Whether you appreciate White Rock Lake from afar or know it intimately, chances are, you are missing something. After all, the 1,200-acre reservoir is bursting with small marvels, uncommon adventures and profound manifestations.
Like any other athlete Neighborhood residents with physical limitations find freedom on the water
On a ludicrously blustery Thanksgiving Day in 2010, a tree toppled in front of a home near White Rock Lake.
Elizabeth Daane and her sons were returning to their house after feeding the neighbors’ cats when they heard the crack.
“Run,” Daane demanded as she instinctively pushed her children toward safety.
When it struck, the tree punctured Daane’s lung, fractured a vertebrae and left the young mother’s lower body without feeling or functionality.
Daane survived her injuries, endured physical therapy, began adjusting to her new limitations and resumed life as a busy professional, wife and mother, but she missed the aerobic activity that she previously had found in running and cycling at White Rock Trail, a hub of outdoor recreation less than a mile from her home.
Over the past several years, Mary Condon researched ways in which to combine her experience as a physical therapist and her love of rowing. The result was the collaboration with the White Rock Boathouse, Inc., a nonprofit corporation, and the emergence of an adaptive rowing program last May. Mary explains that “adaptive” means adjusting the sport to meet the needs of people with physical limitations. Adaptive rowers might include folks with spinal cord injuries, paraplegia, someone who has lost a limb or someone who is sight or hearing impaired.
“We had (in the spring adaptive rowing class) a man with brittle bone disease — or Osteogenesis imperfecta — who never let it stop him from becoming an athlete,” Condon says. “He is a paralympian whose ice hockey team won the gold. There are a couple of people with amputations, some spinal cord injuries. Some of them have had disabilities since birth and others sustained their injuries as an adult — one was in a car accident. Another was hit by a bus.” On the first day of class last spring, during which enrollees would learn rowing fundamentals on machines called ergs, Condon had eight students.
Elizabeth Daane was one of them.
“I signed up because it was there, right near my house, and I wanted to exercise.” When you don’t have use of your legs, she explains, finding an effective form of cardiovascular training is tough. Though Daane herself had never rowed, she says her sister is a rower and her brother-in-law was a crew coach at Princeton. “When they came to visit me, my brother-in-law was very impressed with the (White Rock Boathouse). He said ‘do you realize that one of the biggest boathouses I’ve ever seen is half a mile from your house?’ And he has visited a lot of boathouses.”
No matter what your bodily restrictions, being in a boat on the water makes you feel free, those involved with the program attest.
“In the boat,” Condon says, “they look just like any other athlete out here at the lake. One day, one of the women, with tears in her eyes, told me that it is just so nice to see everyone out of their (wheel)chairs.”
For Daane, being on the water is freeing and fitness boosting, but, also importantly, it helps give her sons, ages 11 and 8, a positive perspective on circumstances.
“One of the main reasons I took this up, other than to stay in shape, is because I want them to see me as normal, not impaired.”
The pumping of the heart, the flowing of the blood, the strengthening of the core, shoulders, triceps and biceps all make the rowers feel resilient, alive and healthy, but camaraderie among the participants provides a psychological sort of healing that is arguably equally important, says Toni Collins, a mother of 11-year-old twins who sustained a debilitating spinal cord injury in an accident eight years ago. She says she had re-learned how to exercise — she rides a hand cycle and has worked with trainers at the local gym — but that being with a group of people, all of whom share a common bond, was especially motivating and comforting.
“There are just things you can’t share with others who don’t have similar disabilities,” she says. “If I joke with an able-bodied person about falling out of my chair, for example, they won’t laugh!”
While she still engages in other sports, Collins says “it is easier to go to a workout when you are not the only one in a chair.”
Learning at their own pace, adaptive rowing students are free to “piddle around on the water or bust out an intense workout,” as Collins puts it. It is an activity from which participants derive physiological and psychological benefits that increase their quality of life, the women agree. They repeatedly use the word “free” to describe how it makes them feel. They also insist that without the dedication of unpaid volunteers Condon, and assistants Lisa Henry and Michael Lutz, the opportunity would not exist.
Collins chuckles as she describes how “easy” the adaptive rowing team has it. “A big part of rowing is getting the boats, carrying them to shore, putting them back up when you’re done. The volunteers take care of all the hard stuff for us,” she says. “When we are done we are off in our cars as they are putting back all the equipment.”
The women hope to spread the word about the program, which so far, has only been publicized via word of mouth.
“What a joy it is,” Collins says, “I mean, what a gift Mary has given us.”
