Jim Schutze Joins The Urban Explorers Who, Amid The Poisonous Snakes, Bacteria And Quicksand Of The Trinity River, Seek To Reconnect The City To Its Natural Beauty.

This is basically insane. I am paddling a kayak into a body of water most people think of as a sewer. What should I call this activity? E. coli kayaking?

It's late April in an unusually cool spring for Dallas. I launched my boat 20 minutes ago at the top of White Rock Lake and now am headed up the creek. With a paddle. And an extra paddle, as a matter of fact.

White Rock Creek rises in Collin County three-and-a-half miles southeast of Frisco and flows to White Rock Lake in East Dallas, a distance of 18 miles as the crow flies, but half again that distance in the meandering miles of the creek itself. From the lake it flows southwest another straight-line distance of 14 miles, meeting the Trinity River about six miles south of downtown Dallas.

Sara Kerens
Bret Bolton (left) and Donny Hutchinson were the daring bushwhack paddlers who inspired this story.
Sara Kerens
Bret Bolton (left) and Donny Hutchinson were the daring bushwhack paddlers who inspired this story.

I've lived in Dallas a long time. I love canoeing and kayaking but far, far from Dallas. The closest places I ever think of seriously for paddling are Galveston Bay, 300 miles south, or rivers in Oklahoma and Arkansas, 300 miles north.

And then there's the story about Dallas not having any nature. It's our origin myth: We're the poor little spot that had no reason for being except for gumption, by golly. Try kayaking in gumption some day.

But lately I have been hearing these odd stories. Urban legends about people who refuse to accept the myth—some kind of Indiana Joneses who strike out into the city's forbidden realms seeking the Lost Treasures of Natural Dallas.

So that's what I'm supposed to be doing today by paddling up White Rock Creek—not Indiana Jones, exactly. More like urban explorer E. Coli Clem.

At this moment I am in my small blue plastic kayak approaching a construction site where crews are building a new bridge at Northwest Highway. Two guys in hardhats are carrying a piece of steel on their shoulders in tandem across the old bridge just ahead of my kayak.

They stop when they see me, and then, while balancing the steel with free hands, lean over the edge, peering at the low, dark passage beneath their feet where I am headed. They smile and exchange meaningful shrugs, almost toppling the steel onto me. They catch it and continue across the bridge with their burden. Just what I need—Abbott and Costello.

The space beneath the bridge is dark and low—a foot or so above my head. I am paddling upstream against a mild current through reefs of wadded Styrofoam and other offal, which I don't want to examine too closely, except that I am keeping an eye peeled for poisonous water snakes. I know these "moccasins" or "cottonmouths" and have great respect for them based on past experience.

Here under the bridge, it occurs to me that this whole E. coli paddling thing was not my idea. On March 14, BJ Austin, a reporter with KERA Radio, did a story about 15 years of hold-ups and snafus in the multi-billion dollar project to rebuild the Trinity River—the part where it flows through the center of the city—and the problems with planned manmade lakes, levee safety, construction of fake rapids for kayakers and so on.

She opened the story with a quick snippet about two guys, Bret Bolton and Donny Hutchinson, who had just kayaked the West Fork of the Trinity River from downtown Fort Worth to downtown Dallas in three days, camping along the way. I was fascinated.

I phoned Bolton. He told me they had guerilla-camped two nights on the edges of golf courses and parks, paddled through sunken trucks and collapsed railroad trestles and discovered a kind of secret wilderness where most people are afraid to go.

So now I am trying to do my own cheapo version. And here beneath the rumbling traffic on Northwest Highway, I must make a decision. Go home. Or gut up, stop looking for snakes and dead dogs. Make an adventure of it the way I might have done as a boy.

When I was little, I lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which had a polluted river. We boys were warned never to go near the Huron River, so we spent long summer days building rafts and playing Tom Sawyer on the river. Like this stream, the Huron River was beautiful to us in ways more beguiling than any pretty park could be, probably because the pollution and scary trash kept the grownups away. I'm not sure how much I have progressed.

I decide to press on. The day is cool. When I break out into daylight again on the other side of the bridge the creek is running 40 feet broad and straight down a manmade channel. The surface is coal-black flecked with floating white cottonwood seeds. A tousled wall of green rises above both banks.

I pass beneath another bridge at West Lawther Road, and now the creek begins to dodge left and right between steep mud banks, back on its natural course. Huge old cottonwoods reach down with leafy arms almost to the surface of the water. I glide between their green fingers, completely separate from the man-built universe.

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