Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Largest Wildflower Meadow in Dallas

Acres of marsh loving Clasping Coneflower (Rudbeckia amplexicaulis) as far as the eye can see in the Back Forty below Big Spring in the Great Trinity Forest; Dallas, Texas
Across a flooded slough from Big Spring in the Great Trinity Forest sits the largest wildflower meadow inside the city limits. Horizon to horizon, millions and millions of Clasping Coneflower (Rudbeckia amplexicaulis) bloom for a few weeks in May. The bright yellow flowers glow a radiant color that a camera just cannot capture. Varying from brilliant gold to a pale mustard the field shimmers bright like a yellow sea.

Indigo Bunting in the meadow
The meadow down here stays wet many months of the year. Matter of fact on the day when the photo above was taken the field had a half inch of water across it. Clasping Coneflowers thrive in this wet environment. In scientific jargon, the colony of flowers is given the term "monoculture" noting a dominance of one species. Peppered here and there are an Indian Blanket or some Primrose. But the coneflower dominates. No one seeded them or planted them. It's a gift. For leaving the place alone.
Evening Primrose mixed in among Clasping Coneflower
Shafts of early evening sun through clouds
It's a special spot. If there is another like it I do not know of it.

This field is known as a transitional meadow and occurs when a field, pasture, farmland, or other cleared land is no longer grazed by livestock and starts to display growth extending to the flowering and seeding of its grass and wild flower species. The condition is however only temporary because the grasses eventually become shaded out when scrub and woody plants become well-established, being the forerunners of the return to a fully wooded state. That could happen here at some point.

A wet meadow is a semi-wetland meadow which is saturated with water throughout much of the year. Some experts consider a wet meadow to be a kind of marsh, while others consider it to be a distinct type of wetland. Wet meadows may occur because of restricted drainage or the receipt of large amounts of water from rain. They may also occur in riparian zones and around large rivers like the Trinity.

Unlike a marsh or swamp, a wet meadow does not have standing water present except for brief to moderate periods during the growing season. The ground in a wet meadow fluctuates between brief periods of flooding and longer periods of wetness. Wet meadows often have large numbers of wetland plant species, which frequently survive as buried seeds during dry periods, and then regenerate after flooding. Wet meadows therefore do not usually support aquatic life such as fish. They typically have a high diversity of plant species, and may attract large numbers of birds, small mammals and insects including butterflies.

Speaking Of Wet
It was 105 years ago today. May 26, 1908. A hot and steamy day when a forefather of Billy Ray Pemberton drove a spike into a trunk of a walnut tree at Big Spring to mark the crest of the greatest flood in recorded Dallas history. The Big Flood. It was a date that has long been remembered in Dallas, forever changing the course of a city and the river that runs through it.

Original Trinity Riverbed May 26, 2013
The city in that 105 years changed in ways Billy Ray's grandfather probably never could have imagined. Skyscrapers, highways, air travel and communication at light speed.

Vowing to never again let the Trinity get the better of the city, planners and engineers moved the river. Channelized it in a system of levees and pump stations leaving the old river channel dry.
High water mark of 1908 flood in Design District

That old channel still exists, a wide damp spot snaking through the Dallas Design District. A small plaza sits on Turtle Creek Blvd with a symbolic I-beam spike driven vertically into the old river bank. The top of that blue painted steel marks the high water mark of that epic flood. Two miles wide and 52 feet deep.

High water mark of 1908 flood at the Pemberton Farm
What has not changed since that time over a century ago is that spike, that tree and the natural spring that it has sat next to, since time immemorial. The acreage around it largely unspoiled and a reminder of what Dallas once looked like before the city planted it's own roots.

That old Black Walnut is one of the focal points of any visit to Big Spring. Sitting just out of the 100 year flood plain the tree is a mere twenty feet north of the spring and in an integral part of the "Spring Complex" as it is called. Your city government does not think so.

That city government wants to fence the Spring off. Wants to build a fence that would separate that old tree from the Spring that it has forever been with as a part of a Historic Texas landscape. They want the wildflower meadows for hay. They want to bulldoze through the woods for trails. Pave parts of the sloughs and swamps for concrete paths. Being nice and oh so cordial the way we Texans lean towards is very tough when it comes to the city and their plans. Bless their hearts. For they know not what they are doing. Sure of that now.