Visit whiterockboathouse.com to learn more about the adaptive rowing program or to enroll. The program is open to any person with a physical disability. An $80 enrollment fee includes 10 sessions with a coach.
Full circle: Completing the full circumference of White Rock Lake trail, on foot, is a rite of passage
Drive to the end of Winstead, a winding road west of White Rock Lake, any Saturday morning at about 5:30 and Dave Dozier will flag you down. He assumes you are there to join him for a run. On a dewy winter morning he dons a black tracksuit with reflective stripes and he invites early morning guests, runners and walkers, jovial folks he calls friends, into his home of 50 years — cozy quarters whose décor includes display cases full of medals from White Rock, St. George and Boston marathons, to name a few, hundreds, dating
back as far as the 1970s, and collages containing magazine clippings and racing bibs.
An inconspicuous manila folder contains what we came to see: certificates for completing, on foot, a full 9.2-mile loop of White Rock Lake.
In his early running days, Dozier says, running all the way around White Rock Lake was something only the most serious runners did.
“Once you ran the loop,” he says, “you were somebody.”
In the 1970s a gang of diehard runners including White Rock Marathon founder Tal Morrison challenged Dave to run all the way around, rather than the couple-mile out-and-back jaunts they had seen him performing at the lake. When he eventually took them up on it, the guys gave him a certificate of completion. It is a tradition Dozier continued, mostly under the radar, long after Morrison and the other old timers stopped running. Recently a local fitness magazine publicized the practice and Dozier got an unprecedented amount of takers. But he doesn’t give these certificates away to just anyone. “You really have to do it. I have to see you. I will run with you,” he says. “And you can’t have done it before.” The certificates are reserved for those running the loop and the distance for the first time ever.
And while the certificate is a neat token of achievement, it really isn’t about the paper. It’s about the camaraderie as runners gather at the starting point. Those who meet at Dozier’s place vary in pace — taking anywhere from 70 minutes to three hours to circle the pond. The wee moments before the jog are for catching up and laughing while Dozier tells everyone to shut up because his wife is asleep.
Voices fill the erstwhile silent neighborhood with stories of marathons past. Dozier’s friend Julie Stauble recalls a time Dozier stumbled at the finish line, knocking out his front teeth. Dozier teases the group’s fastest runner, a psychiatrist named Joe Gaspari who is preoccupied with qualifying for the Boston Marathon. “He’s always looking at that watch. Doesn’t he know we are here to have fun?”
It’s about the other lake goers. When Dozier ran the first of his 9,000-some lake loops, he says, there were about eight guys regularly running the lake. On a Saturday morning these days, there are hundreds, maybe a thousand. “I stop and talk a lot. I know everyone out there,” Dozier says.
It’s about the commitment and motivation one feels after hitting that 9.2-mile milestone, says Stauble, who ran a marathon after meeting Dozier and joining his informal running group. She says it changed her life.
“A lot of lives have changed out here,” Dozier says. “And we’ve had people that didn’t fit in in the world, fit in with us.”
It’s about the sense of completion. The circle represents wholeness, unity and infinite possibility, right? But Dozier scoffs at all that philosophical stuff. “It’s just fun. I love this. Running is my way of life.”
If you are interested in meeting Dozier for a run around the lake and, if you make it, a certificate, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
You’ve got a friend Enter the (mostly) freewheeling world of a White Rock goose
The signs and ads started appearing around the neighborhood and on digital message boards in mid-April last year.
“Urgent: Wilbur Goose, leader of a big goose gaggle at White Rock Lake, is missing.”
The pleas for Wilbur’s safe return initially were met with amusement and a spattering of jokes — “The goose is on my kitchen table” or “Have you checked inside the coyotes?”
But if it wasn’t a prank, and it wasn’t, the obvious question is, there are dozens upon dozens of geese at White Rock Lake, so how do you know that one, in particular, is missing?
White Rock Lake frequenter Annette Abbott chuckles at the query.
“If you ever met Wilbur,” she says, “you would understand.”
Wilbur wasn’t just any wild waterfowl. He was a lover — had a girlfriend goose, Priscilla, who stuck by him until her 2010 death. They were “the reigning royalty of the goose gaggle,” Abbott says.
Wilbilla, as it were.
He was a prankster. He loved to play and was known to “goose” (pinch one on the backside) from time to time.
He was brave — known to stare down dogs.
He was a friend. He’d eat crackers right out of your hand, but he especially loved whole grain honey bread. If you approached the lake by car, Wilbur might waddle up and peck on your window, Abbott says. Priscilla might try to get in the passenger seat.
