Next adventure for Fit City? Paddle racing – and she started Saturday with Kanoe Klasika

Pam LeBlanc, front, and Sheila Reiter, back, paddle a canoe at Saturday’s Kanoe Klasika race on the Colorado River. Photo by Patty Geisinger

 

I’ve learned this about myself in 54 years: I feel most alive when I’m trying new things.

That’s one reason why I’ve taken up paddling in the last year. It’s also how I landed at the start line of the Kanoe Klasika canoe and kayak race on the Colorado River on Saturday morning.

Pam LeBlanc, left, and Sheila Reiter, right, prepare for the start of the Kanoe Klasika on Saturday. Photo by Patty Geisinger

I started paddling for fun about a year ago. Since then, I’ve taken leisurely day trips on the San Marcos, Colorado, Llano and Pedernales rivers, and loaded up my boat with a tent, sleeping bag and campstove for multi-day excursions on the Devils and Pecos rivers.

 

Heather Harrison, Sheila Reiter and Pam LeBlanc at the start of the Kanoe Klasika race on Saturday.

But now I want to figure out how to go fast. After spending five days following paddlers in the Texas Water Safari in June, I’ve set a huge goal: I want to finish that grueling race, which starts in San Marcos and finishes at Seadrift on the Texas coast.

 

Two veteran paddlers – Sheila Reiter and Heather Harrison – have invited me to join their three-person team for that epic adventure. In less than a year, I’ll set out on a huge, sleep-deprived river of craziness populated by alligator gar, log jams and hallucinations.

I can’t wait. Also, I’m scared out of my straw cowboy hat.

Saturday’s Kanoe Klasika race marked a first step in my mission to get to the start line, though – my first paddling race. (Technically I participated in the Texas Winter 100 back in January, but I only paddled a portion of that course and stopped for a picnic along the side of the river, so I don’t count it.)

Saturday’s race started at Riverbend Park in Smithville, and finished at Plum Park about 16.5 miles downstream.

Racers at the start of the Kanoe Klasika race on Saturday. Photo by Patty Geisinger

Reiter brought the boat – a 23-foot tippy craft that’s more narrow and streamlined than what you’d probably picture if I told you we were racing a canoe. She sat in back, steering us into swifter moving water and around obstacles like low hanging branches and gravel bars. I sat in front and just paddled, focusing on drawing as much strength as I could from each stroke and not flipping out (of the boat, that is.)

Thoughts? A morning spent outdoors, on the water, with like-minded people and getting exercise always ranks high on my list of great ways to pass the time. Along the way, I thought about how far I’ve got to go to prepare myself for the Texas Water Safari. Sixteen miles on a placid, flat river is a lot different than 260 on a narrow, twisty one supercharged with rapids, alligators (yes!) and a notoriously choppy bay.

 

Sheila Reiter, left, and Pam LeBlanc, right, race down the Colorado River on Saturday. Photo by Patty Geisinger

Even in the two hours and 45 minutes it took us to reach the finish line on Saturday, my wrist hurt and my back got sore. What will happen when I multiply that by 20 or so?

I’m going to find out. I’ll get there. And it’ll all be a new experience.

Am I crazy? Maybe – I’m training for Texas Water Safari 2019

Pam LeBlanc and Sheila Reiter, in canoe, center of photo, paddle on Lady Bird Lake on Thursday, Aug. 2. Photo by Chris LeBlanc

 

Chalk up Day 1 as a success.

A couple of years after I told a friend that I’d never do the Texas Water Safari, a 260-mile canoe race from San Marcos to Seadrift, I’m hereby declaring that I’m in for 2019.

Yesterday, the training began.

I’ll be competing as part of a three-person team, alongside veteran paddlers Sheila Reiter and Heather Harrison. They’ve both completed the race several times, but I’m a newbie. My paddling experience consists of recreational paddle camping trips down the Devils and Pecos rivers, plus a bunch of leisurely day trips on the Colorado, San Marcos, Guadalupe, Llano and Pedernales rivers. I did part of the Colorado River 100 last winter, but packed a lunch and picnicked on the side of the river.

But I’ve always believed that the only way to keep living is to keep trying new things. That’s why I learned to run a slalom water ski course at age 40, ran my first marathon at 44, hiked the John Muir trail at 52 and rappelled down a 38-story building at 53. It’s why I do all kinds of stuff that makes me a tad uncomfortable.

Pam LeBlanc paddles on Lady Bird Lake. Photo by Sheila Reiter

 

Besides, I love spending time on the water, and yesterday’s first run meant a couple of hours gliding down Lady Bird Lake, dinner at a lakeside restaurant and glimpses of turtles the size of beer trays, the emergence of the Mexican free-tail bats from beneath the Ann Richards-Congress Avenue Bridge, lots of smooth green water and some rare moments of quiet in the middle of the city.

I’ve got to work on my form. I know already my stroke is choppy and slanted. The paddle should enter the water almost vertically. The photo at the top, taken by Chris LeBlanc, shows me and Sheila heading home after our practice session. I can see my position needs work.

Goals. I’ve got nearly 11 months to get there. I can do it.

