Text and photos by Erich Schlegel

Billed as “The World’s Toughest Canoe Race,” the Texas Water Safari will celebrate its 50th anniversary in the summer of 2012. Starting this year on June 11, the Water Safari sends teams in canoes and kayaks over a 260-mile course from San Marcos, near Austin, Texas, to Seadrift on the Texas Gulf coast.

The 2011 Safari was about as tough as it gets, and many teams completed it in a single non-stop push. Drought conditions meant low-water flows on the San Marcos and Guadalupe Rivers, slowing most teams to a crawl. Each team must be self-sufficient throughout the entire race; they can only receive water and ice from their team captain, and finish within a 100-hour cut-off time.

The first day is loaded with small technical rapids, sweepers, strainers and many dams to portage around. As the days pass, the field spreads out. After the 200-mile mark, at Victoria, the river gets interesting again; sometimes for real, sometimes imagined. This is the “Hallucination Alley” where trees become giants, naked midgets run along the bank, and refineries become “monkey temples.” Paddlers stop for beach parties that don’t exist and you begin to wonder who that guy is in the back of your canoe (ie. your teammate).

I raced in 2010, paddling a Wenonah Voyager with a rudder, in the solo unlimited division. Knowing the river and all the nasty places, I was able to position myself in places to photograph that no spectator ever sees. One especially nasty place is a log-jam that blocks an entire horseshoe section of the Guadalupe River several miles up from the last checkpoint. Teams must portage up a steep, eight-foot bank, drag their boats through a forest of trees, weeds, and spider webs, then back down a ten-foot bank into a side creek that eventually flows back into the alligator infested river.

The last obstacle is crossing San Antonio Bay and the Intercoastal Waterway just before the finish line at Seadrift. Last year, many teams, including myself, were forced to camp on the last spot of land before the finish and wait out a gale. It was the only sleep many of us got the entire race—pure torture when in eyesight of the finish line.