Tuesday, April 16, 2024 Apr 16, 2024
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Law Man Walking: Nature Treks With Bill Holston

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Ben Sandifer and I were overdue for a hike. I’d had work and family commitments that prevented much exploration of late. So, when I wrote Ben last week and suggested an urban adventure, I was thrilled when he responded with an enthusiastic, “You bet!”

Because of all the rains, we decided to meet at River Oaks Park and head over to Lemmon Lake to see if it was full. Filling that lake is the key to providing habitat for the Roseate Spoonbills, White Faced Ibis, and Wood Storks we’ve seen there in wetter times. This is quite a treat to see these wading birds here in our North Texas area. River Oaks is aptly named for the large grove of Post Oaks. The trail is located in the Joppa (pronounced Joppy) Preserve, originally a Freedman’s Town. Neighbors still have picnics in these pretty woods.

I was sorry I didn’t leave a few minutes earlier, as I was stopped by a train at the Union Pacific Tracks. I watched endless overseas containers with Chinese characters on the sides. The train passed, and I met Ben at the parking lot. We walked along the paved path, which runs parallel to the lake, eventually cutting through the thick woods to see what the lake looked like. We heard the beautiful song of Buntings in the trees around us, but didn’t see them–yet. We walked over to the lake, which was still mostly dry, although there were quite a few spots with standing water. (Ben reports that since our hike, water is slowly filling in the lake with even more rains.) We walked along, over to the old dam, where rain had created some small ponds. We saw a male Wood Duck in one of them. We made our way on top of the levee and walked along. We could tell that although the river was at about 30 feet, it had not topped the levee, which is what is required to really fill the lake.

We’ve seen the carcasses of large gar that were living in this pond before it was dried by our drought. We’ve also watched river otters play here. This levee is a great place to walk, although it’s pretty grown up with privet, the pestilential invasive plant. All of the woods here are filled with poison ivy this time of year, and copperheads lurk in the detritus of the leaves and brush. If the city were inclined to make something more accessible, this would be a dandy spot to clear some invasives, but it should not be paved, so I hesitate to even suggest any “improvements.”

On the return trip, we had a close, but not fragrant, encounter with a Joppa Preserve swamp skunk. We made lots of noise and scurried past the brush where the skunk had disappeared. Perhaps this was a professional courtesy to me.

Our plan was to hike over to the paved trail, which goes from the Loop 12 Boat Ramp all the way to the Trinity River Audubon. This would give us a chance to see the river from the vantage of a bridge as well as a good chance of spotting Buntings. We hiked along a trail, which was heavily overgrown with privet, very wet from the rains. Ben and I took slightly different paths in the woods and became separated at one point. I wound up at one of the old fishing shacks on a pond. Although I knew generally where I was, I didn’t know how to get over to the paved trail. I had a brief moment of nervousness, but then realized with persistence I’d get over to the trail where Ben was hiking. I knew the general direction. It’s just those moments of adventure that really keep me charged about hiking on dirt and unimproved trails.

I walked past some old irrigation works, which I remembered from hiking in the past, and found the trail through an Eastern Red Cedar thicket. Once out of the woods and onto the paved trail, I saw Ben. We started hiking over to the bridge and heard the unmistakable and intricate song of a Painted Bunting. I located it in a tree and saw one for the first time this year. Really, you should try to find these beautiful birds. Painted Buntings migrate from Central America to summer here in the area, and they can be seen with some effort. I get a thrill every time I see one. We also spied Indigo Buntings. Both birds are some of the most colorful in North America. Ben spied a Yellow Billed Cuckoo and shared the photo later. He really is a talent with that camera.

We hiked past a long section of gabions and eventually made it to the bike and pedestrian bridge over the river. Our Trinity River is unfairly maligned. It is, of course, not the Frio. It’s not a crystal clear spring-fed beauty. But watching it here in the natural meanders with powerful currents, it’s a real river. The name “Trinity” came in 1690 from Alonso De León, who called the stream the La Santísima Trinidad (the Most Holy Trinity). Ben and I stood and just listened to the flow of the water. We watched an entire tree uproot and fall into the rushing current with a huge splash. We’d canoed past this very spot last year on the Winter Solstice.

Sadly, our only local river seems less a natural asset and more of a divider of our city. When I first started hiking down here, people always asked, “Is it safe?” That question says a lot, sadly, about the divisions in our city, north and south. I’ve never had a single experience where I felt unsafe. That sense of security was reinforced when four Dallas Police officers pedaled by on patrol. We said hi, and they returned the friendly greeting. The more people use these resources, the less likely criminals and dumpers will use these spots. We Dallasites are not accustomed to thinking about nature as an asset. Our city has historically viewed nature as something to be plowed and developed, pretty similar to how we’ve viewed historic preservation. And the fact that we are not living in a particularly scenic part of the state causes some of us to value nature evens less. But there are tons of special places here, and they are worth preserving.

Sunday, I walked in a remnant prairie, seeing blooming Arkansas Yucca, Missouri Primrose, and Foxglove. Thankfully the city of Garland and Dallas County set aside this spot. We’re fortunate that at some points our city and county leaders set aside land from development, such as Joppa Preserve. I think we are beginning to attach additional priority to protecting the few remaining natural areas we have. The more we protect our natural assets, the more attractive our city is to others. And the more unadulterated nature we have, the more places we have to wander and wonder in solitude. This is not to mention the value of habitat to the wildlife that lives here. The ongoing efforts to preserve and protect Big Spring are great examples of that change in attitude in our city.

I think in part our attitude about the Trinity comes from lack of exposure. Most people see the Trinity as they drive over the I-30 and I-35 bridges. There the river has been rechanneled and does look more like a ditch. Although, even there, the Skyline Trail is a terrific way to get close to the river and the life it supports. My wife Jill and I did the Levee Run 5k and found the walk down along the river to be really pretty. But here in the middle of the Forest, where Ben and I walked, the river is big, wild, and real. The woods are dense, and there’s room to get lost. As I walked along the river there, I thought, “Why don’t more people take advantage of this trail?” It’s a pretty spot, truly. It would be easy to ride a bike from the parking lot by Trinity River Audubon and cover this entire area on a Sunday morning.

Ben and I finished looking into the rushing brown current and made our way back to our cars. It was a beautiful morning, overcast and cool. An occasional wind kept us from getting too hot. Every time I leave the Trinity Forest, I feel more alive, more in touch with the natural world, and refreshed with a sense of adventure. It’s why wild places are essential to our health here. I feel restored, ready to go back and advocate for immigrant women and children and torture survivors at the Human Rights Initiative. There are many of us that require that sort of quiet reflection to deal with the stress of jobs and family. And I’m already thinking about my next trip.

Hey, Ben, what are you doing Saturday?

Photo by Ben Sandifer
Photo by Ben Sandifer

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