Logjams, hallucinations and Mother Nature
Texas Water Safari tests paddlers with grueling 260-mile race from San Marcos to Seadrift
Everyone mentions the hallucinations. And the alligators. Talk to a veteran of the Texas Water Safari long enough, and eventually you’ll hear about blisters, nausea, spiders, snakes and poison ivy too.
It all comes with the misery when you sign up for what’s billed as “The World’s Toughest Canoe Race,” a mud-covered endurance event that bakes its participants in the hot sun, fries their brains with sleep deprivation and spits them into river rapids and saltwater chop on a wild, 260-mile ride down the San Marcos and Guadalupe rivers, from San Marcos to the little town of Seadrift on the Texas coast.
The Safari traces its roots to 1962, when Frank Brown and Willie George spent 20 days paddling from San Marcos to Corpus Christi in a 14-foot fishing boat. The following year, Brown opened the adventure to the public, inviting intrepid paddlers to load their boats with whatever gear they’d need for the trip and join him for the adventure.
They got no help along the way. They drank river water when they’d sucked down what would fit in their boats. Some carried guns, either for protection or to shoot deer to eat as they went, depending on who tells the story. With luck, a few tough teams finished.
Things have changed since then, but not all that much. The route now ends shy of Corpus Christi, and paddlers have dropped the firearms. Crews supply water — and, since a 2012 race fatality due to hyponatremia, or a low concentration of sodium in the blood, food — to their teams, and GPS trackers let race organizers keep an eye on progress. In 2018 for the first time, and to the dismay of many of the old-timers, paddlers were allowed to tuck cellphones into their canoes.
Despite the guarantee of suffering that the race brings, the Texas Water Safari attracts elite paddlers bent on setting new records and slightly warped fun-seekers who just want to see if they can finish. Over the years, more than 4,300 have done just that.
Each January, teams begin to train in earnest. Each weekend, they paddle different stretches of the course, shuttle boats back and forth and sit down afterward for meals and maybe a beer. They take shorter training runs during the week, too, and mix in cross-training like running, swimming and weightlifting to boost endurance.
This year, I’m one of those people — after spending five days following the race for this story in 2018, I’ve made the decision to participate as part of a three-person team, alongside two veteran female paddlers, in 2019.
I must be crazy.
By the end of May, the 2018 edition of the Texas Water Safari has drawn 146 entries, the second most in its 56-year history, and the names of the boats read like one-liners: Hold My Beer, Hell Yeah, Dog Paddler and Pain Train. Thirty-five are piloted by first-time novices, and of the 285 paddlers participating, 35 are women.
If history holds, the winning team will spend roughly 32 hours on the water without stopping to rest. Each paddler on that winning boat, chugging at a rate of nearly 75 strokes a minute, will dig his paddle into the river roughly 144,000 times.
But this year’s race isn’t shaping up to be as typical. With race day two weeks out, Mother Nature decides to take things up a notch. She cranks up the heat to nearly 100 degrees, dials back the river flow and exhales an ocean-size blast of hot, dry wind.
It’s going to be brutal.
On a sultry and humid Memorial Day weekend, several dozen paddlers pitch tents and hang hammocks beneath oaks at a shady group campsite at Palmetto State Park near Gonzales. The local paddling community hangs together, and each year someone reserves this spot so Safari racers can squeeze in back-to-back training sessions on the San Marcos River, which cuts through the park.
They paddle by day, scouting logjams and plotting portages. No matter how many times they run the river, it unfolds differently every time. This year, with low, slow-flowing water, new obstacles have emerged, ready to snag boats and stymie paddlers.
Debbie Sackett, a 56-year-old chemistry teacher, crewed for a friend during the Safari one year, then decided to dip in her own paddle the next. “I knew what the course was like but had zero idea of how much pain and suffering it would be,” she says now, between scouting runs in the stifling heat. “Afterward I said it was so horrible I could never do it again, and I didn’t for 22 years.”
The lull ended a few years ago, and Sackett and her wife, Tina Sackett, are determined to once again brave the logjams, mosquitoes and skin-searing sun. They’ve had two successful completions so far but are hoping for a better result than last year’s DNF.
