On June 8th I completed the Texas Water Safari, a 260 mile canoe race down in Texas that runs rivers from San Marcos to the Gulf of Mexico. My 4-man boat (filled by Jason Antin, Andrew Soles and Andrew Stephens) finished early Monday morning after 44 hours and 14 minutes of nonstop paddling.
It was a glorious junkshow, vivid in all the ways a Safari can be; a wonderful reunion with Soles and Stephens; a smashing introduction to paddling for Jason Antin, who'd trained for less than two hours over two sessions.
First, the Strava data:
And then the report, in obscene detail and glorious full color.
This was not my first Safari. I raced in 2010, 2011 and 2012 in a 6-man boat and won each time. The core of that team was Andrew Stephens and William Russell, cousins from Texas obsessed with the Safari, and Andrew Soles, a paddler I'd known for years from my days racing sprint kayaks at the Washington Canoe Club, the WCC.
I was living in New York in 2010, just out of college, trying to find some way to stay fit in that crowded city, when Andrew Stephens called and asked if I'd consider training with him. Andrew had attended law school at Georgetown and trained at the WCC for Safaris past. My specialty was the 1000m, a sub-4 minute race. His stories about a 260 mile adventure with a 100 hour cutoff were absurd. The race was impossible, clearly.
Still, I was desperate to hang on to my physical life, and I'd always been intrigued by distance races. I'd raced an Ironman in a bit over 10 hours and survived that. Maybe the Safari was possible. I agreed to race.
What exactly is the Safari? The race starts on the second Saturday in June in San Marcos, TX, 30 miles southwest of Austin, and proceeds south along the San Marcos and Guadalupe rivers to the San Antonio Bay in the Gulf of Mexico. The first 80 miles is torturously windy and clogged with trees, stumps and strainers. The Guadalupe river of the lower 180 features both huge stretches of open water where big boats can fly, and huge, dispiriting oxbows deep in the swamps close to the bay, clogged with logjams and infested with spiders, alligators, scorpions, poison ivy, steep, impossible banks and the perils of your own mind as hallucinations mask reality after dozens of hours without sleep. The South Texas heat on the second day routinely tops 100. One year a woman broke two ribs when an Alligator Gar in the swamp past mile 200 leapt out of the water at the cloud of mayflies in front of her boat's light and smashed into her chest.
The Texas Water Safari is hardcore.
Stephens and I trained in the East River by Manhattan and the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. That summer I won my first Safari.
We won again in 2011 and 2012. In 2013 we declined to train and had our doors blown off in the 40 mile preliminary race by a better team; Soles injured his shoulder during the race and we decided to drop out.
The gap in my schedule led me to register for the Leadville 100, which led to my move to Boulder, CO in early 2014.
Signing Up for the 2019 TWS
I met Jason Antin soon after moving to Colorado. Jason is an alpinist; ultrarunner; ex-cagefighter; mountain guide; multi-sponsored athlete; you name it, he's done it all.
Except for ultra-distance canoe racing, as I've reminded him for years. We've gone on many adventures (the Rainier Infinity Loop, the Tahoe 200, Leadville 2014) and I've passed time in each by telling Jason tales of our years racing the TWS.
Finally, in late 2018, I got Jason to commit to racing if I could get the old team back together.
Andrew Stephens and Andrew Soles were available, tentatively. In 2018 the two had raced the Safari in a marathon C2 pro boat, a very tippy craft with no rudder, really unusual for a Safari boat. Among other adventures they destroyed their abs balancing the boat and spent over 10 hours walking their boat across the San Antonio Bay at the end of the race after the wind and waves shattered any hope of paddling the final 6 miles.
It took hundreds of pestering text messages, but I finally convinced them to race a 4 man boat with me and Jason and break their resolve to never race the Safari again.
The Safari is a difficult race to organize. First, you have to find a boat. The boats aren't standardized and only two manufacturers - John Bugge and Jack Spencer - build carbon racing boats that can conceivably complete the course. (You can race in an aluminum course, but they're so slow that I can't imagine it without dying a little inside.)
If you do find a boat to rent, you have to convince some sucker - probably a local sucker - to be your Team Captain. This commitment involves driving from aid station to aid station for over 40 hours, meeting the boat at 20 places along the river, dropping off fresh water jugs, tube socks filled with ice and all the food we'll need for the next leg. The captain has little time to rest. He has to clean out the old jugs, find ice and water to fill socks and jugs, navigate the difficult South Texas roads, find service to check the race tracker and see where we are and hustle to the next aid station.
Stephens found a 4-man boat after a month of searching, and I asked my father-in-law, Steve Sampson, if he'd be willing to be our Team Captain. Steve lives in Corpus Christi, less than an hour from the finish, and has a high level of stoke. He agreed a bit too fast, and stayed committed after I supplied details on the 50 hour horror show he was getting himself into. He said he was happy to do it, and proved it by spending a day driving the entire course and even finding a few errors in the official driving guide. We were committed.