The voices of reason are beginning to step forward to get the message across about the unique nature of such a place. Questions are being asked for which the answers will be hard to find. Where that leads is unknown to me.

The plight of the spring and the Native American site around it is gaining quite a bit of attention in the media too. Jonathan Betz from Channel 8 paid a recent visit and even drank from the Spring. Mr Pemberton as is his custom will bestow honorary Pemberton status to those who drink from it.

WFAA Channel 8's Jonathan Betz reports on Big Spring

Mr Pemberton has a joke he pulls on guests to the Spring. He'll butter folks up to take a swig of his water. A little prodding and a little bit of encouragement is all it takes. Then he'll throw a boomerang and talk about the livestock he chased out of there just an hour before or a tall tale about some contaminant. None of that is true of course, just his way of pulling leg. It comes through in his story that aired. Since then his wife, Zada, was concerned people would get the wrong idea and not understand his kidding humor. The water is perfectly clean and safe. Just to set the record straight.

Turtle in Big Spring, May 2013
The city seems it would like to discount much of the history and special nature here. Very clear that some facts are being ignored by the city government in an effort to pursue construction of future projects. The city has leaned heavily on an archeological report published in 2009 that is full of errors and factually incorrect. Using that report, the city is trying to downplay the history at the site and the Native American artifacts that lie buried beneath. Part of that answer to the truth lies in the deep dusty vaults of archeological archives in Austin by artist and archeologist Forrest Kirkland. A place scientists call DL72. We call it Big Spring.

The Legacy Of Forrest Kirkland

Forrest Kirkland at his desk detailing Native American wall art renderings in his studio, Dallas, Texas

DL72 report by Forrest Kirkland; Credit: Tim Dalbey
In the 1930s local Dallas artist Forrest Kirkland made a name for himself illustrating commercial catalogs for industrial equipment and machinery. His commercial work paved the way for his pursuit of his real passion, Native American rock art and ancient wall paintings. Taking his expertise in cataloging and illustrating the physical world he became a foremost expert in Texas Native American sites.

A resident of Dallas, his weekend field trips often led him down White Rock Creek and the Trinity River, where he documented two hundred ancient sites in the 1930s and early 1940s in Dallas County.  One site of note was DL72, the Big Spring site. His excellent documentation provides great insight into Native American artifacts at Big Spring. His field notes describe a trip taken on December 29, 1940 to Big Spring and accompanying sketches noting a large Native American site that extends north to south along a natural terrace hundreds of yards long. In addition, a note about a farmer finding a human grave near the spring, most likely Native American in origin.

Texas Parks and Wildlife has an excellent article from 2008 on Forrest Kirkland that is worth a read entitled The Shaman's Scribe: Artist Forrest Kirkland helped preserve Texas pictographs by trekking to remote sites and painting meticulous reproductions

Forrest Kirkland sketching Native American rock art on the Pecos
Forrest Kirkland created paintings based on the physical sites he visited, many of the rock art images he recorded have since been destroyed or damaged. When Amistad Reservoir was completed in the 1960s, many Lower Pecos rock art sites disappeared beneath the waves. Other rock art sites have been damaged by vandals or by natural disasters such as major floods. He passed away from a heart attack in 1942. His legacy lives on his paintings, drawings and detailed study of Native American sites in Texas.

The sites he documented in Dallas are subject not to inundation of a reservoir, weathering or vandalism. The threat is one of unchecked construction and development. Many Dallas County sites were lost this way. Very few exist.

  Important Sites Still Exist
Native American artifacts from DL72  Credit: Tim Dalbey
The DL72 site consumes much of the Spring Pasture, a 20-30 acre plot of land that serves as a biofilter buffer for the perched aquifer Spring from surface contamination. Since that day in 1940, only one professional archeological survey has been completed. That involved some scant shovel testing in a widely spaced matrix. Native American artifacts were found here and there and should have warranted more excavation. That did not happen. But should.

