Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Where The Red Fern Looking Stuff Grows, Breakfast Hike At The Pemberton Farm

“I'd like to take a walk far back in the flinty hills and search for a souvenir, an old double-bitted ax stuck deep in the side of a white oak tree. I know the handle has long since rotted away with time. Perhaps the rusty frame of a coal-oil lantern still hangs there on the blade.”
-Wilson Rawls, Where the Red Fern Grows

If you could jump in a time machine and travel back to yesteryear Texas where would you go? What would you want to see? Who would you want to meet? If you like Texas history, serious deep woods, old artifacts and friendly conversation there is a place that still exists. Untouched by time and the city that has grown up around it.

Bill and Zada Pemberton, King and Queen of the Great Trinity Forest, Bryan's Slough
Back when Texas was in its infancy and Queen Victoria ruled the British Empire, the Pembertons called this part of Dallas home. They still do today. Possibly the only deeper roots you can find other than the Pemberton family tree in Dallas are the roots of the trees that grow down the terrace from their home. If you stopped the dialogue right there it would make for an interesting story. It goes far beyond that.

Bill Pemberton grew up in what is now called the Great Trinity Forest. Just west of the Elam road and Pemberton Hill road intersection. He shares a deep connection with the surrounding woods with his wife Zada, who grew up in Arkansas. They are a rare breed. Some of the nicest people I have ever met. I wonder if there are any other families living in Dallas where the street name still carries the name of the family that lives on it.

Joining me for the hike this day was Bill Holston. Prior to our visit neither of us knew the Pembertons other than an email exchange and a couple phone call conversations I had with Mrs Pemberton. Bill and I showed up at the Pemberton farm early on a Saturday morning. Ready to hike, we were invited inside where we were surprised with a full breakfast of waffles, pure cane Louisiana syrup, molasses, real butter, bacon, coffee and juice. Remember, we were perfect strangers up until five minutes ago.

After grace, a number of things were discussed over breakfast. Some of the background of their home and farming. Mr Pemberton is big on farming. He and his tractor plowed under Paul Quinn College's football field into a vegetable patch. Helping to turn Paul Quinn into the home of the Fightin' Okra. He has a real interest in educating people on where food comes from. How a field is prepared and how things are grown. In an odd full circle moment, Bill Holston said he attended a dinner where the guests were served food from the very field Mr Pemberton plowed. How about that. Note: I'm starting to think Bill Holston knows everyone in Dallas through two or three degrees of separation. That guy gets around.

At the conclusion of breakfast, Zada had a collection of photos and videos on her computer taken on their property and in the Great Trinity Forest. She is a great photographer. When their lower meadow fills with wildflowers in the spring, they are both in the middle of it. When the Trinity River flooded last year, did they stay away? Nope. They went down to the Audubon Center and wandered around looking at the flooded trails. Really interesting photos. It dawned on me at that moment that the Pembertons were deeply connected to the land. More than anyone else. It's part of the fabric of who they are. Before leaving their home for the hike down to the spring, Mrs Pemberton had prepared a family recipe spice nut cake/bread for us, sliced and packed in wax paper, to eat on our hike. Using nuts collected from the nearby trees.

Archeological Management Survey of Sam Houston Spring

So deep is the history of this land that there have been archeological surveys done on this section of land no less than three times by my guess 1940, 1978 and 2009(inset left). The reports are over 100 pages in length a piece and still leave information out. The property has been the site of human occupation for thousands of years. As evidence, numerous flint tools, pottery shards, charcoal fire pits and even an Indian burial have been found within feet of the spring over the last 70 years.


John Beeman in the 1840s was the first pioneer to patent and own this land. His oldest daughter Margaret Beeman inherited this property along with her husband John Neely Bryan, founder of Dallas. Here they built a home near the spring and raised a family. Margaret Beeman eventually sold the land to Edward Case Pemberton in the 1880s. Edward Case Pemberton operated a dairy farm at this location and also ran a small store just down the road. He was murdered at his store in 1914. The land was inherited by his seven sons. Today the spring portion of the property is owned by the City of Dallas. Mr Bill Pemberton is a direct descendant of the second land owner.


