Kayaking on Barton Creek

Flooding around Austin mean it's time to hit the whitewater on Barton Creek, as the News8Austin cable news channel observed.
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then click on play, and see if it plays for you El Nino is finally showing his wet side in Central Texas. With the rains we've been having, I've been able to kayak the Guadalupe and the Blanco consistently since I came back home in early October. Last week, we got a very heavy dump of more than 5 inches in two days. Not up to October '98 or July '02 levels, but enough to send rivers and streams out of their banks and close all the low water crossings in this part of the Hill Country. For a handful of people like me means it's time to hit the water. Kayaking Hill Country rivers and creeks is a lot like surfing on the Texas coast. Most of the time, the action is pretty meager and limited to the Guadalupe below Canyon Dam and the San Marcos rivers. But when it's up you have to drop everything. Fortunately, real time readings of river flows posted on the Internet--in my case, the USGS.gov site, the LCRA upper Colorado site, and the PaddleTexas.com-- have made it easy to chase whitewhite. If there's a rise in an isolated area, you can ride it.

The rains that hit this part of Texas on November 17 sent gauges rising all over the place. I didn't get out on the water Wednesday. Seeing the Blanco jump its banks at Fischer Store bridge and in Wimberley and watching the Wimberley gauge rise beyond 35,000 cubic feet per second convinced me it was best to wait a day.

So on Thursday, I rode with David Price to hit Barton Creek, the great thrill ride of Austin. We launched at the Lost Creek Country Club at noon, when a City of Austin boating ban on Barton Creek was lifted. The flow was running around 1,300 cfs, considerably lower than the day before when it peaked at 20.000 cfs, and the water was already clearing out. Evidently, there wasn't much soil to run off into the creek since it had been raining on and off over the previous week. It was a gorgeous day, about 70 degrees with clear blue skies and we had a fun run. I tumped a few times, but the water wasn't too cold and there's still enough of an autumnal landscape to appreciate the vegetation on the banks. Water was pouring into Barton Creek from the side creeks and from overhangs where waterfalls choked with maidenhair fern transformed the setting into a fairyland. It's easy to imagine the paradise Austin was to its earliest settlers when paddling down Barton Creek. We heard coyotes howl, watched great blue herons and belted kingfishers along the creek and surfed some beautiful waves. We hooked up with Jamie Mitchell under the 360 bridge where we were interviewed by two young guys who said they were doing a story for either the Austin Statesman or the Austin Chronicle.

The next day, I met Erik Huebner, a friend who's a biologist for another run from Lost Creek down to Barton Springs. At Barton Springs, a News8Austin reporter saw us loading my boat into Erik's truck and asked if she could interview us and film us. We didn't mind. While loading my boat into his truck, I popped off a comment that I was supposed to be at a water meeting at the Capitol but that I had priorities. It's true. I was attending the Groundwater conference that Andrew Sansom and Texas State University had organized for the legislators as well as the players in Texas water politics. It was a great, very informative event and it gave me hope that the state's leadership might actually pay attention although I'm less sure after my state rep, Patrick Rose, left after delivering his speech. He might have learned something if he'd stuck around. Then again, I'm sure I could've learned more too, but there was this surface water issue that had taken precedence.

Erik and I had a great run. Lots of great waves to play in, lots of wildlife including several great blues and a wild beehive we spotted under a cliffside overhang. I tumped again trying to run the first dam below Lost Creek but this time I sliced the big wave at the top of Triple Falls perfectly. After clearing the third fall of Triple, I eddyed around to surf the bottom wave when my paddle suddenly bent in two. I put too much torque in it I guess. It sorta held together through Swirl rapids, but by the time I hit the Forest, it came completely undone (consumer note: beware Ocean Kayak brand snap-together paddles. They're guaranteed to bend apart). I made it downstream, running Campbell's Hole with half a paddle (not fun). And I went back today for more with David Price, doing the shorter 360 to Barton Springs run. There were at least 15 kayakers hanging around Triple, lined up to play in the second rapid. A nice steady rain fell for the last half of the run, lending an ethereal air to the setting. We chased a couple heron downstream for a long time and got pretty close to a couple comorants, who thought the drizzly weather perfect.
Twice, boaters recognized me from the News 8 segment. The piece was OK considering it was local TV news, which generally sucks. I did call the newsroom to correct them that while yes, the ban on boating in the Colorado was still on, the ban on Barton Creek, where we were boating, had lifted Thursday at noon. The news segment made it sound like we were defying the law, which we weren't.

I hope it rains for another month. It's hell on my septic tank but it works wonders for whitewater. There's not a bigger thrill in Austin than a run down Barton Creek when it's cranking.

For info on Texas kayaking and other nuts in the cult check out paddletexas.com and texaspaddler.com

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