I’m in (maybe) for the Texas Winter 100K paddling race

I’m in (maybe) for the Texas Winter 100K paddling race

Jimmy Harvey paddles the San Marcos River on Wednesday, Nov. 25. Pam LeBlanc photo


My paddling buddy and I logged another run on the San Marcos River this morning, and officially (yet unofficially) decided that yeah, we might do the upcoming Texas Winter 100K paddling race.
I’ve done the race, a 62-mile dash down the Colorado River from Lady Bird Lake in Austin to Fisherman’s Park in Bastrop, twice before (three times if you include the time I just paddled part of the course, and stopped for a picnic midway just to see what competing would be like.) I’ve gotten lucky with weather every time – kind of cold at the pre-dawn race start, but reasonably comfortable during the day.
The weather doesn’t always cooperate, though. I recently interviewed several year-round paddlers for an article I wrote for a statewide magazine (check the January issue of Texas Monthly). One described in detail how ice formed on her braids and she couldn’t stop shaking the first time she did the Texas Winter 100. That scared her away for a few years, but she did eventually return and do it again.
Cold would be fine, but I draw the limit at cold and wet, which is what the race delivered in its first year, 2011. Paddlers got pelted with sleet as they made their way downstream. Depending on water flow, it can take 12 hours to finish, and that’s a long time to shiver. Still, a little discomfort does make the hot chili or stew at the finish taste even better.

Jimmy Harvey paddles the San Marcos River between Martindale and Staples on Wednesday, Nov. 25. Pam LeBlanc photo


Today’s leisurely run down the San Marcos, from Shady Grove Campground in Martindale to Staples Dam, reminded me of what I love about paddling this time of the year – brilliant sunshine, equally brilliant orange and gold leaves on all the trees bent over the river, and plenty of quiet. We passed a few folks out fishing, but no tubers, no campers, and no swimmers, just a bunch of turtles out sunning themselves.
We glided along, letting the breeze help push us downstream, and enjoyed the peace. It won’t be like that for the race, but for now, I’ll take it.

We saw hundreds of turtles out sunning themselves today on the San Marcos River. Pam LeBlanc photo

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At Reimers Ranch, 18 miles of mountain biking, plus a pump track and flow trail

At Reimers Ranch, 18 miles of mountain biking, plus a pump track and flow trail

Chris LeBlanc negotiates the pump track at Milton Reimers Ranch Park on Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020. Pam LeBlanc photo


I miss the old days, eight or nine months ago, when I could climb into the truck at the spur of a moment and head to a park for a day of biking, hiking or snoozing in a hammock.
Today, most Texas state parks and regional parks require advance reservations. And if you didn’t think ahead and book a spot two weeks ago, you might be out of luck.
That’s why I’ve taken to exploring some lesser known parks in Central Texas. This weekend, I loaded my mountain bike into the pickup truck and aimed for Milton Reimers Ranch Park, west of Austin, where nobody needs a reservation.
I’d visited the park before – once, when writing about a local climbing prodigy who could scale its limestone walls like a gecko, another time to take a climbing class myself, and a couple of times to swim (naked, don’t tell!) in the Pedernales River.
This time, though, I struck out to explore some of the park’s 18 miles of mountain bike trails, which are marked green (beginner), blue (intermediate) and black (expert), just like a Colorado ski resort.
We arrived at 9 a.m., just as the parking lot was starting to fill. We warmed up with a loop on the green trail, which twists through fields of golden grass and winds through a few thickets of brush and trees. In a couple of spots, the trail narrows and you have to pedal right through the base of a forked tree trunk. (Be careful not to catch a handlebar!).
The green trail is easy but fun. You can crank up the speed, practice negotiating tight turns, and get in a great cardio workout. Near the end, you can stop at the pump track, where you can steer your bike on a wood-planked boardwalk that unfurls like an undulating ribbon. I made it through one time cleanly, but on the second try I accidentally mashed my brakes, flipped myself off the bike and ripped open my calf on one of the sharp pegs of my platform pedal.