The extreme southern portion of the site, which now sits in a plat of land at 811 Pemberton Hill Road will one day house the Texas Horse Park. That portion of the archeological site was partially tested in January of 2013 revealing a treasure trove of artifacts that offer a small glimpse of what is still buried there. In the photo above taken by geoarcheologist Tim Dalbey who assisted with the archeological dig, one can see the variety of tools, points and artifacts the site is yielding. This summer, further investigation is planned using trenching which should provide a more in depth look at the site. Very exciting and one can only hope that the rest of the site that sits to the north near Big Spring is afforded the same professional examination.

DL72 is one of the very last Native American sites left in Dallas. If fully excavated, it would be one of the only Native American sites ever professionally and scientifically studied inside the city limits. The Last of the Mohicans, you might say.

 Beyond Big Spring -- The Big Swamp
Beaver Dam on Bryan's Slough/Oak Creek
The city has expressed a desire to build concrete trails and horse paths into an area which from aerial photos appears to be a dry woodland. Wrong! Fooled me too. It's a permanent swamp year round and the uninitiated will find themselves in hip deep water very quickly. North of 175 the place has been dubbed Bruton Bottoms, south of 175 it has no name.

Blue Winged Teal over the swamp May 25, 2013
The water here is clear. A mix of spring fed creeks, drainages and slow moving water the swamp creates an ideal habitat for all kinds of wildlife. It will put you out of your comfort zone. Mosquitoes, floating fire ant balls and snakes are the norm. So are the rare glimpses of wildlife so few have ever seen.

I have no clue how the city would even engineer a trail across this place. They would need to de-water the area by trapping the beavers, dynamiting their dams and then channelize the sloughs down here to dry it out. Even then the frequency of flooding would compromise all that.
Great Blue Heron over Bryan's Slough, May 2013
The city wants to build a concrete trail across the slough exactly where that Great Blue Heron is pictured above. It would remove a great old beaver dam that is currently in use. The trail would link to Lake June Road. This is a very wet place and just gets wetter the further in one travels.
Dicksissel (Spiza americana) in full breeding plumage May 2013

So far, the majority of concrete trails in the Great Trinity Forest follow old dirt roads, are built on levees, utility right of ways or old landfills. Now that those trails are built-out, the next phase of concrete trails will enter unspoiled wilderness areas in the Great Trinity Forest where man has never built.

It will be a hard task to prove that trails cannot be built here. The inundation of constant floods coupled with the high maintenance costs of clearing flood debris will be exponential compared to that of other paved paths in Dallas.

The Threatened White Faced Ibis flock on Bryan's Slough

White Faced Ibis on Bryan's Slough with a building severe thunderstorm in the distance May 25, 2013
Rare birds call this place a summer home. Listed in Texas as a Threatened Species, the White Faced Ibis is a very rare sight to Texans. To Dallasites the bird is very rarely if ever seen. A "life bird" for many who keep a checklist, seeing one in the wild would be a year's highlight for many birding types.
Juvenile White Faced Ibis foreground and Adult White Faced Ibis in full breeding plumage background, May 25, 2013
Water snake hiding in the swamp roots
The White Faced Ibis is threatened due to habitat loss. It needs wetland areas exactly like those along Bryan's Slough and Oak Creek to thrive. The shallow wading pools in short grasses, flooded marsh and lowland areas are their prime habitat. Very few of these places still exist. It's a real gem to have one here in Dallas. I fear it would be forever ruined by a concrete path that would surely interrupt the flow of water to some of these grassy fields needed as habitat for this Threatened Species.
Black-necked Stilt in Bryan's Slough
Under a quickly building set of severe thunderstorms I found these birds far back in an area visited by few on two legs. The air was electric with lightning and sky quickly darkening. Most would run for home.  Far from a road, far from anything remotely resembling dry land, I rode the sets of storms out at the base of a tree.

There are always a special few minutes when the air smells of ozone and rain. These pictures are from those rare minutes before the heavens open up.

Flock of White Faced Ibis taking to the air at the clap of thunder, Dallas, Texas May 25, 2013

Easy to make a case why this place should just be left alone. The hard part is proving why it should be changed.

So few places like this have ever existed in Dallas County. Even before the pioneers, the ancient Texans saw this as a special place. The ones whose language coined the term Texas from their word for friend, Tee-has "tejas".

