Wave Bye-Bye? That Ill-Conceived Whitewater Feature on Trinity River Nearly Claims a Life.

On May 5 I wrote a column about the city's bungled "whitewater feature" in the Trinity River -- a fake rapids for kayaks that cost $4 million to build -- and I included the following observation about a so-called safe bypass around the fake rapids for canoers:

"One powerful current slams you hard from the left. Six feet later an even more powerful current hits you from the right. Just when you're going through that wringer, the water drops steeply and tries to make your canoe stand on end. It's like canoeing a giant Cuisinart."

On May 10, Dallas Mayor Dwaine Caraway joined Gail Thomas and Mary McDermott Cook of the Trinity Trust, a private group backing the Trinity River Project, in unveiling a new "paddling trail" for the portion of the river that includes the fake rapids.

On Saturday May 14 Theresa Patterson, 52, and Dathan Miller, 57, attempted to kayak that portion of the river. They describe themselves as fairly experienced kayakers but not experts. They are experienced divers. He is a rescue diver.

They scouted the river the day before and the day of their trek. They could see that the water going over the fake rapids was too strong for them, but a man who identified himself as an engineer at the city's ongoing construction site at the "wave" told them they would be safe going to the far side of the river and passing through the canoe "bypass."

The bypass is supposed to provide safe passage for families and others in canoes who would not be able to survive the rapids. Generally speaking and for most people, kayaks are safer in whitewater than canoes.

The feature itself is two dams all the way across the river. On the right is a broad area of turbulence for kayakers. On the far left are the two narrow concrete walled chutes for canoes, one just downriver from the first.

Miller and Patterson passed a set of signs erected by the city -- one telling them to use the canoe bypass, the other saying not to use the bypass, as they remember it, another telling them to portage.

The problem is that in order to cross a moving current in a river the size of the Trinity, you have to begin doing it at least 100 yards before the point where you need to wind up. They decided to go with what the construction engineer had told them and go for the two bypass chutes on the left-hand bank.

Miller went first and disappeared beneath the foam at the bottom. Just as Patterson hit the first of two narrow walled waterfalls making up the bypass, she saw him pop back up to the surface at the bottom of the second one. He had survived it. But at that moment, she was in it.

"I was kind of surprised by how steep the first waterfall was," she says. "I really wasn't expecting a serious drop on a canoe bypass. My kayak was fine with that part of it. But I was surprised. I managed to handle that, center-line perfect, and went into the second one.

"I was almost to the bottom of the second one when some kind of a water-jet or something slammed me from the left to the right and literally slammed me into that wall that separates the bypass from the main wave. I slammed into it pretty hard, but I raised up my paddle and was able to push off of it.

"When I pushed off, I was aimed out where Dathan was, on river-left, but all of a sudden, I didn't even see what happened, but my guess is that the current pushed my boat over. It grabbed the nose of my boat. Even though I was aiming slightly river-left, it pushed me the other way, and all of a sudden I was underwater.

"I didn't even have a moment to see what happened to get me there. I maneuvered to right the kayak, and immediately something slammed me back down again, and I realized I wasn't going to be able to spin it.

"I pulled out of the boat and came up beside it. I thought, well, I'll just swim out of it. Normally if you're in turbulence and you get dumped, you can just swim out. But it teased me. It look like it was going to work, and all of a sudden something grabbed my ankles and I was underwater again."

Five times. She tried to swim out, and five times the powerful vortex created by the city's "safe" canoe bypass grabbed her and pulled her underwater again.

The whole time, Miller was battling furiously to paddle in to her, trying to get at least close enough to throw a safety rope, but the current kept pushing him away. He watched her go down and down again.

"I was wearing good flotation gear," she said, "but it wasn't helping."

She was in the whirlpool for 10 minutes.

"I'm getting really tired of getting jerked under the water. I'm getting very, very tired, and that's scaring me, because I realize I'm losing energy at a very fast rate."

Finally Patterson came up with an escape strategy. She could feel powerful currents around the top of her body pulling her back into the whirlpool but strong current beneath her pushing out into the center of the river below the whirlpool.

Her boat had been whirling around her all this time. By grabbing the boat and pushing it down, she was able to fill it with water. Once full of water and only partially floating, the boat became a kind of weighted sail down in the lower current. She dove underwater with it, held on, and it pulled her out to safety at last.

Patterson told me she was very close to dying out there. She said a group of men at the city's construction site stood on the bank and watched in silence the whole time.

Somebody at City Hall knows what they've done. Somebody has a conscience. Someone knows that kids and mothers and grandpas are going to go through this thing, and their deaths will be on the hands of the fools who have promoted it. Somebody needs to go out there at night with a big Caterpillar tractor and rip this piece of junk out of the damn river.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze