Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Dallas Great Trinity Forest Flood -- Kayaking across the flooded forest

Kayaking the tree canopy in the 20 foot deep water of Dallas Great Trinity Forest

The easy to photograph shots of a flooded Trinity River made a splash on the evening news or social media feeds where a 100 yard walk down the levee from parking lots at Trinity Groves affords the hallmark postcard shots residents have not seen in years. For many, it is the first time they are discovering that Dallas is a city built upon the banks of a river. The Trinity.

Usually seen as an economic divide, a barrier that separates the haves and the have nots, the river is often more of an untangible figment of human imagination. Few ever see it as a big river with plans of it's own.
Time exposure of water coursing over the submerged Skyline Trail creating an interesting nocturnal effect on the water

A dwarfed Old Red Courthouse standing among buildings 100 years junior
So long has it been since the Trinity flooded that Twittering was something only birds did and instagram was something people would probably associate with a Western Union wire transfer.

The Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava had yet to open. It was that long ago.

It is beyond the neon lights of the city, down the river, past the channeled and bastardized levee protection where the river is turned loose and allowed to run wild. Down in the wilderness of the Great Trinity Forest.

It is here, where few ever walk, much less paddle. A place so quiet that one can hear their own heartbeat and the fluttering feathers of a bird in flight. That quiet. Inside Loop 12. A flooded expanse of riverbottom that is completely submerged with no dry ground as far as the eye can see. An area so large that both Dallas bedroom communities of Highland Park and University Park would fit inside of it with room to spare.

Paddling from Pleasant Grove to Joppa and back

A flooded fifteen acre wildflower field behind Big Spring under 12 feet of water. Looking north.

The novelty of paddling from Pleasant Grove to Joppa has always been on a bucket list of sorts. The ease of crossing flooded timber and venturing into areas which are usually impassable swamp. The high water makes the usually treacherous terrain of traversing the woods a breeze. If you know where to go. It is the river in the raw. The beautiful waterscape of flooding areas. Coupled with the redeeming quality of time that begins a healing process from sustained drought.

Paddling across the ONCOR right of way from Big Spring towards Joppa
Floating the flooded timber of the Great Trinity Forest with a brief opening in the treeline exposing Downtown Dallas some three miles distant

With Sean Fitzgerald and Dallas Police at Joppa during Tropical Storm Bill checking out the immense flooding

Texas Task Force One recovering boats at Loop 12, Joppa Preserve

It seemed necessary to wait till the water receded completely before posting such photos. The water looks placid and calm to a novice. The reality is a dangerous mix of currents, uneven flows and unknown obstructions. With the endless drumbeat of news stories featuring kayak deaths on the Trinity in 2015.

The Trinity even in normal flow conditions can bark and bite with a full set of teeth. During high flows those teeth turn into venom filled fangs that rival western drainage whitewater features. High water renders the Trinity Trail bridge over the river near the Audubon Center into a death trap. Any bridge, column or benign obstruction become a vortex of eddies and whirlpools.

Loop 12 Boat Ramp turns dangerous with currents that would kill the strongest of swimmers
There are places in the Great Trinity Forest where no man has ever walked or visited. Impossible to say such a thing inside Loop 12 but it is true. Places where the water is just deep enough not to float a boat but too deep to wade. A flood changes that.
The historic Bur Oak at Big Spring with a blanket of winecups in the foreground serves as launching point across to Joppa
Launching from the 900 block of Pemberton Hill Road in Pleasant Grove off Lake June the transect across the Great Trinity Forest is a straightforward affair to Joppa. Unless one wants to wander into the unexplored.

Bryan's Slough
Up Bryan's Slough...with a paddle
One such unexplored and never photographed spot are the deep twists and bends of Bryan's Slough, also called Oak Creek. I suppose no one has ever quite decided where the name changes, perhaps US 175 is a good line of delineation. The slough is named for the John Neely Bryan family who once lived on the property. John Neely Bryan is regarded as the founder of Dallas.
Bryan's Slough, flooded. Narrow snaking passageways through acres of native hibiscus
In normal river conditions, access to the dense hibiscus groves on Bryan's Slough would be a hip deep slog through prime snake habitat. Conditions that make it impassable even to the most determined. During high water the paddle is still a tad difficult but affords a view or two that no one has ever seen. The sights here resemble that of mangrove swamp. Densely packed plants with narrowing channels and a labyrinth of plant built cul-de-sacs of dead ends.

Great Blue Heron with a water moccasin snake
The water in some areas in this section are still shallow enough to support the long legged Great Blue Heron. Seen above, surprised after being spotted by an unexpected kayak rounding the bend. Had the camera not been in a dry bag, the whole spectacle of coup de gras on the snake would have been captured.

