Famous Texas bird guide Victor Emanuel spots a Mississippi Kite with a flotilla of canoeists on the wilds of the Elm Fork in Dallas, Texas

There are many areas in Dallas Great Trinity Forest that one can easily explore on foot. Vast wooded bottoms with surprises around every corner. There are other stretches where the wholesale experience of the river really needs to be seen by boat to appreciate. The Elm Fork of the Trinity River in Dallas is one such place.

Most Dallasites are not only unfamiliar with the Trinity River. The stretches outside the levees in the natural channels are completely unknown but to a few. These areas are obscure, beautiful and surrounded by the heart of the metroplex. Similar in many ways to the southern stretch of Great Trinity Forest below Downtown Dallas the northern section offers some of the best natural scenery in North Central Texas. Just ask Garrett Boone…..

Garrett Boone at historic California Crossing points out areas of interest and the route we will be taking down the Elm Fork

Garrett Boone must know more about the Elm Fork of the Trinity and the land that surrounds it better than anyone. His knowledge extends beyond that of what lies at every turn of the river. In about a ten minute executive summary of the river on maps one can tell he understands the hydrology, inflows of creeks, land use, industrial parks and ongoing infrastructure projects.

Garrett Boone and Victor Emanuel pouring over a map

The Trinity in this area is far more than a ditch, it is a complex set of old dam structures, naturally coursing river channel and connected lakes that create a deep expansive set of wetlands extending across a thousand acres.

The Elm Fork’s headwaters lie north of Bowie, Texas up near the Texas/Oklahoma border. A prominent ridgeline known as the Devils Backbone forms the divide for the Trinity and Red River watersheds in this area.

As the water courses south it runs through two large man made impoundments at Ray Roberts and Lewisville.  Below Lewisville, the river is often clear, cool and makes for exceptional paddling and recreation. The water comes from the base of Lewisville’s dam and is a predictable flow except during times of flood.

Three small dams make up the Elm Fork known for great paddling:

1. Carrollton Dam at McInnish Park on Sandy Lake Road in the City of Carrollton
2. California Crossing dam at California Crossing Road
3. Frazier Dam just near Loop 12 and SH 183 straddling the city limits of Dallas and Irving.

All three dams require mandatory portaging around the structures.

On this trip we will explore a six mile stretch of river book ended by the dam at California Crossing on north end at the Frazier Dam on the south end. Between the two impoundments sit the natural channel of the river with an elevated water level. The result is a slower flowing river compared with other sections downstream of Dallas. 18 total riverbends and two small lakes off channel await us on this trip.

Map and location of California Crossing California Crossing Park

Charles Allen, the Trinity River’s best canoe guide, seen coming out from a hidden pond off the main channel on the Elm Fork

Canoes, equipment and guide service were provided by Charles Allen. If I recall, Charles is celebrating 25 years on the river in 2015. His knowledge of the river, flora, fauna, geology and history is like a floating version of an encyclopedia. Top notch person and very competent guide. His website http://www.canoedallas.com/ and his Facebook https://www.facebook.com/trinityriverexpeditions.

Everyone listening to one of the better run downs on the Trinity I have ever heard

Garrett Boone has a wonderful vision for the Elm Fork. The natural building blocks of a slow snaking river with dozens of bends and turns make for a great setting for a future natural park area. Actually, it’s all ready a park with some sections a Dallas County Nature Preserve. Wide greenbelt spaces abbreviated only by bridges and train trestles make it a near contiguous open public space.

Garrett has some great ideas on how to open the area up to low impact recreation along with education. He is a sponsor of Groundwork Dallas which is blueprinting a plan for the area. Their website has more information on their Groundwork Dallas Elm Fork Project.

Canoe Launch at California Crossing

California Crossing and the dam here were recently rebuilt and refurbished in 2012-2014. The dam features ingress and egress portage locations for canoes and a parking lot with easy trailer access.

It was a hair over a hundred years ago, about 1910 that one of the first California Crossing dams went in at this spot. The spot is one that dips into the vast reaches of history and looks rather unchanged from that of 100 years ago. Some of the trees in the photos here still stand today. The sturdy grove of Post Oak, Bur Oak and Elm that have seen generations of Dallasites stand at the same spot we are at this morning.