During his last term as President of the Texas Republic, Sam Houston's main concerns were Indian relations, war on the horizon with Mexico and Texas annexation into the United States. Sam Houston, who had lived with the Cherokee people for years as a young man, had a fondness for the tribes and wanted them treated fairly as their lands were taken over by civilization despite their depredations against the settlers in Texas.

President Houston's Treaty Expedition Map
For months Houston sent messages to his Indian friends proclaiming he would hold a Grand Council of the Tribes at Fort Bird(presently in the Mid Cities area) during the full moon of August 1843. Similar to what we might consider a general assembly meeting of the United Nations.  Houston sent Indian Commissioner Joseph C. Eldridge out months in advance of the date to bring the Comanches and others to the treaty council.
It was in August 1843 when Sam Houston and an expedition of about 30 men departed Crockett in East Texas, and began their trek to the Three Forks of the Trinity to negotiate with the chiefs of the Indian tribes.  Their route was well documented traveling roughly on the same route into Dallas that US Highway 175 takes today. This route was an ancient Pre-Columbian trail used by Indians for many centuries as an important trade route between the Piney Woods of East Texas, the Plains and Indians living north of the Red River. Scyene and Preston Roads share similar distinctions in Dallas as ancient Indian trails that later became major roads.

One of the men in his group was an Englishman by the name of Edward Parkinson. He kept a detailed account of the trip in his diary. It's believed he came along just for the adventure of seeing real live Indians on the plains. At the time the Beeman family was still living in a blockhouse near present day Dolphin Road and Military Parkway. The account below mentions that they did not see the Beeman family until the next morning. This is because the Beeman family had not moved. There was a mix up in the titleholders of property back then. The land they originally settled was actually already claimed by someone else. The moved to the spring site shortly thereafter.

On the 8th day out from Crockett the diary reports:

Sam Houston circa 1840s
"We encamped that night at White Rock Springs, so called from the calcareous nature of the rocks abundant here about one mile from the White Rock Fork of the Trinity. In the morning some settlers from the infant colony opened about the Forks of the Trinity River visited us, accompanied by some travelers examining the country, they brought us no news of the expected Indians and were on foot, stating that some little time previous the wild Indians had stolen all the horses but one or two belonging to the settlement.

We then saddled up and proceeded to the fork at White Rock Creek which we found very difficult from the rain which had fallen making the bank on the other side one slide of about thirty feet, from top to bottom. We were obliged to dismount and drive the animals over, some of them describing curious mathematical figures, from their inexperience in the science of sliding. However, all got over safe,  and on reaching the prairie on the other side arrived at one of the colonist’s cabins{that of John Beeman} where we were regaled with an acceptable and plentiful supply of buttermilk. My horse(a mustang) having become almost knocked up, I determined upon resting here, and was hospitably entertained until the following day, the company in the meantime moving on to Cedar Springs, where they rested a day or two previous to marching on to Bird’s Fort on the West Fork of the Trinity the appointed Treaty Ground, great anxiety prevailing respecting the Indians but no news of them."--Edward Parkinson 1843

Parkinson was struck with the undulating grasses of the prairie which reminded him of the Surrey country in England. He noted the wooded creek bottoms “clothed with indigo”, the rich wild rye grasses and near White Rock specimens of beautiful purple thistle. Looks just exactly that way today on Lower White Rock Creek.


The first archeological survey in 1940 described the area as an 8 acre site. Recovered from the area were numerous flint tools, broken pottery, arrowheads, darts, charred fire hearths and an Indian burial of some kind. I have no idea on the age other than one description of some of the flint tools being from the Archaic period which really does not narrow it down much 6500BC to 750AD. It is obvious that this site was a focal point of human occupation for thousands of years. I'm not sure anyone in their right mind would ever drink out of the Trinity River, even 5000 years ago. As a result, little camps and such found on the Trinity always gravitate towards water sources other than the river. It has always been a river too thick to drink, too thin to plow.