Pam LeBlanc rolls through the pump track at Milton Reimers Ranch Park. Photo by Chris LeBlanc


We stopped by the truck to apply hydrogen peroxide and a bandage to staunch the blood, then headed out to try the intermediate loop. This loop reminds me of the terrain you’ll find at Slaughter Creek Trail in South Austin – steep ledgey drops, some uphill grinds, a few rock gardens and tire-grabbing roots the thickness of a boa constrictor, plus more undulating singletrack. I had to get off or dab a foot down several times, but most of it’s not extremely technical for those with good mountain biking skills.
I had to stop a few times just to catch my breath.
We skipped the black trails. I’m just not skilled enough for them.
Milton Reimers Ranch Park covers 2,417 acres and is located at 23610 Hamilton Pool Road. It’s open from 7 a.m. until dusk daily, but closes when it gets overcrowded.

Chris LeBlanc gets lost in tall grasses at Milton Reimers Park on Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020. Pam LeBlanc photo


Admission is $5 per person, no reservations needed.
Besides mountain bike trails and climbing, the park offers equestrian trails, monthly bird walks, night sky programs and weekly guided hikes. (All programming has been cancelled for now due to the pandemic.) Three miles front the Pedernales River; the facility is the largest parkland acquisition in the history of Travis County. Pedernales River.
I’m heading back soon to try something else – a new 2.6–mile flow trail, which opened at the park in May. The trail was built by the same folks who built trails on Spider Mountain, the only lift-served, downhill mountain bike park in Texas. It’s a 1-mile climb to get to the start gate of the flow trail at Reimers, but on the way down you’ll encounter berms, gaps, jumps and pump rollers. Read more about it at https://www.mtbproject.com/trail/7054784/reimers-flow-trail.
For more information about the park, go to https://parks.traviscountytx.gov/parks/reimers-ranch.

Reimers Ranch Park offers 18 miles of single track mountain biking trail. Here, Chris LeBlanc blasts through the intermediate loop. Pam LeBlanc photo

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Track your park visits on this wooden map of Texas

Track your park visits on this wooden map of Texas

Julia Simmonds sells these maps of Texas state parks. They come with pins so you can mark places you’ve visited. Pam LeBlanc photo


I’ve been exploring Texas state parks since I was a little sprout. I’ve got memories of running from a snake in the river at Pedernales Falls, catching a tiny fish with a bit of American cheese at Inks Lake, celebrating my birthday at McKinney Falls, sliding down hills covered with pine needles at Bastrop State Park and leaping off a rope swing at Garner State Park.
Someday, I’m going to fulfill my goal of visiting every last one, which is why I fell in love with a tracking map made by woodworker Julia Simmonds in Fort Worth.
I discovered the map a few months ago, while helping Chet Garner of the PBS series “The Daytripper” judge the Texas Works awards competition. The competition featured cool Texas-made stuff, from engraved spurs to bourbon, ice cream to dog shampoo. (You can see the winning products at https://www.texas.works/awards).
Simmonds started by making a national park map last year. Someone suggested making a Texas parks-themed one, and she went for it. Since Texas has so many parks, she thought it would take forever. Then the pandemic hit, and Simmonds had a lot of time on her hands.
The wooden boards come with a packet of tacks, so you can mark places that you’ve visited. They also feature a small, hand-drawn design to represent each place – a big tree represents Goose Island, for example, and a Native American figure represents Seminole Canyon.
Unlike me, Simmonds didn’t grow up pitching tents and cooking over a camp stove. Neither did her husband. “It’s just not anything we did,” she says. “I’m a late bloomer when it comes to camping.”
But woodworking runs in Simmonds’ family. Her grandfather was a skilled carpenter, and her father is a lumber salesman. “I was often with dad in the garage, just poking around getting in trouble,” she says.
Most of her boards are made of white pine, which is native to Texas. They sell for $35 to $180, depending on size. (I want the 12-inch by 17-inch one for $55.) Check out her website at https://www.etsy.com/shop/FrancesAndTheFir.

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Meet artist Jon Flaming, a modern day cowboy

Meet artist Jon Flaming, a modern day cowboy

Artist Jon Flaming looks through a vintage suitcase in his Richardson studio. Pam LeBlanc photo


A visit this week with modern Western artist Jon Flaming revived a debate that’s been unfolding in my mind for a few years.
I was born in Michigan and moved to Texas when I was 5. I’ve now lived in the Lone Star State for 51 years.
Am I Texan?
I know how to ride a horse, I wear a cowboy hat frequently, I love enchiladas, I’ve visited Big Bend National Park more than 30 times, my drink of choice is the margarita, I eat pe-CONS not PEA-cans, and I’ve survived a deer-on-Ford F150-collision.
But I wasn’t born here.
Flaming was born in Kansas and moved to Texas when he was 5. He grew up visiting a grandfather who ran a 2,000-acre cattle ranch, always wears a hat and boots, and paints fantastic modern images of Old West cowboys that’ll make you swoon. But he never roped and branded cattle for a living.
“For a long time I had this misconception that I can’t be a cowboy because I live in suburbia,” Flaming told me this week, as I furiously typed notes into a computer from a chair at his home studio in Richardson. “Then I had this realization that I’m an artist, I can do what I want. About 10 years ago I finally wrestled that to the ground.”

