One windy day in April, eight people gathered on the banks of the Trinity River, under the Loop 12 bridge in South Dallas, where they strapped on yellow life vests and prepared for the maiden voyage of Audubon River Adventures. The new program officially launches this June. It offers Trinity River Audubon Center visitors the opportunity to spend an hour canoeing the river ($65 for nonmembers, $50 for members). Ben Jones, director of the center, offered last-minute instructions while T Hanson, operations and outreach manager at the center, gathered cellphones and put them in a waterproof pouch attached to her waist.

Slowly, the expedition party—five board members, the two staffers, and a reporter—climbed into its flotilla of four canoes. Mary Cook and Container Store co-founder Garrett Boone claimed the first canoe, while former Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher and Billy Rodriguez got in the second one. The third was piloted by Peggy Carr and Hanson. Carr had recently taken up bird watching, so she opted to hold onto her new Nikon Monarch 3 binoculars rather than put them in the waterproof pouch.

Not a minute after launch, a gust of wind snatched Carr’s straw hat from her head. She and Hanson reflexively leaned over the starboard gunwale—and flipped over the boat. “Oh, no they didn’t!” Jones said. Carr, who has canoed a time or two in her 67 years, knew to find the pocket of air under the canoe. After grabbing a breath, she emerged from the murky waters of the Trinity.

After several minutes of slipping, sliding, and swimming along the muddy bank, the ladies were back in their boat, and Jones was wearing a big smile. The day had been five years in the making. “The biggest piece of the puzzle we needed to figure out was how to get off the river. You can tell already that bank was crazy,” Jones said. With the help of Boone, a stairway system was engineered and funded at the Trinity River Audubon Center, the idea being that people park their cars at the center, hop a van to the Loop 12 bridge, paddle down the river, and get out where their cars are parked. Or, if they’re feeling adventurous, they can spend the night at the center’s new campground.

“What we’ll do with our crew is we’re going to pull over and talk about the river and the wildlife here,” he said. As if on cue, a great blue heron soared overhead. Jones pointed out tiger swallowtail butterflies resting on black willows lining the bank. “Our mission is to connect people with this river and this amazing and wild and beautiful North Texas, which nobody knows about. It’s our job to open Dallas’ eyes to how beautiful and amazing our natural home is.”

There is, of course, a lot of trash caught in the branches of the trees that line the Trinity. And the water itself doesn’t exactly look refreshing (though Carr said it was less grimy than she had anticipated). Jones is quick to respond to criticism of his beloved river. “The truth is, if you drink water, and you live in North Texas, this river is flowing through you in some sort of way,” he said. “It’s part of us.” The Trinity is the longest river fully in the state of Texas and provides drinking water for 12 million people. “We wouldn’t be here without this river,” Jones said.

As the group rounded the last bend in the river, Boone let out a gasp. It was the first time he’d seen the stairs he’d helped engineer. The staircase looked simple enough—wooden steps with steel handles resting on the bank—but to the group of canoers it was a symbol for what they’re trying to accomplish. It was a tool that North Texans can use to appreciate what’s around them. “I don’t think anything connects you to the river better than this,” Jones said. “You can go out, you can look over it, you can see it, you can drive over it every day, but nothing builds a stronger emotional and intellectual connection than being on it.”

After climbing the staircase, the group was greeted with a braided grapevine and garden shears to cut the “ribbon.” Standing proudly in the middle of the group was Carr, minus a pair of binoculars, but with her straw hat securely on her head.