I would take a wild guess and think that the spring site here would have artifacts about the same age as those found in Joppa Preserve. Joppa has a famous prehistoric bison kill site and an Indian burial. The human bones were carbon dated to about 700AD I believe. Only a 30 minute walk downstream, you would think all this would be of a similar age too.

The Trinity River bottoms must have been a well traveled place a long time ago. While there are really no signs of permanent settlements, little hunting camps litter the banks of the Trinity downstream of the levees and up White Rock Creek.


Big Spring in the Great Trinity Forest

The spring has undergone a number of name changes over the years. Called White Rock Spring by the Sam Houston treaty party, then noted as Big Spring on Civil War era maps. Later called Bryan's Spring and Sam Houston's Spring. I'm not sure what it might be officially called. It is not labeled on contemporary USGS topographical maps or noted in the Springs of Texas by Gunnar M. Brune. Springs of Texas is the encyclopedic reference to locating many of the natural springs in the state. For whatever reason, this one was missed. It could be that during the writing of the book in the 1930s, that the springs were forgotten, hidden away on the back side of a dairy farm. Since the land has always been closely held among just a handful of families, the location might not have been known.

In previous visits via a route from Rochester Park, I had only checked out the lower portion of the spring. This visit, accompanied by the Pembertons, they showed me where the water flows from. In the short clip below you can see the type of soil layers the water flows from(with impromptu commentary by Bill Holston, who cannot believe how awesome the spring is).

The water flows off of limestone bedrock(photo below) as a base with an aggregate gravel type material just above it. Using my hand I reached up into the water source and grabbed a handful of this weathered gravel material as it sat on the bedrock. Sort of a decomposed pea gravel. I imagine this gravel is from the Pleistocene Era. A time between 250,000 and 12,000 years ago when the ancient Trinity deposited orange looking sands on "terrace deposits" as the Corps of Engineers calls them. These are the same sands that are giving the Corps and the City of Dallas problems with shoring up the levees near Downtown. Some of you might have been Elephant Hunting with me too on the Trinity, where we have seen ancient animal bones sticking out of the river banks not too far from here. I believe 17 mastodon elephants were removed from this area in the past century during gravel mining operations.

Spring source, water running over hard limestone with gravel aggregate on top

The water flows out of the terrace in this area in 2-3 other places within 10 feet. Their combined flow is about 4-5 liters per minute. Even during the extreme and prolonged drought we are experiencing in North Texas, the spring still flows. I have no idea where the water comes from. There are no signs of a spring anywhere else in the pasture until you reach this spot.

Watercress and Walnuts in the spring

The spring is ringed with walnut and pecan trees. This time of year, November, the spring has a number of floating walnuts in it among the watercress. Mrs Pemberton mentioned that watercress really only grows in clean water. It was about that time, that Mr Pemberton drank straight out of the spring. He says he drinks from the spring all the time when he is out working in the pastures. Upon our return from hiking to White Rock Creek and the Trinity River confluence, Bill Holston and I stopped to check out the spring again. We too, decided to drink from the spring. When in Rome. I'll tell you, it is probably the best water I have ever tasted. No aftertaste at all. Almost sweet. I went back for seconds and thirds.

1934 capped well
Twenty feet or so in elevation up the hill and about 100 yards to the northeast is an old capped wellhead marked "1934" around the base. Mr Pemberton said that the well was 45 feet deep. The capped well sits at about 420 feet ASL and the spring sits at 398 feet ASL.

This historic spring only exists due to the conservation efforts of the Pemberton family. Without their hard fought efforts to fight the city, the spring would have been lost. In 1986, the city proposed building a large sewer line directly through the spring. Right through the middle of it. Ruining it. The Pembertons had to go down to City Hall, stand in front of the City Council and argue why the springs should be saved. I cannot imagine just how blunt of an employee or group of employees working for the city could have proposed wrecking such a historic spot.

The Pembertons along with a couple other concerned citizens won their battle. The city moved the sewer line 100 feet further away. Many old trees were still lost. Mr Pemberton on our walk around the spring mentioned an old Elm tree, one that he thinks must have been 70 feet tall, moan and groan as a bulldozer slowly pushed it over. He said over a dozen very large trees were lost to this project. Trees with historic significance, gone for a sewer line that could have been built a couple hundred yards further away and not have impacted anything.


