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From Kayaks On The Trinity, Teachers Learn About Human Impact On North Texas Nature

Summer school's gliding along in North Texas, but students aren’t the only ones in session. Southern Methodist University's STEM Academy is for science teachers. 

For one recent lesson, they left dry land behind to kayak the Trinity River that wanders through the Great Trinity Forest. 

Spotting wildlife along the Trinity

On one recent summer morning, it’s still relatively cool and overcast. Eight kayaks launch down the river from the Trinity's infamous standing wave. The multi-million-dollar man-made rapids — deemed too dangerous — will soon be dismantled.

At this placid point, everyone gets safely on the water.

Lee Renshaw is the river guide with the nearby Trinity River Audubon Center.

"While we are out there today, be on lookout. This time of day, there's going to be a lot of birds on the river today, and I will point them out when we see them," he says. 

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Trash caught in the trees along the Trinity River.

The kayakers start watching for birds as they glide past downed trees that look like they're decorated for Christmas with dirty plastic bags as ornaments. We pass countless old tires and floating junk. It's shocking.

Still, through it all, a bird sighting.

"I found an indigo bunting..."

The bright blue bunting — a member of the cardinal family — flits among the tall leafy hardwoods and haphazardly strewn lumber. A rusty metal bridge looms ahead.  Suddenly, a bobcat.

"See the bobcat!"

"This is my first sighting of a bobcat in the wild ever," Renshaw says. "Right up there on the middle of the bridge." 

"Oh, my God, what is that?"

"Is it a bobcat or is it a coyote?" 

"It's a bobcat," Renshaw confirms.

'If you try and fight the water, you will lose'

A great blue heron takes flight against the cloudy blue sky.  A snowy egret stands upright on the mucky shore, near torn shreds of black and blue nylon tarps. Renshaw has a master’s degree in environmental education and likes teaching the teachers — this time, about erosion and roots.  

“The roots of trees, whenever they're exposed to the air for long enough, they'll actually grow bark over those roots," he says. "They start growing roots just like this one here." 

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
A blue heron flies above the Trinity River.

The lessons on this summer day also cover industrial history. To our left, we glide past a wide concrete pipe.

“This structure here actually used to be a manufacturing company — what they manufactured, I don't know. They got rid of their liquid waste from this. You'll see a giant pipe that's leading out into it, and that's actually where all that liquid waste came out, right into the river," Renshaw says. 

Renshaw says the 1972 Clean Water Act and other environmental rules helped end that. But the Trinity's still not clean. The river provides water for 11.5 million Texans. That's nearly half the state's population.

And Renshaw says this water's mildly toxic. If you've got an open cut, it could get infected.

As we maneuver past an old pickup submerged in the middle of the river, we're 50 yards from rapids. These are mild, though — Class II.

"We have never had anyone capsize on the rapids themselves. We have only had people capsize whenever they try to fight the water," Renshaw says. "If you try and fight the water, you will lose." 

Pollution ruins the Trinity's potential

This group of science teachers safely navigates the white water. Yet, before the three-and-a-half-hour trip's done, three kayaks flip. Seagoville Middle School's Jermarcus Webster learned his lesson, which he'll take back to class.   

"I fell in now, so I’m going to be able to tell them, ‘You know what? The Trinity River is actually not cold.’ Let me tell you what throwing pollution out on the ground eventually does and where it ends up at. So, it's that real life learning I can incorporate into my lesson," Webster says.

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Tires and other debris in the Trinity River.

Medrano Middle School teacher Lily Binford also ended up in the drink. Her takeaway?

“What specifically stands out is how pollution has affected this environment. There's so much trash and debris out here. It's really a shame because I think the Trinity River could be a gem in the crown of Dallas, and instead, it's pretty trashed."

There’s so much to take back from this adventure, these teachers says. But mostly, the river's pumped up their undying passion for science.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.