California Crossing circa 1912

In the turn of the last century, Dallas dabbled with the idea of using the Elm Fork to meet municipal water supply needs. Various dams, diversion channels and holding basins were constructed on this stretch of river. Used partially for flood control and water conservation, the dams still serve as water supply in some capacity. Highland Park uses Frazier Dam from what I’m told.

People often wonder how California Crossing was named. The answer lies in a faded Texas Historical Marker at the site which reads “Here thousands of 49’ers crossed Trinity River in heroic trek west–following California Gold discovery. Crossing was in shallow part of stream on Southern Transcontinental route to Pacific. Later used by stage lines, railroad; route passed through Dallas and Cedar Springs on to El Paso.”

Texas history often associates things with events that happen on her soil. Missed in the mix are often stories of manifest destiny that migrated through Texas to somewhere else. Cattle drives, human exploration and in this case those in search of fortunes on the Pacific. Stories of trappers rendezvous and Kansas railhead cattle saloons passed on the lips of migrants across this spot.

Victor Emanuel at right with David Litman at left

It’s a different kind of migration we are looking for here on the Elm Fork today. One of the feathered kind. If there were ever anyone who knows more about migrating birds in Texas, it would the one and only Victor Emanuel.

Victor Emanuel speaks to Brent Jackson(in white hat) of West Dallas Sylvan Thirty development as Design District based photographer Scot Miller shoots some video footage

Texas Monthly calls Victor Emanuel “The Birdman of Texas”, the absolute authority on all things ornithology. Read their 2011 story on his birding with heads of state, interesting folks and the depth of field he has for his craft Texas Monthly May 2011, The Birdman of Texas.

Garrett Boone glassing a Western Kingbird

In small talk before launching canoes, Victor was pointing out the common trees of the Elm Fork and pointing to each as he scanned the horizon at all points of the compass. Box elder, elm, pecan and slew of oaks. He pointed out a couple quick birds and then told a few of us about a similar bird in the plains of Africa that has the same behavior. Truly an authority wherever he goes. Based out of Austin his travel group called VENT http://www.ventbird.com/ goes to every continent on earth.

Today, Victor will put us on a kaleidoscope of birds from South America, Central America, the United States and Canada. All in Dallas. A treasure trove of bird life inside Loop 12.

Charles Elk VP of ONCOR in yellow life jacket

Along on the trip are an eclectic mix of folks from a variety of backgrounds. Corporate leaders, fund managers, entrepreneurs, long time conservationists and close friends. A great talent pool to see and experience the river as it can only be seen by floating it.

American Elm hangs over the river as the flotilla of canoeists pass by on the Elm Fork of the Trinity

Zach Wooldridge in the stern of foreground canoe

The launch from California Crossing on this day is much like entering a lake. Very little current is felt in this stretch of river which is impounded about 6 river miles downstream by the Frazier Dam.

As one leaves California Crossing, river left is the LB Houston Nature Preserve. The nature preserve is named for L.B. Houston who is known for transforming many public spaces in Dallas into world class park facilities in the 1930s. His tenure as Director of Dallas Parks and Recreation showed ambitious drive and pursuit to built out many structures and park amenities we still use today at places like White Rock Lake. Those 70 year old structures serve as a benchmark to future generations of designers and planners. Seems like anything designed or planned for the Trinity deserves that generational benchmark as well.

Scot Miller of Sun to Moon Gallery shooting from the bow of a canoe

The name LB Houston, without the punctuation is now known commonly as one of the more built out mountain biking trails in North Texas maintained by the Dallas Off Road Bicycle Association, DORBA. Information on the LB Houston Mountain Bike Trail can be found on the DORBA LB Houston Trail website.

To the river right are sections of the Campion Trail system in Irving/Las Colinas which someday will connect Dallas to Forth Worth. A planned 22 miles of concrete trail with a 6.5 mile stretch up the Elm Fork at the present time. More information can be found on City of Irving Campion Trail website.

Right off the bat, within 100 yards of California Crossing we are treated to a number of wading birds, pointed out one by one by Victor. 

Every one of the eighteen turns is photogenic with a high water column and not much exposed bank. Lazy turn after lazy turn provides wildlife around every corner. Ducks, shorebirds, warblers, buntings brought a unique blend of birds into view during the paddle.