High water mark of 1908 flood in Dallas, Texas
Located just up the hill from the historic spring to the northeast is a large walnut tree. On the east facing side of the tree is what appears to be a railroad spike driven into the tree. This was driven into the tree over 100 years ago note the high water mark during the ravaging May 1908 flood.

The Pembertons told me that in the last few decades the Rochester Park Levees upstream have increased the severity of the flooding on their property. With less acreage to spread out, the flood waters simply climb up instead of spreading out across the flood plain. Mrs Pemberton showed me a few recent photos where they had witnessed flooding reach and then surpass the 1908 spike on this tree.

In 1908 there were not any levees of note in Dallas protecting low lying areas. The flood waters spread as far as McKinney Avenue where the Downtown El Fenix now stands. Oddly, a couple people actually drown in their homes close to where the Dallas World Aquarium is now located. That flood was far worse than anything we have experienced in the last 100 years. But not for those who live downstream.


Bill Pemberton at Bryan's Slough explaining where his ancestors had to deal with beavers
Named for John Neely Bryan(I bet Bryan named it himself), Bryan's Slough is a loose confederation of water from the spring and a couple of other nearby water sources. Here a small man made ditch ties into a more natural meandering stream bed. The slough eventually ties into White Rock Creek and then into the Trinity River. Mr Pemberton above is explaining the hydrology of the flooding that occurs in the area and the beavers that were a thorn in the backside of his family in the past.

More recently, Mr Pemberton has fought a new battle with the inhabitants of the slough. Car tires. When White Rock Creek floods it floats old discarded tires from upstream into his beautiful collection of woods. The trees act as a fine tooth comb trapping old junk tires as they slowly float by. This section of the woods is now on property owned by the city.

It would be interesting to find the source of the discarded tires upstream. It could be the junkyards near 175 or they could come from the abandoned city owned neighborhood off Tune Avenue. This is a battle that so far Mr Pemberton has fought alone. Since this portion of land is now city park property maybe a corporate group looking to fulfill their community service obligations could lend a hand cleaning this up.

Later in the morning Bill Holston and I headed west towards White Rock Creek. We did not see many tires at all out of the stream beds. The problem with the loose tires must be from a location directly upstream. Either from an illegal dump site or a salvage yard with poor housekeeping.

150-200+ year old Bur Oak at President Sam Houston's Campsite

Bur Oak at White Rock Spring

This massive Bur Oak sits at the southwest corner of the spring complex. Hard to describe the massive size of the tree. The individual limbs are the diameter of most burr oak trees. During the last archeological survey of the area numerous flint pieces and Indian related artifacts were found around the base of the tree suggesting the age of the tree might be much older. The acorns of this tree are the size of chicken eggs. This tree would have been destroyed in 1986 by the Dallas Water Utilities. Their survey lines went right through the tree.

Today the tree looks as healthy as it could be. Mr Pemberton told us he would like for the city arborist to pay a visit and see if the tree needs any work. He pointed to a nearby elm tree with a large scar on it from where the tree lost a limb in heavy winds. He said that the hill turns the wind and can swirl it around in such a manner as to be detrimental to larger limbs.

Bust of Native American at "lone mesquite tree" site where numerous Pre-Columbian artifacts have been found
During the last archeological survey of the property widely spaced shovel testing near this tree yielded 19 lithic prehistoric artifacts. Mrs Pemberton placed the contemporary Native American head and necklace there. While standing around the tree during this visit, we were kind of shuffling our feet around when Mrs Pemberton picked up something that appeared to be a hematite rock shaped like a ball. Out of place in a field like that. I should have taken a picture of it. Mr Pemberton remarked about an old Indian who moved onto the property to the immediate south after the area was settled by European pioneers.


I know a number of people who are interested in knowing the exact spot where the Beeman/Bryan cabin once stood.

Archeology survey map published in 2009

The aerial map to the left represents the best known location of the Beeman/Bryan Cabin, outlined with a broken line in the shape of a square. The circles represent hand shovel testing done in an archeological survey. The black dots represent areas where artifacts were found.

