This morning, Charles Allen, who runs Trinity River Expeditions, pulled his white 15-passenger van into the parking of the Sylvan Avenue boat ramp, positioning the bulky vehicle so he could easily move the neat stack of green canoes towed in back a little closer to the water's edge -- a habitual parking practice, no doubt. Stepping out of the vehicle with his long hair grazing his gray T-shirt and wearing hiking sneakers and a tan camping hat, he looked every bit the Internet-shunning nature lover that he is. It's too bad today's potential customers were pillaged by the heat; he came to the area not to lead a tour but simply to stare at the river while talking to me about how damned hot it is.
While Dallas summer 2011 has achieved the climactic equivalent of hell on earth, it's downright turbulent for Allen. This year's sweaty season, always accompanied by a late-summer ebb in business, began with the city's Standing Wave project -- the city's concrete white-water-creating structure that is presently unfit for human use. By now, surely you know all about Allen's run-ins with the city over this boondoggle.
Several months ago, Allen, a 30-year Trinity canoeing veteran, had heard rumors of the Standing Wave's creation, but only realized construction was underway at the start of the summer, when he sent people downstream in canoes, only to have them tumble in a churning mix-master of heaving water. Unhappy customers, to say the least. He's used to the Trinity's unpredictable floods and low times, but this was something else altogether. Allen has since stopped taking clients along what was his most popular route, from Sylvan to Loop 12.
It was clear from the outset: This summer wouldn't be easy.
"It's Monday morning. This is as cool as it's gonna get," Allen said, greeting me at 8 a.m. this morning in the Sylvan parking lot -- a river access point that will be closed for months when the Sylvan bridge is repaired. "It's gonna goof me up real bad," Allen said, all too familiar with that very feeling.
"It's weird," he says. "In March and April, we had beautiful weather, and nobody wanted to go canoeing ... Then when it got hot, for some reason it picked up." And now that its hotter than hot, business is back to slow, one to three clients some days, zero most. Allen hosts guided trips on the second Saturday of every month, and while he launched 15 canoes at the May event, he expects only five to 10 this month, 10 being very optimistic by his estimation.
The heat means not only limited customers but also limited hours. Lately, he begins a tour at 8 a.m. and finishes by noon, since an afternoon boating jaunt would be ill-advised. And if people think they're going to cool off in the river, they're sadly mistaken, Allen says, citing pollution, a rich microbial environment and clawing humidity adding to the desire to swim in the water that can give you any number of bacterial infections.
"It just drives me crazy ... wears me out ... it makes me worry about my customers," he says about the heat, his "biggest hazard." He often makes special stops for customers to pick up extra water. A gallon per person per tour isn't overkill, he says.
He knows. He's been leading tours for more than 20 years. "This is all I do -- all river, all the time," he says. A dead vehicle, partially submerged, appears like a rusty glacier behind him at the Sylvan Avenue access point. It used to be a little farther upstream, but at some point it migrated to the area directly in front of the boat ramp. It's part of the landscape like everything else, he says. It's been there for about 10 years. Allen is unfazed. He says despite the Trinity's troubled reputation, he chooses to focus on the good stuff -- wildlife, trees, butterflies, minnows. Why waste time on the rest?
He looks past the Trinity's human-implemented imperfections, adjusts his touring plan to avoid the city's perilous Wave, guzzles extra water to bear the pre-noon heat and moves along.
"I would trade paychecks with anyone, but I wouldn't change what I do," he repeated several times throughout the morning, adding a word of advice before we parted ways.