“I didn’t know what it would be like to be sick,” Debbie says of that 2017 scratch, caused by overexertion and overheating. “A lot of people power through it. This year I’m prepared — foods that are comfort foods for me, and medicines in advance. We’re out to finish.”
Unlike the hard-charging leaders, the Sacketts, aka Snails on Fire, plan to pull their two-person canoe off the water and grab a few hours of sleep along the muddy, alligator-populated banks each night, “because that hallucinating thing is really not exciting.”
If all goes well, they expect to climb the wooden stairs along the seawall in Seadrift after 75 or 80 long, gritty hours.
The rules for the Texas Water Safari don’t take up much page space.
Teams must bring three emergency flares, a snakebite kit and first-aid supplies, although even a roll of duct tape meets that requirement. They must hit 11 designated checkpoints en route. They can enlist two team captains to hand them water, ice and food along the way. If they receive any other assistance, they’re disqualified.
Paddling 260 miles requires stamina, grit and serious core, shoulder and leg muscles, but it takes more than that to reach Seadrift.
It helps to stay alert and awake. Top finishers won’t sleep at all, and paddlers rely on their own methods to cope. Some stick to hot coffee, caffeinated tea and energy drinks, but many use prescription drugs to help keep eyelids from drooping. Unlike other races that ban drugs such as Provigil, which is used to treat narcolepsy and other disorders, it’s legal in the Safari — as long as you have a prescription.
“The race is really mental,” Spelce says, and people in their 30s and 40s tend to do better than younger athletes. “(Older athletes) know how to handle adversity. At some point you’re going to say, ‘Why am I here? This is dumb, and I want out.’ Some dig deeper. They find a way to keep going, and little things can change it: an ice pack, something to eat.”
Mentally, nothing substitutes for experience, says veteran paddler West Hansen, 56. He’s lugging a canoe full of that to this year’s race. In 2012 he led a National Geographic-sponsored expedition 4,200 miles down the Amazon River, from its newly discovered source to the sea. A year later he led a 2,200-mile voyage down the Volga River in Russia. Of his 22 Water Safari starts, he’s finished 19 times.
“Life experience helps, too — death, divorce, trauma,” he says. “(The race) is just discomfort, and I’ve got the ability to endure a lot of discomfort. Sure, it hurts, but whatever’s uncomfortable now, it’s going to change in two hours. It’s like stepping on your toe to get rid of the toothache.”
But even Hansen has taken note of the forecast for this year’s event.
“It’s going to be really hot and really low water,” Hansen says. “And I’m dealing with some old injuries.”
With one week left before the race, four of the five members of the Dirty Dogs — Jeff Wueste, Debbie Richardson, RD Kissling and Chris Stevenson — have gathered to scout the first portage of the race, where they’ll hoist their 40-foot canoe out of the water and lug it over a spit of land covered in poison ivy and brambles before dropping it back in. Their fifth paddler, Bobby Smart, lives in Louisiana and can’t make the day’s session.
Everyone swaps tales while they wade through hip-deep water, tangling toes in aquatic plants and banging shins on sharp rocks as they debate the advantages of the possible routes.
Wueste, who has finished all 17 Safaris he has started, explains how he once persuaded his girlfriend, another tough-as-nails endurance athlete named Sheila Reiter, to keep going when she hit a low point during one race.
“I said, ‘This boat’s going to Seadrift. All you have to do is stay in the boat,’” he says, and everybody laughs.
They know the feeling. Everyone at one point or another during this race wants to bail. The trick is to outlast that temptation, like a bull rider determined to make it to the buzzer, and convince yourself that you’re not as miserable as you think.
Richardson, 51, has finished 10 times and is going for her 11th this year, as the only woman on this five-person racing canoe. She spent eight hours during one Safari shaking and throwing up. She tries to flip negative thoughts around.
“I try to focus on how grateful I am to be able to do this and let that override however bad I’m feeling,” she says. “Racing is when I feel most alive.”
