Floating on my back, my toes peeking out of the water like cattail tips, I watched large birds flying over Grapevine Lake. I squinted into the blinding sun, trying to identify them by color and markings.
American — whoosh. Delta — whoosh. American again — whoosh.
What? You were expecting pelicans, egrets and flamingos? Not here, on this 8,000-acre manmade lake whose wavelets lap the shores a few miles from the Dallas-Fort Worth airport.
Whoa, there’s a United.
No matter how hard you kick and scream, you’ll eventually have to go outdoors and into the giant fire pit called Texas Summer, y’all. Maybe it will be a quick sprint to your rental car, where the air-conditioning is set on full blast. Or perhaps it’ll be to actually embrace the scorching heat, then spite it by jumping into a cool body of water.
“Staying wet during the summer in Texas,” says Laura Huffman, state director of the Nature Conservancy, “is equivalent to staying happy.”
And oh, how merry it is, because the Lone Star State is not a hard, dry cracker. Texas is big on water, with about 150,000 miles of rivers and streams. (Note: More than 80 percent of the state is suffering from severe drought, although Dallas-Fort Worth has received more rain than other areas.) For an additional splash, engineers have impounded the water to create a surprisingly refreshing and expansive land o’ lakes. More than seven lakes ring the sibling cities of Dallas and Fort Worth.
Texas has only one natural lake, and it’s nowhere near Dallas-Fort Worth. The protozoan-shaped blue patches on my metro map are spring-fed (one) or dammed rivers and creeks that often lead double lives as recreation areas and drinking sources. In many cases here, you swim in what you drink. But I wouldn’t advise opening your mouth between strokes for a cupless quaff. You might swallow a bird feather or a beaver.
The worst thing I ingested during my three-lake hop last week, though, was a pickle-flavored snow cone at Burger’s Lake, a spring-fed pool about 30 miles west of Fort Worth. My excuse: I was trying to partake of Texas summer culture. Next time, I’ll just copy the other kids in line and order Tiger’s Blood.
My salty mistake, fortunately, didn’t linger long: I rinsed it out with a swig of spring water spewing from the smokestack of a toy boat, part of a new children’s area surrounding the lake. Then I swam it off.
The one-acre lake, open to the public and family-run since 1929, is a liquid playground for hyperactive recreationists. You can dive from one of five boards, adjusted to varying levels of acrophobia. Or swing from a bar as if you were in a regional production of Cirque du Soleil’s “O.” There are also three giant slides, as well as fountains spurting more spring water, so you can feel as if you’re swimming in the rain, or under the Trevi Fountain, or in the path of a garden hose. Or you can just sit on one of two sandy beaches and watch the action.
“It’s easy going right now,” said lifeguard Jacob Salazar, who then leapt into action when a woman started flapping around near the swing.
After more than an hour, I had to exit the water, mostly because my thumbs were starting to resemble miniature Shar-Peis. With the air temperature around 103 degrees, I figured that I had about seven minutes before my internal mercury rose to a dangerous threshold. I walked toward the parking lot, detouring by the burbling boat for a cold shock of reinforcement.
From Burger’s Lake, I headed straight for Cedar Hill State Park, which in the region’s tangled-noodle infrastructure meant over a bridge, through a housing development, into a day-care center (for directions), back over the bridge, past a strip mall, through another housing development and down a disconcertingly rural road before finally landing at the gate. I then paid the nice man $5 for the pleasure of swimming in Joe Pool Lake, a 7,500-acre reservoir.
An Irish green lawn sloped down to a pebbly beach. The water was still and calm, with only a few burps, mainly created by a sloppy game of football. The enclosed area was shallow, and I could have walked out to the rope barrier, but I swam instead. Not for the exercise, mind you, but to avoid the goopy, muddy bottom that I imagined harbored multi-tentacled sea creatures. I treaded water at the buoy until I heard a plea for help: A tween had thrown her ball into a patch of tall grass and needed to retrieve it. She was worried (irrationally, I hoped) about alligators. So to instill confidence in the youth of today, I paddled over to the dense vegetation and grabbed the ball, with no loss of limb or pride. Until . . .
“Did you see it?” asked a young’un who drifted over to me. (The lake is very social, and conversations with strangers flow in and out like the tide.)
I hoped that the little boy had a big imagination and played along.
“The beaver,” he proudly reported. “I just saw one swim by.”
As he floated off, I pulled my feet up high and pushed toward landfall. Beavers have teeth — that’s all I’m saying.
I ended up staying at Cedar Hill until sunset, watching the glowing orb inch toward the lake’s edge. The air started to cool off, dropping to a more comfortable 93 degrees. I drove back to my hotel with the air-conditioning on low and the window cracked halfway.
To complete mytrifecta of lakes, I zipped up to Grapevine, which is so close to the airport, you could actually check your bags, dash to the lake for a preflight swim and still make it back in time for boarding.
Like the other lakes around Dallas-Forth Worth, Grapevine plays hide-and-seek among the sprawling shopping centers and multi-lane highways clogged with traffic. Nature here has been corralled and hogtied by man, but sometimes it gets away.
The lake, born in 1952, owes its life to Denton Creek, a tributary of the Trinity River. If you want a drive-by lesson in engineering, take Fairway Drive to the northern shore; the road crosses the dam, with the lake to your left and the Dallas Cowboys Golf Club on the right. (And yes, I admit, I drove slowly looking for Tony Romo teeing up, and you will, too.)
An official at Rockledge Park promised me that I’d found the best swimming area on the lake. His reason — it’s the only pebbly beach — made no sense until I actually paddled out. Dark, wet sand on the bottom creates murky water with low to no visibility. Conversely, with the rocky carpeting, I could see my feet when floating and, even more exciting, could make out most of my leg when standing upright.
The park is laid out like a Hollywood hotel pool with private bungalow areas. You just have to swap out the billowy tent with the misting machine and flat-screen TV for a covered picnic table with a grill atop a bluff. With my own parking spot. And a secluded cove wedged between diminutive cliffs. (I gather that on busy weekends, all sense of privacy is gone, and you must share.)
When I swam outside my invisible property line, I could spy on others: a couple resting after a kayak tour of the lake, two women pushing their cat-size dogs in rubber rafts, a large Spanish-speaking family who seemed to have raided the beach-toys aisle of Toys R Us.
My next-door neighbors drove up in a clown car filled with three women, one guy and multiple coolers. I heard the crack of ice and the snap of aluminum can tops. On the water, a buzzing noise grew louder. Two jet skis appeared, and the friends gathered on the shore, trading off so that everyone could get a turn.
Until then, all the lake activity had been mute: sailboats, kayaks, rafts, me. Before long, a police car drove up to their site and a female cop stepped out. The friends, who work at a nearby water park and were indulging in a staff retreat, tried to guess their offense: Bad parking? Alcohol? Missing permit? All wrong.
“I received three or four calls that you were driving the jet-skis too fast along the shoreline,” said the very personable cop. “This is dangerous to swimmers.” She reminded the group to go slow, warning them that they risked getting a ticket.
“Y’all have fun,” she said, returning to her car and other summer crimes.
After the excitement died down, I returned to my cove and dove in. The waters were safe again.