Canoeing the Trinity

The Trinity River has a reputation. For many Texans, it conjures up images of dead bodies, raw sewage, and giant alligator garr gnashing their pointy teeth in the murky depths. But what’s it really like?

The Trinity River runs 710 miles from North Texas down to the Gulf, passing through Fort Worth, Dallas and Houston. Along the way it picks up a slurry of chemicals and trash. As bad as it is now, at one time it was even worse. The Trinity River Authority’s website recalls the period between 1920-1950 when two Fort Worth slaughter houses were allowed to dump waste into the river:

“In the early 1920s the number of typhoid fever cases and dead animals near the river downstream of Dallas vividly illustrated the problem.  In fact, in 1925, the Texas Department of Health characterized the Trinity River as a “mythological river of death.”

Trinity River Authority on the history of the river’s water quality

Finally in the 1950’s, legislation was passed to set up wastewater treament operations along the river. Since then, numerous large projects have been undertaken to clean the river and make it a pleasant place. It’s at least clean enough to support wildlife, including enormous alligator garr such as the ones showcased in TrinityRiverGarrFishing’s Instagram account.

The City of Dallas has set up a system of trails and boat launches along its shores.  It’s a popular spot for bikers and runners, but boaters are scarce.  Despite assurances that the water is clean, Dallasites seem reluctant to test it out. I can’t say I blame them, considering the amount of trash lining our streets and trails.

In the spring, the Trinity River Basin is a prime place for viewing wildflowers

Back in 2018, I found a used Kearns inflatable canoe for only $80 – a total steal. “A used inflatable?”, you may be thinking. “What if it had holes?” That’s exactly why I needed to test it out somewhere nearby. And what better place to do so than the Trinity? 

I performed a quick search to find that the cleanest part was the Elm Fork just south of the Ray Roberts Lake Dam.  Ray Roberts is upriver from the city, so theoretically it hasn’t yet accumulated all the city waste.  So I packed up my new toy, boyfriend and dogs and headed out there.

I guess it was the wrong time of year, because the river was shallow and slow-moving.  I figured it would get better downstream, so we went ahead and put in, pushing ourselves through the murky brown water.

We put up with the conditions for about an hour before concluding that it would not get better giving up.  Every inch of the canoe was covered in mud – and the same could be said for the dogs.  We spent more time cleaning up than actually paddling… but at least we confirmed the canoe didn’t leak. 

Fast forward to summer 2021.  I now lived in the Design District next to the Trinity, and frequently jogged along its shores.  I was bored and craving an outdoor activity, despite the sweltering heat.  While wandering earlier, I’d noticed the river was flowing high and fast, thanks to recent rains.  Looked like the perfect time for a paddle.

I dragged my inflatable out to the boat launch at Trammel Crow Park and set off.  Between biking, hiking, and running I’d explored most of the river as far east as the Trestle Trail & Love Locks Bridge.  I had no idea what to expect from there, and had been unable to find much info online. On Google maps it appeared that there was another boat launch at the Great Trinity Forest.  Ethan agreed to pick me up there in a few hours.

Once I was in the water, the current didn’t feel as fast as it had looked from the shore.  But it was definitely better than my first experience on the river.  I passed joggers and fishermen who waved at me, and got cheered on by a group on the Ronald Kirk Bridge.  I discovered the ruins of an old bridge, and the dogs had a blast swimming in the filthy water.

The route was a unique mix of concrete metropolis and lush jungle.  I enjoyed seeing the city from a new angle.  The water was murky but sparkled in the sunlight.  I imagined the kinds of creatures that swam beneath.  

I saw the boat ramp where I planned to put out, but the current was too strong and I floated past it.  I pulled up along a muddy bank about 10 feet further down. As I stepped out of the boat, my foot sunk three feet into the mud and got stuck.  A fisherman and his son came to my rescue and helped me get the boat out.  Thank goodness!

All in all it was a fun little expedition – albeit one that required a decent amount of cleanup.  If you can get over the murkiness of the water, floating down this river is a fantastic outdoor activity in Dallas. Fort Worth has established some unique methods of cleaning its downtown portion of the Trinity. It’s worked so well that people actually swim in it! They hold concerts along the shore and people listen from floaties in the water. Perhaps in the future Dallas will do the same.

One thought on “Canoeing the Trinity

  1. Years ago, I canoed with my dad and brother at his Boy Scout outing. We were up in the Lewisville/Carrollton portion. There was one part we all had to get out and drag the canoes (not inflatable!) over a large mud mound. All that work but I agree with you – it was a fun and rather enjoyable day on the Trinity right in the middle of the city.

    Liked by 1 person

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