Abbott met Wilbur eight years back, when the grand goose and his mate were living at The Point on West Lawther (he later joined the east side gaggle). Abbott says she was going through an emotional rough patch and she bonded with Wilbur as one might with a pet.
“You know how your dog sometimes gives you that look like, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong, but I’m here for you and it will be OK’? Well, that’s how Wilbur was. He would attach to those who needed a friend. That’s kind of how Charles met him too.”
Charles Fussell, a plumber, is Abbott’s neighbor and friend who also is one of the White Rock geese’s greatest allies. Even after long unforgiving workdays, he reports via pickup truck to Sunset Bay, on the east side of White Rock — most evenings for the past eight-plus years — to feed the fowl, primarily corn (often 200 pounds in a day) and wheat bread, he says. The birds know the plumber. Even if they are far out on the water when he arrives, they scuttle up to shore at the familiar sound of his engine.
Fussell resembles the Pied Piper as he walks to the shoreline with ducks and geese tugging at his jeans, Abbott says.
Whenever possible, this plumber purchases geese from dealers, for about $40 a pop, purely in order to save them from poor living conditions and premature deaths. He rescued the first couple of geese from a dealer in Sunnyvale about eight years ago and one of those is still living at White Rock. They do well with the relocation, he says.
“They immediately take to the lake and become a part of the community,” he says. “It’s such a good life for them, plus, the people at the lake enjoy them. (The geese) almost have the sensibilities of a dog in the way that they gravitate toward and relate with people.”
A goose can live as long as 35 years, Fussell says. He suspects Wilbur was 15 or maybe 20. The geese — a mix of Canada, African, Chinese Toulose, Pilgrim and Emden — are savvy when it comes to survival. Even without human help, they could live on naturally occurring vegetation, Fussell says. And they protect themselves from coyotes and other predators, possibly, by appointing lookouts. “At night,” Abbott says, “there are noticeably four sentries surrounding the sleeping gaggle in the waters near the Bath House. They may appear to be asleep, but they sit up and make noise when some seeming danger approaches.”
No goose has quite taken the place of Wilbur since his disappearance — which Fussell attributes either to a coyote or bobcat-type hunter or a human goose-napper — but Abbott says those with distinct personalities get nicknames. “There’s Laurel and Hardy, for example, a regular slapstick comedy act,” she notes.
Fussell admits it is difficult to know he can’t entirely protect these loveable animals, with whom he feels such kinship, but he knows that their lives at the lake, while not 100-percent danger free, are joyful.
“They love freedom so much, it’s worth the risk. If any of them could talk, I am certain they would say they would rather be out here than safe in a cage somewhere.”
All the lake’s a stage Here, all the cranes, turtles, geese, ducks and pelicans are the players
Chances are you assumed it was just remnants of the White Rock bathhouse beach circa 1953, when Dallasites swam the waters with impunity. It is, sort of.
The poles in the water behind the Bath House Cultural Center are purposefully arranged, atop a swath of concrete that remains on the lake’s bed, to showcase water-wildlife performances. At one time the arrangement included floating disks, and it glowed in the night sky, powered by solar panels, spotlighting the feathery actors.
In 2001 artists Frances Bagley and Tom Orr — sponsored by Dallas Water Utilities Department and the Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs — created the White Rock Lake Water Theater, “an environmental work that combines nature with education and art.”
Signage on the beach — faded etchings on concrete columns — educates observers about water-wildlife behavior and what to expect during a given season. The show would constantly change with the weather, light, seasons and wildlife patterns, note the artists, a married couple that lives near the lake.
Daily observations of the lake inspired the project, Bagley says.
“A bird landed on one of the poles and I said to Tom that it looked like its own sculpture. He said, ‘what if we put 100 poles in the water?’ And that’s almost what we did. There were about 80. They used to light up, but some of it has gone into disrepair,” she says. The couple worked tirelessly researching wildlife and laboring in the water to bring their vision to fruition.
On shore, they installed stone columns and seats for humans. The concrete steps near the shoreline and the scopes on the Bath House patio were also part of the project. Support from the city allowed the artists to perform regular maintenance on the installation for five years. “We would get in the water in our wetsuits and check the lights and clean the poles,” she says. The disks had a hard time staying put and the poles are impossible to keep clean, she adds.
Bagley says she fears the piece might not last much longer. “I don’t know if they are going to remove it or have it improved. If they want to improve it, we know a lot now that we didn’t know then and have a lot of new technology. We would be happy to help,” Bagley says.
Though the poles are grungy, the floating disks have disappeared and the lights have gone out, the birds’ show goes on. On any given evening, most of the poles are occupied — the players continue to pause, dive, frolic and sing, oblivious to the ravages of time on their stage.