Jon Flaming poses in front of one of his paintings on Nov. 17, 2020. Pam LeBlanc photo


Today he calls his home, which is filled with cow skulls and leather couches and yellowed old books, the Quarter Acre Ranch. He drives an F150. He works surrounded by a dozen old snapshots of dairy cows (“Bossy” is scribbled in ink on the front of one) pinned to a board. At least half a dozen cowboy hats hang from a coat rack behind him; his favorite is a 25-year-old Stetson. His dog’s name is Duke. Old license plates are nailed to planks on his wooden floor. And a Post-it Note on his computer says “Drill a well today.”
Flaming’s work – big bold canvases featuring geometric cowboys cradling calves and crouched by campfires, oil workers in the field, and barbecue restaurants – somehow blend the Old West with the modern day. It’s like a cowboy moseyed into an old WPA poster, lit a cigarette and stared into the future. His stylized artwork conveys the story of the people who made this state what it is today. I can taste the West Texas dust and smell the cow manure just looking at his work.
Is Flaming a cowboy?
Hell yeah.
Look for my story about Flaming in an upcoming issue of a legendary Texas publication.

A lot of Flaming’s work features geometric cowboys in a color palette inspired by West Texas landscapes. Pam LeBlanc photo

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Bamberger Ranch opens for fall color tours this Saturday

Bamberger Ranch opens for fall color tours this Saturday

Selah, Bamberger Ranch Preserve, will open for self-guided fall color tours this Saturday. Visitors must register in advance. Pam LeBlanc photo

Every year, Selah Bamberger Ranch Preserve hosts a fall color tour, so visitors can drink in some of nature’s red, orange and gold hues of the season.
The 2020 tours are scheduled for this Saturday, Nov. 21, but they’ll look a little different this year because of the pandemic. Five trails on the ranch will be opened for self-guided exploration. Admission is $50; register at https://bambergerranch.org/schedule/fall-colors-hike.
I got a preview of this year’s show today when I packed a brownbag lunch and drove out for a picnic with the preserve’s new executive director, April Sansom. We perched on a picnic table next to Madrone Lake, where big tooth maples and cypress were well into their fall transformation.

April Sansom is the new executive director of Selah Bamberger Ranch Preserve. Pam LeBlanc photo


Sansom, who earned a degree in wildlife biology from Texas A&M University, then went on to earn a master’s degree and PhD from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, took over the post from long-time executive director Colleen Gardner, who left earlier this year. Sansom’s experience includes a stint in the Peace Corps in the Philippines and as executive director of the non-profit Community Conservation in Wisconsin. Her focus is on community conservation.
“(J. David Bamberger) is a guy who basically decided along the way he was going to make a difference,” she says of her new 92-year-old boss, who started his career as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, then helped create the Church’s Fried Chicken empire, before using his fortune to buy what he perceived to be the most worn out and abused piece of land in Blanco County. “The lessons he has learned over 50 years have benefitted and inspired so many land stewards.”
In her new role, Sansom hopes to expand the outreach of the Selah Bamberger Ranch Preserve.
“I would love to physically expand our borders, but we’re definitely working metaphorically to reach more landowners,” she says.
Sansom is no stranger to the ranch. She visited it as a teen-ager with her father Andy Sansom, the former executive director of the Texas Nature Conservancy, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment.
Want to learn how you can adopt some of Bamberger’s life lessons to improve your own land?
The Selah team is planning a full schedule of educational workshops in 2021 – but prepared to modify them as needed, depending on the pandemic. The all-day sessions, informed by Bamberger’s own experiences and the knowledge of staff biologists, include a landowner stewardship overview; native grass workshop; wildlife enhancement workshop; and water workshop.
For more information, go to www.bambergerranch.com.

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