Arriving in Texas
Jason and I managed to get TWO solid training sessions in. During the first, we flipped in the ice cold boulder reservoir and might have died if we hadn't draped ourselves across the swamped canoe for the 20 minute swim to shore. That's a story for another time, but it did put Jason on edge about this whole canoe thing. Our second session was more successful, but only about an hour long.
I flew into Texas on Wednesday, June 5th, three days before the race. Soles, Stephens and I went to find the rental boat and start rigging it for the 260 mile journey down the river to Seadrift.
The main tasks were:
- contact-cementing seat pads into the boat
- securing mesh bags to one side of each seat for food, etc
- adding more foam inside the boat to hold bike bottles of water and various pill bottles (film canisters with salt pulls, Advil, etc)
- fixing the wiring for the bilge pumps that would keep our boat dry
Jason arrived on Thursday (flying in from an expedition to Denali, absolutely the opposite environment from south Texas in June) and we took the boat out for our first and only training run as a team. The boat sat very low in the water. We paddled 10 miles, practiced the first few portages and, oh boy, sunk the boat in Cottonseed rapid. We ran a great line, but the low gunwales couldn't keep out the waves. Not a good sign of things to come.
Here's a shot of Jason getting lessons back at the house from Soles, who was heat training all week in his drug rug:
Race checkin on Friday was great. Boats everywhere, hundreds of people, huge amounts of history. The Safari's been going on for, I believe, 57 years now, longer than most of the ultrarunning races that Jason and I are used to. John Bugge's finished the safari 40 times. These are sort of my people, a weird hybrid of the ultra crowd and paddling crowd.
We listened to a bit of the race briefing and headed home for pre-race dinner and early bedtime.
On Saturday morning Jason and I rode to the start in Steve's absolutely overflowing vehicle. It's hard to keep a car organized when crewing an ultrarunning event, but far worse during a canoe race, with all the extra gear, wet clothes and wet trash. We were dressed in white full-body tights that we hoped would keep the sun at bay. The temperature for day one was forecast in the mid-90s, and day 2 looked like it'd be above 100. We'd smeared Desitin - zinc oxide diaper cream - all over our bodies as sunscreen. This works beautifully, by the way! It doesn't rub in, but lasts through tons of dunking.
The race starts at Spring Lake in San Marcos, TX, a beautiful, clear lake fed by Aquarena Springs. The river below the lake is full of tubers drinking and blasting music from huge speakers that float in separate tubes.
This year's Safari had something like 180 boats. We were close to the last row; we'd have to pass a lot of people to make the portage past the waterfall at the end of the lake. We lined up to the left of Jeff Wueste's 5 man boat. Wueste had been our team captain in 2012 and was a long time Safari veteran. Our plan was to haul ass and follow him up to the portage.
Jenna and my daughter Juno waved at us from the shore as the race organizer started rapping lyrics about the TWS, building us up for the starting airhorn. Our boat was quiet, waiting. The rap ended, and then another man spoke about how he'd found God on the river years back, and how he hoped God would keep us safe. Prayer seemed optional, salt pills non-negotiable, but maybe it was nice to have both.
A lull, and then the airhorn blew and we started digging. Andrew Stephens was yelling up front, calling out subtle turns to Soles who was steering with foot pedals in the rear seat. I called out changes, yelling "HUT!" every 10-15 strokes to signal that we should all switch sides. In the chaos we'd slam up against the hull of some other boat, forcing us all onto the same single side until we could squeeze far enough forward to re-establish our rhythm. The pace is so chaotic, and far too aggressive to maintain for the whole race; but we had to get to the portage before it choked up with boats.
We hit the end of the lake and I rolled out of the boat into deep water, trying to not to get crushed as I climbed onto the bank and hauled on the boat. The portage right was clear! We forced our boat down toward the deep, fast water below the waterfall. I jumped onto a slippery concrete wall in the water and then into the boat and we were paddling again, hard, through the sudden turns in the early course choked by other canoes and Texas wild rice (a protected species, but of course no one was heeding the "KEEP CLEAR" signs).
Our first major challenge was Rio Vista dam. The rapid was too rough to run with all four of us in the boat, so Jason and I would exit and run around to the bridge below while Stephens and Soles paddled through. When we hit the dam we ran the bow up onto the concrete and everyone jumped out to haul the boat over the 6 foot drop into the rapid below. Stephens and Soles got back in and Jason and I swam for shore.
I had my hands up so I could protect my face from thrashing paddles, and one woman steering must have thought I was a pirate in the water trying to board her; as I swam by she brandished her paddle and growled, "don't you fucking touch this boat." Woah!