A rare yellow Indian Blanket flower
It's hoped that this rough spot, the growing pains of a large government project to change the land down here can some how leave the land in this corner of the Great Trinity Forest alone.

Hal and Ted Barker have setup a Facebook page that keeps up with the day to day notes on preserving this part of the Trinity:

They are also in the middle of a large documentation of the Trinity River Project that is taking them some interesting places via Open Records Act. That can be followed here:

I believe some of the records they have requested hope to shed light on the alleged illegal dumping at the city owned property next door which has heavily contaminated the soil at the site of the future Texas Horse Park. The Barkers are the good guys and looking to protect everyone involved in bringing the truth out in the open.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Exploring The Great Trinity Forest Trails -- Is that Michael McNair? Why Yes it is!

Cycling hero Michael McNair on his first bike ride back into the Great Trinity Forest, near Freedman's Town of Joppa, Dallas, Texas April 28, 2013
The face of courage, victory and overcoming impossible odds. If there was one cool picture that I find remarkable more than any other I have taken on the Trinity River, this one was it. I could print that photo off and take copies to the ICU wing at Baylor Hospital, without caption and make jaws hit the floor. He made it. Back. That's what a champion looks like folks. I'd made the mistake of assuming this day would never come.

There are a rare few weeks in a North Texas spring when the sun shines brighter, the wildflowers taller and the sky bluer than any other place on Earth. Then there are those few special days inside those weeks. The ones where everything is just as perfect as it gets. I'd like to think that the weather is what made a trip down to the river special. It was just a minor footnote to what was probably one of the great human resurrections of all time. Michael McNair. It could have rained, snowed and hurricaned that fine April day and I don't think that could put a damper on what was witnessed.
Michael McNair leading the way through knee high wildflowers in the Trinity River Wetlands
His story over the last year has filled the airwaves, been printed in the newspaper and in print magazines. Take time to read his remarkable story and the story of his remarkable family who in the face of incredible challenges, just keep on cranking:

Tim Rogers December 2012 article in D Magazine about Michael:
You know you are in trouble if John McCaa leads off the evening news with your name:
Dallas Morning News puts you in ink usually means you are in the hospital, jail or dead:

About a year ago, May 15, 2012, Michael was struck down by a motorist while riding his bike. Critically injuring him in ways that few people ever recover. Lungs, compound fractured ribs, broken hip, pelvis, back, neck, skull, internal injuries of vital organs like his spleen. The medical staff at Baylor put his chances of recovery at a low 15%. Grim. Things only got worse from there as infections racked across his weakened body. In a coma, living off breathing machines in the ICU wing. It was around Memorial Day when I thought to myself that his days of riding were very much over. No way would he make it back. Just improbable. His wife Heather was by his side everyday at the hospital, she never gave up. She knew that someday he would pop back up and get back to riding.

All too often I get to know folks who are far to modest about their accomplishments. He had to learn to walk again. A continuing road to recovery that is full of obstacles and a mile high. He was still walking with a cane the last time I saw him. He is fearless. Tougher than you. Tougher than me.

Michael has been tapped to serve as the lead rider at the Ride of Silence on May 15, 2013 at White Rock Lake:
One year to the day that he was hit by a car. It's just a sheer miracle that he is still with us.

Also, if you know them, give Matt Malone and Mike Freiberger an attaboy slap on the back the next time you see them. Matt and Mike are some real unsung badasses in helping the McNair family the past year. Those guys lived at Baylor all last summer, did home renovations to make the McNair home wheelchair accessible and much more. A big thank you to them and all the others who helped in a time of great need.

Riding the Great Trinity Forest -- From White Rock Lake -- Whoa how do you do that?

