Town Lake was renamed Lady Bird Lake in 2007 in honor of the former first lady, regionally renowned for conservation and philanthropic efforts. No disrespect to one of Texas’s favorite first ladies, but I still call it Town Lake. As a lifelong Austinite, I’ve stomached enough change that I’ve decided I can afford to leave myself a shred of good ol’ Texan stubbornness. The other reason is that it’s not the former first lady’s real name. Her husband, former President Lyndon B. Johnson, gave her the nickname Lady Bird. If they had selected Claudia Alta Lake as the new name, I might feel differently.
Paddling in an urban environment can feel a little incongruous to most people’s main motivation for paddling—to get away from civilization physically or mentally. Instead of dwelling on either the sparse, undeveloped sections of natural environment still to be found or the monuments of change represented by erections of glass and steel inundating downtown, I’ve found my favorite way to enjoy this dammed section of river is by bothering other paddlers.
When the weather is nice on the weekends (which is often the case in Austin), this body of water has plenty of human bodies putzing and fladdling about. (“Fladdling” is a paddlesports colloquialism for paddling with a lack of grace and confidence. I may or may not have made that up.) I like seeing people out enjoying the lake, almost as much as I like having it to myself.
Witnessing people enjoy themselves on the water gives me a sense of hope from a stewardship perspective. If folks are out there, perhaps they’re picking up some trash, or at least seeing the litter that washed in from the streets through the storm drainage. Alternatively, maybe folks will see some sick wildlife shredding the gnar of our beautiful surroundings, and overcome with awe, it will reestablish a connection to their instinctive wildness. I’m not sure what other folks reap from reconnecting to their environment, but I would like to congratulate them on choosing to do it on the water.
Despite the urban setting of Town Lake, there’s still an abundance of wildlife to indulge in. I’ve seen blue herons, great egrets, assorted hawks. On a cool, cloudy, lightly misted January morning I once interrupted an osprey dining on a fish. I was paddling near the northern shore by the UT rowing club headed back to Red Bud Isle, when I heard a rustle of leaves and saw that I was within 20 yards of this osprey gestationally pleasing itself. It saw me and took off to find a more tucked-away dining area. The weight of the fish impeded her flight pattern, requiring some extra work of her wings to correct the slight downward angle her launch had turned into. I felt a little guilty about disrupting this animal and causing extra exertion of calories.
When I’m out exploring the less developed areas of our countryside, I try to tread lightly around other beings I might encounter so as not to interfere with their experience. I bet a lot of us can agree with similar sentiments about leaving people to their nature. Conversely, when I’m boating, I like to at least offer a wave combined with a verbal greeting. Usually, “Ahoy!” to accompany the nautical theme of the activity.
I feel that paddling is a social activity. Every institution that offers any education regarding safety on the water mentions that paddling in a group is considerably safer than going alone. However, they’re usually referring to more remote excursions where help can be far away if things don’t go as planned, as opposed to urban paddling, where people and resources are almost too abundant. Because of this, I like to greet people on the water and exchange a little light conversation if they’re into it.
Which, at first, feels counter to the crux of “getting out there.” But upon further reflection, if we see the other people as merely a part of the paddlesport environment as we do fish, avian life or otherwise, the paddling population becomes an opportunity for enriching engagement that can benefit both parties.
With that said, as a connoisseur of the fundamentals of movement and form, it’s obvious to me some people out there have no idea what they’re doing. Which is okay, I’m not here to pass judgment. However, I think that it’s easier to enjoy cooking a meal when you’re not constantly worried you’re going to burn your house down. If you can maneuver your watercraft without having to think about it too much, you have more mental capacity to engage and enjoy your environs.
Introducing The Unsolicited Kayak Instructor.
There are numerous kayak and canoe liveries on the lake; you can see where they’re located based on where the boats in the water are most crowded. It seems when people rent a kayak, they’re hesitant to take it out of eyesight of the establishment from which they propositioned it. As most people know, Austin is a well-traveled tourist destination. It greatly pleases me to see so many of them exploring what I consider one of the main focal points of Austin’s natural environments. It pleases me even greater that some of those tourists are lucky enough to receive unsolicited, friendly feedback from a guy who glued an American Canoe Association Instructor patch on his PFD.
Nevertheless, the Unsolicited Kayak Instructor’s origin story goes back a little further. As a youth, I spent a good bit of seat time in a kayak. I enjoyed having a whole boat to myself (without having to share it with family). I also enjoyed that I powered it and that I lack the olfactory offense of diesel exhaust, which exacerbates any feelings of motion sickness. As an adult, I hadn’t much thought of kayaking until I quit drinking alcohol during the pandemic and had an uncomfortable reserve of time and money that clearly needed somewhere to go.
As a married person with shared finances, and as is customary with federal money being doled out, I shudder at the thought of who would spend my stimmy check if it weren’t going to be me. So, for my birthday last year, I invested in educating myself by taking an ACA certification course for River Kayaking. Curious about what is formally taught, I also vainly wanted to know where I stood with my mostly self-taught experience.
The course was a blast, and it gave me the opportunity to meet some interesting people who all deserve their own post. However, since then, I haven’t had many opportunities to exercise this certification until one day…
I was conducting my patrol on the lake near the mouth of Barton Springs when I saw a father and son duo. The father was towing the son in his boat with a strap; perhaps the younger of the two got tuckered out. Only considering the extra strain of the dead weight, I noticed the dad was power paddling—over-engaging his arms and dismissing the aid of rotating his torso. Just as we were crossing paths, I offered, “Nice work towing, Dad! It might help to engage your torso to save your arms.” He looked at me as if I was just a little too complimentary of his wife—confused, dismayed but still a little pleased.
Regardless of his reaction, or perhaps because of, I felt a rush of authority and accomplishment that is ordinarily fleeting to me. I started looking for other “clients.” Continuing back out to the lake, I noticed the wind had picked up and turned a group of tourist canoeists into sailors. After extending a mercurial greeting, I offered the insight that if they stayed closer to shore they’d get blown around significantly less. My newest victims clients were as receptive as they could be, considering most of their attention seemed focused on not falling out of their boats.
On the return to my put-in, I found a couple of anglers in sit-on-top kayaks to assault with insight. They were about as receptive as anybody else, this time pride obfuscating their ability to heed my wisdom. No matter, guys like that have mansplained to me enough in my life that it was nice to be on the outgoing end for a change.
By the time I got back to my car, I felt differently about this paddling experience than any other. I felt a sense of place and purpose in myself that I’ve been struggling with for years. Feelings of accomplishment and expertise made it difficult to put away my newly found character akin to Brad Pitt’s Chad Feldheimer from Burn After Reading. I resolved that this character wouldn’t die but would lie dormant in my non-paddling life only to return with damp Astrals on my tootsies and a sunscreen-stained PFD donned to aid other folks’ experiences on the water whether they like it or not.
So next time you’re out on Town “Lady Bird” Lake, and you see a fella in a big red sit-in kayak linking paddle strokes coming at you, just know he only means to help you get the most out of your aquatic experience by offering advice you probably don’t need.
Guest contributor Hamilton Jones is a writer, living in Austin, TX. When not working on his upcoming children’s book, he lives to spread enthusiasm, make people laugh, kayak the rivers of Central Texas, drive his 50-year-old Buick and spend time with his growing family.