The state allows lower standards—that is, it allows more pollution—in streams where there is no evidence of recreational use. Kramer said if TCEQ finds that nobody ever goes into a stream anyway, "There is a higher than average chance that TCEQ will lower the standards" for that stream.

I asked him about Hutchinson and Bolton. By going out there, taking chances and just doing it, are they then blazing a kind of legal and regulatory trail for the rest of us? Won't they and people like them establish recreational activity on a stream, forcing the state to clean it up?

"Absolutely," Kramer said. "If they survive."

From the river you see huge piles of trees wrapped around the footings of all the bridges—detritus left by high water.
Edwin Spencer Jr.
From the river you see huge piles of trees wrapped around the footings of all the bridges—detritus left by high water.
One of very few signs of human activity along the Elm Fork below Lake Ray Roberts.
Edwin Spencer Jr.
One of very few signs of human activity along the Elm Fork below Lake Ray Roberts.

This is not to detract from what Bolton and Hutchinson accomplished—they are true explorers, because they are daring guys who pierced the myth and found the kingdom of nature in our midst. There are, however, more experienced explorers on the Trinity River and other area streams. Randy Johnson of the Texas Discovery Garden is one. And on the Trinity, the grand master explorer, everyone would agree, is Charles Allen.

At 53, with hair below his shoulders and a handlebar moustache, Allen looks like a cross between Davy Crockett and Chingachgook, the Indian guide in James Fennimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans. In fact he is a modest, soft-spoken careful student of the Trinity River and of river geography in general.

Allen has explored the Trinity for more than 30 years. Today on a cool morning in early May he and I are paddling down the Trinity in a 16-foot Old Town canoe, one of 19 boats he uses in his business as a river guide and outfitter—Trinity River Expeditions. We put in at 9:30 a.m. this morning at the Sylvan Avenue bridge boat ramp and will paddle to the take-out at Loop 12 (Ledbetter), a distance of about 10 river miles which, he says, we should accomplish in five hours.

Yeah. There's a reason man invented motors.

Even when we are still inside the barren downtown levee system, before we enter the Great Trinity Forest at the Corinth Street bridge, the river is powerful and broad-shouldered. Maybe because we are on it, paddling along its surface like a water bug, the river feels bigger and more important than the distant towers of downtown or even the bridges soaring overhead.

I'm in the front of the boat, where one merely paddles. He is in the back, where the steering is done. The day is overcast and mild.

Allen knows better than to believe the story about Dallas having no reason for being. The city was settled in the 1840s where several important overland trails converged at a ford over the Trinity River—an important means of communication and travel.

"There was river-boat traffic on the Trinity probably up into the 1920s," he says, seated behind me. "It was a way of moving big loads, lumber and machinery and so on. By then we were probably talking some kind of diesel power with a screw or propeller. Before that, it was paddle wheels."

I am a longtime, openly declared, way-out-of-the-closet non-fan of the fake suspension bridge. As we glide beneath its construction site, we see enormous steel members of the bridge un-erected, dormant in the mud, a monument to civic glory interruptus. All that money, and what a shame. They could have just come down here and gone for a paddle.

The river chokes down to 50 feet in width at some of the bridges, where it runs faster, then splays to twice that width and slows down. Allen tells me the water is moderately low today but good.

He is not the type to keep up with water volumes by using an iPhone app. After 30 years, he can take a glance when he's coming over the Sylvan Avenue bridge and know immediately whether he will put boats in the water or send everybody home because it's either too low or too high.

As we paddle, I ask him about a man who died in a canoe on the Trinity in July 2008. The man was not one of Allen's clients, but Allen made inquiries into the incident and spoke with the man's canoeing partner, who survived. Allen tells me the two men came to one of the old lock and dam sites built at the turn of the century in an effort to make the river navigable for large barges.

By the time they were able to get a good look at the obstacle, they were already in strong current and decided to punch through, as Bolton and Hutchinson did at the collapsed railroad trestle on the West Fork. But this roll of the dice cost one man his life.

"When in doubt," Allen says, "get out."

You can make mistakes out here and die. This is not Six Flags.

And now at Corinth Street, we pass out of the walled confines of the levee system and into the "Great Trinity Forest," an area of about 6,000 acres of land, treated historically by Dallas as a dump on unusable flood plain, much of it never settled or developed, now thickly grown in native trees and invasive species.

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