The route for this trip started at the White Rock Lake Spillway at the corner of Winsted and Garland Road. Plenty of ways to get down to the riverbottoms from here, straightforward to complex. Using a combination of bike paths and streets one can get down to the river in short order. I think in the last few weekends I have taken around thirty people riding down here. No flats, no mechanical break downs, no ambulance rides. A mix of younger, older, male, female, very experienced and somewhat novice riders.
Ray Porter background and his wife Gina holding Scooter Pemberton
It was a pleasure to have along some bike clinic instructors, cycling advocates, bike shop employees and superstar cyclists like Ray Porter (seen above). Ray has raced all over creation. Including a mountain bike race from the Canada to Mexico along the spine of the continent, the Continental Divide. Here and Here. Great guy and interesting that on the Trinity River ride rode a locally fabricated bike from right here in Dallas built by David Cheakas at his shop in the Bluffview neighborhood.

Ride Data
Logan a DORBA Board Member was nice enough to share his Strava data for the trip which can be found here and interesting that he rode a cyclocross bike to boot:
Exploring the Trinity River from White Rock Lake He was also able to get some great photos on our trip featuring some of the wild donkeys of the Great Trinity Forest.
Gary another member of the group has provided very detailed GPS data and step-by-step instructions on the route at Everytrail:
Great Trinity Forest at Everytrail. He also has a good mapped route from the Swiss Avenue Area to the Audubon Center using the cobbled together route we took: Everytrail link from Swiss Avenue area to Audubon Center.
Mike Shoaf has data on Google Maps for the route including an alternate route we used on the way back to White Rock Lake using the Highway 310 Bridge and Lamar to Pennsylvania. Trinity River Route with Lamar Alternate This route knocks a couple miles off the total and skips the Santa Fe Trestle Trail.

Route highlights- include a ride down the Santa Fe Trail to Fair Park, Santa Fe Trestle Trail/Standing Wave, Miller's Ferry, Trinity River Wetland Cells, Joppa, Trinity River Audubon Center, McCommas Bluff Preserve, Gateway Park at I-20 and the historic Pemberton Farm.

Ride distance is 49 miles out and back from the White Rock Spillway to the new I-20 park opening June 8, 2013. Usually I provide a map and directions for how to get these places. Use your imagination to shorten or lengthen the distances. Many of the streets in South Dallas like Hatcher and Grand are low traffic streets that lend themselves to cycling. Check them out as shortcuts if so inclined.

White Ibis in the Wetland Cells
Over the last several years I have been riding this route that serves as the main artery into riding the Great Trinity Forest. Naturally, this is just the most bare basic of routes and should serve as just the backbone to exploring further into the woods. 95% of the photos you see in my blog posts are taken on mountain bike rides. It's one of the best ways to see much of the river and surrounding woods.

Other than the formal concrete trails in the area the loose confederation of existing infrastructure, streets, dirt roads and even a section of feral pig trail are open to interpretation on how to ride. At present time (spring 2013) all sections can be ridden via mountain bike or walked on foot. Some areas cannot be ridden on horseback due to lack of good ford crossings in creeks. That might need to wait another year or three.

Santa Fe Trestle Trail Bridge and Whitewater Park

The steel portion of  the bridge was originally built in 1926 and served as a main artery for the AT&SF Railroad in Dallas. Some old signs along the old right of way can still be found in the overgrowth. In 1985 the trestle was burned in an overnight fire destroying over half the structure. DART purchased the railway and bridge in 1989 later deciding to build a new bridge next to the old Santa Fe trestle rather than retrofitting the existing bridge. Since that time, the Corps of Engineers has floated the idea of removing it as the bridge acts as a partial obstruction for flood debris during high water.

To access the levee trail and Santa Fe Trestle from White Rock Lake, I would suggest riding the Santa Fe Trail towards Fair Park. Through Fair Park and down Grand Avenue. Inside Fair Park, Grand Avenue is the gate closest to Big Tex and the main Fletcher's stand. Head south out that gate. Hang a right on Lamar, left on Corinth, left on Riverfront

Miller's Ferry
At Miller's Ferry Dallas, Texas. In the foreground is Brent(in green jersey), Trail Steward for TPWD's Tyler State Park; far background on the water is Charles Allen of Canoe Dallas with a guided group canoeing the Trinity River
Pretty cool to see Charles Allen of Canoe Dallas rounding Miller's Bend at Miller's Ferry on the Trinity River as we looked on. I think it's awesome to see two different groups of people on the river who have gone many miles downstream without using motorized transportation.
Charles Allen of Canoe Dallas and his river tour approaching the old remains of the Miller's Ferry Bridge
Charles is back to doing canoe trips on the Main Stem of the river between Downtown and Loop 12.  On the second Saturday of the month he does guided tours too, which I suspect is the case with this group. Here is his website: Trinity River Expeditions -- Canoe Dallas

There should be a Texas Historical Marker for the site here. It's a great focal point for explaining Dallas history and one of the single most important sites in Dallas African American history.