Paddlers to traverse 21 miles of Lake Austin for Dam That Cancer

Stand-up paddleboarders, in front left to right, Liz Kelley, Scott Herz and Rob Koenig float past the Pennybacker Bridge during the 5th annual Tyler’s Dam That Cancer event in 2014. The event raises money for The Flatwater Foundation, a nonprofit that provides access to mental health services for those affected by cancer. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Cast an eye toward Lake Austin Monday and you might spot a flotilla of people aboard standup paddleboards.

Nearly 200 people will paddle 21 miles from Mansfield Dam to Tom Miller Dam during Tyler’s Dam that Cancer. The event raises money for the Flatwater Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides access to mental health services for those affected by cancer.

RELATED: Paddlers glide 21 miles for a cause

The public is invited to celebrate their finish with a party at the Lower Colorado River Authority offices, 3701 Lake Austin Boulevard. To attend, make a donation, either in advance at http://tylersdtc.com/ or at the door. The party will feature music from DJ Abe the Assassin, food from Texican Cafe, and beverages from Landshark, William Chris Vineyards, Live Soda and Chameleon Cold Brew.

Paddlers are expected to arrive at about 5:30 p.m. The party runs from 6-8 p.m.

Organizers hope to raise $700,000 at this year’s event. All proceeds will help support families in need.

Paddleboarders to traverse 21 miles on Lake Austin for Dam that Cancer

Stand-up paddleboarders, in front left to right, Liz Kelley, Scott Herz and Rob Koenig float past the Pennybacker Bridge during the 5th annual Tyler’s Dam That Cancer event in 2014. The event raises money for The Flatwater Foundation, a nonprofit that provides access to mental health services for those affected by cancer. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Cast an eye toward Lake Austin Monday and you might spot a flotilla of people aboard standup paddleboards.

Nearly 200 people will paddle 21 miles from Mansfield Dam to Tom Miller Dam during Tyler’s Dam that Cancer. The event raises money for the Flatwater Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides access to mental health services for those affected by cancer.

RELATED: Paddlers glide 21 miles for a cause

The public is invited to celebrate their finish with a party at the Lower Colorado River Authority offices, 3701 Lake Austin Boulevard. To attend, make a donation, either in advance at http://tylersdtc.com/ or at the door. The party will feature music from DJ Abe the Assassin, food from Texican Cafe, and beverages from Landshark, William Chris Vineyards, Live Soda and Chameleon Cold Brew.

Paddlers are expected to arrive at about 5:30 p.m. The party runs from 6-8 p.m.

Organizers hope to raise $700,000 at this year’s event. All proceeds will help support families in need.

Logjams, man-sized gar and hallucinations: Texas Water Safari kicks off Saturday

Team Dirty Dogs lowers their five-person canoe over Cummings Dam on the San Marcos River on Sunday. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

Once they negotiate the boat-bashing chaos of the start in San Marcos, they’ll face the first rapids.

Then will come a twisting stretch of river, a mud-slickened portage or two, a dam, more rapids, more portages, more dams, more twists and turns, and an onslaught of discomforts that starts with aching muscles and sunburn and works its way, like a building tsunami, into a horror show of indigestion, stinking boats and exhaustion.

In all, paddlers who start the Texas Water Safari have signed on for about 260 miles of nothing less than misery.

Veteran paddler West Hansen scouts a stretch of the Guadalupe River near Tivoli. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

I’m going to be writing about the Texas Water Safari this year, so I’ve been spending as much time as I can with the local paddling community.

During the course of what’s been billed as “The World’s Toughest Canoe Race,” solo paddlers and teams of up to six will face logjams and mosquitoes, poison ivy, clouds of nose, eye and lip-coating mayflies, mosquitoes, a snake or two, actual alligators and, even more horrifying, human-sized alligator gar. It draws macho guys, bad-ass women, couples, families, friends and the just plain curious.

They’ll paddle through all of it, for hours on end, many not even pausing to sleep. The hallucinations will come, and so, too, will the disgruntled digestive systems and inflamed skin and mud-smeared bodies. In the end, though, they’ll earn a coveted finisher’s patch which, one can only presume, makes it all worth while.

Pam LeBlanc had her sandals sucked off her feet during a training portage. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

I got hooked on paddling last year. I paddle slow. I like to camp along the way, look at nature and soak up the silence. But for the past few weeks I’ve been rubbing shoulders with a whole new breed of paddlers.

These people buy bulk containers of Spiz liquid food mix, they hold entire conversations about jug foam, they tell horror stories about sleep deprivation-induced hallucinations and fish that jump into their canoes with such force they break ribs.

A few weeks ago, I spent the day at Palmetto State Park, where many of them had gathered for three days of training. My husband and I enjoyed a leisurely three-hour run in our 17-foot Alumacraft canoe while they humped it twice that far in the same amount of time. I could barely keep our boat going straight. I ran us into the bank a few times.

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Then, last weekend I took a field trip down to Cuero, where I scouted a huge log jam with a couple of veteran racers. My shoes got sucked off my feet in the mud. I (temporarily) lost a paddle during a portage. I saw half a dozen small alligators. I screamed and nearly fell out of my boat – four times – when a gar with teeth like needles and nearly as big as me (I’m not exaggerating) surfaced near my bow.

