“Your God damn rivers,” he said at one point, “ain’t got no God damn water in them most of the God damn time.” (John Graves, “Kindred Spirits” in A John Graves Reader, p. 188)
Clear Creek is not the kind of stream most people would think to paddle. There are no designated put-ins or take-outs along its fifty-mile length. You won’t come across any whitewater runs either. Clear Creek’s banks wind their way through ranch and farmland dotted with second growth forests, so there isn’t a lot of development, but saying you’ll encounter wilderness is a stretch. A deer or two may snort and run, coyote scat on the banks, that sort of thing. Lately, I’ve taken to paddling these sorts of rivers—the ones we live off of but don’t really notice—if for no other reason than to make time with three of my closest companions, my canoe, my dog, and an old friend.
Telling a Texan you’re going to paddle Clear Creek no more clarifies where you are going than saying, “I am going to the BBQ place.” The Clear Creek I planned to paddle covers Montague, Cooke, Wise, and Denton counties before meeting the Elm Fork of the Trinity just above Lake Lewisville. In truth, most know this Clear Creek only by crossing it on Interstate 35 just south of Sanger. Otherwise, folks must venture down farm-to-market roads to see it more closely. It’s one of many cricks we pass over without thinking much about.
I have owned a canoe of some sort my entire adult life. Some were of quality, others less so. I had one that was so worn and patched that it would have shamed Dolly Parton’s coat of many colors. Another, the forest-green Old Town my daughter and I named “Pine Needles” resided on the coffee table in my living room after my divorce. It could serve as a dining table if turned bottom up and a sleeper sofa if a guest didn’t mind snuggling into its hull. I guess what I am trying to say is that canoes have generally been there for me.
I’ve canoed all sorts of beautiful rivers and streams, mostly the kind that induce nature reverie and pantheistic enthusiasm, but I’ve also paddled my share of urban waterways. I’ve dodged shopping carts, tires, and toilet bowls. I coined the phrase “float by shooting” when someone above a ridgeline lobbed bricks at me as I madly paddled to safety. Yet I’ve come to love my urban floats, which are graced every now and then by a kingfisher, heron, beaver, rare flowers in the spring, and—if the water is high enough—a class III rapid. These floats can be a lot like spending time with family—you get to know all the flaws because they are so obvious, but you also accept them, warts and all, because they are a part of you, either by blood or place. And in a strange way, these flaws feel pretty familiar, like looking into a mirror … and looking honestly.
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In Texas, my birthplace, paddling local rivers has become not only a recreational activity but a source of home-making for me. I grew up below the dam at Lake Lewisville and spent most of my summer youth in the flood plains by the release gate—where the Elm Fork of the Trinity emerges again. If you put in by the riprap, you could float down to the 121 bridge, a little over a mile. If you kept on, you could paddle all the way to Dallas. I’d fish for sand bass in the shallows with a shiner, and for catfish in the deeper pools with blood bait or the dead minnows leftover from crappie fishing. I’d camp just above the Atchison Topeka railroad bridge and listen to barred and great horned owls call throughout the night. The home-making is part of a mixed bag of nostalgia and reconnecting, letting the old emotions float along, remembering the plants that I knew before I knew their names.
One of my paddling partners is my dog Sunny, a German Shepherd mix who’s just turned three. While she provides ballast for the front, she is also a good companion—sixty-five pounds of affection, which causes a mishap now and then if she shifts in the canoe too quickly. My other partner is my oldest friend Scott. While some friends are like peas in a pod, Scott and I are like turnips and hubcaps. I’m the one who put the “disorder” in ADD. Scott, on the other hand, can make molasses seem spastic. We’ve known each other for over twenty years since his family moved here from Minnesota and have remained close for most of it. His yang and my yin make for a strange but strong friendship.
January had been a dry one compared to the previous months of wet weather. Scott and I had watched Clear Creek roll down its banks during the floods and talked of paddling it mid-storm. However, jobs, families, and fear of drowning had postponed our trip until a dry and warm Saturday. We put in below Interstate 35 where Clear Creek has a deep pool of water, around four feet this day. Marjan, Scott’s wife of near twenty years, dropped us off, promised to pick us up, laughed a little about cell phone range problems, and left. She’s a hell of a woman.
Garbage adorned the banks—the ubiquitous plastic grocery bags, a tire here and there, McDonald’s wrappers, children’s toys. The river was also lined by some impressive sycamores and oaks. Beneath us, huge carp and small black bass glided by in wavy schools. Within minutes, I’d already seen two softshell turtles plop their way into the pool. As with most rivers in the area, the banks were low and eroded through black soil prairie, and high when turned by a ledge of limestone. The sun was high, the sky blue and brilliant through leafless limbs.
No major reservoir exists on Clear Creek, and it meets the Elm Fork of the Trinity before feeding Lake Lewisville. While lots has been done in the way of flood control to keep folks’ pastures from washing away, the water level is still mostly determined by the remaining springs, rain, and runoff. I note this because about a half a mile down Clear Creek our deep pool ran out—ran out, as in a bed of gravel and rock for a hundred yards or so with a trickle of water off to the side.