Jason and I were out and running, slipping, finally below the bridge when we heard Stephens screaming, "SAM! SAM! SAM RITCHIE!", and looked up to see our boat submerged and shedding paddles. Jason and I helped the guys pull the boat to the gravel bar ahead and we all rolled the boat onto our thighs, draining the water, then dropping it, leaped in, hammered on.
We dodged the next dam left at Thompson's Island, playing it safe, and worked our way down the river, overlapping with other boats and muscling our boat around the turns with a combination of rudder and Stephens cross-drawing from the bow, ripping the bow sideways around the oxbows.
The river widened before the confluence with the Blanco river and we switched to kayak blades, or "doubles", moving fast and gaining on boats as we sped toward our next portage at Cummings dam, 5 miles in.
The Cummings dam portage is a big drag up the grass on the left bank, then down a gravel field around the dam into the river below. We hit the shore and everyone threw their double blades toward the boat. The drag went fine, Stephens screaming like usual, everyone trying to get a hand on and pull without losing anything. I'll never get used to hearing a carbon boat screech across rock. We got into the water below, jumped in the boat and pulled out our single blades.
"Do we have all four doubles?", said Jason, and I looked down to see two by my right hip.
"It's fine, I'm sure we do, dude, keep pushing," I said. How hard would it have been to count? We kept pushing on singles toward Westerfield crossing. We hit a mild rapid just before Westerfield, and Stephens in the bow yelled, "Make sure we have those paddles stored!" Jason kept eyes on everything. We hit rough water and the waves slopped over the sides, once again filling our low boat. We tried to hold it up but couldn't and dumped. The only thing to do was flip the boat upright and swim it to shore while we watched to see what gear escaped into the river. We lost a bike bottle and some food, but didn't see any paddles in the water. Boats passed us as we emptied the boat and got back in.
We counted the double blades. There were only two.
Stephens was speechless. He might have some secret talent at masking his body language, but I've never seen any evidence of it, and the pissed-off hunch settled into his shoulders as he asked the obvious question. "What do you mean, there're only two doubles?" We'd almost certainly just... left them at the previous portage. Left 800 bucks worth of carbon sitting in the dirt. We'd started with six blades, two of which were stored in pieces, difficult to retrieve and assemble on the go. Now we had no more backups.
A short diversion. Why we were pushing so hard? We didn't even know how many other 4 person teams were racing! The answer was that the last 6 miles of the race in the Bay is typically very choppy, with waves topping 3'. As we'd seen our boat was terrible at staying upright in rough water. We were convinced we'd never be able to keep the boat upright and dry across the Bay, even with a sprayskirt.
Our only chance would be to hit the bay before 4am, when the water was calm before the morning winds blew in.
This plan required hitting aggressive splits to reach the swamp past mile 200 in the fading light of the second day... and that, in turn, meant paddling hard and tearing through each aid station, often staying for only the few seconds required to grab our water jugs and food and get moving.
Without double blades we'd be hours slower in the long straightaways we'd encounter that night and on day 2. If we broke or lost another paddle we'd be doomed in the Bay.
We weren't fucked yet but we could feel the fuck lurking. We reached Westerfield Crossing for our first handoff and saw Steve standing in the water; we tossed our jugs and he dropped food and new jugs in front of 2 and 3 seats. Finally, something went well, I thought - until I drank and realized the jugs were full of pure water with no ice or carbohydrate mixed in. Jason and I had pre-filled the jugs with water, and of course Steve had assumed that they were fully ready, not in need of powder and ice. Another mistake, dangerous in the heat of the day. Oh well. The Safari motto is "Shut up and paddle," and paddle we did.
We hit the Cottonseed rapid next, where we'd swamped in training. We aimed for a sandbar to the right and completed a huge portage around the rapid over big concrete walls. It is so exhausting to haul that boat, but at the rate we were yardsale-ing items it was worth bypassing a stretch where we knew we'd swamp. A few boats passed us but soon we were back in the water and pushing again.
The Scull's Crossing portage at mile 10 went well. We hit Martindale dam less than a mile later. I jumped into the water on the left, missed my footing, plunged below the water... and, boom, my hat was off and deep in the water. I yelled at Jason to try and grab it but it was too late. We rushed through the portage and back onto the river, my pale head and neck now exposed to the sun. The number of river donations was getting absurd.
Finally, a calm stretch. We paddled on, mostly alone now, steering through tight turns and trying to stay relaxed. The effort is zone 1, unlike a running race which pegs mid to high zone 2. it turns out you can't maintain a zone 2 effort for days with the upper body alone without your muscles completely melting.
