It’s hard to overstate the peace and freedom I feel while gliding silently across the mirror-slick surface of Austin’s Lady Bird Lake. Rowing a finely tuned scull boat that’s no wider than my shoulders, I slide through fog, past turtles, ducks, and canoe fishermen. I enjoy the sweet-musty fragrance of Hydrilla and other river plants. As the morning air cools my sweat, it reminds me that I am in fact getting quite a workout. My quads and hamstrings and calf muscles are requesting a break. I tell them, “Just a little farther; wait until I pass under the railroad bridge.”
I continue to steadily accelerate, pulling harder and faster, edging closer to my arbitrary finish line. The turtles and ducks and fishermen become ever-faster blurs in my periphery. My legs and chest and shoulders are all screaming. I continue anyway, because I feel like I’m flying now. The water’s surface reflects the silver morning sky and I cannot define between the two, so for a moment it looks as if I’m suspended in silvery space, with only my wake indicating any surface at all. Soon, I look up to see the rusty beams under the bridge, feather my oars just above the water, and pause to enjoy the coasting glide of the boat. I had been encapsulated in a little zone of my own, and just now do I emerge back into the real world. I look around and remember that I am in the middle of downtown Austin. Even though traffic is lined up on the roads above, people are jogging along the lakeshore path, business towers press against the sky, and other boats race by, the time in this scull boat has made me feel like I had my own private retreat. And then my muscles remind me we still have to make it back to the dock.
If you row, you already know this feeling. If you never have, you should try; and Austin is a great place to learn. Of course, you need to realize the vast difference between other “paddling” sports and rowing. Paddling is not rowing. And yet to really discover the difference, you just need to experience it for yourself.
If you’re an experienced rower visiting Austin, either of these places can help get you on the water, but Texas Rowing Center is a little more convenient, as they are set up as a business, whereas the Club is a nonprofit and is more member-driven. Experienced rowers can contact Texas Rowing Center, reserve a boat, and pay $35 a day for a rental, or once you arrive at the boathouse, you can negotiate a longer-term, multi-day agreement. Be prepared to demonstrate your skill so they can see for themselves which of their boat models is best for you.
Newcomers to rowing, simply go to Texas Rowing Center and sign up for introductory training. Over the course of a few sessions, you’ll learn what you need to, then get a check-out session so the trainers can judge if you’re safe to let loose on the water in their scull boats.
My favorite times to row on Lady Bird are just after sunrise or a couple hours before sunset. After a morning row, drive just around a couple corners to Lance Armstrong’s Juan Pelota café for coffee and locally made energy bars. And if you row until dark, since you’ll be in downtown, I recommend contrasting your quiet time on the water by hitting any pub along Sixth Street, or any of the nearby brewhouses. Peché is my favorite spot for fine vintage-style bartending and one of the best absinthe presentations you’ll find anywhere in the nation, plus they’ve got excellent apps and dinner. With either morning or evening choice, you can’t go wrong combining it with a good time gliding across Austin’s Lady Bird Lake in a scull boat.
It really is worth your time to learn this unique, time-honored sport. It’s one of the best exercise routines you can do. After all, there’s a reason all gyms continue to have rowing machines – even with all the new exercise technology that’s come out in recent years, rowing is an extremely efficient all-in-one workout. But more importantly, after generations, rowing continues to be one of the most peaceful, free-feeling ways to enjoy time on the water.