Site of Beeman Cabin

Corresponding to the map above, I am standing at the northeast edge of the cabin site looking southwest. The rise in the background, center left, is the "Southern Topographic High" noted on the map. It's also the location of the lone mesquite tree with the contemporary Indian head. Spring complex is center right and down the hill, noted by the trees changing color.

Edward Case Pemberton Cabin Site

Mr Pemberton noted this site in the foreground of the photo as the location of EC Pemberton's home. It sits about 100 yards further up the hill from the Beeman cabin site and on private property still owned by the Pembertons.

To the immediate south of the Pemberton cabin site is the foundation of an old windmill and a slab or rock with a collection of old iron bits found on the property. The only one I recognize off hand is a wood splitting wedge. The rest are hard to figure out. I would imagine many of them could predate the Civil War.


Typical open forest along Bryan's Slough

We parted ways with the Pembertons later in the morning saying our goodbyes to our gracious hosts at Bryan's Slough. Bill and I wanted to see if we could reach the Trinity and the mouth of White Rock Creek. A nice trail exists beyond the Pemberton's lower pasture that gently follows the fence line marking an old property line. Moving west by south the trail takes you through an example of forest succession. I imagine much of this area was open land within the past 80 years. The trees are of the maturing pioneer type species that will eventually give way to larger mast bearing species.

The photo above is typical of what you see and quite easy to move through on foot. For those familiar with the Buckeye Trail just upstream, you might notice that the lowest sections of White Rock Creek lack any presence of invasive Chinese Privet. There is not a single bush. Not one. The forest in this section is really in nice shape. Very little trash compared with the White Rock Creek most people know in North Dallas. I think White Rock Lake and Parkdale Lake absorb much of the floating trash carried by the creek leaving the lower sections quite clean.

White Rock Creek roughly 1/3 mile from confluence of Trinity River, looking downstream
32°43'38.07"N 96°44'6.34"W
Like many creeks approaching the confluence with a larger river, White Rock Creek makes one last gasp at length with a wild set of meanders, twists and horseshoe bends. Some really unique peninsula features have formed as a result. Above is one of the more gradual bends the creek takes near the mouth. Fording the creek here seems impossible unless you are willing to get wet. There are dead fall trees across the creek in places where one could shimmy across.

White Rock Creek Logjam

The only logjam we saw was 100 yards or so upstream of the White Rock Creek mouth with the Trinity River. The logjam is quite large, 20-25 feet high, consisting of mature tree trunks and root balls. This effectively blocks travel via boat up the creek from the river. If one wanted to reach this area via canoe or boat you would need to portage on the east bank of White Rock Creek. The west bank appears to be thick muddy deposits from what I could tell.

Mouth of White Rock Creek at Trinity River

Above is the mouth of White Rock Creek as it enters the Trinity River, looking upstream and towards the northwest. The mouth here is about 40 feet wide and lacks a shoal which can be common in a mouth such as this.

Cormorants fishing near mouth of White Rock Creek
In the photo above a flock of cormorants aka water turkeys are fishing a deep pool in the Trinity just downstream of the confluence with White Rock Creek. If you click on the photo to enlarge it, you can see a few with fish. They look like either gizzard shad or maybe crappie about the size of a human hand.

We were wondering how many people have ever traveled to this spot by foot. In the last year it would not be likely anyone has visited .Two, three, five, ten years? Seems that the lack of access to the east bank of the creek due to crossing private property and just general challenge of reaching it via foot would deter many.
Downtown Dallas viewed from the Oncor ROW where Bryan's Slough crosses

I would imagine that visiting the mouth from the Buckeye Trails would pose their own challenges. The terrain is flat and the forest generally lacks an understory through William Blair Park(Rochester Park). The issue is the last few hundred feet approaching the river. The bank appears steep and unstable which would be hard to get down.

Coming down the Oncor ROW, there is a rock crossing of lower White Rock Creek, seen in the video clip from 2010 above. As of this posting, the weeds along the ROW are 10 feet high and passage is difficult. Easier just to dead reckon navigate through the woods rather than use the ROW.

