By Eric Ellman
The Texas Water Safari turns 50 next week in San Marcos, Texas. Under normal circumstances the Golden Anniversary of "the world's toughest canoe race", a 260-mile testament to the extreme some people go for a t-shirt, would be the summer's biggest canoe racing story. But this year the 100-hour torture fest is only the first of three U.S./Mexico paddle sports encounters, culminating with a bi-national reunion of Olympians on a river that previously separated them, the Rio Grande.
Though blessed with abundant water, year-round warm temperatures and remarkable wildlife, the Rio Grande may be the world's most misunderstood river. Even Texas's most knowledgeable racers long assumed it to be too dry, too dirty or too dangerous to paddle. Prior to 2008, The Texas Canoe and Kayak Racing Association never held a race there. Though it was the state's largest river, Ken Kieffer, Chief Judge for the first Big River Festival, confides "I don't think we'd ever considered it."
Neither had the Mexican Canoe Federation, whose Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and Coahuila state chapters all border on the Rio Bravo ("the Fierce River" as it's known in Mexico). The closest they'd come was the 90-mile long Rio Nazas Regata, Mexico's version of the Texas Water Safari, just a half-day's drive south of the Border in Durango State. In half a century, however, and despite the proximity of events, competitors were oblivious to each other. Separated by language and a river they thought a barrier, these two groups, with a shared fixation that makes them brothers, grew up like twins separated at birth.
Four years after first contact that barrier is falling. An annual competition - the Laredos Riofest – now occurs the third Saturday of every October on the Rio Grande, where Laredo, Texas joins its Mexican twin, Nuevo Laredo. Total purses of $60,000 in 2009 and 2011 have attracted hundreds of competitors but the event aspires to be something more, a genuinely bi-national celebration of the region and the river on which it depends.
While the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo between the U.S. and Mexico explicitly allows residents of both countries to navigate the entire river, logistics of a canoe race can leave participants feeling like they're in separate races: Just two Mexicans attended last year's awards ceremony held at a U.S. hotel, and the event showcased only the down-river marathon racing that Texans favor, with no allowance for Olympic-style heats practiced by the Mexicans. The marathon's finish was a quarter-mile downstream from where spectators from two nations might have cheered as one.
One place where competitors did meet was a small wooden raft moored near the Mexican shore. Tommy Yonley, who'd just pocketed a cool $2000 for his victory, and Brad Pennington, former Yukon Challenge Champion, paddled over. On a partly submerged raft decked out with U.S. and Mexican flags they met their Mexican brothers and told them they'd see them before another year had gone by; at the July 6-8, 2012 Nazas Regata.
Regata organizers asked who could represent Mexico in the Texas Water Safari, and Water Safari officials began looking for teams who could incorporate Mexican paddlers. In anticipation of attracting more people to the family-style Nazas Regata – an event that includes food, free camping, hot showers and prizes – Durango tourism officials offered a security escort from the Border. The City of Laredo donated a bus so that on July 5, after celebrating the nation's independence, U.S. paddlers have a ride to the Regata. The “Green Angels” of Mexico’s federal highway safety agency will escort the caravan 12 hours south to Rodeo, Durango, Mexico for the race start, and back again four days later.
Last month, in anticipation of the London Olympics, 520 paddlers from 22 states around Mexico gathered in Monterrey for the Mexican Canoe Federation National Championships. Federation President Octavio Morales pledged to send returning Olympians to "Los Dos Laredos." The Federation's new trainer, Laszlo Toth, will challenge the American distance champs in a demonstration of Olympic-style heat racing between the bridges that connect the two cities the day prior to the race.
He's eager to see his athletes against them in the marathon as well.
"I like long races. Great training," says Laszlo. And then he repeats the question other racers who came of age in the 1980s, when the most decorated American canoe racer of all time was in his Olympic prime, "Do you think Greg Barton will be there?"
For information about how to participate in the caravan to the Rio Nazas Regata, call Eric Ellman at the Big River Foundation, 956.236.4985.