The Wetland Cells
Gina Porter carving trail through the Wetland Cells

Crested Caracara in the Wetlands
The lower chain of wetlands are comprised of cells that extend from the I-45 bridge south near Miller's Ferry to Loop 12. The wetlands are not a part of the Trinity River channel. They sit up and above grade from the Trinity. As a result the land and water are much cleaner than the river channel nearby. Until recently, it was hard to even find a piece of trash in this part of the Trinity River Project. A dirt service road skirts the wetland cells and is now seeing heavy use by 4x4 off road vehicles and illegal dumpers. The gates at Loop 12 and near Highway 310 have been broken for over a year.

Fisherman near Miller's Ferry
Much of the land used by the chain of wetlands was originally part of the Sleepy Hollow Golf Course and Country Club.  The Chain of Wetlands extends many miles in length from Cedar Creek to Loop 12. The wetland cells located between Cedar Creek and Interstate 45 are interconnected and actually flow upstream and are continuously fed by discharge (or treated water) from the Central Wastewater Treatment Plant north of I-45.  The plant's water is treated against harmful bacteria before being discharged. The remaining wetland cells extend from the Interstate 45 vicinity to Loop 12 and are also interconnected and continuously fed by treatment plant water.

Dirt road through the Wetland Cells, Bank of America Tower seen rising above the trees in the background
Paco Fuentes and his horse Fantasma in the Wetland Cells

Male Wood Duck
A couple of the smaller cells south of 310 have Wood Duck nesting boxes that are starting to show success in breeding. In addition to a couple breeding pairs of Wood Ducks there has been a steady population of Blue-winged teal, Green-winged teal and even a random Cinnamon teal.

Female Wood Duck with ducklings
Cinnamon Teal foreground, male and female Blue-winged Teal background
Most of the gates that should be locked 24/7 in the Wetland Cells have been broken and open for over a year. One of our riding groups was treated to a demonstration in illegal dumping as a large truck pulling a trailer turned off Loop 12 and into the old Sleepy Hollow Golf Course entrance. Upon our return through the area several hours later there was a fresh pile of construction debris.

Same guys are still drinking beer and shooting the place up down there. The Dallas Police Department should have confiscated their rifles and taken them to jail last fall. Instead, they let them go. At left are the same guys, with the same rifles, drinking beer and shooting the place up in April 2013. Does the city want a wetland full of birds or one full of guys shooting the place up? How about declaring open season on poachers?
Crested Caracara hunting over the Wetland Cells with Loop 12 in the background
Crested Caracara at the Wetland Cells kicking up dust with a missed snatch of a rabbit in the grass, while a Red Tailed Hawk looks on

Trinity Trail Through Joppa Preserve
Great Trinity Forest Trail in Dallas County's Joppa Preserve
Crossing Loop 12 to the south lies Joppa Preserve and a group of old ponds and lakes. This trail is inside the Joppa Preserve, part of the Dallas County Open Space Project. Originally this land was part of the Millermore Plantation. The original Miller cabin and the later Greek revival Millermore Mansion are now preserved at Old City Park in Dallas. The area later became known as Joppa and Floral Farms. Both were unincorporated freedman's communities for many decades without access to running water and city services.

A paved trail completed in two phases now reach 4.1 miles to connect the Loop 12 Boat Ramp with the Trinity River Audubon Center. The centerpiece of the paved trail here is a multi-million dollar bike bridge that spans the Trinity River just southeast of the Trinity River Audubon Center.

The trail and bridge sit outside the footprint of the Audubon Center property. The formal trailhead for the Audubon section sits roughly 400m south of the Audubon entrance in a separate parking lot.

