Sunday, March 8, 2015

Hiking Dallas Great Trinity Forest In The Snow

Sojourn in the snow swept woods and ridges of the Great Trinity Forest in Dallas
The stunning beauty of the snow covered scene could be any mountainous terrain in North America. The near deafening silence of this place would suggest the nearest human would be far beyond the horizon. The snow covered trail we followed over the course of a couple miles only has the footprint of a lone coyote. No human has walked here for days. A place so remote in feel is in the heart of Dallas, inside Loop 12 and just minutes from Downtown.
One of the limestone strewn gullies along the Devon Anderson section of the trail

Hiking across Renda Meadow east of Scyene Overlook
The encroachment of development over the last half century has left much of this area encased in concrete and manicured lawn. The landscape has changed in many ways and in other places, a quickly disappearing few, have remained essentially the same.

The White Rock Valley known to many from headwaters in Frisco to the mouth in the Great Trinity Forest has lost much of the natural character which drew Dallas first settlers.

The creek's course has been confined for millennia by Austin Chalk limestone ridges that it traverses to the east.

To the west of said outcrop lies a magnificent tangle of oxbow tied meanders and sloughs replete with hawks, otters and beavers that will make even an untrained eye awe in wonder.

Here, in the Great Trinity Forest and the escarpments one can see in places what White Rock Creek and the woods it feeds might have looked like hundreds of years ago.

Barred Owl in the snow on February 28, 2015

Few venture places in Dallas during winter weather events. The combined effects of warm gulf air in variegated layers often turns a beautiful snow event one day into one of treacherous freezing rain the next. Such is the case here in Dallas on this last day of February 2015.

 Pioneer Family Roots Run Deep
Trail junction signs for the JJ Beeman Trail which traverses bottomland and the Scyene Overlook Trail which quickly gains elevation to a commanding view over the lower White Rock Creek Valley
In the simpler times and by any stretch the hardest times, this area was the domain of the Beeman family. What I would call as the real first pioneer family of Dallas, the Beemans settled this part of what is now Dallas County in the spring of 1842 on an old Indian and Buffalo trace now called Scyene Road. John Beeman (1799-1856) and his family were the first of that larger extended family to settle here. The history and legacy that those families wrote along with their neighbors are what cut what was then true wilderness into the city we see today.

The extensive discourse one can provide on the local pioneer history would fill many a line of a blog.  The conduit between contemporary Dallasites and that of the pioneers still runs through the bloodlines of their descendants that still call North Texas home. The original settlers to Dallas County were a strong people and that is still evident today.
 MC Toyer, his mother Lois Beeman Toyer, MC’s sister Cynthia Toyer Fusco

Sam Beeman,Margaret Beeman Bryan, John Neely Bryan Jr

The two photos at the time taken, represent the matriarchs of the Beeman family, taken over one hundred twenty years apart. At upper left Margaret Beeman Bryan, wife of John Neely Bryan, founder of Dallas. At right in the 2015 photo is Lois Beeman Toyer, the oldest living member of the Beeman family.
Lisa Dye Bentley and MC Toyer, descendants of Benjamin Dye lay a wreath at the gravemarker at Warren Ferris Cemetery near White Rock Lake in January 2015
 The occasion was a rare event in 21st century Dallas, a gravemarker dedication for a War of 1812 Veteran who settled Dallas in the infancy of Texas. His name was Benjamin Dye and is buried a few short blocks from the Dallas Arboretum at White Rock Lake. Paul Ridenour wrote a terrific piece for the White Rock Weekly on the gravemarker dedication found here:

Some would like to think Dallas is a poor place for local history. That the depth of events happening on the soils of our county is thin. Simply not true. It is rich and features many of the romanticized touchstones of other Texas history events that make Dallas history a fascinating study.

What sets Dallas apart are the places of yesteryear. Where the first explorers clad in buckskin pants and coonskin caps wandered across Dallas for the first time. Many of those spots still stand intact. Places like the Beeman lands, at interesting places like Scyene Overlook.

 Scyene Overlook
Bill Holston standing atop Scyene Overlook
 It is from the top of Scyene Overlook that not just the Great Trinity Forest spills out beneath your feet but also a chance to see for a few miles distant, the immense land holdings once held by the Beeman family.

