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Holly Orr leads a training class for future canoe instructors on the San Marcos River in November. Photograph by Jody Horton
Travel & Outdoors

Cold-Water Paddling Is for the Brrrave

Winter kayaking and canoeing are catching on, even among heat-loving Texans.

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.

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The San Marcos River features bald cypress trees along its banks.

Photograph by Jody Horton

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Orr lugs a kayak down to the river before her training class.

Photograph by Jody Horton

My first cold-weather paddle was two years ago, when I decided, against my better judgment, to train for the Texas Water Safari, an annual 260-mile sufferfest down the San Marcos and Guadalupe rivers to the Texas coast. The race, which takes place in June, is notoriously sweaty, but to be competitive you must start practicing in the dead of winter, which is why I was on a group training run in the middle of January. Our canoe approached a low-water bridge, and my four-person team had to jump out of the boat to get around the obstacle. I misjudged the landing and found myself in neck-deep water, bobbing like a pool toy.

Luckily, I was prepared, thanks to some sage advice from my mentors, including Holly Orr, a veteran endurance canoe racer who helps train athletes for the safari through Paddle With Style, a company she owns in Martindale, southeast of San Marcos. Orr urges her paddlers to bring a waterproof bag with a change of clothing, a few hand warmers, and one of those silvery space blankets. Shivering on the muddy bank, I stripped off the wet stuff, tugged on the fresh duds, and put my paddle back into the water. “I would always be prepared to be fully submerged,” Orr says. Wear layers, she and other experts advise—tights and a top made of wicking fabric, a fleece, and a windbreaker or waterproof paddling jacket—as well as a hat, and peel things off as you warm up. It’s also important to stay hydrated, which isn’t as intuitive when the water isn’t the temperature of a hot bath.

Conditions at the Texas Winter 100K have ranged from bone-chilling to balmy over the years. “From the get-go, we expected harsh conditions, and the first year was the worst,” says race director West Hansen, a longtime endurance racer from Austin. That first year, 2011, paddlers were pelted by sleet, and a wayward golden retriever hitched a ride on a stranger’s boat before being reunited with its owner downstream.

After my first brisk indoctrination with chilly temperatures, I’ve made a habit of paddling in the winter every few weeks, even on dank, blustery days. The world might look bleak, but I have come to feel a kind of kinship with Arctic seals, which frolic on the ice for the pure joy of it.

Brrreaking Records
Illustration by Christopher DeLorenzo

Brrreaking News

The course record for the Texas Winter 100K was set in 2019, when Will Leeds of San Marcos finished in 6 hours and 46 minutes, thanks in part to fast-moving water.

Of course, it’s always more fun to freeze with friends who share your warped sense of entertainment, which is why the Dallas Downriver Club organizes roughly a dozen camping trips a year, all of them between October and June. The club’s members like to take advantage of the improved clarity of typically murky North and East Texas waterways; in colder months, mold and algae die off and the water smells and looks less funky. This year’s schedule includes a Polar Paddle at Caddo Lake in January and a trip down the Sabine River, near Carthage, in February. “Most of us just don’t like the oppressive heat, the sun beating on you when it’s a hundred degrees outside,” says Dale Harris, the president of the club. “You can only take so many clothes off, but you can always put more clothes on.”

Harris also oversees the Trinity River Paddling Trail, a 130-mile stretch of the Trinity and its tributaries, in the Dallas–Fort Worth area. Paddlers can launch their boats from any of 21 official put-in sites. Other streams across the state, from the remote Devils and Pecos rivers, in West Texas, to the Brazos River, in North and Central Texas, to Buffalo Bayou, in downtown Houston, offer great opportunities to get on the water too. And for those who prefer more placid paddling, Texas is home to plenty of suitable flatwater options, from North Texas offerings such as White Rock Lake, Lake Arlington, Grapevine Lake, and Lake Lewisville to the Houston area’s Lake Conroe and Clear Lake.

As for Sosa, she’s warmed up—mostly—to the idea of winter paddling. After skipping the Texas Winter 100K for a few years after the icicle incident, she entered the race again in 2018, 2019, and 2020, and will compete again this year if it’s not too chilly. “I can paddle in hell, probably, but not when I have ice on me,” she says. “It took a couple of years to really get the gumption to do it again because I’m a Texas girl at heart.”

This year, the 100K, which includes categories for recreational paddlers as well as competitive athletes, is scheduled for January 23. Hansen, the race organizer, has paddled all of the Texas coast as well as the Amazon and Volga rivers. For his next adventure, he’s planning the ultimate in cold-water trips: in summer 2021, he and two other Texans are set to kayak 1,900 miles through the Northwest Passage, in the Arctic. Average water temperature? Thirty degrees.

Pam Leblanc is an Austin-based journalist who specializes in outdoor adventures and recreation.

This article originally appeared in the January 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Cold-Water Therapy.” Subscribe today.