By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The Trinity, the biggest river contained entirely in Texas, is either more than 700 miles of river or more like 425 if you don't count its various forks. The West Fork arises in Archer County about 125 miles northwest of Dallas and flows through Fort Worth on its way here to join the main branch of the Trinity near the intersection of Loop 12 (Walton Walker) and Irving Boulevard.
Fort Worth, for whatever reason, has been able to complete a lovely remake of the river in its own downtown, replete with kayaking white-water features. Dallas, meanwhile, has stumbled for 15 years without ever getting any of the basic features of its own river project off the ground, unless you count the footings of one make-believe suspension bridge designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, now in a state of suspended suspension while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decides whether it can be safely completed.
The Fort Worth project does not include any faux suspension bridges and certainly does not include anything like the controversial high-speed multi-lane highway that Dallas wants to build out between its flood control levees where floods occur. Maybe that's why Fort Worth's Trinity River project is complete and ours is stuck in the mud.
There is great public focus, then, on the Trinity River in downtown Fort Worth and great focus again 30 miles east in downtown Dallas but no focus on the stretch of the West Fork that meanders from Fort Worth eastward, mainly north of I-30 (Tom Landry Freeway) through Arlington and Grand Prairie.
So what made two responsible family men decide they wanted to mount yellow kayaks and paddle from one city to the other on that abused and forgotten body of water?
Bolton, a 38-year-old Unix software engineer and father who lives in Irving, told me he had read an article about some guys who paddled through Houston on Buffalo Bayou to the Houston ship canal.
"It sounded terribly fun and terribly disgusting at the same time," he said.
Hutchinson, a 34-year-old research technician and soon-to-be first-time father who lives in Fort Worth, said, "Bret and I thought about this for a full year."
Hutchinson, the experienced backpacker of the pair, provisioned them with ultra-light cooking gear and freeze-dried food. Bolton had the two kayaks they needed. Both men studied the system of reservoirs that release water into the West Fork.
If the lakes upstream from them released no water or small amounts, then the water in the river where they were paddling would be too shallow. But if the lakes suddenly released large amounts, the water in the river might be dangerously high and fast.
Bolton found the U.S. Geological Service Web page that posts notices of releases from dams and the downstream water volume. Hutchinson found an iPhone app that allowed them to keep track of the USGS information as they paddled. They timed their trip to avoid major water releases from the reservoirs.
"I looked at the river today on my way over here," he said the day we met. "We would have been killed if we had tried it with that much water in the river."
But then that was also what made them want to do it—the risk and sheer unpredictability. "Who's done this before?" Hutchinson said. "When's the last time?"
I asked how their wives felt.
"We tried very hard not to send out a vibe that this could be dangerous," said Hutchinson, the backpacker.
The river flows beneath steep banks walled by ancient trees. Right above the banks is suburban sprawl, but the two men did not see or hear or sense the world up there. They might as well have been on the Congo River searching for Kurtz. But on this Congo, the white water has steel teeth.
Each was in his own kayak. Bolton said, "The best rapids was somewhere between Highway 360 and Roy Orr Boulevard. There is a railroad trestle that has fallen into the water. We're getting ready to portage around it, and by the time I look at it, we're in it. So we punch right through it. When we get past it, I have the biggest, nastiest gash in the side of my kayak."
Hutchinson said, "We looked back, and we could see metal sticking out of it—re-bar and sections of the trestle."
Note to self: There is a big difference between white water in Arkansas, where you can get wet, and white water on the Trinity, where you can wind up with a rusty steel rod through your neck.
"There's quicksand everywhere," Hutchinson said. "One time we pull up to the bank for a restroom break. I get out and put my left foot in and it sinks up to my ankle right away. I put my right foot in, and it's up to my knees. I go to lift up my right foot, and by the time I put it down, my left leg is up to my thigh."
In seconds, he was in the sand up to his waist and still sinking, with soupy sand dangerously close to pouring over the top of his chest waders.