Wakeboarders by nature are territorial. Their tactics for protecting local waters are as aggressive as any scene on Wild Kingdom. It's a daily task for an indigenous crew to assert its dominance over a certain riding area or body of water - and in Texas, a place made famous by its gun-slinging history, that can be a downright scary thought. So imagine my surprise to find nary a trace of the water-hog mentality when I hit the waters of the state capital, Austin.
Maybe it's Austin's unofficial designation as the "Live Music Capital of the World" that turns the would-be wakeboarding grouches into kinder, gentler cowboys. Austin's home to such soul-savvy artists as Stevie Ray Vaughn, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and a host of other no-name down-home rockers that ooze the earthy characteristics of the 500,000-strong city. That attitude has not been lost on the wakeboarding inhabitants. The riders treat their local lakes as most people would treat their neighborhoods. The sense that you are part of a community runs strong in the lakes around Austin, but the attitude is not what you may anticipate. Though they have a strong local scene, they are not exclusive. The overall sentiment is that there is always room for one more rider or boat to share in the good times.
Austin's lack of animosity and its open-arms policy was so refreshing that my time in Austin could be likened much more to a vacation with friends than a work trip with strangers (if you want to call it work to travel the world, wakeboard and be treated to the finest each place has to offer). The Lake Austin neighborhood was like a utopian suburbia - everyone knows everybody else, and there was a lot of waving and smiling going on every time we passed another boat. Austinites are social, not competitive - being like the Joneses is not coveted nearly as much as having fun with them.
Infamous Lake Austin is the center for the scene. (The lake isn't really so much a lake as it is a dammed section of the Colorado River.) L.A. is the southernmost lake and the last of five that make up the Highland Lakes chain. Homes and marinas line most of one shore, while the other is mainly left as national and public parks. Needless to say, no views of passing barges, sewage treatment plants or discarded car tires.
To top off the beautiful vistas, I hooked up with the best hosts Lake Austin has to offer: Ron and Stacy Parks (I told you I had it easy). Their house is a beautiful remodeled wood cabin that most people would immediately turn sopping-wet wakeboarders 180 degrees away from for fear of immediately damaging the property value. Nonetheless, the Parkses' couch is the hub for many of the low-slung-trouser crew. Riders drop by just to see what's happening on the lake and get such globally important information as who is out riding, where, and when the party is going to start. As with most places on the lake, the Parkses' always seemed to have room, food and beer for a few more.
Of course, as with any place that has a great venue to wakeboard, plenty of good wakeboarders are going to spring up. Riders with already recognizable names like Ramirez, McIlhinney, Weatherill, Garcia and Koncak hail from this general area. There is also a crew of new names who are fast becoming staples in the Texas and national riding scenes, including Brendon Findlay and Evelyn Zerr. Riders in Austin aren't really competitive with one another, more like teammates. Chris Ramirez had knee surgery just days before my arrival but put his boat in the water and acted as chief driver and coach just so he could be out on the water sharing the vibe with his friends. Not a bad guy to have for your coach and chauffeur! Pros or not, wakeboarding is more of a way of life than a pastime to the people of south Texas.
Austin was also, of course, the rresidence of one of the original wakeboarders, Jimmy Redmond. While Jimmy was going to college in the early 1980s his drive to surf led him to design all sorts of boards for riding behind the boat. Many locals consider the work Jimmy was doing at that time the formative years of the sport we all know today as wakeboarding. The scene on Lake Austin was so small then that Jimmy could ride his bike down to the dock with his latest creation and people would offer him a pull if he would show them how to use "that thing." Though the riding and the equipment have changed since then, the generosity of the local inhabitants is still intact.
This genesis has not been forgotten either. Austinites take their lake surfing seriously enough for a local shaper to build boards specifically for surfing behind the boat. On the weekends, when crowds tend to bump up the water to where you might not have the best wakeboarding experience, you are just as likely to see these hybrid surfboards strapped to the tower of a vessel as you are to see wakeboards.
The next lake up the chain from Lake Austin is Lake Travis, which is even larger and more popular than its down-river counterpart. The beautiful thing about Lake Travis is a remote little branch that winds off of the main lake and continues for a number of miles. Named the Pedernales, this vein feeds the core of the local riding scene and provides some of the best riding anywhere in the Austin area. On a weekday this section of the lake looks like a winding private lake. As you get farther away from the main lake, the water gets smoother and warmer. Fortunately for the wakeboarding natives, this little piece of solitude takes a bit of work and knowledge to get to, keeping it out of the reach of the less dedicated.
Austin doesn't lack dedicated wakeboarders or enthusiastic riders. The only thing it seems to lack is the unfriendly attitude of grumpy locals. This may stem from the happy and soulful nature of the area's original riders. More likely, though, it comes from a town that celebrates life and art as often as possible. Wakeboarding in Austin is a perfect example of our sport in its purest form: riding for the simple joy of riding. It's an open social event that people embrace. Open social events usually fall in the range of bingo, gun shows and swap meets. I could live in Austin.