A better way to visit this spot would be via canoe. On the east side of White Rock Creek a hundred yards or so from the mouth with the Trinity sits an interesting campsite.

Trinity River Canoe Camp with two beds strung using 550 paracord
32°43'27.07"N 96°44'0.79"W
Someone, I assume a canoeist, went to quite a bit of trouble to build this impressive lean-to structure and bunks. The bed frames are built from custom cut timbers and logs, then sort of dovetail fit together. Parachute cord was used to fill in the space and serves as a box spring of sorts. One bed was covered with leaves which I imagine serves as a mattress. Couple of low back chairs made from logs too. Whoever built it did a first rate job with the carpentry.

Canoe camp near mouth of White Rock Creek at Trinity River

When I see a special place like this I never mention it. Usually it's close enough to a road or trail that someone could show up and ruin it. However, this is a great campsite. If you are bold enough to make it here by foot or canoe you deserve to know where it's located.


The draw to places like this is the undeveloped setting in which they exist. Only due to the conservation battles fought(and won) by the Pembertons does the historic spring and the surrounding woods still exist. The city would have bulldozed the whole historic site if they had their way. In the late 1990s, the city piggy backed the White Rock Lake dredging pipeline right through their property en route to Wilmer-Hutchins. If you remember when White Rock Lake was dredged and the massive black pipes at Winfrey Point then you know the size and scope of what went past the spring site.

Mr Pemberton has a deep concern with how the city mows the property. The city owned tractors cut the prairie grass far too short which scalps it. Down to bare soil. This increases erosion and can send runoff into the spring.

I can tell from listening to not just the Pembertons but also their neighbors that the city is trying to cook up some kind of scheme in a land grab. Other properties in this area have been denied simple building permits lately for small outbuildings and sheds. Other properties have also seen swarms of code compliance officers descend on their land writing tickets till their hands cramp.

Personally, I would like to see a simple singletrack dirt trail run down the Dallas sanitary sewer right of way from Rochester Park to the Audubon Center. A very faint trail already exists. Formally connecting Rochester Park to the Audubon Center would allow a complete off street trail network from the Buckeye Trail to Gateway Park at I-20.

Another big thanks to the Pembertons who served as gracious hosts and tour guides. They are a unique treasure that is hard to find in Dallas.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Trinity River Beavers at Miller's Ferry Crossing

Beaver at Trinity River Wetlands Miller's Ferry near sunset

Tucked away in a desolate remote and forgotten part of Dallas resides a family of beavers. That's how most of my posts seem to start. Not so this time! Did not have to travel into one of the remote parts of the woods to find this. The beavers featured in photo above and youtube clip below actually live between I-45 and South Central Expressway in the heart of Dallas. Angry beavers. The kind that give you the stink eye and slap their tails. The video below has some tail slapping at the beginning, done to either scare me off or draw away my attention from wherever they live.

Video below of a beaver slapping it's tail. When the camera pans out towards the end you will see the South Central Expressway Bridge in the background.

Beaver at Trinity River Wetlands September 2010

I'm not sure what makes even the most vulnerable animals in the Great Trinity Forest so aggressive. Maybe it's the absence of human contact that generates a lack of fear. Animals like feral pigs and beavers that many consider to be nocturnal, can be seen during daylight hours here.

The beaver Castor canadensis is North America's largest rodent, and the world's second largest, after the capybara of South America. Beavers live in colonies of four to eight family members. Considered the best engineers among rodents, beavers construct dams with mud, brush, stones, poles, vegetation, and other materials to create safe lodging and a provide themselves with a good food supply.

Beaver Lodge in wetland cell north of Loop 12 Joppa Community

The beaver whittlin' on the stick above was a resident of the rather large beaver lodge in Wetland Cell G during the fall and winter of 2010-11. The beavers built their lodge right at the mouth of where Honey Spring enters the wetland cell.

Other than humans, beavers are probably the best animals at controlling their natural environment through construction. In the wetland cells they have it made since the water level is controlled via a series of flood gates and doors that provide a constant flow of water to the chain of wetlands.