Fresh rabbit tracks are the only footprints on the trail
It was across this land in the distance that JJ Beeman guided President Sam Houston and his Treaty Party entourage visit in the summer of 1843. JJ Beeman guided Sam Houston's Treaty Party from their overnight camp at Big Spring up White Rock Creek to John Neely Bryan's cabin in what is now Downtown Dallas.

The best known overlook in this trail system is Scyene. Roughly one hundred yards south of the road bearing the same name the overlook gives one a commanding view of the Great Trinity Forest to the south.
Below the overlook in a stand of cedar
Scyene Overlook is named for an old frontier town two miles to the east of the named Scyene. The town center was at the present day intersection of Scyene and St Augustine . The name "Scyene" is a play on the ancient Egyptian town named Syene an old frontier outpost on the east bank of the Nile.

Piedmont Ridge Trail and Devon Anderson Trail
The millennium old natural bison path and hard bottomed ford of White Rock Creek made this a preferred ox pulled wagon route into Dallas prior to the railroads. The long haul freight transporters of their time.

The Lower White Rock Creek Trails are comprised of a roughly 3-4 mile(depending on route) soft surface trail network spanning three different City of Dallas Parks. JJ Beeman/Scyene Overlook on Scyene Road, Grover Keeton Park which includes Piedmont Ridge Trail and Devon Anderson Park south of Bruton Road.

Best Parking
2300 Jim Miller Road Dallas TX

The JJ Beeman Trail starts near the corner of Glover Pass and Scyene and continues east to the Scyene Overlook. From there the trail roughly follows an Austin Chalk Escarpment high above the White Rock Creek Valley.  One clear days can see the VA Hospital in South Dallas, Cedar Hill, Hutchins as well as Downtown Dallas. The trail continues through Grover Keeton Park, up Piedmont Ridge, across Bruton and into Devon Anderson Park. 

The trails here are comprised of a random mix of trails with no clearly defined start or finish. Over the last couple years, trail maintenance has fallen off and as a result some of the sections might become an awkward adventure to find. The trails are all still there just more faint in appearance for a first-time visitor.

Piedmont Ridge
Crossing an open field before hiking up Piedmont Ridge
Piedmont Ridge, which sits to the south and east of Scyene Overlook is slightly higher than overlooks to the north. The long ago built trail along the topographical high is reached by navigating across the Scyene Overlook escarpment and across the driveway entrance of Grover Keeton Golf Course. Heading south with Jim Miller on the left and the DART tracks to the right, one will find a trailhead kiosk and trail entrance.
Climbing up the short switchbacks that lead up the spine of Piedmont Ridge
Some short and steep switchbacks climb quickly onto a level topped ridge with a set of cedar hewn benches roughly 2/3'rds of the way towards Bruton Road.
Piedmont Ridge Overlook
Cactus covered in ice

The cedar benches here have some of the most photogenic views of Dallas and Oak Cliff to the west. A real showstopper of a place to take in a sunset and only a ten minute walk from where one can park a car. The smell of this spot is that of the Texas Hill Country and even during below freezing conditions, the cedar pollen of this spot is thick.

 Devon Anderson Trail

Mexican Buckeye seed pod

South of Bruton Road, the becomes nearly non-existent in many spots. Even in dry weather the trail is not much more than a faint trace of a path frequented more by that of a coyote, a couple rabbits and bounding squirrels. No human traffic as evidenced by the clean snow.

Footbridge across a very deep gully in Devon Anderson Park
The trail follows ridge lines and then switchbacks down into a series of gullies. The rewarding views of each new ridge afford different views of the forest and city skyline in the far distance. The gullies offer something much different this time of year, the first signs of spring.
Down in one of the deeper gullies

Trout lilies partially encased in snow
Residing in the organically rich leaf strewn soils just inside the sun dappled treelines for a short few days become home to one of Texas most unique natural blooms. The Trout Lily, Erythronium albidum. Along this trail system, particularly south of Bruton Road one sees vast numbers of these early bloomers, many of the plants grow next to and even up through the trail here.

Above is a video clip of trout lilies growing on the banks of a small arroyo stream in Devon Anderson that is swollen with ice melt from a recent winter storm to hit Dallas.