Wood Duck Aix sponsa

Garrett Boone and his wife Cecilia watch a pair of Wood Ducks along the Elm Fork

The Wood Duck is considered by many bird watchers to be North America’s most colorful waterfowl species.  Its scientific name, Aix sponsa, translates into “waterbird in bridal dress.”  Today the wood  duck is one of the most common waterfowl species breeding in the United States.  However, this was not always the case.  Writings from the early 19th century indicate that wood ducks were in abundant  supply and very popular for their tasty meat and bright decorative feathers.

The Wood Duck population declined seriously during the late 19th century because of hunting and loss of nesting sites. Its recovery to healthy numbers was an early triumph of wildlife management.

Patient Wood Ducks in far background as everyone pauses to get a good look
Railroad trestle approaching Cistercian

Only a few turns of the river do you see the hand of man. Those are a brief few turns near Cistercian where the athletic fields of the school are built along the river at river right. At river left, LB Houston Nature Preserve dominates the landscape with large trees, late season bluebonnets and many bird species.

Most of the man made structures on this six miles of river cannot be seen until one rounds the next bend. Otherwise the scene is quite natural.

Cistercian off to the left of photo with Las Colinas in the background

Canada Goose Branta canadensis

Canada Goose flies directly over our canoes

Bird Guide Victor Emanuel and Zach Wooldridge

Awakened from the river on a small island and taking flight directly over our head flew a loud pair of Canada Geese.

A large and distinctive waterbird, the Canada goose (Branta canadensis) can easily be recognized by its long black neck, black head and conspicuous white cheek patches, which extend under the head and neck. Loud and honking, the Canada Goose let out a number of protest calls as we paddled by.

Some of the Canada Geese population are now year round residents of North Texas, choosing to feed on the grasses of manicured lawns rather than migrate north for the summer. Such is most likely the case with these geese as they were slow to leave the river.

Charles Allen points out the Eagle Ford Shale formation outcrop on the Trinity River. This exact spot is the center of recent earthquake activity in the Dallas and Irving area.

Yellow Bellied Water Snake Nerodia erythrogaster

Yellow Bellied Water Snake

Not all wildlife seen on the float trip were high in trees or on feathered wing. Others were perched on logs sunning themselves in the strong morning light. One great example is that of a rather large and patient Yellow Bellied Water Snake Nerodia erythrogaster. It favors the river swamps and the forested edges of streams, ponds, lakes, and bayous.

Very common snake and the most common snake species that I see in the Great Trinity Forest. They are non-venomous but will bite if provoked. While their bite does not carry venom, their fangs can hold bacteria that can infect humans if the human skin is broken.

A slow paddle as a Great Egret stands perched in branches of a snag

Indigo Bunting Passerina cyanea

Male Indigo Bunting in an Ash tree

The Indigo Bunting, a member of the finch family, is a familiar summer visitor to Eastern portions of Texas. This loud little songster prefers brushy pastures and edge habitat where brushy fields meet the forest. Its winter range extends through Central America and the West Indies. Males vigorously defend their territory by singing and displaying from the open top branches of trees or other visible perch.

On the Elm Fork we heard many Indigo Buntings, saw a few and managed to shoot a couple with a camera. Both the Indigo and Painted Buntings seem to be particularly camera shy and fly away at the first sign of a camera.

Indigo Buntings are actually black; the diffraction of light through their feathers makes them look blue. This explains why males can appear many shades from turquoise to black. An interesting fact is that they migrate at night, using the pattern of stars nearest the North Star to guide them.

Heading downstream with a huge grove of mature cedar elms and elms river right and native swamp privet river left

Where the Indigo Bunting is classified as a bird with black feathers, there is another bird visiting from the tropics that everyone associates with black. The anhinga.

Anhinga Anhinga anhinga
Spending most of the year in tropical rainforests and sub-tropical areas south of the border, Anhinga anhinga feel right at home in the oppressive heat of a coming Texas summer. It’s one of the few birds that one can easily remember when it comes to the Latin species name.

The anhinga is a large bird with a long S-shaped neck and a long pointed bill. The male has grayish-black feathers with a greenish shine to them. They have large wings with silver-white feathers on the top side. Females have a light tan head, neck and chest and a black stomach. Both the male and the female have long fan- shaped tail feathers and sometimes the anhinga is known as the water turkey.