The beavers are probably blamed for sabotaging the efforts of the Corps of Engineers to plant aquatic vegetation in the wetland cells. Below is an example of one type of cage designed to protect new plants from turtles and beavers. Some of the wire mesh enclosures are designed to catch turtles for replacement elsewhere. I think some of the Joppa residents figured this out and now enjoy turtle soup on a regular basis!

Ibis and juvenile egrets at Trinity River Wetlands

Seeing the beavers from time to time, it seems that they eat mostly soft wood saplings from the treelines and not plants in the cages. What the beavers don't eat, the Corps of Engineers tractors mow down on a semi-annual basis.

Beaver Lodge in Wetland Cells July 2011

By July of 2011 the beaver lodge constructed north of Loop 12 could not even be seen. Using mostly willow branches for construction many of the sticks took root and became small saplings themselves. This lodge might have been abandoned after Honey Springs went dry during the 2011 summer drought.

I have yet to see a nutria in this area. Maybe they are more nocturnal than the beaver. Last winter there were a group or maybe family of river otters in this same general area. I have not seen them in 2011.

More information on the Dallas Floodway Extension Project can be found on the official website here: Dallas Floodway Extension Project . The North Texas Municpial Water District operates a similar wetland on the East Fork of the Trinity River near Seagoville. Known as the John Bunker sands Wetlands. Their website can be found here: John Bunker Sands Wetlands. I imagine the Dallas Wetlands Project will one day be similar in scope to the North Texas Municipal Water District site. As it stands right now, the Dallas site lacks parking and the basic infrastructure needed to attract folks to visit.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Autumn Frost and Fog -- A Walk To Joppa And Beyond

Great Blue Herons in fog at Trinity River Wetlands October 30, 2011

Trinity River at dawn in Joppa Preserve

The last weekend in October proved to be a great time to visit the Great Trinity Forest in South Dallas. With the slow change of seasons from summer to fall complete, coupled with some recent rain and a strong cold front, the river bottoms entire complexion changed. Gone are the over summering birds of the tropics that fly from the Amazon to spend their summers here. The calls of the endangered Wood Stork, the Roseate Spoonbill and the Ibis are replaced by birds from the Arctic Circle. The Cormorant, Coot and Northern Shoveler now call it home.

This particular visit marked a number of firsts. The first frost of the season for the Great Trinity Forest. The first time I had visited the area before dawn. The first time I had gone down there sans mountain bike. I have mountain biked down there over 100 times but this marked my first true hike there. Meeting me for the hike was Bill Holston. Bill is a fellow SMU alum, noted Dallas attorney and frequent contributor to The Dallas Observer, D Magazine and KERA. He is also a Texas Master Naturalist and a walking-talking field guide on native flora and fauna here in Texas.

Our hike started at the Trinity River Audubon Center at dawn. Using a portion of the existing Audubon Center trail then hike to Joppa. We crossed the Trinity using the new multi-million dollar Great Trinity Trail and bridge that sits just south and east of the Trinity River Audubon Center.

Ground fog carpeted fields nearby as we entered the forest and crossed the river. On the bridge we spotted a hawk and a Crested Caracara roosting in a nearby dead tree on the south bank of the river. The Crested Caracara, often called the Mexican Eagle, is the national bird of Mexico and is depicted on their national flag. I saw one or two here last winter. Here the largest trees are native pecans. Old as time itself.

Foggy filtered sunrise among the pecans south bank Trinity River

Leaving the fenced confines of the Trinity River Audubon Center you enter a part of Texas few people ever visit. Nestled between the Trinity and a swale lake, the area rarely sees humans. As evidence, the recent rain, the damp and sometimes muddy trail yielded scores of animal tracks. Coyote, bobcat, raccoon, deer and feral pigs.

The fog was really spectacular. Drifting in and out of the trees, Bill would stop and remark on different species of oak and ash trees. The areas closest to the river were never logged or farmed and can be considered old growth. Few pockets actually exist in Dallas and this is one of them. Many of the same trees seen in 2011 can be seen in 1936 aerial photos.

