TEXAS WATER SAFARI
Words by Larry Rice Photographs by Blake Gordon
I'm not one to take fortune cookies seriously, but this one nearly made me choke on my moo goo gai pan. "Watch out for little problems that could get a lot bigger," it warned. If the little problems Marc "Canoeman" McCord and I had just endured were harbingers of worse to come, what were our chances of finishing, let alone surviving, a 262-mile nonstop canoe race?
They don't call the Texas Water Safari "The World's Toughest Canoe Race" for nothing. In addition to the length, the challenges include whitewater rapids, multiple portages, and the relentless, soul-sapping Texas heat. Competitors have four days and four hours to paddle from San Marcos, in the center of the state, to the shy little town of Seadrift on the Gulf Coast. There is no prize money for the winners; just Texas-size bragging rights for the finishers.
For Marc, a Dallas resident and publisher of the popular Southwestpaddler.com, that means a lot. A native son of Texas who claims distant kinship with Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Kit Carson and Geronimo, Marc considered a Water Safari run part of his destiny. He turned 60 in 2008 and figured if he didn't enter then he never would. Not that the portly 6-foot, 190-pounder was what one would call prepared. He was coming off a lifetime of self-described "decadency and debauchery" as a rock 'n' roll musician, and was a complete rookie with a single-blade paddle. In 33 years of canoeing, he'd always used a double-bladed kayak paddle, a style that is peculiar to Texas. Though double-bladed paddles are allowed in the Safari, we had enrolled in the Novice class, which limited us to a stock tandem canoe no longer than 17 feet, 6 inches, and single-bladed sticks.
Three years his junior, and thus tagged "Canoeboy," I felt relatively more prepared for the Safari's physical rigors. I live in the Colorado high country and make time to hike, bike or canoe whitewater almost every day. I just wasn't sure my mind was up to the challenge. I had never before participated in a paddling race, being of the belief that competition among paddlers is a good way to ruin a splendid sport. Nevertheless, during a long, slow float through the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande the previous November, Canoeman had alternately bullied and sweet-talked me into entering the Safari with him.
"You paddle more than anyone I know, whitewater and wilderness," he'd said, huffing and wagging his finger in my face. "And I've logged over 1,000 river miles per year for the last five years. Hell, I know we won't come home with a first-place trophy, but we will bring home that TWS patch. Even if it kills us."
Our first practice run, three months before the race, did not go well. Before we'd even slipped our brand-new Osagian aluminum canoe on the narrow and twisty upper San Marcos River, I mentioned my misgivings, and Canoeman snarled back.
"You don't worry about me being ready!" he said. "It's you I'm worried about. You don't seem to realize that this will be the hardest thing you've ever done. Everything you've done up to now—everything—is pussy compared to the Safari."
The day's objective, he continued in a calmer voice, was to paddle 42 miles in less than 12 hours, just as we'd have to do on
the first day of the Safari to avoid being disqualified. We'd only have to average 3.5 miles per hour, and the current would give us a nice boost, Marc said. We'd be off the water in plenty of time to hit the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet at the Dragon Palace.
That began a long day spent dodging scores of strainers and dragging our 80-pound boat over logjams, around dams and through thickets. An hour before sunset, after several near-capsizes, my partner abruptly laid down his paddle and slumped forward in his seat. Sweating profusely, he complained of severe chest and back pains. Though it was only March, the temperature had to be in the mid-90s, with humidity to match.
"Hey, Marc," I said. "You okay? You want some Ibuprofen?"
"Nope, took eight of the suckers before we started this morning, four more a couple hours ago," he said. "But if you have a gun, I'd like you to shoot me now to put me out of my misery." With that, he leaned over the gunwale and vomited. Then he vomited again, sat up tentatively, paused a beat, and puked a third time. When he finally stopped convulsing he took a slug of lemon-lime Gatorade and began power stroking as if nothing had happened. "Let's get going," he barked.
Soon it was twilight, then pitch black under the overhanging canopy of pecans, box elders, and live oaks. The damp air cooled quickly. A father-and-son canoe team zoomed past and disappeared around a bend. Our single LED headlamp, strapped to Marc's noggin, beamed weakly into the deep Texas night. Soon enough we steered into a chest-high branch, which scraped me smoothly out of the canoe and into the water. I'd been on the verge of heatstroke all day; now my greyhound-thin frame was soaked to the bone and I began to shiver uncontrollably. Half a mile later we slammed into a stout, exposed log, knocking us both clean off our seats.
Marc's '96 Dodge van was still four miles downstream when we called it quits. Fortunately the father and son had also stopped at this earlier takeout. They were still loading their canoe when we appeared like zombies in the glare of their headlights.
Marc, who proudly claims an exceedingly high shame threshold, strode up to the father and asked for a ride. "Sure," the man said. "We Safari racers got to stick together." His teenage son had a slightly different take on things. "So you're going to be our competition?" he asked, his shrewd eyes darting from Canoeman to me. Marc nodded.
"Awesome!" the kid said.