White Trout Lilies are known to exist in the State of Texas in 15 counties. Trout Lilies, also called Dog-Tooth Violets or Adder's Tongues are a spring flowering woodland native to Texas. The flowers have 6 white tepals (inverted petals), 6 stamens and bright yellow anthers that hang downwards forming an inverted shape. Each plant is about 6 inches tall and roughly the diameter of a dinner plate. It takes 6 long growing seasons before a Trout Lily will produce a flower in year 7.

Trout lilies take so many years to mature, so difficult for their seed to spread, so hard to see in other times of the year that they have become a splintered subset of colonies here in the Dallas area. Separated by great distances in geography and existing in ecological isolation they are a unique plant worthy of distinction.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Snow Covers Big Spring In Dallas Great Trinity Forest

With a silence only punctuated by the distant howl of coyotes the sights of Big Spring under a record breaking snowfall are a sight to behold. Over four inches of snow blanketed the ground the night before leaving a white monotone landscape across the soon to be wildflower filled fields.
Pemberton family campground and campfire area at Big Spring
As a measuring stick on how deep the snow can stack one can look at some of the only man made fixtures at Big Spring like the campfire and campsite used for decades by the Pemberton family and invited guests. This might be the oldest continuously used campsite in Dallas County. The archeologists tell us that a portion of the Big Spring Native American site is still intact in this area. The immediate vicinity later used by traveling explorers, pioneer families, family reunions and countless scout troops.

Southern Methodist University Professor Emeritus Darwin Payne recently wrote a great piece about Big Spring which was published in the Dallas Morning News. It is a great read about the human history of this place, the Beemans, Bryans, Pembertons and the Pemberton's Bryan Springs Dairy

The day before over an inch of rain fell across the Great Trinity Forest adding to an impressive precipitation total. A large rain event coupled with snow is a chance to do a unique monthly water monitoring test at Big Spring. Testing is traditionally in the first week of the month for this site. The results were quite interesting in that the flow rate from Big Spring was much higher than dry conditions.

Big Weather Equals Big Flow

It is thought that Big Spring's water source is a mix of ancient water from a yet to be researched deep aquifer, a shallow perched aquifer and runoff from storm events. The flow of the spring averages 20-22 gallons per minute during dry conditions. On this day, March 5th, the flow was cranking at 27 gallons per minute. One could float the theory that snowmelt around the spring was a contributor and the saturated porous soils upslope of the spring.

The mighty Bur Oak which is many hundreds of years old has witnessed countless storms such as this. Snow, rain, wind, heat and drought leave marks of distinction on the tree.
Richard Grayson who leads volunteer water monitoring for the Texas Stream Team in DFW tested the water after the previous snow event on February 25, 2015. His observations calculated to 28 gallons per minute of flow. On both test dates(2/25 and 3/5), the dissolved solids represented as conductivity of the water was 780 μS/cm. Conductivity is a great test for Big Spring where water usually is in the 800-810 μS/cm range. A higher number suggests the water moves through a large amount of geology before entering the open air.

Dissolved solids are important to aquatic life by keeping cell density balanced. For instance in distilled or deionized water, water will flow into an organism’s cells, causing them to swell. In water with a very high dissolved solid concentration, cells will shrink. These changes can affect an organism’s ability to move in a water column, causing it to float or sink beyond its normal range.  Total dissolved solids can also affect water taste, and often indicates a high alkalinity or hardness.
Snow capped watercress and arrowhead in the spring pool among the 62 degree water of Big Spring with an air temperature of 26 degrees
The water at Big Spring varies little in temperature during the year. A near constant temperature and near constant rate of flow allows a microclimate to exist inside the spring. It was during an early February monthly test that frogs were observed swimming, jumping, diving and interacting in the spring as if it were a bright summer day. Aquatic animals and invertebrates are always seen at the spring even in the harshest of weather. The buffer afforded by the water allows this fauna to thrive.
Sedge partially encased in snow
There are many plants outside the spring where old man winter has a grasp on plants putting them into seasonal slumber. Inside the confines of the spring, the same species dormant elsewhere are alive and thriving such as the sedge in the photo above.

