Jeff and Pam Varnell were just two empty-nesters living in a five-bedroom house in Coppell. So they did what most people in their situation would do — they downsized. Well, sort of.
Their new abode may be a former bait and tackle shop that they converted into a quaint 2,000-square-foot home, complete with extra bedrooms for when the kids visit. But it’s difficult to downplay what they’ve got going on considering the house is on the banks of the Elm Fork of the Trinity River, and their backyard is one of the hottest attractions in Dallas.
“We’ve really tried to make it a fun property,” Jeff said.
Introducing the Trinity River Kayak Company (TRKC), a veritable hidden gem in a city known more for its bright lights and endless possibilities for shopping, dining, sports, and larger-than-life entertainment than for quiet kayaking trips.
But every week, Jeff and Pam put about 200 people on the river — from veteran kayakers visiting from the nearest continent to a local family of four that has never held a paddle. Participants are outfitted with everything from kayaks and paddles to life vests, sunscreen, water, and snacks for a self-guided urban adventure like no other.
They call it an urban adventure because you’re guaranteed to experience wilderness that you don’t often see.
The Trinity is 710 miles long and is the longest-running river within Texas. It runs through Lake Livingston near Houston into the Trinity Bay and eventually the Gulf of Mexico, and it is also the drinking source for 12 million Texans. But very few people know it is here or that it can be traveled for fun. And that is a travesty the Varnells are trying to change.
While paddling in the Dallas-area alone, you can see roughly 10,000 acres of urban forest, not to mention animal life such as birds, turtles, bobcats, fish, beaver, hawks, and heron. In fact, Dallas is home to the largest urban hardwood forest in all of North America.
TRKC has one and two-person kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddleboards. You can spend anywhere from two hours to six hours on what amounts to 22 miles of river from the Lake Lewisville Dam down to the California Crossing Dam.
“We’ve had people tell us, ‘I didn’t even know there was a river here,’” Pam said. “There are two big attractions here in Coppell — Hard Eight BBQ down the road and us — and we attract more out-of-towners, out-of-staters, and people from all over the world than anyone else. They just Google kayaking in Dallas and find us.”
She added, “We may be in the city, but when you’re on the river, you’d think you were in the country. It’s a real adventure being out there on the river.”
That’s what Jeff and his son Blake said when they first traversed the river eight years ago. Jeff, a longtime real estate broker who still owns an independent firm called Coppell Realty, bought the property in 2012. He intended to convert the old bait shop — formerly known as Harrington Bait and Tackle — into his new real estate office. At the same time, he figured he’d develop four or five river lots for future home sites at the back of the property.
But something kept telling him that he was missing out on something special.
“Blake was a senior in high school and an Eagle Scout, and one day I thought, ‘You know, I’ve been passing this property twice a day and have never been out on that water,’” Jeff said. “I started following the river with the map on my phone — not really knowing much about it. That’s when I saw that it ran all the way to the Gulf. Without doing a whole lot of extra research, Blake and I went to Academy, bought some cheap kayaks, and got on the water. I had never been on a kayak.”
What they saw next changed everything.
Blake and Jeff weren’t even two minutes downstream before they felt like they were miles from the city. They traveled 10 miles that day, and Jeff immediately called Pam.
“I was shopping,” Pam said with a laugh. “I could tell they were excited.”
“That’s really when it all started,” he said. “I told her, ‘you’ve got to see this.’”
Needless to say, Jeff immediately kicked his real estate office idea to the curb and went all-in on the kayaking experience. There was so much overgrown brush around the property that no one could tell they had access to the river, but with a little mowing and cleaning up, that didn’t last long. At the same time, the City of Dallas was rebuilding the 80-foot wide, 25-foot steep dam known as the Carrollton Dam. Several additional upgrades were also made.
All of that combined set the wheels in motion for a true destination spot right in the heart of DFW. By 2013, the Varnells had a simple convenience store on the property and were selling kayaks and kayak accessories. Business was really good on the kayak side, and they were developing quite a loyal fan base.
Then the floods of 2015 came, and they were shut down for about three years.
“A lot of people thought we had just closed [for good],” Pam said.
But the Varnells weren’t done yet. As Jeff said, he woke up one night with the idea of selling their too-large home in Coppell. After all, the kids were grown and out of the house, so it was simply too much space for the two of them. His vision was now to convert their former store into a live/work home and take the Trinity River Kayak Company to the next level.
All he needed to do was convince Pam, who was instantly onboard with the idea.
“So we downsized,” Pam said with a laugh.
They moved in around 2019 and have since added a rental hut, garage, and a sports court for pickleball and full court basketball. They have more than 100 kayaks on-site, and they are constantly running shuttles to drop customers off upstream or downstream. Their three routes include “The Blast,” a six-mile course that runs from Hebron Parkway to their home base, “The Double Rush,” which runs 12 miles from the Lake Lewisville Dam to TRKC, and “The Iron Man,” a 10-mile excursion from TRKC down to California Crossing Dam. There is also a two-mile Sunset-Moonlight Paddle experience.
The Varnells say it’s their mission in life to create an adventure of a lifetime.
“I just remember thinking that the one thing that really worked well out here was the kayaking,” Jeff said. “We have put all kinds of people on that water, many of whom have never been on a kayak before. It’s very beginner-friendly. We just put them in the water, give them a paddle, and say, ‘Go. Have fun.’”
Visit trinityriverkayak.com to book an online reservation.