Today she climbs into the narrow, barracuda-shaped boat the Dirty Dogs have rented for the race season for $250 per seat, digs a paddle into the clear, cold water and starts working, gliding over tendrils of endangered Texas wild rice that undulate beneath the surface like the locks of a long-haired mermaid.
She wants a top-10 overall finish but knows that with the low flow, the boat will ground out often, and the heat will make the portages harder than usual.
“This could be the toughest race we’ve had yet,” she says. “But the mind is super powerful, and you have to have a positive attitude. Everybody’s going to feel bad at some point during the race. You have to push past that.”
Hansen’s here for a training run, too. The key, he says, is knowing you’ll want to stop, having a plan to overrule those impulses, even if they’re telling you you’d welcome a snakebite if it means you can stop paddling, and never sitting down onshore.
“I’ve got to talk my way through it. First, I expect there to be problems, and I expect to want to quit, so when I hit that, I say, ‘Just get to the next checkpoint.’ Just don’t give yourself the option to quit,” he says. “And beware the chair.”
The Water Safari draws as many characters as it does serious paddlers.
The day before the race, a grizzled looking Owen West, 80, trademark Swisher Sweets cigar dangling from his lips, ambles up to the check-in desk. He’s entered this event more than 50 times and finished about half of those. This year, he’s planning to paddle with his grandson and a friend. He’s bringing 30 cigars, zipped into a plastic baggie for safekeeping, along for the ride.
“I don’t know why I like to do it,” he says. “It’s a challenge and it gets in your blood, so I just get the boat out, put all the equipment in and sign up.”
Once, he broke a boat in half. Another time, he found a paddling partner by advertising in the newspaper. That partner wanted out before the race ended, so West punched him in the face. When the partner regained consciousness, he agreed to stick it out.
Almost always, he has temporarily regretted his decision to start. Still, he loves gliding down that sparkling ribbon of water, whose color shifts, chameleonlike, from blue to green and finally brown. In a way, it keeps him alive. “And it seems if you’re going to live, you just keep doing what you like,” West says.
This year, though, he won’t make it to the finish line. Or the start, for that matter. He’s disqualified before the race begins because his team lineup has changed.
“See ya downriver,” someone hollers at him.
The morning of the race, paddlers mill around the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment in San Marcos, where the race begins, adjusting their gear and loading supplies. Hansen looks relaxed; he’s been through this plenty of times. He’s looking forward to the man-versus-nature aspect of the race, and the time he’ll have to think, recite poetry and sing.
“The race is going to go to whoever can maintain their body best,” he says as he shakes up a container of Spiz, a protein, fat and carbohydrate mixture that’s popular among Safari racers, and sets a watch alarm to remind him to take electrolytes every two hours. He’ll also eat protein bars, dried mangoes, sausage and sandwiches along the way, and he might send one of his crew members, daughter Isabella and sister Barbara Edington, to pick up a hamburger.
“This is probably one of the only events in the world where a Big Mac is a good idea,” he says.
The flow in the river has slowed even more since the last long paddle two weeks ago. More rocks and snags are exposed, and new obstacles will block the waterway. Hansen is racing C-1, a solo canoe without a rudder, the most difficult division of the race. He’s hoping to finish in 54 hours. He plans to maintain an easy pace during the day, then pick it up at night.
“The speed demons — they’ll burn out,” he predicts.
A half-hour before go-time, Hansen and the other racers start dropping their boats into the small lake, once the home of Aquarena Springs and Ralph the Swimming Pig. They wear long tights, long-sleeved shirts and hats and arrive armed with attitude.
At 9 a.m., it starts. The boats surge forward, paddlers just trying to stay calm as the flotilla lunges across the lake to the cheers of onlookers.
The first few miles wreak havoc. The paddlers portage almost immediately, scrambling out of the water at the bottom of Spring Lake, running across a green finger of land and plunging into the river below. A few miles later, they hit Rio Vista Dam, where most teams portage but a few aim down a churning rapid. A third of the boats overturn in this section, and paddlers struggle to right their canoes and climb back in.
The first 90 miles of the course twist and wind. Boats lodge against boulders and rake under overhanging limbs.