In coming weeks this area will bloom into early morning brilliance with saucer sized white flowers of the native Halberdleaf hibiscus. The water loving plants put on a show that no human ever sees. A place remarkable for stunning beauty that no person will ever see.

Rochester Park
The endless Ash trees that are flooded as one approaches the river channel

Ash is the dominant species of tree in Rochester Park, Lower White Rock Creek and in areas earmarked for mitigation in the Great Trinity Forest. The photo above is in a planted mitigation area under 6 or seven feet of water. Drowned under all that water are hundreds of planted seedlings of various species from trees to understory plants. Should be interesting to see if any survive inundation for such a prolonged period.
Making a wake paddling the Lower Chain of Wetlands across an epic tropical sky

Cumulus clouds begin to build to the west and the south after crossing the river channel. Into the wetland cells where the trees have been cleared to allow for something the Corps of Engineers calls "conveyance". A popular term entering the vocabulary of many this year. The word takes on a sinister meaning for some, as a large piece of riverbottom is clearcut for a pedestrian bridge. Over a quarter mile's worth of trees.

The Flood At Joppa

It is a few miles downstream of Downtown that one finds the small community of Joppa. A place forgotten and cast aside by a hundred and a half years of less than stellar support by the city that annexed the Freedman's Community. The lack of infrastructure, lack of public services make Joppa a place with a lot left to be desired. But they sit on high ground and no home in the near sesquicentennial of the community has ever seen flood water.

It is below Joppa, where the city and Corps of Engineers funded the DFE Project known as the Lower Chain of Wetlands. A place that will never carry the eponymous designation of the community next to it. A series of ponds pumped with treated sewage during the dry weather is overbanked by the Trinity during times of flooding rain. The swales or cells have concrete gate structures on the downstream end that regulate flow and water height during dry spells.
The rip rap road structure a top the earthen dam between Cell F and G and Joppa
Dry land at last, some two miles across the Great Trinity Forest one finds first exposed land at the earthen dam bunkering Cell G in the Lower Chain of Wetlands. In the photo above, a thundershower cracks the evening sky over Fair Park and South Dallas. The thunderclaps in the humid air brings concussion with it. Loud reverberating across the near featureless submerged plain.
A Snowy Egret awaits wayward fish to spill across the dam between Cell F and G in the Great Trinity Forest

It does not take astute powers of observation to understand the power of water at work. The once tidy and utilitarian weirs and concrete have been altered by a touch of nature in all the flooding. Billions of gallons of water on their way to the Gulf of Mexico pass over this spot carving and weaving man's work into something else.

The damage to such places is hard to know. Even as the flood waters recede and the silt begins to harden into a near cement the tally in what man has built in the floodplain will be a hard price tag to determine. The Trinity River to some took on a larger-than-life appearance for a month. One that some downplay. To others it is a wakeup call that the Trinity is capable of prowess that humans have little control over. Things such as this ponder the mind as one paddles back across the river from Joppa to Pleasant Grove. In the muting light float of a fading summer's night it makes even those who think they know the river change their opinion on the place.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Horseback Riding The Trinity River

Texas Trinity River's Goat Island as seen from the saddle of a horse
Some of the first European American explorers to see the Three Forks of the Trinity River saw what we now call Dallas, on a horse. Accounts of bison, bear and plentiful deer were likely scribbled in journals from a saddle. The heavy brush thickets, triumph in the face of adversity and taming the wilderness of North Texas all offer the horse as the focal point of discussion.
Few see the Trinity in the natural channel like this south of town

Much has been written about man's exploration of the Trinity River by horse. The work to survey the land for settlement, the fierce battles to stave off Indian depredation, the eventual pioneer migration into Dallas County. The horse was a vital tool for traversing these bottoms.

The first settlers to this area were drawn by stories of the fertile lands, open range country and plentiful wild game. They were told that the land could be farmed so easily, that in a whole days of plowing one would not strike a stump, which were the constant enemy of cultivating in the other states.

Modern man has for the most part lost the art of riding a horse and the joy that can come from working with a horse over varied terrain and conditions.

The tall grass and weeds of the river barely reach the heels of your feet through this countryside. A delightful journey through thickets, dark shadows and bright wide open prairie.

Dueling Scissortails
A horse with a fast lope and good company makes for a rewarding visit to Dallas County's Goat Island Nature Preserve. With a wetter than normal spring of rains and flooding, seeing Goat Island on the established levee and old farm access road is a great adventure.

Completely staying off and avoiding the fragile mountain bike trails and footpaths, sticking to the dirt roads is best for the flora and fauna here who face a detrimental impact from horses straying off into the heavier brush.

