"I start thinking back. I watch Man Versus Wild [on the Discovery Channel], and Man Versus Wild says grab a stick, whatever you can use as leverage. I grabbed a paddle."

With the paddle as a lever, he pushed against the hard mud bank and was able to get himself back over to his boat. "I basically dragged myself up and laid across the boat and was able to pull myself up on it."

Their boats, by the way, were the super-buoyant "sit on top" models of kayak, kind of like thick surfboards. Hutchinson's maneuver would have been much more difficult in the kind of hollow-hull kayak that you sit inside.

Donny Hutchinson and Bret Bolton studied the West Fork and planned for a year before attempting their Fort Worth-to-Dallas paddle.
Sara Kerens
Donny Hutchinson and Bret Bolton studied the West Fork and planned for a year before attempting their Fort Worth-to-Dallas paddle.
Schutze and Charles Allen beneath the bridge at Loop 12 (Ledbetter), at the end of their Trinity River journey.
Edwin Spencer Jr.
Schutze and Charles Allen beneath the bridge at Loop 12 (Ledbetter), at the end of their Trinity River journey.

When we talked in the bar that afternoon, one subject animated Hutchinson and Bolton more than their tales of narrow escape. When they strove to describe to me the natural beauty through which they had passed on their voyage, their voices grew earnest and excited. They forgot their beers and finished each other's sentences.

In spite of thousands of tires and countless rusting cars in the water, the West Fork they discovered out there was a paradise. Bolton said, "Except for the bald eagle, we saw absolutely every bird of prey in North Texas, including... "

"Peregrine falcons," Hutchinson interrupted.

"Hawks."

"Vultures—both kinds—black and turkey. Kingfishers."

"Tons of kingfishers," Bolton added. "You don't see kingfishers around here. Every one of them must live in the river. You can't go 10 feet without seeing one. Herons, egrets. Amazing. Amazing. Red-winged black birds."

"And you know," Hutchinson said, "at some point in the year, there have to be bald eagles on that river."

"Night herons."

"We chased ducks for miles."

They saw one coyote. They saw countless tracks left by feral hogs but no hogs. While the hogs were shy, the beaver were gregarious. Hundreds of them came rushing out of dens in the river bank to watch the strange creatures pass by on yellow boats.

The two men camped in jungle hammocks hung from the trees above the banks, protected by mosquito netting from thick clouds of voracious mosquitoes that swarmed over them as soon as they left the water.

They pulled a few nerdy tech-tricks, like texting to a friend the GPS coordinates for a bridge they would pass later that day. When they arrived at the location, a small cooler full of ice and two frosty beers had been left there for them in honor of their journey.

At the end, they knew they had accomplished something real, Bolton said. "When we came out of the river, we both felt like telling somebody what we had just done. But we realized when we told them, they wouldn't actually understand it."

I asked them if they felt like explorers.

"I felt that way the entire time," Bolton said. "An urban explorer. Because no one ever goes down there."

Hutchinson was hesitant about the explorer thing. "People have done sections of river," he said. "But we did do the whole thing."

"It was almost a rediscovery of the river," Bolton said. "It's amazing that there's so much crap in this river. There's plastic everywhere. But still, even with all that stuff it's almost the best adventure you can get."

"The best," Hutchinson said.

"What else can you do to be by yourself alone that's kind of out there and kind of like adventurous?" Bolton said. "There's really nothing else. It's one of the biggest adventures you can have in DFW if not the biggest."

Of course by now you are asking: What about the water? E. coli, after all, isn't really a joke. And what about toxic chemicals?

It's a more tangled web than you might expect.

First off, the best reference I can steer you toward for dirty streams and lakes is the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's list of impaired bodies of water. Just Google "Draft 2010 Texas Index of Water Quality Impairments." If you search the list for "Trinity," you will find that the Upper Trinity River in Dallas has serious issues including bacteria, chlordane and PCBs. The West Fork where Bolton and Hutchinson kayaked isn't much better.

White Rock Creek isn't on the list, nor is Rowlett Creek, which runs from Collin County down to Lake Ray Hubbard—another very pretty stream I have investigated by kayak.

But Ken Kramer, director of the Sierra Club of Texas, says you have to be careful not to take the TCEQ list as permission to dive in without your nose plugs. He says the number of water quality monitoring stations in Texas is few, so some streams may not be on the bad water list simply because they are not measured.

"As you might imagine, if you don't look for a problem, you won't find a problem," Kramer said.

Kramer pointed out that bacteria are everywhere and some evidence of bacteria in water—as from the feces of wild animals—is not an automatic bar to all recreational uses. He also explained that there is a substantial upside to people taking a chance on going out there.

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