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Austin's low-water crossing lures with cold water

Pam LeBlanc, Fit City

Staff Writer
Austin 360
06.18.11 Laura Skelding AMERICAN-STATESMAN The Low Water Crossing below Mansfield Dam draws people on hot summer days. The water is cold because it comes from the bottom of Lake Travis. For a Fit City story on the swimming scene. It's a popular place for endurance swimmers to train. With a crowd watching, Kyle Shepperd (cq) flips into the water from the low water crossing.

When the neighborhood pool threatens to vaporize in the afternoon heat, swimmers still holler with goose-pimply pleasure as they hit the water at the farthest reaches of Lake Austin.

There, the deepest, coldest drops of Lake Travis drain through Mansfield Dam, emerging into the Colorado River below at what's known simply as the low-water crossing.

The brisk temperatures make the spot a haven for open-water swimmers training for long-distance ocean swims. They also create a tempting summer hangout for people looking for the closest thing to polar bear habitat that Austin has to offer.

"The water is always cold here," says Nick Ruiz, 18, who visited the low-water crossing with five of his buddies, all of them recent graduates of Leander High School, on a recent Saturday. "You get out (of the water) and the sun's out, but you stay cold."

The dam stands like a hulking concrete giant to one side; the river slips away, a greenish-blue ribbon, to the other. In between, people stand on the narrow bridge, working up the nerve to leap off.

Cpl. Steve Scheurer with the Lake Patrol Unit of the Austin Police Department, which patrols the area, notes that it's technically illegal to jump off the span, according to an Austin city ordinance that prohibits jumping or diving from any bridge over the Colorado River. "If somebody jumps wrong they could get hurt, and we don't want anybody getting hurt," he said.

It's not a formal park, but the Lower Colorado River Authority owns the land on the north side of the river, where people are permitted to park and fish from shore. Swimming is allowed in Lake Austin, too.

"It's a chill spot," says Anthony Thomason, 18. "Very secluded."

The water glows lime green under the bridge, which feels like a protective cavern. Voices bounce off the walls, and people on top of the bridge can't see those below.

"This place is paradise," Thomason says.

"All the pools right now, the water's hot," says Andrew Raggio, 18. "Here it's jump in, get out, warm up, repeat."

"It's our little hangout," says Dhinuka Perera, 17.

Swimmers jump off the span, free-falling about 10 feet to the slick liquid surface below. If they time it just right, they can grab one of the half-dozen ropes tied to the underpinnings of the bridge.

They grab hold, hang on and let their bodies drag in the current like fat bass on a fishing line.

Long-distance swimmers come for the water temperatures that hover in the 60s all summer long.

"You can't replicate doing big open-water swimming unless you go out and get in it," says Robert Alford, 46, who logged many miles at the low-water crossing preparing for a recent 7.5-mile open-water swimming race in the Potomac River.

Others have trained there for crossing the English Channel or swimming from Catalina Island to the California coast.

"It's very picturesque, and the water in the summer is absolutely lovely," says Alford, a technology integration specialist for the Round Rock school district. "My whole water temperature range is so much lower than it used to be, and I can't swim in 80-degree water."

But the cold temperatures, sometimes swift currents, boat traffic and tangles of aquatic plants can make it unsafe for less-than-experienced swimmers, he warns. "When the current's pushing, we swim from the bridge to the dam, about 500 yards. It takes us 17 or 20 minutes to swim up there and about 7 minutes to swim back," he says. "The thing you have to watch for is that you don't bust your teeth on a rock on the way back."

On a recent Saturday, the LCRA was releasing water from the dam for hydroelectric generation. The current was swift — about 1,717 cubic feet per second, according to the agency's website. The flow varies, depending on weather and downstream needs.

"We encourage everyone to wear a life jacket if they're in the Highland Lakes, and especially if they are anywhere near a dam," says LCRA spokeswoman Clara Tuma. "The current can be strong, and we want everyone to stay safe."

After a few hours of swimming, Ruiz and his friends pile back into their truck and then head up the steep road to RM 620. Their skin still as cold as raw chicken in a grocery store, they're now headed to a burger joint for cheap food.

The end to a perfect summer day in Austin.

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994