Goat Island Preserve is a great place to ride as the established roads are hard packed and established with over a century of use. The roads date back to the turn of the last century when this was part of a large working farm. 


Indigo Bunting

Goat Island Preserve in Dallas County Texas, blue line is low road, red line is road following old Clint Murchison levee

Address 2800 Post Oak Road Trailhead at 2800 Post Oak Road Wilmer, Texas
From Dallas take I-45 south to the Fulghum Road exit, head east where it eventually turns into Post Oak. Trailhead is easy to spot at one of the 90 degree bends in the road. New trailhead parking lot and sign note the entrance. Parking spots are marked for passenger vehicles but not trucks with trailers. Since few ever visit Goat Island, parking crosswise along 4-5 spaces seems the best option.

One or two parking spots exist at the Beltline Road bridge but are not formal parking like the trailhead up the street on Post Oak.

The higher levee road(in red on the map) follows the top of an old levee road which runs the length of the preserve south to Beltline Road. The lower road which runs between borrow pits for the levee and the Trinity River is slightly to the east and meets the upper levee road at Beltline. A high water table in the area ensures that even during the driest of weather that the low road stays wet and muddy in spots.

Distance Six miles out and back to Post Oak
Jeff Lane

Jeff Lane and his family have been horseback riding in South Dallas for generations. For decades Jeff has been riding the river. A lifelong resident of the general Fruitdale area. Fruitdale was three miles south of downtown Dallas in central Dallas County. Some folks call it South Dallas or even South Oak Cliff. Fruitdale is the name.

The annexed land is now bounded by Fordham Road on the north, the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas tracks to the east, Five Mile Creek on the south, and Sunnyvale Street to the west. It was in the original land grants of J. K. Sloan and G. L. Haas. In 1886 the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railway was extended through Fruitdale. The settlement remained a quiet farming community into the twentieth century and annexed into Dallas October of 1964.

Through the 1990s and early 2000s Jeff tells me he had a volunteer agreement with Dallas County to mow areas around what is now called Joppa Preserve (River Oaks Park) and Goat Island. This basic maintenance with a tractor towed mower allowed access to horseback riding in Southern Dallas County. In addition to riding all over the river on a horse, he can often be found riding a bicycle along the Trinity Trail system from Loop 12 to the Audubon Center in the evenings.
Headed down the doubletrack from the parking lot on Post Oak Road. The area in the photo was once a formal farm and ranching area which sits up and out of the floodplain. The road splits around the bend with options for taking the high or low roads.
The lone cowboy noted in western lore never really reached this part of Texas. The hardened cowhands and the free range of cattle bypassed this area as western migration moved those pursuits west rather quickly. What Dallas did develop was a rich horse tradition based upon families riding their 640 acres of land, known as a section, awarded for service in struggle for Texas Independence or later during Peter's Colony settlement. A square mile of land often separated neighbors. The horse is what closed that distance.

The Low Road
On the low road, which is always wet. Always.
Up on the terrace headed down into the bottoms
Goat Island Preserve features two cutoff meanders that create islands in the river channel when the water is high. On the west bank of the river a large 1910-1920 era levee exists that runs from Post Oak to Beltline Road. Borrow pits rest on either side and a lower dirt road trail runs between the levee and the river. Towering oaks and pecans are prominent here among succession forest. Lock and Dam #2 sits on the Trinity River just upstream of the Beltline Road bridge.
The low road seen from the saddle
Poison ivy runs ten feet tall on either side of the low road in spots. The only way to travel is to just ride through the water, about 6 inches deep. Clear enough with a visible bottom, the horses love it. Some places it is hard to keep the horse from taking a friendly roll into the puddles where they can play.

Lots of playful splashing, horses love this kind of water
The rough leaf dogwoods are in full bloom in late spring here, sitting 10 feet high on a horse allows one to get a great view of some low trees and shrubs that cannot be seen from the ground.

The flooded road would make for a horrible hike and a terrible bike ride. Both those activities would be impossible. A horse can negotiate it all fairly well and other than the wicked swarms of mosquitoes it is very enjoyable.

Jeri D'aurelio and her horse along the Trinity River at Goat Island
About two miles from Post Oak Road's parking lot, the low road opens up and follows the river down to Lock and Dam #2. Recent rains and flooding have severely eroded the bank in many areas, slowly encroaching on the old lower road. Trail Steward Joe Johnson said that vast stretches of river in this area are losing their banks and trees at an accelerated rate.
In the far distance, Lock and Dam # 2 appears
Stock Certificate for Trinity River Navigation Company
On quiet and windless mornings you can hear the roar of Lock and Dam #2 before you can see it. A folly in man's quest to change the river. A folly in idea and design to build something in the riverbottom that would never fit. Every generation takes their own design to the river and it never works.