Hansen adheres to his plan at the start, staying out of the melee and letting the others burn energy early on. But 2 miles into the race, as he paddles beneath the Interstate 35 overpass, he experiences his first stroke of bad luck. As another competitor glides close, Hansen powers down with his paddle, cracking its shaft against the bow of the adjacent canoe.
Hansen’s boat flips, and he goes for a swim. Within a few minutes, he climbs back in his boat, pulls out a spare paddle and starts moving again. But he’s lost time.
The Dirty Dogs, Richardson’s team, face their own problems. The cable on their canoe’s rudder breaks, and they have to pull off for repairs.
The competition flies past.
The first 12 hours of the race, crowds gather thick as bamboo along the riverbanks. Onlookers dash from point to point, rooting on their favorite teams. But as the miles tick by, the crowds wane and the paddlers spread out.
Then night falls, and the race really begins. The teams paddle through the darkness, hitting checkpoints at Palmetto State Park and Gonzales. Morning comes and they’re still paddling. Blisters form, backs ache, skin burns, gastrointestinal tracts revolt.
Midway through the second day, Austin-based fly-fishing guide JT Van Zandt, son of musician Townes Van Zandt, approaches the Hochheim checkpoint at mile 123 of the race.
“I’m worried about him,” Van Zandt calls out to his awaiting crew. Van Zandt’s partner, Mathieu Meyers, tilts forward in his seat and moans.
“I’m done,” Meyers says. “I’m done.”
Meyers staggers out of the boat, then squats on the ground. He can’t make eye contact with Van Zandt, who’s shaking his head.
“I’m not going to say I’m not disappointed in you,” Van Zandt says to his partner, then gathers some rocks from the shore and loads them in the front of the two-person canoe to re-balance the boat, now minus one person. He’s going on alone, although he ends up pulling out at the next checkpoint.
A few minutes later, Hansen glides in, looking strong. He resupplies food and Gatorade and asks about the other paddlers in his solo division.
“They’re behind you,” his crew tells him.
“You mean I busted my butt trying to catch (one of the other solo paddlers) and he was already behind me?” Hansen says, incredulous.
Later that day at the Cheapside checkpoint at mile 147, Hansen starts to pay for the extra energy he exerted trying to reel in his competition. He winces as he lifts himself out of his canoe, stretches and lies down in the water. His crew brings him food and drink, but he doesn’t take much. He coughs. And grimaces. For 10 minutes he just soaks miserably in the murky river; then he gets back in his boat and paddles on.
Other racers stare down their own demons. Richardson, of the Dirty Dogs, slips and falls while portaging a steep dam. Somehow, she avoids injury. Their boat grounds over and over because of low water, and the team hops in and out to pull it off the gravel. Moods rise and fall, and the paddlers fight to stay positive.
“No one knows what we go through,” Richardson says later. “It breaks you down. Our race really doesn’t start until the second day.”
Hansen is due at a dock a mile below the Thomaston bridge around 11 p.m. the second night, but by 11:30 p.m. he hasn’t shown up. His crew checks his GPS tracker and sees that he’s stopped near a highway overpass. They head there immediately.
Hansen has pulled off. He slowed to help another paddler navigate rapids in the dark, but now he’s sick. He decides to lay down on the bank and sleep for an hour. When he wakes up, he’s cold and shivering despite the warm, muggy night. He drops back on the ground for more sleep, then wakes up, wades into the river with his boat, dry heaves for 20 minutes and crawls back to the rocks. At 5 a.m., he finally decides it’s unsafe to go on.
His race is over.
They call the stretch below Victoria “Hallucination Alley,” because in the eyes of weary paddlers witches perch in trees, imaginary people pop out of bushes, trees turn into industrial buildings, and the Invista chemical plant becomes Disneyland.
It’s not just hallucinations that rear up just when the sleep deprivation kicks in, though.
Alligators — real ones, not the smoke-and-mirror kind your brain conjures when you haven’t slept in 30 hours or more — live here, and Safari veteran John Erskine, who is crewing for the six-man team named the Cowboys, remembers when a huge, Florida freak show-size gator surfaced right next to his boat, with another, smaller gator in its mouth.