NOTE: No mountain biking or horseback riding inside the Audubon Center property. You must stay on the pavement. Also, the Audubon Center is a privately run facility and there is admission fee to visit and hike the trails there.

Trinity River Audubon Center
View of the breezeway from inside the Audubon Center
Ben Jones at left with DORBA and FWMBA members at the Audubon Center
The Audubon Center has outdoor bathroom facilities and water fountains. I think it still sits as an undiscovered resource for the Great Trinity Forest. A bit of civilization among the wilderness beyond. It should serve as a great jumping off point for those wanting to make a jump into the forest beyond.

Ben Jones the director of the Trinity River Audubon Center was kind enough to spend some time with us(inset left) and spoke of some of the activities planned for the Audubon Center this summer. Big thanks to Ben for taking time out of his busy day to visit with us!

Trinity River Audubon Center's new canoe takeout
Most exciting is the new canoe takeout that the Audubon Center has built at the river and guided river trips they are offering starting June 1st. The route would be Loop 12 to the Audubon Center and cover some of the most scenic stretches of the river. They also have a new campsite in the works for overnight stays on the river.
Watch the Audubon Center's website for more information

From the Audubon Center to McCommas Bluff
Crossing Elam Creek and the concrete culvert that separates the Audubon Center property from McCommas Bluff Preserve
Off the beaten path time. Takes a leap of faith for most to venture off the pavement and into hip deep grass and woods. There is a great route from the Audubon Center to McCommas Bluff but often hard to follow the first 100 feet off the pavement. Refer to the map links at the beginning of the post on how to get there. The entrance is where the paved path takes a turn to the south from the Audubon Center about 250m from the north end of the Trinity River Trail Bridge. The goal here is to find a concrete culvert crossing of Elam Creek. As seen above the crossing has a little water in it but is hardly enough to even get your feet wet.

Riding McCommas Bluff Preserve
Beyond is a doubletrack dirt road that follows a Dallas Water Utilities ROW through McCommas Bluff Preserve. An alternate dirt road leads up through the preserve to Fairport. The lower road follows the ROW down to Riverwood Road and along some great woods.

Mexican Buckeye at McCommas Bluff Preserve
The doubletrack follows an old terrace and as one approaches the old Bass Family pond there is a large colony of Mexican Buckeye just up on the sandy terrace above. You don't see many Mexican Buckeye in the Great Trinity Forest, these are easy to spot during the spring.

Elam Creek up towards Fairport also has a colony of Texas Buckeye. These are pretty hard to find tucked deep in among the privet of the area.

Noted Master Naturalist Jim Flood told me about the Texas Buckeyes back here along Elam Creek this spring. I lucked out and was able to find them, with a little trouble.

2013 was a great year for Buckeye blooms. The prolonged cold weather through March and April made for a very long blooming season, weeks longer than last year.

McCommas Bluff to I-20

The traverse from McCommas Bluff to I-20 is closed to vehicle traffic but open to bikes, foot traffic and especially horses. Those wanting to ride horses on the river should take advantage of the route here that skirts behind a cemetery to the bluff tops of McCommas Bluff.
BJ Wakefield surveying the Trinity River from the top of McCommas Bluff

David Miller
A man in Joppa told me several years ago that the land down near the bluffs was once some of the finest squirrel hunting grounds in Texas. So ripe was the hunting that a man could hunt squirrel after church on Sunday afternoons and eat squirrel stew all week.
From the porch of his shotgun house he told me a number of stories like that, things gone by you don't see too much of anymore. I always savored the moments of being there, seeing it, absorbing it. Figuring that through his old cobweb of recollection in storytelling I could imagine a man on horseback overlooking those bluffs way back when.
I could picture his mental map of riding the river on a horse during the 1920s, long before the roads and landfills were there. Rare is the day to see that in modern times. A special thanks to Mr David Miller and friends for allowing me to chat with them on a ride. Double neat to see that old story come to life one fine weekend afternoon.

