A corridor of bald cypress narrowed as Capt. Ron Gibbs guided the Graceful Ghost, the towering trees ever closing on the path to Big Cypress Bayou.
"Anybody know where we are?" Gibbs asked the men, women and children on his vessel, through an on-board public address system. "It's too late to turn around now. I sure wish I'd listened to you, ma'am."
Gibbs spoke that wish to Veronica Canchola, a passenger whose navigation Gibbs had ignored moments earlier. Canchola and twin daughters, Angelica and Diana, had come from Fort Worth with two other family members to take the hour and 15-minute tour through the history and mystery of the South's largest natural lake aboard the Ghost.
The twin exhaust jets of the steam-driven paddle-wheel boat, which had alternated cheerful spits of steam throughout the tour, slowed and deepened in tone as the boat crawled forward. Gibbs silently urged the Graceful Ghost forward while Capt. Wes McCalip minded the chugging engine one floor below Gibbs on the main deck.
A well-timed turn of the ship's wheel and suddenly the Ghost materialized on open water.
"Folks, I'm truly amazed that we got out of there," the captain called from the wheel.
Gibbs was not really amazed, nor was his partner on the deck below where another 13 passengers had stationed themselves. Both are licensed as captains by the U.S. Coast Guard, which not coincidentally came to Karnack recently to put the Graceful Ghost through her paces after an off-season renovation.
The Graceful Ghost's new life comes after acing its Coast Guard stability test.
Gibbs and McCalip, a former videographer for NASA, bought the Ghost in spring 2009 from Lexie Palmore and Jim McMillan. The wife of that couple dreamed up the Ghost 16 years ago when she found the 1890 blueprint to a paddle-wheel boat in a steamship museum she operated in Jefferson.
A former Mississippi steamboat captain herself, Palmore had the boat built to those historic specs. The couple now lives in Colorado, but Palmore left behind a copy of, "The Graceful Ghost Rag," a 1971 ditty that inspired the name Palmore and McMillan gave their watercraft.
The Graceful Ghost might be the only wood-burning, steam-powered stern paddlewheeler.
"We can't find (another) one anywhere in the world," Gibbs said. "Last year, when we started using that statement, we challenged people to find one."
The Ghost takes its passengers, four times daily, into intimacy with the shallow lake. The average depth of the 35,000-acre lake is 12 feet, but the looping tour track keeps to relative shallows near Karnack's shores.
McCalip remains a silent partner during the tours, except for tooting the whistle at key moments and barking at Stranger, a black Labrador retriever and able boat dog.
Up top, Gibbs negotiates the so-called boat roads that Caddo dwellers learn by heart to avoid cypress trunks unseen from the surface.
Capt. Ron, as Gibbs is known, points out intrigues along the journey — remnants of 1930s logging machinery that helped remove cypress tree population of undetermined longevity. The two eldest trees on the tour are 400 and 500 years old, Gibbs said.
"We have heard that there are some of the cypress that still exist that are over 1,000 years old," Gibbs said later. "There were thousands like that before the lake was logged."
The younger trees that still dominate Caddo Lake are coated in Spanish moss, creating a bearded backdrop for 200 species of birds and obscuring the view of beaver dens rising from the water in wooden stateliness.
Gibbs points to any one of 10 species of turtles when any appear, and he promises to holler if he sees an alligator or Bigfoot, neither of which would seem out of place when viewed from a boat road.
Gibbs points out a shortcut to Shreveport cut through the trees by the U.S. government in the 1800s. It's got a bureaucratic sounding name, Government Ditch.
He nods toward another boat passage cleared by slaves, and notes when passing the Turtle Shell area where a Caddo Indian village boasted 2,500 residents in harmony with the water.
Then he asks Canchola which way to turn, disregards her advice, and pretends he's gotten everyone into a fix. They'll have to leap into the knee-deep water to turn the boat around to face the other way, he says.
Then Capt. Ron miraculously guides the boat into the bayou — just a few spins of the red paddle wheel from its home dock.
"Folks," he called. "Thank you for sharing part of your day with us. We certainly enjoyed sharing this beautiful lake with you."