“Guess it’s time to carry,” I laughed and wanted to say more.
“Yep,” Scott interrupted.
The dog had a chance to run. Scott and I had a chance to look for fossils: sea biscuits, ammonites, devil’s toenails. Sort out how the sandstone got here with all the limestone. Scratch our heads over the pieces of granite. Here, the egret print. There, a raccoon track. We loaded the dog in the mud on the far end of the dry bed and began paddling again.
Within a few hundred yards this pool ran out too. And while the dry bed was shorter than the first, ahead we could see smaller and smaller pools, longer and longer dry spots. We both knew what this meant.
“Damn,” the typically stoic Scott blurted out, taking me back a little. “This ain’t a river trip. It’s canoe dragging.”
He was right. By river-people standards, Clear Creek on this day was not canoeing.
A paddling trip is a particular act of transportation and recreation. A quick pull of the paddle eases the canoe forward, or it is pulled along by a current. Hiking or climbing, you are the agent of your own movement. When you stop, you stop. But paddling, you are carried along by something that’s the potluck of gravity, geology, and liquid. On some trips I’ve literally taken off a few hours and just let a docile stream take me along. By no work of my own, I ended up miles from where I began. On whitewater rivers, one uses skill and nuance to work with the current and flow. When done well, you never fight the river; its force is part of your motion.
Perspective is also a part of the canoeing experience—the literal angle of vision and the objects seen. In a canoe, inevitably you are lower than the banks. I don’t think this observation will catch anyone by surprise. But looking up at the banks and trees gives them size and bearing greater than seeing them on level ground. It’s that look of a photograph taken while squatting and pointing the camera upwards. While I’m a little long in the tooth to remember, I’m sure it’s the feeling little kids must have around adults—they just seem so dang big! So, too, the forests along rivers take on a grandeur perhaps grander than they actually are. All this gives a river trip its singular and mythological quality and expectation.
However, many rivers in Texas, if in their natural state, are intermittent—meaning that they periodically dry up. As a professor/friend pointed out to me, were it not for flush toilets, wastewater treatment plants, and reservoirs, virtually all rivers in north-central Texas would be intermittent. Even the Elm Fork is over 99% effluent in a typical dry summer.
I’ve never known the Elm Fork as anything but a flowing river, and it has always flowed where I know it because of the Lake Lewisville Dam. For that matter, I’d never put my canoe in a river I didn’t end up being able to float on for the majority of the trip. Yet here we were, Scott, the dog, and I, staring down miles of dry creek. Actually, the dog didn’t give a damn.
I wondered then if I hadn’t leveed and dammed Clear Creek in my own mind, in my own way. I had always embarked on a canoe trip with the idea that there must be water in the river, but this idyll was constructed from my experiences in the southeast, where most of the rivers are perennial, and from my expectations of what paddling should be. Now that some of the myths were stripped away, the disservice I had been doing to my home place struck with all the more clarity. It was no less a river, no less a “natural environment,” and I was no less with my best companions. Now, though, I had encountered a Texas river on its terms, not mine.
The miles ahead afforded us a football field length of paddling at a time. The dry spots offered few obstacles—some larger scattered rocks, deep sand, mud near the water. Sometimes the dog would ride with us on the water; other times, she preferred to run along the bank. We carried the canoe for about four miles of our trip; we actually paddled one.
Scott was unusually talkative as the sun climbed higher and the canoe became heavier.
“No f#$@ing river blah, blah, blah” and “In Minnesota blah, blah water.”
I, oddly, was more quiet that day, taking the bends in the river slowly as we walked them. We stopped frequently to rest, and I took the time to identify more plants, listen carefully to the birds. A couple of times, I crawled up the bank to walk around the woods or pasture, look for a house, barn, or nearby road. When Marjan finally met us, she howled and laughed until tears appeared. She also offered us a couple of cold beers.
* * * * *
Wallace Stegner writes in American West as Living Space, “And what do you do about aridity, if you are a nation inured to plenty and impatient of restrictions? …You may deny it for a while. Then you must either adapt to it or try to engineer it out of existence.”
The Army Corps of Engineers no more intend to create recreational rivers than people washing their hands in Denton are thinking about my canoe experience. In other words, the dams and wastewater treatment plants that allow us to float most of the rivers in north-central Texas weren’t built for that purpose. They were built to retain water.
Water use in Texas is a bigger topic than this writer can address in this short narrative—whether we are talking about problems with the Edwards and Ogalalla aquifers, trying to keep the Rio Grande flowing, water quality in our streams, or building another reservoir. It’s fair to say that our need for water has affected us all—people, critters, and places—in ways that even those of us who like to call ourselves environmentalists don’t often recognize. What I had once thought of as my retreat from the urban world, paddling, is now only possible because of the human world. I don’t know that I can ever load up my canoe and idle away the hours again on a local river, not without a bit of reserve, not without seeing my part in it.
Header photograph by Gavin Van Horn. All other photographs are by David Taylor and show the Elm Fork, which is fed by Clear Creek.