Posted by: Josh Hinkle | May 6, 2009

Take the Plunge

Lamar Blvd. Bridge crossing Colorado River in downtown Austin

Lamar Blvd. Bridge crossing Colorado River

Jumping off of a boulder jutting from the lake seemed like a good idea at the time. I was 13, and my Boy Scout troop had been on the water for the past week, floating very near to the Canadian border. The Boundary Waters excursion in northern Minnesota was one of the most exciting experiences of my life to that point. That particular moment on the rock was one of the stupidest.

As I glided under the Lamar Blvd. bridge stretching across Lady Bird Lake through downtown Austin, that teenage memory popped into my head. Three men had parked their kayaks against one of the concrete columns holding up the traffic 30 feet above. I watched as they hoisted each other from one level to another, finally reaching the top. With cars and trucks racing just a few feet from their heads, they all jumped into the smooth Colorado feet first.

img_04932As they swam back to the pillars, I was amazed to see the trio scurry back up to the plunge point. My weekend attempt at reliving my more adventurous years turned out to be something unexpected. Creeping past the boats below, I glanced at the water’s depth. I could clearly see the bottom only inches beneath, darkening slightly as it tapered off into the rest of the river. The splash target was not that far from where my eyes lingered. Beyond that area, I’m told the lake averages just 14 feet to its floor.

Lady Bird Lake - Austin, TX

Lady Bird Lake - Austin, TX

One in the group of daredevils waved to me before going back to his perilous place on the bridge. I took that as a sign that he didn’t mind my presence or the fact that I had snapped a few digital photos of the men screaming wildly in mid-air as my canoe drifted by. As I rounded out my first real river trek in Texas, I noticed that the seeming fun had inspired a group of girls to follow suit a few pillars down. I wondered how old they were and if their parents would approve.

img_0495Those few short hours on the water had me thinking. Lady Bird Lake was actually part of the river, streaming right through the heart of Austin. Previously Town Lake, it received its new name when one of its biggest advocates, a former First Lady, passed away a few years ago. Visiting Austin before moving to the area, I loved walking down by the banks. And, of course, the canoe rentals had me hooked from the very start.

img_0496Making some calls after that weekend, I found out the risk the jumpers took didn’t really catch the attention of the city. The Austin police, fire and EMS all told me the same thing. It happens. People get hurt from time-to-time, but they don’t really keep track of the number of bridge jumpers. Occasionally, there are suicides, but the EMS agent on the phone told me it’s too difficult to filter the amount of jumps or injuries specifically from downtown bridges. If an injury does occur, he said it should simply be a matter for the patient and doctor to discuss.

Still, it’s obvious that the people of Austin care a great deal about the lake and its surroundings. From my reading, I discovered citizens as far back as 1880 were worried about the possibility of a sewage pipe polluting the water. In 1960, a chemical company washed pesticides containing DDT down a storm drain into the lake, causing one of the largest fish kills in U.S. history. To this day, motorboats and jetskis are not allowed due to the wildlife.

Colorado River

Colorado River

Safety doesn’t seem to be a point of local concern though. There is a city ordinance against swimming in Lady Bird Lake, a rule based on dangerous currents, not water quality. There is also an ordinance prohibiting people from leaping off bridges. Even so, there are no means of enforcment on the water, unless there is a reported emergency. Imagine a lone jumper in need of help.

As Lady Bird Lake is officially recognized as the 18th Texas Paddling Trail, there will, no doubt, be more canoeing, kayaking and rowing crowds tempted by the thrill of jumping. Cliff-diving in Mexico is an amazing experience, I’m sure. But this isn’t Mexico, and these certainly aren’t cliffs.

Even at age 13, I knew I probably shouldn’t be doing it. But I took a few steps back and jolted forward anyway, sailing off that boulder. I sank into the icy water perfectly and came up for air. However, the kid who jumped after me, tripped and ended up cutting his foot on a jagged edge we were meant to avoid. Perhaps the attention Lady Bird Lake receives as a thriving tourist destination will prompt better security and safety procedures. Who knows when that “next kid” will slip and fall there?

