Up a Nice Creek, With a Paddle

This, believe it or not, is an entire column about me paddling a canoe up White Rock Creek. Me up a creek with a paddle. That's gonna be it.

Well, wait. Of course I do see certain metaphysical significance. You don't think I would just take off and devote a workday afternoon to paddling up White Rock Creek if I couldn't guarantee my editors some metaphysical significance? In fact I was inspired to do it by my column last week in which I spoke with D Magazine publisher Wick Allison about his total turnaround upside-down flipperoo on the Trinity River toll road, which he now adamantly opposes. Allison spoke in round rippling tones about urban blight caused by freeways in Dallas and about doing something else, something better, with that land.

Especially because the toll road issue involves the Trinity River — the single biggest natural feature in the local landscape — I just want to make sure we also understand the value of doing nothing. By that I mean the value of leaving the land alone, working only to preserve and protect Mother Nature instead of slutting her up with architectural decoration and follies.

In particular, we need to shed a certain stubbornly ingrained notion that we have no natural landscape at all in Dallas, no out-of-doors worth going outdoors to see, that nature is a thing at the end of a plane ride. We are surrounded by natural beauty, but we never have had much respect for it. Ironically, our lack of curiosity about the local terrain probably has served to protect some of its most interesting and fragile venues. Anything the bulldozers came up against that could not be turned into a strip shopping mall or a subdivision, they turned away from, so it's all still out there. The trick sometimes is recognizing it beneath the white drifts of Styrofoam cups and rusting bones of abandoned shopping carts.

I would have paddled down the Trinity for you with Charles Allen of Trinity River Expeditions. He's sort of the latter-day Davy Crockett of Dallas, the urban pathfinder who knows where the city's bones are buried. But I didn't have time for the Trinity this time, and White Rock Creek makes the same point.

I did it the first week in May when the creek was deep green and loud with jungle-echoing bird calls, the air laden with the deep sweet fragrance of wild blossoming trees. And except for some trash along the banks and caught in trees, the creek was wonderfully free of debris.

Relatively wonderfully. You may have seen Dylan Hollingsworth's devastating photos of trash-jams in the creek published four years ago on Unfair Park, our news blog. I actually used to break through those in my canoe. Reminded me of a voyage I took once for a story on an icebreaking Coast Guard ship in Lake Superior. You just bang through.

I hope you also saw news coverage last fall of a great volunteer cleanup effort involving photographer Justin Terveen, former City Council member Angela Hunt, several White Rock Lake support groups and the city of Dallas Park and Recreation Department. People were out there scooping tons of really nasty-looking stuff into their canoes.

Had I been there (I was not), I would have had a sharp eye out for one of those water moccasins I see occasionally on the creek. If you're a Yankee like me and you don't know yet what a water moccasin is, it's a snake the same size around as Josh Brent's biceps with a white mouth and fangs so scary just looking at them will make you think, "Oh, and I did so want to enter the afterlife with clean trousers." But they leave you alone if you leave them alone. Thanks to those selfless efforts last year and continuing work since then, the great bulk of the trash is clear from the creek.

By the way, I hat-cammed my trip for a video that's even more boring than this column, which you can find on YouTube by Googling "Jim Schutze White Rock Creek." I don't know why it's so loud. Some of the noise is traffic and airplanes, but most of it, believe it or not, is wind in the trees. Look, it's a hat-cam. Originally my video was over four hours long, but the last three hours and forty minutes were of the inside of my pocket. I did a lot of very difficult editing on this thing, all for you.

Let me tell you my favorite part of the whole trip. You can sort of see this in one part, but not very well. It's at about one minute six seconds into the video. Listen for high-pitched cheeping and then look along the banks for little tiny things skittering along the water.

Apparently the day I went up the creek was wood duck swimming lessons day. Around almost every bend, I came upon families of wood ducks. For a nature-lover I'm a terrible naturalist, and I don't really know much about wood duck family structure, but it seemed to me there were both male and female adults guarding coveys of anywhere from five to 10 tiny wood ducklings. This is how it went:

Schutze Paddles Up White Rock Creek from Voice Media Group on Vimeo.

Here comes me around the bend in my canoe, banging my paddle on the boat, coughing, cell phone ringing, a three-ring circus drifting into these delicious little bays and oxbows where no loud sound has been heard for hours until I get there. The wood duck parents hear me coming way around the corner, so they shoo all of their young up into black shadows behind dense roots hanging like witches fingers from the bank to the water. I see nothing.

But I'm too loud and scary. Invariably the ducklings all lose it when I get near and start screaming and cheeping. They race out onto the water in a panic. And here is where the adults come into play. One adult flies out after the ducklings, herds them, gets in front of them and then leads them away from me. But the second adult — or is it the first one coming back? — flies almost right at me, crashes into the water and then does this fabulous impersonation of a wounded duck barely able to swim, enticing me to chase it in a direction away from where the ducklings disappeared.

It's like, "Oh here I am, big-boy, I'm your dinner, right here, sport, you could probably get me with that big fat paddle you keep banging around with, and I promise not to suddenly recover and fly off the second you turn toward me."

Would my own mom have done that for me? I guess. Up to a certain age. Forty?

The scent of the blossoming trees leaning out overhead was intoxicating. Here again my naturalism fails me. I don't know what brand they were. That evening my wife walked me through several possibilities by showing me tree photos online, like looking at mug shots for a burglar, but I was hopeless. Now I think she thinks I never went to White Rock Creek. That's one reason I put that video up.

There are other times of year, in the fall for instance, when White Rock Creek is much more of an acquired taste. In fall the leaves fall, leaving the trash caught in branches more visible, and on some days instead of the intoxicating perfume of blooming trees you catch whiffs of something more like Tide detergent. I wonder if it's lawn fertilizer.

But I still go. The birds are there and every once in a while if I do manage to make myself quiet I catch sight of a furry non-dog non-cat critter peering out at me from the bank. That's how I describe them later to my wife — a beautiful furry non-dog non-cat that looked at me. She just stares at me.

In the 1840s the Beeman clan floated to Dallas from present-day Tarrant County in a flotilla of dugout cottonwood trees and settled on White Rock Creek somewhere not too far from where I was paddling. Years later and late in life, one of the children answered a reporter's question about where they got their supplies:

"We didn't get a great many supplies for the first few years," W.H. Beeman said, "but what we did get were hauled by ox wagon from Shreveport, Louisiana, over 200 miles distant. We lived principally on honey, venison, wild turkey, bear and buffalo meat, all of which was abundant. I have killed buffalo right around the Fair Grounds over there and lots of bear in White Rock and Trinity bottoms. Deer and turkey could be seen any time all around here. Every morning we could hear turkey gobblers along the creek."

I will not blame you one bit if you write this off as just me trying to find an excuse to go canoeing on a workday. Hey. Human beings are complex. We all have many motives. But I swear this is what I feel when I paddle up White Rock Creek or float down the Trinity with Charles Allen or tramp on the growing network of trails that take you out through the urban/suburban woodlands: I feel that I am having my little moment back in the Dallas of the Beeman clan, those incredibly brave and hearty pioneers who paddled here in big lumbering dugout canoes.

I bet when a Beeman saw a water moccasin hissing its fangs at him, he thought, "Breakfast!" One good whop with that paddle. That's who probably taught the wildlife to fear paddles so much. Not me, for sure.

If we can really rescue the Trinity River from that terrible toll road idea, then we can rescue all of this. What could be more wonderful?

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