THREE MONTHS LATER, AND DESPITE the fortune cookie's prescient
advice, Canoeman and I rendezvoused in San Marcos. Here, where clear water emerges from a series of limestone springs to form the San Marcos River, we joined a few hundred other paddlers and their support crews for the Texas Water Safari orientation. Entrants were spread in age from 14 to 72 and hailed from 18 states and three countries. They ranged from veterans like Owen West, a 70-year-old Texan who has 39 Safaris to his credit with 26 finishes, to first-timers like us. It was Friday, the 13th day of June, 2008.
The thermometer held steady at 101 degrees and the humidity was 60 percent, which added up to a demoralizing heat index of 133 degrees. Even more dismaying was the news that the San Marcos and Guadalupe rivers, which comprise the first 250 miles of the Safari course, were at historically low levels. That meant far more sandbars and deadheads to avoid, and much less help from the current.
The official inspecting our gear sized us up with practiced eyes. "If ever there was a Safari to skip, this might be the one," he said conspiratorially. "Seventeen teams have already dropped out." I left Canoeman and the captain of our support team, Dallas Downriver Club President Bryan Jackson, to answer that one, and slipped away to gawk at the collection of boats crowding River Center Park. I felt like a voyeur at a paddler's freak show.
Taking center stage were the huge six-person canoes–ultra-narrow, ultra-fast, and 40- to 45-feet-long. These behemoths dwarfed everything else, which included a variety of exotic-looking racing canoes and kayaks, and the standard aluminum, ABS Royalex, polyethylene, and fiberglass boats belonging to mere mortals like us. Teams had paid as much as $20,000 for a carbon fiber/Kevlar six-seater, and as little as 100 bucks for a well-used Royalex beater. Some boats were rigged with rudders, spray covers, and imaginative custom outfitting. Others, like ours, sported practically off-the-rack setups. Lighting systems—a critical component as we'd learned on our practice run—varied from basic headlamps to ludicrously large battery-operated spotlights of the type a police helicopter might use.
The most serious competitors would paddle nonstop day and night in stripped-down craft carrying little more than water jugs, energy bars and spare paddles. At the other extreme was our ship, weighed down with two Eureka tents, Therm-a-Rests, sleeping bags, repair gear, an ample outdoor wardrobe, cameras, and enough food to last us a week. A couple of roaming officials asked half in jest if we were packing for a camping cruise instead of the "The World's Toughest Boat Race." "To hell with them!" Marc said after they strolled past. "I was a Boy Scout. I learned to always be prepared."
Something else set us apart too. Every boat had a race number stenciled on its side, and most had clever, or not-so-clever, names: Lead Sled, Horny Toads, Team Belize, and Gar Balls, to
name a few. Our boat's registration number was the fate-tempting 1313. And plastered on its shiny aluminum skin—in dripping red 6-inch high calligraphy—was our moniker and motto: "Team CoTex: We're Out for Blood."
I wondered if some of the local citizenry might be offended, but Canoeman, a self-proclaimed revolutionary radical, didn't share my concern. "You're from Colorado. I'm from Texas. Team CoTex makes perfect sense," he growled. "And we are out for blood: everyone else's."
THE SAFARI BEGAN WITH A GUNSHOT at precisely 9 o'clock the next morning. Ninety-five multi-colored boats surged forward in a mad dash. You wouldn't ordinarily start a four-day marathon with an all-out sprint, but the start is another endearing quirk of the Texas Water Safari. The race begins in a broad spring-fed pond that quickly narrows into the San Marcos River. The boats that reach the river entrance first will have the best chance to avoid the obstacles in the upper river. Even more importantly, they avoid the pileups at the five dam portages in the first 42 miles.
The big six-seat canoes immediately surged to the front, paddles thrashing powerfully and crews shouting for room. Too late, for some. A pair of single-seat kayaks got slammed and dunked. The crowd of about 500 cheered and hollered. It was like NASCAR–chaotic, scary, loud, exhilarating, a fitting start to this storied race.
Even in the relative safety of our metallic battleship I found the melee surreal and, frankly, overwhelming. I regularly canoe gnarly Class IV rapids. I've had grizzly bears charge me, and I've skied through Alaska's Denali National Park when it was 30 below. I've even braved a Carnival Cruise with my 78-year-old mother, for Chrissake. But as Canoeman had warned, all paled in comparison to this. Amidst all this bizarre pandemonium—boats banging into each other, the turbulent shouting, the jockeying for position–I felt a sudden surge of panic. My sweat-drenched body was on auto-drive–I was paddling with a vengeance. However, my mind was silently screaming, "I hate this. I hate Texas. What am I doing here?"
Marc on the other hand seemed oblivious to the bedlam. Perched ramrod straight up in the bow, he cranked his bent-shaft paddle like an eggbeater as we sprinted toward a tricky rapid that needed to be run or portaged. He could care less if we banged into other boats or took a tongue-lashing from their angry occupants. "Full speed ahead!" he ordered above the fray. "Our tin can is a destroyer, and all them hot-shot racers better get outta the way!"
And so it went. We battled to hold our position, but after a half-hour or so of intense jostling, the boats finally began to spread out. We were in ones and twos now, and as we settled into the grinding reality of the 250-some miles still remaining, our competitors began to offer words of encouragement rather than scowls.
