Kayaking Lady Bird Lake

More info on where to rent kayaks can be found in this post: Where to Rent Kayaks in Austin (and Where to Eat Afterwards)

One of the things I do in my free time is mentor a George W. Bush Institute Women’s Initiative Fellow. The fellowship is a yearlong leadership training program for women from North Africa and the Middle East, and I have been paired up with Insaf, a bright and confident Tunisian woman. Insaf is starting an initiative to increase recycling in her country. I will have to tell you all about her some time! But for now, I want to tell you about the time we kayaked Lady Bird Lake together.

Insaf (pronounced just as it is spelled) visited me in Austin one weekend this past March. We ate Mexican food, went to a SXSW film screening, and shopped till we dropped. We got some work in too. But, no tour of Austin would be complete without a little time on Lady Bird Lake, so I took her kayaking.

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Insaf had never been kayaking before. When I first proposed the idea during one of our Skype dates, she seemed a little dubious. However, she said she trusted me to make her time in Texas worthwile and whatever I thought we should do, she would do. (No pressure.)

I had 72 hours to fill her up with as much love for my home state as I had, or at least–that was something I could shoot for.

One morning during her visit, we drove down to the lake to the Texas Rowing Center, a straightforward and affordable kayak rental shop. I was certain that I wanted us to rent two single kayaks, as opposed to one two-person kayak. Singles are smaller and more maneuverable, and you don’t have to rely on another person to paddle. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten stuck in a boat with someone who doesn’t paddle. It’s like they’re trying to summon The Force and move the boat with their mind.)

When I suggested we rent individual kayaks, there was instantly a look of fear in Insaf’s eyes. It occurred to me then that she might actually be nervous about setting off on her own. Having grown up around boats and fording down rapids in kayaks, I hadn’t considered this possibility. But I wanted her to love her time in Austin, so a two-person kayak it was!

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We loaded our sunscreen, water, and other gear into the boat and gingerly pushed away from the dock. As we paddled towards the Mopac bridge, Insaf turned around and asked in a weak voice, How deep is it here?

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Oh, just a few feet, I lied, recalling previous times I’d tested the depth with my oar and found that it was at least one oar length, if not more.

Maybe we can go more this way, she replied, pointing towards the shore.

I can’t see the bottom,  she said later, her voice thick with fear.

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After I convinced her it really wasn’t that deep, she got more comfortable and took our her camera. She loved the turtles and was snapping pics of them right and left.

I usually take the sight of turtles at the lake for granted; it’s amazing what you notice about your city when seen through a foreigner’s eyes.

We headed towards the Mopac bridge, hugging the shoreline. Insaf was paddling away–in between selfies and photos of turtles–and I was glad she wasn’t a slacker!

During the boat ride, Insaf let me practice my French speaking skills on her. This was quite a charitable act on her part, I must say.

We crossed over to the other side of the river, turned around, and headed towards Barton Creek. I love making this detour because the water is much shallower and clear enough to see to the bottom. There are also usually a lot of birds, fish, turtles, and other wildlife hanging out along the creek too.

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The wildlife were out in force that day and Insaf, my fellow environment enthusiast, was loving it.

I’m not going to lie, it is a huge joy to hang out with someone who loves wildlife and the outdoors as much as I do. You both can just nerd out all day long and know you’re not boring the other person, and not being looked at as weird. Rather, you can just embrace the experience together.

By the time we turned around and started to head back to the dock, Insaf was all smiles.

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I had been doubting whether she was having fun, and could not see her face since she was sitting in front of me. But as I glanced at this selfie before stowing my phone away in a dry bag, I saw that smile and knew I had hit a high note with this expedition.

When we got out of the boat at the boathouse, she turned to me and said, in her French accent, Whitney, this was the most fun part of my trip. Thank you for taking me.

Score!

Maybe I am doing this mentor thing right after all. I smiled back at her with a combination of relief and pride.

She later told me that she knows of a kayak rental place back home in Tunisia and she said she would try it when she got home.

She also said she had been told by a program leader that she would find her mentor to be such a kindred spirit, and that she would find she and her mentor to be very alike and have much in common. She said that had all proven to be so true. Knowing how much I admire her, it was a touching compliment.

So, it had been a successful day on the water, after all!

And, because we earned it, because she was on vacation, and because I was just trying to be a good mentor, we headed straight to South Congress and ordered burgers at Hopdoddy’s. No trip to Texas would be complete without a loaded burger.

Burgers are a universal language.

Info to file away for later: How to Do Lady Bird Lake

  • Parking: Austin High School
  • Kayak rental: Texas Rowing Center
  • Cubbies available with fee
  • Must see: Barton Creek
  • Cost: around $20, depending on rental

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