Sabine Parish is heavily wooded in west-central Louisiana, a favorite place of loggers and foresters for its pine stands and some hardwood bottom land that provides much to the forest products industry.
Tucked in the piney woods in the northern part of that parish is a 60-acre tract with a winding spring-fed creek and miles of emerald, moss-covered trails that look as though they belong in the land of Oz rather than Louisiana.
The place is called Twin Oaks, a name that comes from two large white oak trees that once stood atop a hill near the trailhead.
“I love it out here,” said R. Valmore Byles, owner of the construction company R.V. Byles Enterprises. Now retired, he and his wife, Mary, live in Many.
The Byleses bought the first 40 acres of the property in 1996. A few years later, they added another 20 acres. So far, they’ve cleared about two miles of trails. Val Byles, 79, often takes along a rake to clear the path as he and Mary stroll the trail that meanders along the creek, through the regrowth and loops past a pond.
Beside the pond is a cozy camp and covered porch where the Byleses have long enjoyed their forest land. Even before the camp was only a porch and shed-like restroom, it was Mary’s favorite place for the high school English teacher to grade papers. She quipped some of her students would hope she was headed to Twin Oaks after they turned in their assignments.
Now retired, Twin Oaks is just one of her favorite places to be.
Mary Byles, 62, knew the area well when she was a child. The land had been owned by extended family of the generation before her. Soon after buying it, she wanted to find the pond. The acreage had been logged many years before but not replanted. The wild, unmanaged growth made the search for the pond difficult.
“I said, ‘I know there’s a pond back here because I remember it,’ ” Mary recalled telling her husband.
Finding the pond was a challenge, Val Byles said.
“I had to fly over it to find the pond,” Byles, who also is a pilot, said. “Then I had to back up with a Bush Hog to get to it.”
It took years to make the two miles of trails, but that’s OK with the Byleses. Their son Blake, who has helped care for the land and make the trails, loved Twin Oaks so much, that’s where he and his wife, Lauren, built their home. The young couple is now settled in the piney woods an hour’s drive from their jobs in Shreveport, but they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Blake, 32, said he and Lauren, 24, enjoy the outdoors, nature, hunting and fishing at Twin Oaks. The peace and solitude of the area offers a contrast to the busyness of Shreveport where Lauren is a registered nurse and Blake is director of Business Development at Omni Industrial Solutions.
Val and Blake also have made their property available for an annual hunting trip for disabled veterans through the Wounded War Heroes organization.
The non-profit organization, provides the means to get disabled veterans in the outdoors, whether it’s hunting, fishing or just enjoying some time on the beach. It also coordinates trips to events like a New Orleans Saints football game for disabled veterans to enjoy.
The Twin Oaks hunting trip was organized with the help of Stefan Arnold of Lafayette, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 2001 to 2012. He did three tours overseas, two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He is an alum of Wounded War Heroes, so moved by its service to disabled veterans he became a part of the 16-member board that oversees the organization.
Through Blake Byles, Arnold set up a hunting trip in January. Three Wounded War Heroes spent the coldest weekend of the New Year hunting deer at Twin Oaks.
“This is the second year we’ve done it and we’ve already got everything lined up for next year,” Arnold said.
Army veterans John Ganske of Galveston, Texas, Thomas Lemoine of Youngsville and Johnny Roper of DeRidder made this year’s trip to Twin Oaks. The hunters saw 36 deer and each got to go home with one.
Hunting is an enjoyable part of the trip, Arnold said, but the camaraderie is more rewarding. Strangers with similar life experiences, like on this trip, get a chance to spend time in a positive environment: the outdoors.
“You can see the change (in the veterans who attend the outings),” Arnold said. “Everyone is reserved and quiet when they get in Friday night and by Sunday, you’re giving ’em a hug and saying they’ll get together later for a beer.”
The results of the trips, Arnold said, are everything from a great networking experience to “That trip saved my life.”
Founded in 2008 in Geismar, Wounded War Heroes consists of more than 170 disabled veterans nationwide. Veterans served by the organization must be at least 30 p ercent disabled, which means they could have a missing arm, be a double-amputee, suffer from post traumatic stress disorder or anything in between, Arnold said. Learn more about the organization at its website woundedwarheroes.org or on Facebook.
In 2016, Wounded War Heroes coordinated 116 events, including saltwater and freshwater fishing, hunting for pheasant in South Dakota and bear in Oregon and family skiing in Utah and Colorado.
The organization relies on sponsors and fundraisers of all sorts — 97 percent of which Arnold says goes directly to helping veterans — from monetary donations to providing a place to hunt, like the Byleses do at Twin Oaks.
Soon, Blake and Lauren Byles will have more family with which to share Twin Oaks. Lauren, 24, will soon give birth to the couple’s first child.
“I want them (his children) to enjoy what we had growing up,” Blake Byles said.
As for Val and Mary Byles, they will continue developing and managing their forest land.
“He builds the trails and I walk the trails ... well, we walk them together,” Mary Byles said.
Val Byles has been a member of the Louisiana Forestry Association since 2010.