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Nature & Environment

The Trinity Project: Snags, Strainers, and Manmade Obstacles

Essay 5 of 10
Charles Allen canoeing down the Trinity River, 2012 (Photo: Laray Polk)
Charles Allen canoeing down the Trinity River, 2012 (Photo: Laray Polk)

In February 2000, Charles Allen set out alone in a canoe stocked with provisions. He put in upstream of the West Fork and Elm Fork confluence of the Trinity River. He had no timetable and only two goals: reach the sea, come back alive.

The Trinity River, the longest self-contained river in the state, flows north to south as elevation dictates, and the distance from source to coastal destination is 710 miles. It would take several months for Allen to reach the mouth of the river, where brackish water mixes with saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico. Some canoeists, says Allen, could make the trip in less time, but he has always been a slow paddler and puts a high premium on the ability to see downstream. “There are many isolated passages along the river, and many risks.” Snags, strainers, and manmade obstacles, he says, create deadly hazards that need to be seen in advance, so he didn’t paddle at night. To have full visibility, he would set up camp along the river before sunset and get started soon after sunrise.

A brief encounter with a 12-foot alligator as he neared coastal waters was not a big deal relative to other threats. He says some of those threats are manmade, such as abandoned pipe and metal; others are the consequence of natural processes like sizable trees calving from the bank, at times floating with the current and, at other times, floating perpendicular to it. Of the latter type of hazard, a tree can become what’s called a strainer. While water, debris, and even aquatic life can pass through the blockage, or even join with it, a boat cannot. A collision with a strainer can jettison passengers and destroy a canoe.

It took several trips for Allen to complete the full journey. When conditions were extremely bad — an ice storm, volleys of indiscriminate gunfire near various prison farms, and south winds at Lake Livingston generating tall waves — he would get off the river. He would pull his canoe from the water at a bridge crossing or other outtake, and put in at another location the next day with the help of friends and a trailer. Other days, he was forced to portage.

Portage means getting off the river, too, but it’s a different process (and one that rarely involves an overnight stay and hot shower at a nearby hotel). Portage is getting out of the water when there’s a hazard and carrying your boat and supplies overland to another point of entry. But portage, depending on location, can introduce new hazards equal to those being averted in the water, especially if there’s only one person to complete the process.

The first portage, Allen says, came a short distance from where he began his journey, at the lock and dam located between Dowdy Ferry and South Belt Line roads. Working around that obstacle cost him several days travel time.

The lock and dam at Dowdy Ferry and South Belt Line roads. The lock is a concrete structure about 30 feet wide and 100 feet long where a barge would be chambered to raise or lower it. In present day, the locks are gateless chutes filled with water, debris and silt. (Photo: Google Maps)
The lock and dam at Dowdy Ferry and South Belt Line roads. The lock is a concrete structure about 30 feet wide and 100 feet long where a barge would be chambered to raise or lower it. In present day, the locks are gateless chutes filled with water, debris and silt. (Photo: Google Maps)

The locks and dams are relics of an engineered system built in the early 1900s, intended to raise or lower barges, making it possible to overcome elevation differences to and from the Gulf of Mexico. The colossal structures, situated in the river channel, were first steps in an effort to transform the Trinity River into a seaway with an inland port in Dallas. According to Allen, the project was abandoned shortly before World War I, and only seven locks and dams were built, though an additional 27 had been planned. Three of the seven locks and dams are located in Dallas County. After the war, federal and local sponsors seemed to lack enthusiasm for finishing the system, and, likewise, contemporaries in a position to do something about the abandoned structures now, he says, don’t seem too eager to remove or mitigate them. That means people in canoes must take precaution in approaching them and be prepared to portage.

When Allen approached the lock and dam at Dowdy Ferry, passing over the dam was not an option. It would have meant a sharp, 4-foot descent in a 16-foot canoe. The other option, passing through the lock, wasn’t viable either. Allen says debris, like large tree branches and trash, gets trapped inside and can create hydrodynamics such as gyres. Instead, Allen pulled over and secured his canoe along the bank, tying his orange lifejacket on top so that he had an easily identifiable reference point. With the scale of the surroundings, he says, losing sight of a canoe is easy to do.

He then clambered up the bank, a steep, slippery slope covered on top with a thick tangle of briers. He used his paddle like a machete to thrash and push them back until he found a clearing about a half-mile away. He decided this is where he would set up camp for the night.

Returning to the canoe, he brought provisions up the slope in two rounds, then pulled up the emptied 65-pound canoe last. He put the provisions in the canoe and then pulled it behind him through briers to the spot he had scouted earlier. The next morning, he lowered the emptied canoe by rope down to the water. And in reverse order from the previous day, made two trips down the slope to fill the canoe with water jugs, camping gear, and food. He had successfully portaged the lock and dam and was once again on water and, like the river, headed to the sea.

From a canoeist’s perspective, Allen sees the locks and dams as dangerous encroachments located in a river channel. But he says it’s not feasible to try to completely remove them, because however big they may appear above water, they’re massive below it. There is a middle way, he says, and complete removal isn’t necessary. “A good white-water engineer could design a cut [to the structures] that would improve safety; and a coffer dam could be built while it’s being done.” That, he says, would improve the safety of the river and it wouldn’t cost a fortune.

The river for Allen is more than a recreational amenity; he views it as major contributor to a complete ecosystem. “The influx of fresh water from the Trinity River contributes to the health of Galveston Bay,” he says. “When brackish water of the river mixes with saltwater, it makes for a better reproductive environment for some species of fish, and in the marshes and estuaries, nutrients from upstream are beneficial to microorganisms and alligators alike.”

The Trinity River as a watershed and system of reservoirs, Allen says, benefits communities and large cities all along its route, including Dallas. He says, “We wouldn’t have a water supply or water utilities without the river.”

[Editor’s note: for an explanation of the Trinity Project, go here.]