Like a pack of modern-day Huck Finns, a flotilla of stand-up paddlers glided 21 miles down Lake Austin last week, spreading awareness about the importance of mental health for anyone coping with cancer, from patients to their loved ones.
In all, more than 75 people — plus two dogs — spent nine hours making the muscle-powered trip from the low-water crossing below Mansfield Dam to Hula Hut, where they celebrated with a fundraising party for the nonprofit Flatwater Foundation.
Mark Garza, 35, created the foundation after his father was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer 3 1/2 years ago. That diagnosis, Garza says, shattered his family. He sought help through counseling but was shocked at the cost. He found solace on the water, paddling early in the morning as a sort of therapy.
Garza and a small group of friends organized the first Dam That Cancer event in 2010, raising $35,000 for the Livestrong Foundation. Then he created the Flatwater Foundation, which helps people navigate a cancer diagnosis and get mental counseling. The foundation works to eliminate the stigma associated with counseling and encourage people to exercise to improve their mental well-being.
Last week’s trip started with a Jimmy Hendrix rendition of the National Anthem and included paddlers from as far as Hawaii. One paddler attached a pinwheel to the back of her craft, and an oversized board called the SUPsquatch carried six people armed with water soakers.
“I’ll be thinking about Dad, who is an inspiration for showing me the cause,” Garza said before the group pushed off, explaining that this was the first year his father couldn’t participate in person because of health reasons. “Also for the people we put into care yesterday. I’ll be thinking about how important this message is.”
I tagged along for a few hours, hopping onto a board as the sun rose and peeling off at Quinlan Park. Broad, stable beginner-friendly boards like the ones available for rent on Lady Bird Lake are easy to use. Sleeker, more aerodynamic boards tend toward the tippy side. While it may not look like much of a workout, balancing on a board means engaging lots of core muscles.
But Garza’s right. A cozy terrycloth beach towel of serenity draped itself over my shoulders out there. Blue herons flapped overhead and carp spawned near the shore as I “walked” downriver.
Along the way, Danny Ching, a champion stand-up paddler from California with his own instructional video and a sponsorship from a sunscreen company, managed to keep a straight face when I accidentally flipped off the back of my board. Even though I was riding a “racing board,” I quickly found myself at the back of this speedy pack.
Still, it didn’t matter. The Dam That Cancer paddlers don’t race (too hard); they paddle together in a show of unity. This year’s event raised $200,000 for the Flatwater Foundation.
“Everyone out here has a story,” said Rob McKinnie, 34, a 13-year testicular cancer survivor who teamed with Garza to start the Flatwater Foundation.
C.J. Walsh, 34, flew down from Philadelphia to participate. He vowed to think about friends he knows battling cancer as he cruised down the river. “It’s a truly inspiring event,” he said.
Justin Blumoff, 34, an Austin attorney, counted off four close family members fighting the disease. “There’s this parallel between this paddle and fighting cancer,” he said. “We all stay together, and that’s how we overcome something. You lean on others.”
Brooke Robinson of Tyler’s, which has raised $4,000 through sales of special Flatwater Foundation T-shirts, rode aboard a support boat. “We have all day to talk about why we’re here,” she said. “It’s like therapy on water.”
As the group arrived at Hula Hut around 5 p.m., a cheer floated over the water.
“We made it!” one elated paddler yelled as they piled off their boards, sunburned, smiling and, in a few cases, limping slightly.
“That was amazing,” Garza said as he came ashore. “My dad wasn’t able to make it out, but he was in my mind all day. He was here in spirit.”
To donate to Dam That Cancer or learn more about the Flatwater Foundation, go to www.flatwaterfoundation.org.
Want to try stand up paddling yourself? Check out the following options:
The Expedition School on Lady Bird Lake, 34 Robert Martinez Jr. Street; 512-626-6282, www.expeditionschool.org.
Austin Paddle Sports at Capital Cruises on Lady Bird Lake, 208 Barton Springs Road behind the Hyatt; 512-777-8958, www.austinpaddlesports.com.
Paddle Zen, 1620 E. Riverside Drive; 512-462-0732; www.paddlezen.com.
Rowing Dock, 2418 Stratford Drive; 512-459-0999; www.rowingdock.com.
Steiner Ranch SUP, 12300 River Bend Road; 512-994-7080, www.steinerranchsup.com.
Lakeway Marina, 103 A Lakeway Drive; 512-261-7511, www.lakewaymarina.com.