The anhinga has poorly developed oil glands and its feathers aren’t as waterproof as other water birds are. It will perch in a tree to dry its feathers.

Observing Anhinga

Anhinga are an uncommon bird in North Texas. Easy to spot at a far distance but not particularly here in large numbers.

A bird of the swamp, we find them on this trip in side channeled ponds with canoe access trails running from the main channel of the river. The ponds, running 3 to ten acres in size by my estimation are the fertile riparian habitat that so many aquatic birds crave.

The access spots are not marked and it takes either a guide or careful observation to see them.

One of the off channel lakes on the Elm Fork. I think the buildings in the background are the local office buildings for the FBI and ATF

Some of the lakes are large enough to hold a battleship or aircraft carrier. Much different than the confined spaces of the Trinity River south of Downtown Dallas. Here there is a lot of open room to roam, wide vistas and distant buildings to provide a sense of scale.

Charles Allen at a water processing and trash filter system at Fishing Hole Lake

Just past Storey Lane we pass a water intake facility which controls water flow at Fishing Hole Lake. Built out on a peninsula is the facility with a contraption that collects trash and other debris from the facility and places it into an industrial roll off dumpster.

Elm Fork just upstream from Frazier Dam

It is in this stretch of river where the trees continue to rise in height and the channel widens. The Frazier Dam is visible on the far horizon some 400 yards distant. It is here where man has begun to change the river, channelize it, as it enters the Dallas Floodway and levees. It is also where we turn off the main channel and paddle the old remnant historic channel left behind. It will take us about 1/2 a mile through galleries of tall woods, off shoot swamps, before reaching our takeout along I-35 and Hines Place.

This stretch forms the heart of what would be a future Elm Fork natural area for education and concentration on conservation efforts with natural surface trails and possibly a nature center.

It is the hidden river that is a stone’s throw from Love Field that is a total unexplored resource for Dallasites.

Large logs, snags and 40 foot high trees draped with vines give the impression of a rainforest. The birds call loudly, many more than anywhere else yet unseen due to all the vegetation. Really spectacular. There is a catch to navigating the side channel there. The legacy of trash.

It is rather remarkable seeing a raft of trash on a stretch of river where we encountered virtually none during a 4 hour, 6 mile float. I even commented how much cleaner this stretch of river was compared to the main channel of the river south of Downtown. Garrett Boone told me to hold that comment till we made it to the trash raft.

A product of hydrology with the help of some litterbugs this 50 yard section of river creates a imposing challenge to navigate.

Garrett told me the trash flows in and is trapped. A unique pocket of a Bermuda Triangle of trash. Coolers, styrofoam cups, water bottles. Many bear the name of gas stations and fast food joints just up the road. Other trash is labeled with places in suburbs upstream. Lewisville and Carrollton.

It makes for a tough view to stomach and a tough slog to paddle and push through. Coming up with a solution to this problem will require some out of the box thinking and an innovative fix. Garrett Boone has some novel ideas cooking about it.

I-35 in the background as we approach the takeout spot for our trip

A few more minutes of paddling and we transition from the deep channeled Elm Fork with vine covered trees and pop out into the bright noon sun.

At the end of the journey at southbound I-35 and Webb’s Chapel Extension, Hines Park area

It’s a nondescript takeout for canoes. An old caliche fishing road blocked by a Trinity Watershed Management sign. The roar of traffic overhead makes for an interesting contrast to where we were just minutes before.

Back at California Crossing talking about what a great trip this was and the amazing sights and sounds. Smiles all around.

For many on this trip, it was their first exposure to the Trinity River and canoeing in an urban wilderness. It is a joy to see people view a Wood Duck or Anhinga for the first time. Better yet explaining that the bird flew 2,000 miles just to nest in Dallas for the summer.

Even better than that is realizing Dallas citizens like Garrett Boone are out there. Sharing these experiences with a broad audience. Being an advocate. Donating valuable time and energy. Educating residents and schoolchildren. His conservation efforts and plans are first rate. When his plans come to fruition Northwest Dallas and Preston Hollow will have a really unique wilderness experience right in their backyard.