By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Ahead I see a mother wood duck and 12 ducklings scattered out in the center of the creek. I can't hear her yet, but she's definitely talking about me. The babies are all streaming quickly to her side. She bears for the far bank with her young in tight single file behind her.
I see trash—plastic bags hanging from roots and branches, floating beaches of rotten Styrofoam. But as I go farther upstream, the world around me grows deeper green and quieter. Suddenly I feel like Charles Marlow, the ferry boat captain on the Congo in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Maybe if I keep pushing upstream far enough I will find Kurtz, the mad ivory dealer. He should be somewhere in the area where Skillman Street crosses Abrams Road, a mile and a half east of Central Expressway. If I were Kurtz, that's definitely where I'd hang out.
Cell phone rings. Son in L.A. tells me about visiting a home the day before with a stunning view up into Angeles National Forest—a breathtaking panorama of mountains and sky. I tell him I am in my kayak in East Dallas staring at a half-sunken shopping cart.
But beauty, like gold, is where you find it. Same with adventure.
Before setting out, I talked to Randy Johnson, director of horticulture at the Texas Discovery Gardens at Fair Park—an urban bushwhack paddler from way back, a man who slides his canoe down steep mud banks at the end of a rope to find lost pockets of wilderness in the heart of the city.
Johnson told me he once paddled his way far up White Rock Creek, up into the Heart of Darkness, got out and struck overland through the forest to see what he could see.
"I found a homeless encampment out there the size of a small town," he said.
Dead ahead I see a long black creature sliding lazily across the surface of the water, thick as a man's bicep, head the tell-shape of a shovel. Water moccasin. Know him well. We have an old understanding. The moccasin's presence here is a marker not for wilderness but for wildness. I can pass him without incident, or I can be stupid and show aggression by shaking a paddle at him, in which case he will attack.
He is wild, not tame, and this place is his world. My GPS shows us at four tenths of a mile from Skillman Street. But his world is a million miles from the land of cages where I live.
A sharp odor assails me. I look around for it. Right beneath my paddle a dead dog straddles a branch, bloated, hairless, buzzing with flies, crawling with maggots. I was just about to hit it with my paddle.
As I paddle ahead the creek twists and bends, swelling to 40 feet in width, choking to 20, swelling again. Then the creek is barricaded all the way across by trash clutched in the branches of a fallen tree. The water is about four feet deep in the center, deeper in some holes, but I am able to get out of the boat next to the bank in water up to my calves. I crawl through an opening in the branches and then pull the boat behind me by a rope. Not far ahead I do the same thing at a larger trash dam.
Now I'm standing on a beautiful little gravel beach. The air is clean and green. Shapes of fish flit past my feet like shadows of birds. The water is semi-clear. I can see only patches of sky through a thick canopy of trees. When I stop moving, stop listening to myself, the world here is quiet and soft, a symphony of bird calls. And yet in the distance I can hear traffic at about the volume of far-away cattle in the country.
On the way back down to the lake and my car, slipping along easily with the current past the place where I saw the moccasin and past the stench of the dead dog and the cloistered ducklings, I round a bend in the creek and two enormous barred owls fly from the same tree in front of me, their diverging flight paths forming a V in the air. I bet Joseph Conrad would have done something very literary with that.
Weeks after I heard BJ Austin's story on the radio and after I had already explored some creeks on my own, I finally met Bret Bolton and Donny Hutchinson, the urban bushwhackers whose exploits on the West Fork had inspired me. Over beers at a bar in Uptown one Saturday afternoon in mid-May, they poured out their story, talking over each other like Chief Martin Brody and Sam Quint swapping tales of derring-do in the 1975 Spielberg movie, Jaws.
They have known each other and fished together for five years. Last year they shared a period of mutual unemployment and heavy fishing, during which they talked about doing a three-day voyage by kayak on the West Fork from downtown Fort Worth to downtown Dallas.