Our shared goal, besides finishing, was survival. Sharing the course with paddlers are poisonous water moccasins, alligators, wasps, hornets, fire ants, and clouds of mosquitoes. Getting lost in the dark was always a possibility, along with crashes into giant rocks and logjams. "There is so much that can happen to you out there," says Safari patriarch, Joe Mynar, "and not a whole lot you can control." Remarkably, no one has died in the race's 45-year history, but many have come close.
But now, cruising along on this shade-dappled stream, listening to the calls of strange birds and the steady drone of insects, I found that in some weird masochistic way I was actually enjoying myself, despite suffering from debilitating heat and continually forcing Clif Shot Bloks and cheese crackers through my parched lips. As for Canoeman, I wasn't sure. For the first time since I've known him he wasn't incessantly chatty. Not a good sign, but at least he wasn't puking over the gunwale.
We reached Staples Dam, the first of 12 official checkpoints, in four hours flat. We were already 16 miles from the start and going strong. Bryan, who was following the race by land, informed us that several competitors had already dropped out due to fatigue or damaged boats. Cottonseed Rapids had even wiped out some of the pros.
The report registered as little more than nervous chatter. Cottonseed was behind us now, and though the finish line was some 250 miles away we couldn't afford to think past the next checkpoint at the Luling Highway 90 bridge. Any crew that didn't reach Luling by 7:30 p.m. would be disqualified, and Canoeman and I were very much on the bubble. Bryan apparently felt that it was his job to remind us of this.
"You guys are doing great, but now you've got to really haul ass. Can you do it?"
"Damn right we can do it!" answered Marc, now dunking his entire substantial body into the lukewarm river. "Aahhh!" he sighed. "Okay, Canoeboy, saddle up!"
We fell into a mantra-like rhythm, drawing on our water-reading skills to overtake several boats on sharp turns and in rocky riffles. Only a few boats passed us. For a number of hours it seemed that we had found a second wind, that years of canoe tripping and wilderness travel had somehow given us reserves of strength and resolve we had never before had to tap. I learned long ago that in any challenging endeavor, whether it's a weeks-long wilderness expedition or 30 seconds of Class IV whitewater, there comes a moment of truth when you realize that you are going to succeed as planned, or not.
Ours came late in the afternoon, about seven hours and 27 miles into the race. With 11 miles to go before the Luling 90 checkpoint, Team CoTex began to fade. We were struggling: against the broiling heat, the low water, the imperceptible current, the exposed sandbars, the crowded portages, the logjams, the clock. Each other. Our irritation stemmed from the sobering realization that we might not make that second checkpoint within the cutoff time.
I had originally approached the Safari as an adventure and professed not to care whether we finished. However, despite my earlier opinion of this event and with racing in general, now that I was neck-deep in this stink, I didn't want to be disqualified; I wanted to paddle all the way down the San Marcos and Guadalupe rivers, then across San Antonio Bay to the finish line in Seadrift. I wanted to hear the applause of spectators and fellow entrants. I wanted to wrap my bone-weary fingers around that elusive Safari patch.
I urged Marc to dig deeper, pull out all the stops. But when Canoeman laid back atop his big yellow drybag, closed his eyes, and glumly announced he was out of gas, I knew Luling by 7:30 was a pipe dream. We'd have to average well over three miles per hour for the next three hours. Short of a bloody miracle, that wasn't going to happen.
I remembered what a veteran Safari racer told me at yesterday's check-in: "When you or your partner think you've hit the wall and can't go on, pull over in the shade and eat something, take a power nap. Sometimes just stopping for ten minutes is all it takes to get you back in the game." I asked Marc if he wanted to pause for awhile and regroup. "No, let's keep going," he said, slowly pulling himself up. "It's going to be close, but I think we can make it."
He was right. It was close. We spent the next three hours pushing through waves of physical and mental exhaustion, as the promised land of Luling 7:30 seemed to hover just within our grasp, if only we could summon a little more power, one more long push. The bridge was in sight when the watch strapped to the thwart in front of me clicked over to 7:30. We arrived at the checkpoint four minutes later. About a hundred onlookers, race judges, and fellow Safari paddlers watched in silence as Team CoTex was summarily disqualified.
I was devastated, suddenly wallowing in a sense of mental anguish compounded by profound physical exhaustion. I was overheated, blistered, ravenously hungry and sick to my stomach, all at once. Canoeman was not so affected.
"We've got nothing to be embarrassed about," he said, slurping down the frosty Dr. Pepper a sympathetic spectator had tossed him. "This was the hardest paddling I've ever done. The river whipped my 60-year old butt this time. Next year we're going to train a whole lot more."
"What do you mean, 'next year?'" I said.
"Well, we are going to enter the Safari again. Ain't that right, Canoeboy?"
Of the 95 boats that started the 2008 Texas Water Safari, 53 finished within the 100-hour time limit. The fastest crew, in the six-man Unlimited class, finished in 39:34. The fastest time for an aluminum tandem was 65:23. Visit texaswatersafari.org for full results. Canoeman and Canoeboy are still paddling together. In separate canoes.