This weekend I hopped into seat four of a five-person race canoe, filling a seat on one of the Dirty Dog’s training runs. We scouted their first few portages on the upper stretches of the San Marcos River. I slipped and bashed my shin while wading around in the river. We saw a snake. I tried to paddle in synch with people who knew what they were doing. I struggled (unsuccessfully) to keep up when they shifted into high gear, practicing going fast and furious. I kept slamming my paddle against the side of the boat.

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I’ve spent hours chatting with people who have done this race before, asking them why they do it (it’s a challenge, it’s a way to bond, it’s peaceful, for the adventure) and how they push on when they want to quit (because everybody does), how they stay awake and what happens when nature calls (they pee in a bottle or jump in the river to do their business).

The race kicks off at Spring Lake in San Marcos at 9 a.m. Saturday. The leaders will likely cross the finish line in Seadrift sometime very late Sunday or early Monday. They’ll be blistered and sunburned, delirious and dehydrated, exhausted and thrilled.

Look for my story in mid-July.

West Hansen carries his one-man canoe out of the river after a Sunday training run that finished near Tivoli. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

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Learn about Texas’ paddling trails at this book signing with Bob Spain

Bob Spain a canoe along the Luling Zedler Mill Paddling Trail, a 6-mile stretch of the San Marcos River from the U.S. Hwy 90 crossing to the Zedler Mill. File photo by Kelly West/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 

It’s tougher than you think to paddle a canoe in a straight line.

I know, because I’ve been trying to perfect the skill (sporadically) for a few months now, with the help of a few friends who are experts. Among them? Bob Spain, a local paddler and paddling instructor who will unveil his new book, “Bob Spain’s Canoeing Guide and Favorite Texas Paddling Trails” (Texas A&M University Press, $26.95) at an event at REI’s downtown location this Thursday.

The book, oriented toward recreational paddlers like me and thoughtfully printed on waterproof paper in case you and the book take an unexpected dip, includes a quick history of paddling and its importance in the fur trade, plus information about different types of boats, tips on how to paddle and illustrations of different strokes. A good chunk is devoted to paddling trails around the state, and it wraps up with a few words on conservation and environmental threats to our rivers and streams.

Of particular interest to me? A section on paddling in a straight line, something Bob’s wife, Joy Emshoff, has been working on with me.

“The main emphasis was to let people know about the paddle trails, but you really need to know more about canoeing before you go out there,” Spain says.

Spain, a certified canoeing instructor, started paddling when he came to Austin around 1980. He says he loves the quiet, stealthy ride a canoe provides, which lets him observe wildlife he otherwise wouldn’t get to see.

“It’s just a way of life to me,” he says.

Spain will speak at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Austin Downtown REI, 601 North Lamar Boulevard. Registration is limited. At 7 p.m., he will sign copies of the book. Registration is not required for the signing and anyone may attend. Both events are free.

Considering paddling the remote Pecos River? Check out our photos

Collis Williams takes a dip in the rapids at Painted Canyon, during a five-day paddle trip on the Pecos River last week. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

 

If you follow this blog, you know I’ve fallen in love with paddling.

In the last year I’ve explored waterways all over the state by canoe and kayak, from the Llano to the Pedernales, the San Marcos to the Colorado, and the Devils to Medina Creek.

Colton Moore fills his water bottle at a spring in a canyon along the Pecos River. We had landowner permission to visit the site. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

RELATED: Dip a paddle in these five Texas waterways

Last week I added the remote Pecos River to the list. I’ll be writing about my five-day adventure down the stretch of river between Pandale and Comstock in an upcoming article, but first I wanted to share some pictures I took along the way.

RELATED: The Devil made me do it

The group enjoys sunset along the Pecos River last week. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

Our group of five camped along the riverbank, fished for bass, shot small rapids, explored a natural spring and visited an emerald green pool inside a magical amphitheater created by Mother Nature (all with landowner permission) as we eased down the river.

Gearing up after a night of camping along the Pecos River. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

Water flow was low, and we had to pull our boats over a stretch of bony fingers of rock called The Flutes, a cold front turned out last 10 miles into a blue-lipped, freezer fest of a day, and, yes, my legs were dappled with tiny black leeches at one point, but it was good.

Really good.

This pool of water is tucked in a canyon along the Pecos River. We had the landowner’s permission to visit. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

 

To whet your appetite for more, I’ve attached some of my favorite pictures here. Look for a story in the Travel section of the Austin American-Statesman in the next few weeks.

We encountered a small herd of horses on Day 3 of our trip on the Pecos River. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman
Houston Dobbins tows his kayak – and his dog Oso – over a stretch of shallow water known as The Flutes. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman
Colleen Gilbreath relaxes at the side of the river during our five-day paddle trip on the Pecos River last week. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman
Collis Williams draws water to filter from the Pecos River. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman
Colleen Gilbreath and Colton Moore snuggle in a hammock along the Pecos River during last week’s paddle trip. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman
The sun sets on night two of our paddle trip along the Pecos River last week. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman