetation- mostly cactus. But you did have to be careful not to step backward without looking first.

Here is what I think is a very good picture of Fred, Mike and myself atop Devil's Gate. We took this picture using Fred's camera and the tripod, although I had to have the picture lightened when it was developed (this is actually a scan of that picture) because the original was too dark. After that was done, the result was a very good picture, I think.

I know we look like we are members of a cult where beards are required; when Fred and I are out together, people often ask us if we are brothers, and this is probably because people see the beards and don't look closely at other features. (What really amuses me is when some people- actually, a lot of people- ask us if we are twins. I am always tempted to ask them in return when was the last time they had their eyes checked.) It seems as if most of the guys we know- like Ron and Chris- also have beards. We really get noticed when all four of us are out together. I guess in the same way that "all black people look alike" to caucasians, it may also be true that "all bearded men look alike" to just about everyone.

Here, you can see across the chasm to the continuation of the cliff face that had once formed the bank of the Brazos. There is another twenty feet of rock behind us before it drops straight down to the water. The opening between the points of land appears to be a couple of hundred feet. To get this shot, Fred had to be careful to point the tripod at an angle away from the setting sun, but you can still see a sundog on the right-hand side of the picture.

As you may already know, either because I have mentioned it on an earlier album page or because you have been working backward in this online album or because you happen to have known Mike or some of us personally, that Mike was killed in a traffic accident on the morning of September 11, 2001. Later that year, Fred had the idea to transfer this particular picture onto canvas and make a framed picture out of it to give to Mike's mother. We did that, and the resulting picture turned out quite well. You can see it in the section of Miscellaneous Pictures for 2001 (and also for 2002).

Here are the last two pictures that we took this evening from the top of Hell's Gate:

A Boat in Hell's Gate
(Picture at left)
This was actually one of the few boats we came anywhere near during our time on the lake. At the drop in point, there were about twenty trailers, but I guess that most of them were fishermen, who would be along the more sloping shores on the other side of the lake.


(Picture at right)
This is one of my favorite shots. Although I didn't take it, I did compose it, hand the camera to Mike, and walk around to the left of the picture and out onto this point of rock that has very little support underneath. The result, I modestly think, is something quite good. Everything is in clear focus, and the sun is providing perfect lighting and some interesting color highlights. There is a boat in the background for a sense of perspective, and there is a balance of nearground objects and distant ones. Fred told me he wouldn't have gone out on that point for love or money, and looking at the picture I can see why.

Me Atop Hell's Gate

We enjoyed our hike to the top of Hell's Gate immensely, but as the sun set we had to go back down the trail to where we had left the boat so we could return to our campsite. We hiked back down to the boat, and then went back to the campsite, where I occupied myself blowing up the air mattresses and arranging the inside of the tent and building the campfire. Mike and Fred worked on getting dinner together. Mike did a really good meal of barbecued chicken, asparagus, baked beans and bread. He has a whole camp stove, so it is much easier to fix two or three things at once. He brought a table and lawn chairs and we sat around the fire after dinner for quite some time. The tent was commodious and Fred's sleeping bag comfortable and warm, and we had a great night's sleep.


Cruising Possum Kingdom Lake

When we awoke on Sunday morning, Mike did something that Fred and I have never done when we have been camping by ourselves- he led the process of fixing a breakfast. Mike's idea of breakfast was eggs and sausage and coffee and pancakes- with even apples on top of the pancakes. It was a great breakfast, actually much more than I am used to eating early in the day. We got the campsite picked up and most of the equipment put away, and then went off on a boat trip around the lake (after stopping at the State Park for gas).

First, we went down near the dam where there were some inlets that Mike knew about. Mike was fishing on the way, but never caught anything. Down here, the lake is about one hundred feet deep when you get right over the old river channel. Mike has one of those sonar devices that can map the bottom and also indicate schools of fish, as well as tell the temperature of the water and such. It was interesting to watch as we traveled along. This is typical of the shoreline near the dam. It is rocky, and slopes quickly upward. That's Fred, of course, in the picture at left.

Fred got a picture of me steering the boat slowly while Mike is trying his luck at fishing. Fred is up in the bow. That is a fairly new hotel and resort in the far background. Mike is a thoroughly nice guy, easy to be with, and very good-looking. About his only bad habit (I define a "bad habit" as something repetitive that I, under the same or similar circumstances, would not do) is that he sometimes chews tobacco. So does Joe Wells, Fred's friend in South Texas. But he doesn't do it often, so it's not a big deal.

Here is another shot of Mike fishing while I steer the boat down near the dam on Possum Kingdom Lake. Mike's boat, incidentally, was almost identical to the first small runabout that Grant and I bought for use in Florida.

Here, Mike is steering us up into one of the inlets to see what kind of camping could be done there. We didn't find any potential sites as good as the one we had this weekend, but there must be some. This is down by the dam and the lake is very pretty here.

I would have liked to beach the boat near the dam and walk up onto it, but there were many signs indicating that this was not allowed. Mike said that on the way home we can get up onto that cliff that you see towards the right of the picture, and then we will be able to look down into the canyon to see how deep it is and also get a good view of Sheppard Dam.

That cliff seemed to be a hundred feet or so high, and Mike's depth finder said that the water depth out in the middle of the inlet was about sixty feet. We headed back upriver, following the outer shoreline, and passed a lot of very nice homes, many up on the hillsides with stairs down to private docks.

The last thing we did at the lake was to motor over to where we could tie up the boat and then hike up onto the top of the low cliffs bordering the lake. The hiking was easy as there was a fairly gentle slope up, but once you got up on top there were good views of the lake. The picture at right shows me on those cliffs; you can see here how it would be possible to jump right into the water as the face of the cliffs is so sheer. You can also see that it was another beautiful day.

Here are Fred and Mike on top of those cliffs at Possum Kingdom Lake. This is typical of the shoreline on the side of the lake that was once the outer side of the river channel. The force of the Brazos River ate away at the limestone rock forming these cliffs. The other side of the lake has sloping banks.

At the edge, as you can see here, there is a steep drop off to the water. I'd imagine that you wouldn't particularly hurt yourself if you fell or jumped into the water from here, as long as there weren't any submerged rocks or anything, but I would have to really get up my nerve to do it. This is, I think, a good picture of Mike and Fred.

The Shore of Possum Kingdom Lake
(Picture at left)
We tied up the boat way back were you can see that the shore of the lake has sloped down to the level of the water. I like this shot, framed by the trees and the cliffs. There wasn't much place where I could climb down towards the water as the face of the limestone cliffs was so vertical, so I just had to be content with getting out onto the edge as I have done here.




(Picture at right)
It's interesting how the water has eaten under the cliffs. This has probably happened since the lake filled, as the indentation is pretty consistent all along the shore. I imagine that the limestone is susceptible to being eaten away like that.

The Shore of Possum Kingdom Lake

Mike and Fred on the Cliffs
(Picture at left)
As we walked along the crest of the cliffs on this side of the lake, there were many excellent views of the lake and the cliffs themselves. It is hard to imagine that we are actually at the top of a much, much higher cliff, as the lake fills in the canyon that had been formed by the river. From that outcropping in the background, for example, you'd appear here to be hanging out over a twenty-foot drop to the water, when in reality, if the water weren't there, you'd be facing perhaps a hundred-foot fall to the bottom of the river canyon.


(Picture at right)
This is a very interesting formation, as a tunnel has been formed along the water's edge. I imagine that we are actually looking at the top of a portion of the cliff face that has fallen into the water, or perhaps fell before the lake filled. There is actually a gap between the piece of rock in the water and the cliff face, and the layers seem to match up.

The Cliffs at Possum Kingdom Lake

This was a beautiful day. The sun was quite bright, and, as a result, I set some of my exposures too low, making the picture look more like late afternoon rather than early in the day. It's a beautiful lake though, quite different from Lake Ray Hubbard, where the surrounding area is basically low farmland and the depth of the lake rarely exceeds sixty or eighty feet. Here, the lake depths, over the original riverbed, can reach 150 feet or more.

Here is a good picture of Sheppard Dam.

After walking back along the cliff face, we returned to the boat, gassed it up, and drove around the lake for a while, stopping for a sandwich at a lakeside park. Then it was back to where the truck was parked.

After getting the boat out of the water and transferring most of the gear to the truck, we headed off back to Dallas, but we first made a stop at the overlook that Mike had told us about yesterday. The overlook provides great views of the dam that created Possum Kingdom Lake.

The dam was built at the end of the canyon, so the land below the dam is significantly lower that the cliff faces back up the lake. Even so, it is easily 300 feet from the top of the plateaus down to the riverbed, and that is what is under the lake surface.

Fred too two good panoramic shots today. The first has us atop one of the ridges with the Possum Kingdom Resort down below us:

The other is a panoramic shot that Fred took while we were cruising the lake:

The ride back to Dallas was pleasant, and when we got back we had dinner and thanked Mike for an enjoyable weekend.

You can use the links below to continue to another photo album page.

October 21, 1995: A Visit to the Dallas Arboretum
October 1, 1995: A Bike Ride to the Dallas Arboretum
Return to the Index for 1995