McCommas Bluff

David Miller at McCommas Bluff

David Miller in the foreground watching some boaters rounding the bend of the Trinity River
Kayakers at McCommas Bluff
The last of the wildflowers that were not bulldozed by a Dallas Water Utilities project

 The new Trinity River park at I-20
The new I-20 park at Dowdy Ferry and I-20
With an expected opening date of June 8, 2013, a new park will open at Dowdy Ferry and I-20. I have heard the the park go by a number of names like Gateway Park, Trinity River Park etc. The centerpiece of the park is a small lake of a few acres that was once a gravel pit. Limestone cliffs on one side and a small island on the northeast end that can be reached in drier weather by a spit of land.

 With a gazebo, fishing pier and a short looped concrete hiking trail it should be popular. Also of note is a large trailer parking area and hitch posts for those with horses. Off in the woods there to the west is a new official-informal trail that leads back into the woods. I have ridden a mountain bike through there and about two miles of trails can be strung together with a little work. Tree shaded and flat the only thing to watch out for is the large amount of illegally dumped trash back there. Some might claim it floated in. The reality is years of not keeping gates locked allowed the dumping to occur.
View from the fishing pier
Concrete trail that loops around the pond
This is the turn around point for the ride. Roughly 22 miles or so from White Rock Lake's Spillway. The ride back can be done a number of ways, following the course back up the Trinity River or maybe up through Pleasant Grove or Parkdale. Our route takes us to the historic Pemberton Farm.

The Pemberton Farm and Big Spring

Zada and Billy Ray Pemberton welcoming everyone to their home
Not many people have ever met a Dallas farmer inside the city limits or even knew one existed. A family who still grow their own food to a large extent, work the fields and tend to livestock. Well, here they are. The Pembertons. Seems like I write about them a lot here. Seems that whenever I take others down here, their after-visit emails always highlight not on the wild animals or sites we visit but the Pemberton Farm. Zada Pemberton had candy, walnut bread and water waiting for us. Who still does that? No one. Except the Pembertons.

It's that special of a place. Rolling down the slight hill towards the bottoms, the sounds of the city quickly fade away. So quiet of a spot that you not only hear the call of the birds, you hear their wings flap as they fly through the air.

On the most recent visit to Big Spring we were treated to the steady hooting calls of the resident Barred Owls in the woods beyond. Whole weeks and sometimes a calendar month can go by without this area seeing a human. Real wilderness.

Taking turns climbing down into Big Spring to drink the water
Mr Pemberton talking pioneers and Native Americans at the Spring Pasture

You see that photo above? The 1000 yard stare on the faces of everyone thinking and pondering the 100 generations of people who once called that spot of land home. A real Native American pre-historic site. Right at our feet. It's only there because of Billy Ray. It would have been gone long ago without his oversight.
The Bur Oak at Big Spring
Those who have not been there cannot grasp the size and scope of such a place. With no fences, barricades or man made features nearby one can only gain perspective of such a place by visiting the site. Above you can see in the far distance someone walking not far from the Bur Oak. The spring site is that large and just the water feature encompasses a few acres. Free to flow whichever way it wants, the meander of the spring had historically run a number of different ways many tens of meters away from the current course.

One of three spots where Big Spring flows out of the ground atop a limestone bedrock

Riding in the same spot as President Sam Houston, 170 years later
Baltimore Oriole
With news of a fence planned to protect Big Spring, where would one build such a structure and why?

Big Spring serves as a water source for larger animals like native deer. A fence would keep them out. River Otter tracks seen in the spring suggest that they fish for crawfish in the spring. How would they get in?

It's a place that has never needed a sign to read. Nor a plaque to note the spot or a historical background. It's already marked. The ancient Bur Oak. The Native American artifacts all over the place. The Black Walnut with the spike driven in it for the high watermark of the 1908 flood. It could never be confused with another spot. You know when you have found the place.

Dicksissel (Spiza americana)  at Big Spring

I have slowly watched parts of the Great Trinity Forest change over the years. Some good, some bad. I'd ask what the future holds and will we look back decades from now and see it as a bad idea? I miss the old dirt roads already. A time when I could ride along with honest salt of the Earth cowboys riding through the woods.

That same trail, that exact same spot looks so much different now, like Plano. Gone are the horses and the cool guys who sung their Spanish ballads as they rode through wildflowers. Replaced by sterile concrete and rye grass. Unused to a large degree. Are we going the right way with all this?