As part of the Trinity River project, Dallas promises to develop this area as a great urban wilderness park one day, presumably after it finds the money to mow the grass in the parks it already has. If Joseph Conrad's Kurtz is out here somewhere today, he's probably cooking meth instead of dealing in ivory tusks.

Along some stretches, the black mud banks soar up 50 feet above the river. At the tops of the banks, a wall of trees rises another 80 feet. No sound of man is here. Leaves clattering high above us sound like disembodied voices. An enormous gar—a prehistoric fish with heavy scales and long toothy jaws—rises and swirls just ahead. It's half the length of a paddle.

We slide down along limestone ledges glistening with water from springs and seeps deep in the woods. A huge heron lifts up from a log in the center of the river ahead and flaps off downriver like a visitor from Jurassic Park.

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.

We come to the mouth of White Rock Creek where it meets the river. Allen turns the canoe up the creek so we can explore. How strange, almost sacred, to find this place where such a public feature of our lives carries its secrets back to the sea.

Allen points out "shell lenses" in the riverbanks—places where Native Americans camped for centuries, feasting on freshwater mussels and creating huge mounds of discarded shells, the faintest outlines of which now appear in the eroding banks.

There are far fewer plastic bags the farther from downtown we go, although they bloom again after every bridge. Allen tells me he sometimes looks at long rows of bags flying in the breeze on the tips of branches and thinks of Tibetan prayer flags.

I wonder. Getting rid of the bags, cleaning up the chemical runoff from lawns, pulling out the junk: all of those are only decisions. Acts of will. What if we did it? What if we do it? What will this river be then?

I ask him if he ever canoes on rivers other than the Trinity.

"I did back in the '90s," he says, "when I was doing a lot of white-water canoeing. Then I realized I was spending too much time canoeing and not enough time on my guide business."

We paddle along in silence for a while. Behind me at the stern he says, "I think it's important to explore other rivers. It gives you an even deeper understanding of your home river."

Tell me about it. I'm not sure I even understood I had a home river until today.

I wanted to see what the answer was: What would the main stem of the Trinity just below downtown Dallas look like if it were cleaned up? So today, a warmer day in mid-May, we are kayaking the Elm Fork of the Trinity River through an undeveloped and pristine area from just below the dam at Lake Ray Roberts, about 40 miles northwest of downtown Dallas, to a point five river miles south of where we started.

With me in another kayak is Ed Spencer, one of the best unpaid hunting and fishing guides in North Texas. You have to know him.

The descendant of many generations of North Texas hunters and fishermen including an Olympic rifleman, Spencer is also a former spokesperson for the Dallas Police Department and the Dallas County Sheriff. A big man with an easy smile that should not be mistaken for innocence, Spencer is what I would call the ultimate casual-attitude anti-REI outdoorsman.

Today, for example, I have shown up with various expensive water containers and dry bags from multiple high-end hiking and paddling outlets, not to mention a four-piece packable emergency kayak paddle for which I spent a pretty penny. Spencer, on the other hand, tossed a bunch of junk in the bottom of his boat, bungeed a big old ugly beer cooler to the deck and paddled off ahead of me, happy as a clam.

Sometimes I don't think Spencer takes the outdoors seriously enough.

There he is cruising through overhanging branches, deftly steering through small rapids, keen eye all around. And we are definitely in paradise. So this is what it could be.

The day was hot when we were putting in, but down here beneath the canopy the breeze is cool and sweet with the scent of honeysuckle. Gigantic gar turn and splash in the water just ahead of us around every bend in the river. Ducks wait until we're almost on them and then fly from low branches.

This is not at all like those rivers in Arkansas where I have paddled between soaring cliffs and nothing like the little rivers I grew up on in Michigan, silver paths through sand and pine. The Trinity River here is a tunnel through a dense forest of cedar elm, American elm, willow oak, Southern red oak, white oak, black willow, cottonwood, red ash, sycamore, pecan and bois d'arc. Every bird species in the region has flown here for respite from the hot plains above. And what really takes my breath away is the realization that this natural realm—rich, not poor, beautiful, not plain, wild, not tame—reaches into the center of our city.

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