Before dawn on a cold January morning in 2014, Veronica Sosa, a relative newcomer to long-distance canoeing, set out with a teammate on a 62-mile paddle race down the Colorado River.
The temperature hovered in the upper teens, and almost immediately after Sosa launched from beneath the Interstate 35 bridge on Austin’s Lady Bird Lake, she started shivering in her seat. She was still shaking about an hour into the race, when she and her partner sloshed through ankle-deep water and dragged their canoe up a bank and around a small dam.
It felt like a selfie moment, so Sosa snapped a picture with her phone. And that’s when she noticed it. “Oh my God, is there ice in my hair?” Sosa recalls asking her teammate, who confirmed that, yes, her braids were covered in caterpillar-size icicles. At the next checkpoint, sixteen miles downstream, the wife of another paddler took one look at Sosa and tossed her the fleece jacket off her back, then handed her a Styrofoam cup of hot cocoa. Still, Sosa never fully thawed. For more than twelve hours, from the start of the Texas Winter 100K race on Lady Bird Lake to the end, at Bastrop’s Fisherman’s Park, Sosa experienced what outdoors types call “Type 2 fun.” On the so-called “Fun Scale,” Type 1 fun is enjoyable-in-the-moment fun. Type 3 is awful to experience and to recall—not really “fun” at all. Type 2 is miserable at the time, but remembered fondly later.
As Sosa discovered, cold-weather paddling in Texas is a different kind of adventure than a fair-weather excursion. A summer paddle offers a chance to spot turtles sunbathing on rocks and hear riverside trees rustling in the wind. It’s also a fully immersive experience: if the sweat starts to trickle, kayakers and canoers can just flop into the water for relief.
But starting in fall, bodies of water from the Red River to the Rio Grande shake off their cloaks of green leaves, and water temperatures drop. Few paddlers are tempted to take a flying leap into the water, but there are other rewards: physical exertion in the cold has a way of clearing away mental and physical cobwebs. The outline of the landscape comes into focus behind the barren trees, and birds stand out against the stark backdrop. The water settles and clears. The tubers, with their beer-packed coolers and loud music, stay home. A sense of calm settles over the water, and paddlers can focus on the surrounding beauty and serenity.