Trinity River Lock and Dam # 2 sits just upstream of Beltline Road. There are three locks on the Trinity River in Dallas County, #1 at McCommas Bluff, #2 at Parson's Slough/Goat Island and #4 near the mouth of Ten Mile Creek/ Riverbend Preserve. All were built between 1910 and 1916.

The locks and dams in Dallas County never saw much river traffic. The idea to harness the power of the Trinity into a navigable water way was abandoned shortly after World War I in 1922.

Leaps in technology with long haul trucks and improvements in road and rail capacity sidelined the effort to move commerce via the river. Ideas at rebirthing the locks and dams on the Trinity came in the 1930s, 50s, 60s and 70s. These ideas were fanciful pursuits for the most part, grand visions with no science to support the effort.

Jeff Lane checking out the dozens of alligator gar in the foaming water below the dam.

Today we are left with the concrete foundations of the locks, twisted metal and fallen flood gates. Lock and Dam #2 is the most photogenic of the locks in Dallas County. The water literally roars here with long vista like approaches on either end. The other locks are constrained to some extent in the river channel and don't have wide eroded pools on the downstream side.

Video of Lock and Dam #2 and Horseback Riding Goat Island

Each Boule Gate that was used in the lock was 24 feet high, 30 feet long and weighed 60,000 pounds. One gate formed half of a door, 1 door on the upstream end and 1 door on the downstream end completed the lock which was designed to raise and lower boat traffic.

Michelle Lane checking her horse in a grove of cedar elms at Lock and Dam #2

The construction of Lock and Dam # 2 required the closing of a subchannel of the Trinity called Parson's Slough.
Old map of Bois D'arc Island and Parson's Slough

The idea was to  cutoff a 14 mile stretch of the traditional stream bed for a more westerly course putting all water in one channel of the Trinity. The old riverbed became known as Parson's Slough and the 22,000 acre area surrounded by the new and old river became Bois d' Arc Island.

Jeri D'aurelio and Michelle Lane at Lock and Dam #2 at Goat Island Preserve
Trees, some rather large are calving off into the river below the lock
In 1911, the slough was permanently cutoff from the Trinity River near Goat Island Preserve. The same construction company that built Lock and Dam Number 2, built a concrete dam at the head of Parson's Slough where it meets the Trinity. Twenty feet high and two hundred feet wide, the goal was to permanently send the river down the new channel rather than risk a flood putting the river meander back in the old. Now buried under dozens of feet of silt, it cannot be seen from the west bank.

Mounting up and heading further towards Beltline

It sits near the outflow channel near the Southeast Wastewater Treatment Plant. Buried. Only during times of the very highest water flows would the dam become a spillway. 

Combined with some levee projects in the 1920s, this left Parson's Slough high and dry from the Trinity. The flood prone area now known as Bois d' Arc Island now serves as some of the very richest farmland in Dallas County. Much of which is owned by Trinity Industries for future gravel mining.
Through some young woods of Ash and Cedar elm, approaching a powerline right of way that connects the low and high roads
 The Upper Road

Riding just outside the edge of a Dallas County corn field
The higher levee road(in red on the map at beginning of post) follows the top of an old levee road which runs the length of the preserve south to Beltline Road. Until recently, trees and vegetation were allowed to grow on the levees. The clearing was to maintain the functional facility for higher flooding events on the west side of the Trinity. I would believe they offer marginal protection since they have not seen earthmoving improvements in so long.

The old levees today most likely still perform the job they were originally designed to provide. Protection from all but the very worst flooding that the Trinity River can dish out. These levees are about half the height of the Downtown Dallas levees and hold back the seasonal and annual floods of the Trinity. Beyond the levees millions of dollars in corn grows. A crop that would drown if flooded.

The dirt road here is much more open than the lower road. Here two horses can ride beside one another and conversation is much easier. There are only a few surprises along the route of note. In a few spots there has some been bore sample drilling of the levee with grass covered holes left behind. Care needs to be taken in watching for the holes which are just off the road in the high grass.

Time to kick it up a notch and letting the horses run on the smooth section of levee about a half mile from the end of the ride
 The levee affords a great chance to loosen the reigns and pick up some good speed in a lope, or even faster. Lots of photos on the ride down the lower road, not many on the high road back. Lots of up tempo faster riding were the order of the day here where the horses were let loose to run. Hard to manage an SLR in one hand and ride a horse 20mph with the other.

Where to ride your horse in Dallas on the Trinity River
Often people ask me where to ride their horse. Goat Island is the place. There are a scant few other spots like Dowdy Ferry @ I-20 at the Gateway Park there but the options will become much more restricted when the trails are paved over with concrete.