Other than a 25-mile cruise from Austin to Webberville a few weeks ago, I haven’t dipped a paddle in the water since the Texas Water Safari ate me up and spat me out last June.
That changed yesterday, when I raced the Texas Winter 100K, a 62-mile paddle race down the Colorado River from Lady Bird Lake to Fisherman’s Park in Bastrop.
So yeah, I was nervous. Sixty-two miles might sound like nothing after slogging 260 down the San Marcos and Guadalupe rivers during the Safari, but it still meant paddling from dawn to dusk. Also, I’d signed up to race tandem with an old high school friend I’d never raced with before. Who knew how that might turn out.
Our race started at 7 a.m. underneath the Interstate 35 bridge. As we lined up for the takeoff, the sun was just starting to cast orange and purple streaks across the sky. We sprinted down Lady Bird Lake in the half darkness, and lurched out of our boats for the first portage at Longhorn Dam.
One of my favorite parts about this race? The team of volunteers who carry competitors’ boats through the pedestrian tunnel and down to the water. It’s sort of like having five-star butler service in the middle of a backcountry camping trip.
We pushed our wood strip boat back into the river below the dam, into curling wisps of fog that hovered just over the water. That sight alone was worth the race entry. The rising sun silhouetted paddlers against the haze as they moved rhythmically downstream.
Other highlights? Blue herons, cormorants, egrets and what appeared to be a bald eagle, perched on a tree next to a nest the size of a Volkswagen bug.
We paddled a wood strip canoe built by my race partner, Curt Slaten. I scouted for obstacles from the front, while he steered from the back. Together we eyeballed riffles in the river, trying to decide where the current would carry us most swiftly.
The water flow was lower this year than last, and we grounded out on gravel bars more than once. That meant we had to get out of our boat and slosh through the water, which turned my feet into frozen bricks that didn’t thaw out for about three hours.
Along the way, we passed duck hunters half hidden in reeds on the side of the river. My shoes were nearly sucked off my feet during one muddy portage, and a stiff wind kicked up later in the race, igniting a slew of curse words from our canoe. As we paddled, Curt and I reminisced about our high school days nearly 40 years ago. We got passed by sleek, fast boats, but we passed some boats too. We stopped twice for supplies – peanut butter sandwiches and bananas, delivered by our crack support crew, Mike Drost.
We made it to Fisherman’s Park in Bastrop before dusk, after 10 and a half hours of non-stop paddling. I’m happy with that.
This morning, I feel like an 18-wheeler ran over me. My back muscles feel like an overstretched rubber band, and I’m having trouble doing anything but lounging on the couch.
But the race gave me my canoe legs back. It reminded me why I’m drawn to the river in the first place – to spy on the critters that live there, to feel the water on my skin, and to ride a ribbon of liquid to wherever it’ll take me.