“The craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” he says.
Gators aren’t all paddlers should worry about here. Alligator gar, which can grow big as a man and look like dinosaurs with long, toothy beaks, reside in this stretch of the Guadalupe River. They ram boats, and you never see them coming.
“They’re a good substitute for caffeine at night,” Hansen said before the race began, and he’s right. A few years ago, one of the monster fish jumped out of the water and slammed into a paddler’s body, breaking two of her ribs and forcing a trip to the emergency room.
This time, the gar tangle with the Dirty Dogs. A member of the team suddenly drops neck-deep into the water, a gar attached to his chest. He wrestles free, but the fish leaves holes and blood on his shirt.
In bad years, swarms of bugs descend on the competitors, and paddlers get lost in the braided channels of the cuts. Mud sucks at their shoes when they lug boats around logjams. One year, a paddler broke down in this stretch, jumped out of his two-person canoe, tore off his clothes and ran through the woods naked until rescuers found him and brought him to safety.
Then comes the bay, perhaps the most notorious section of the entire race.
Veterans say conditions change everything. In a good year, teams can cross in two speedy hours. If Mother Nature feels wicked, it can take nearly a day.
A mile from the finish one year, the surf tossed Brenda Jones from her canoe. She couldn’t stand on her feet, which were so painful and irritated she’d wrapped them in duct tape. Unable to get back in her boat or walk through the 4-foot water, she floated for an hour, debating her next move. Finally, she called for assistance. She scratched out.
Right now, as the Dirty Dogs slice into the turbid water, things look grim. In the end, it takes seven brutal hours to cross. One of the paddlers can no longer use his abdominal muscles. The others prop him forward in his seat. The boat flips three-quarters of the way across and fills with water.
“It was the full meal deal,” Richardson says.
Of the 146 teams that registered for the 2018 race, 136 started. Of those, 83 teams finished. Fifty-one others quit en route. Two teams turned the wrong way on the Blanco River, paddling upstream for several hours before bailing out.
The top team, a six-man boat made up of members Andrew Condie, Nick Walton, Tommy Yonley, William Russell, Ian Rolls and Amado Cruz, reached Seadrift in 36 hours and 45 minutes.
The Dirty Dogs persevered through the bay, crossing the finish line in just over 53 hours, reaching their goal — just barely — of finishing in the top 10.
It takes the Snails on Fire nearly twice that long to finish. The Sacketts drag their 18-foot Kevlar canoe up the fabled steps in 95 hours and 5 minutes — less than five hours shy of the 100-hour cutoff and a day after the awards ceremony.
They are beat-up and exhausted but thrilled.
“We really wanted to do 80 hours, but by the second day we scrapped our plan and went into survival mode,” Debbie Sackett says later. The wind, she says, demoralized them. Before they’d even paddled 100 miles, they shifted to a just-get-to-the-next-checkpoint mode. “When we got to point of being really overwhelmed, we’d stop and take a nap. Most safari racers would just cringe at that.”
When they did drag their boat out of the water, crossing beneath the rustic red and white finishers sign and collecting that coveted 5-inch patch, they headed to a hotel for a shower, got something to eat and piled into their car, a little stiffly, for the drive home.
“It was super nice to be not paddling,” Debbie Sackett says. “And we were going home, because being in our own bed was far better than sleeping on the riverbank.”
Everyone has his or her own reasons for entering the Safari. Some make sense to others; most don’t.
“It’s an obsession,” says Spelce, the race director. “It’s hard to touch what drives people to do it. … It’s the people and the river and how it draws them together. I cannot explain it.”
Spelce himself has finished the race 11 times and held a seat on the overall winning team in 2003.
“It’s like the people who originally settled the West — the sense of adventure and challenges that need fulfilling that they can’t get anywhere else,” he says. “That kind of gets to the core of it.”
Whatever it is, the lure remains strong, drawing paddlers back year after year. Most pack up their racing attitude for the next six months, but by January they’ve forgotten — or blocked out — the broken paddles and chapped skin, the hallucinations, the gar and the exhaustion.
They can’t stop themselves.
They sign up to do it again.