Snow blankets watercress below the outfall of Big Spring
Beyond the immediate outfall of Big Spring, the strength of the spring's unique envelope of climate begins to change. While the water is slow to change in temperature, the ambient air temperature begins to influence the plants at the spring. Seen above, about 100 feet from the Big Spring source and some 20 feet below the outfall of the pond area, winter takes a grip. This is also the area where Big Spring transitions from the Trinity Terrace to the formal bottomlands of the Great Trinity Forest. Call it the 100 year floodplain or floodway.
Hiking through the new snow to the west of Big Spring down into the bottoms

Into the Slough

The Great Trinity Forest is dominated by species of flora and fauna residing in a hardwood bottom woodland. Ash, willow, oak and elm are some of the more populated species comprising the woods here. The snow really highlights the trunks as far as one can see.

The galvanized gate here, seen above looking east, is often used as a measuring stick to flood events. Bryan's Slough, called Oak Creek elsewhere, often overbanks and reaches this gate with regular frequency. When White Rock Creek and the larger Trinity River overbank due to flooding the flood waters can inundate the entire gate top to bottom.

On this day the bottoms for half the distance between the gate and Bryan's Slough (named for John Neely Bryan) it is a blanket of untouched snow. To the west the look changes.... becomes a unique flooded vista of ice, trees and fast flowing clear water. The normally shallow slough that is narrow enough for a child to hop across has become a 150 foot wide mighty flow.
Snow covered Galium aparine

Catchweed seen above often fills the bottoms here in winter. The name comes from a velcro like cling this plant's leaves have which will stick to clothes as one walks by. It also holds a lot of snow as evidenced by the photo above. A member of same plant family as coffee, the fruit of the plant can be harvested and used as a coffee substitute. In the past, people have used the plant when dried to stuff mattresses and pillows.
Snow laced Swamp Privet along the banks of Bryan's Slough

A toppled Ash tree covered in snow
The last several years have been remarkably dry for the Great Trinity Forest. A lack of large flood events from the nearby Trinity River have left many of the wetland areas devoid of seasonal overbanking events. The flooding of such areas serves as a great incubator for wildlife of all kinds and is a building block for the foundation which makes the Great Trinity Forest such a unique place in Texas.

History shows us through flood gauge data and rain events that these areas around the nexus of White Rock Creek and the Trinity spend more time wet and flooded than dry. That's why there is no footprint of the old timers here from a century ago. They were smart not to try and tame a place with such brute force as frequent flood events. Vast flooded lands even after days with an average rain will put a foot or three of water across the bottoms here for days at a time.

Winter Birds of Big Spring
Song Sparrow
The winter birds that visit Big Spring are an interesting lot that vary from what are seen in the warmer months. Many birds like the Song Sparrow seen above and standing in Big Spring spend the summer nesting months in far away areas of Canada and the Northern United States. They are often heard but often hard to spot as they dart in and out of dense thickets of foliage and branches that they prefer.
White Crowned Sparrow
Another bird common to Big Spring only in winter months is the White Crowned Sparrow. The White-crowned Sparrow is a distinctive bird with bold black and white stripes on its head. It has a clear, gray breast and belly, long tail, and wings distinctly marked with two white wing-bars.
Harris's Sparrow
Very easy to spot at Big Spring but one of the sparrows that many birder's lack in their life list is that of the Harris's Sparrow. This big, elegant sparrow is a winter bird of the Southern Plains , nesting in north-central Canada, wintering mainly in the I-35 corridor between Oklahoma City and Waco. Because of its remote habitat and shy behavior in summer, its nesting territory was not discovered until 1931, long after those of most North American birds. Harris's Sparrow is more easily observed in winter in places like Dallas. Flocks feed on the ground near brushy places, flying up when disturbed to perch in the tops of thickets, giving sharp callnotes. It's a wonderful bird to watch for in the Great Trinity Forest.
Cooper's Hawk
Last but not least is the resident Big Spring Cooper's Hawk. A far as hawks go it is medium-sized and is a bird of the woodlands. Feeding mostly on birds and small mammals, it hunts by stealth, approaching its prey through dense cover and then pouncing with a rapid, powerful flight. Unlike the larger Red-Tailed Hawk which often uses open ground and big spaces for hunting, the Cooper's Hawk utilizes the cover of thickets and wooded spaces to ambush prey. The dead give away on the Cooper's is the blazing red eyes that some exhibit and the rounded tail.