Rising sun burning off distant fog bank on the Lemmon Lake playa

I think Lemmon Lake is one of the most unique settings in Dallas. Every time I go there I see something new. On this morning a fog had developed on the now dried lake bed, what some could even call a playa. We got there as the sun was rising over the trees, quickly burning off the fog bank. In the photo above, the fog bank is about 1/3 of a mile away. The large trees ringing the shoreline kept the fog intact in the shadows till the sun rose high enough to burn it off.

Frost covered freshwater mussel shell at Lemmon Lake

When Lemmon Lake went dry this summer it left many animals high and dry. The alligators and turtles left in exodus to the river beyond. The fish and shell animals stayed behind. Plenty of freshwater mussel shells on the surface of the lake bed. I discussed the drought and the effects on Lemmon Lake in an earlier post.

Lemmon Lake might be one of the oldest lakes in Dallas. Older than White Rock Lake, Bachman Lake, Exall Lake and the now long gone reservoirs that once served as the municipal water supply for Dallas on Turtle Creek. A victim of obscurity and an unreliable water source it can go dry in times of drought. I have seen plans where the Corps of Engineers might try and re-water Lemmon Lake using water diverted from the Wetland Cell project upstream. Just north of Loop 12 is the Trinity River Wetland Project. The chain of lakes get a portion of their water from the wastewater treatment plant just upstream. The water has no smell. You would never know it was treated wastewater. Below is a clip of what the wetland cells looked like at dawn on October 30th. The water slowly flows from one cell to another using a series of gates and shallow aqueducts.

Hidden spring fed pond in the Great Trinity Forest

Collapsed shack in the Great Trinity Forest, Joppa Preserve
The pond above sits directly south of Lemmon Lake. About an acre or two in size it maintained a near constant size all summer. We guessed it must be fed by a spring of some kind since the larger lake to the north went dry months ago. The southwest side of the small pond has a small collection of dilapidated cabins and outbuildings in severe disrepair. The detritus and old trash around the buildings suggest they have not been used in many decades. This structure could have been part of the Floral Farms or Joppa Freedman's Community at one time.

Great Trinity Forest horseback riders near McCommas Bluff
The river always makes for good conversation especially when you come across others on the trail. I always ask others what they have seen and where have they been. This particular morning they had seen five deer. Then warned us about the pigs. One of the men said he once saw 50-70 feral pigs at one time in this area.

Funny, I actually know the dogs better than the guys on horseback. Other than the white dog wearing the chopped down Mexican rode belt for a collar. The rest of the dogs are all related. The rusty red colored dog is the mother, the rest are her still growing puppies. I think they must be 4-5 months old now.

How to get there

Joppa Preserve and the Great Trinity Trail can be accessed from 3 main trailheads with another currently under construction at the Trinity River Audubon Center.

Great Trinity Forest Trail Map

Phase I completed in 2010 can be accessed via trailheads at the Loop 12 Boat Ramp, River Oaks Park and Simpson Stuart Road. I have previously discussed the details of Phase I in an older post:Great Trinity Trail at Joppa Preserve

Phase II which is still under construction on the south side of the Trinity can be accessed from the Trinity River Audubon Center property. I have discussed it previously in older posts: Great Trinity Forest Trail and Bridge . Construction is still ongoing around mile 2 noted on the map above. Open pit excavations and heavy machinery for a bank erosion control project. As a result the area should be avoided until construction is finished. When complete the trail there will rival that of River Legacy in Arlington. Note: The Trinity River Audubon Center closes early 4pm on weekends. They lock the main gates shortly thereafter. If you park at the Audubon Center, make sure you are back by 4ish.

For those more adventurous consider leaving your car behind and make the trip from Downtown Dallas, the Katy Trail or even White Rock Lake. You can even start at Bachman Lake and make a 50 mile roundtrip out of it to I-20 and back. GPS mapping data for that trip is here.

Many people have yet to realize so many of the trails and projects interconnect, if purely by accident. With the construction of the new bridge near the Audubon Center dozens of miles of unused trails are now open.