Watch my full story on kxan.com. By the time it aired, Austin’s parks and rec director looked at the photos featured on this blog post and contacted the police department. Starting the following weekend (and every weekend until the message is clear), police will patrol the lake on boats, watching for any dangerous activity, punishable with a $500 fine.

lake-map

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Responses

  1. “…Until the message is clear?” How long will that take? There are always new people coming to Austin. Why can’t they just put up signs? These kids are doing it from their own free will. I sure hope that if I ever have to call 911, the operator doesn’t say, “The police will be right there as soon as they come off the lake.” There is a shortage of cops right now, we don’t need more patrolling of city ordinance violations that don’t hurt anyone else.

    “With cars and trucks racing just a few feet from their heads…” How does this add to the story other than making it sensationalistic? It’s not like the cars are going to suddenly dip down through the road and hit the person in the head.

    “Imagine a lone jumper in need of help.” The police are not lifeguards. The police will be looking for people to fine for breaking the law, not as a lifeline for people who take dumb risks.

    I have electrical plugs in my house. Could the cops come check on me every day to make sure I don’t stick a knife in the socket and electrocute myself?

    How do you justify your claim that “safety doesn’t seem to be a point of local concern though.” Should the lake be fenced off and have life guards posted? Why didn’t you point out that they boaters weren’t wearing life jackets in your pictures? That’s a safety concern. Even if the water was crystal clear, there would still be strong currents. So why do you look down on the city for forbidding swimming because of currents, but not because of water quality? You were boating on the river, so you breathed in some of the water, along with some chemicals in the water. Maybe you should be forbidden from boating on the lake because you could fall into the dirty water.

  2. Mike, thank you for your comments. These are all good points. The bottom line is – these people were jumping from a bridge and endangering their lives and possibly inspiring others to follow suit. Regardless of your other issues with the blog post, I think that basis stands. I am interested to see if the city’s efforts will prevent this from happening in the future. Thanks again.

  3. Josh, once again, I have found the words you type to be quite an interesting read. While the jumping may be fun, I agree that it is risky and foolish.
    Good job!

  4. Thanks for the comment. Once you see how shallow the water is near the bridge, you might think twice before jumping. Another note, I saw a large snake swimming through the water at that same spot, so you can be sure I won’t be jumping in! 🙂

  5. My understanding was that the ban on swimming has nothing to do with currents, and all about the effluent from the animals swimming at barton springs.

  6. I’m not sure where you heard that was the reason for the ban. Please let me know. City code cites the current as the reason behind the ban.

  7. The only area under that bridge that you can see the bottom is the pillar bases that are under the water around 5 ft. a few feet farther out and its plenty deep enough. I personally have jumped from beneath the bridge and why does traffic come into play with your story? Sounds like all your wanting to do is ruin some fun for kids and adults alike just out on the lake for a good time. But regardless swimming and jumping right there off lamar bridge is simply fun. Its not even high enough to really hurt someone unless they landed old fashioned belly flop style. and any decent swimmer can swim the currents of lady bird lake unless their near the dam. The end.

  8. Thanks for the note. I’m sure you’ve seen the bottom of the pillar bases when you’ve been on the lake. However, the problems with jumping are: A.) the water often fluctuates levels, according to the city’s parks and recreation department; B.) There are obstructions under the water that are difficult to see, like metal rebar from constructions projects in the past. I understand that jumping can be a lot of fun, but the city wants to make sure people enjoy the lake and stay safe at the same time. After airing this story, several people at my station teased me, calling me a “fun killer.” I don’t mind though, because I think this is an important issue to address. Their comments make me laugh anyway. Ha! -Josh

  9. i was there for an ap bio trip just the other weekend and theres a really shallow spot next to that bridge. if i didnt see that shallow spot i probably would have jumped off that bridge too!


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