Staples Dam (17) to Zedler (46)
Staples Dam, mile 17, another portage. Here's a video of how we run these things:
Here's me holding the boat back from dropping down and cracking the rudder:
And another of me coming over the bridge, just because it's kind of an awesome shot:
We switched to hybrid mode after the dam - Jason and I on doubles in the middle while the Andrews used single blades in bow and stern for easier steering. Our cadence lined up just fine. Jason was a little stunned at how much harder it was to double blade, but we re-passed a couple of teams that had passed us and within minutes couldn't see them anywhere behind us. The extra effort was worth it.
We kept this up until Fentress at mile 26 and switched back to singles to conserve energy. I felt fine, but was nervous about how I'd feel on day 2 if I spent hours on doubles.
Our perception of time was shifting, and the miles took less time, now, even in the heat of that first day. The next checkpoint was Stairtown (mile 33), a big gravel bar past a bridge where we swapped jugs with Captain Steve and paddled on into the stacked wide turns of the San Marcos river. Shortly after Stairtown we passed the Redneck Riviera, a quarter mile long stretch of shoreline mobbed with beer drinking, tubing, screaming... fans?
Somewhere on this stretch Jason discovered his personal Safari crux: peeing on the go. Instead of stopping the boat, you pee in the boat and let the pumps send the pee overboard. The trick is relaxing your abs while you're paddling in time and balancing the boat. It's hard to do, and lots of Safari racers have to lean forward onto their knees or lie back and relax completely to pee at all. This method is still faster than stopping the boat.
Jason is allergic to resting while other people are working. When his first couple of attempts failed after 30 seconds he started paddling again and ignored the problem. That worked for a few hours, but 5 hours or so into the race he was in pain. He eventually peed by lying back in the boat for a few minutes, desperately trying to relax as the boat bucked and twitched. He finally released, laughing and groaning with the pleasure and absurdity of the situation.
Food, drink, pee, paddle, keep moving. The rhythms of the race. We had stopped shedding items from the boat and we were all a little more relaxed, though far more alert to how easy it would be to end our day with one more broken paddle.
We hit the Luling 90 checkpoint at mile 40 and exchanged food again. Six miles later in the solid heat of the day we were at Zedler dam, another huge portage.
You can see the bow gushing water from a drain in the front, and the pitiful sprayskirt that Stephens had rigged to try and keep waves out of the bow. You can probably also see that the angle of the boat is going to force that same bow underwater now and fill the whole thing up. These are the challenges of a boat that sits absurdly low.
Here's a shot of Stephens and me in our desert heat gear getting back in the boat at the bottom of Zedler:
Zedler (46) to Gonzales Dam (85)
The next section was a mix of uncomplicated river, where double blades make a huge difference, and long stretches of Elephant Graveyard, miles full of broken trees and strainers that will trap the boat if you don't pick the right line through the mess. The sun was low enough that we were able to mentally relax and move. In past years we'd started to make up time on other teams on this stretch, where the advantage of memorizing the river slacks a bit.
At mile 56 we reached the "Broken Dam Rapid", or "Son of Ottine"; we got into the water and ran the rapid hanging onto the boat, as if the boat were a lame horse. We were convinced we'd swamp if we stayed in the boat for any appreciable rapid. I remembered a massive portage that used to exist right around here, up a steep bank and across a dense field of grass. A casual float was better than hauling, no question.
Ottine Dam itself came next, shattered by some previous biblical flood, and then Palmetto Park with its low bridge crossing. This was the most dangerous portage in the race. In low water, you can run the boat under the bridge, and in very high water you go over top. The river this year was right between the two; we'd have to get out of the boat to haul it over the bridge, but the water would be pulling very hard, trying to rip us underneath. If that happened any tree or log underneath the bridge would pin you and kill you.
Stephens, as usual, knew three turns ahead that we were approaching the aid station and started calling out instructions.
"We're going to run the boat up on the gravel bar on the RIGHT, 100 meters back from the bridge, got it?" We saw a 3-man team ahead of us and followed them in to the correct portage. We each carefully crossed the mandatory few feet of strong current hanging onto the boat and got ourselves onto the bridge. We hauled the boat up, emptied it and managed an aid station handoff up on the concrete. You can see Captain Steve on the left and Jenny, Jenna, my daughter Juno, Molly Stephens, Erin Stephens and more of our biggest fans in this shot of the bridge:
Back in the boat, on toward Sladen bridge.
We now had to get past Sladen Bridge and to Gonzales 90, our next checkpoint, before it got dark. We'd get a short break while Stephens installed the bow light that we'd need for the night, and without headlamps available out it was important that we do this soon. We switched to doubles (I complained, tired again), the right call, it turned out, and reached Gonzales 90 in the last few minutes before the light faded.
Dusk was here, and with it, maybe, the hallucinations I remembered from my previous Safaris. The San Marcos widened as we approached its confluence with the Guadalupe river. The background hum of insects started to rise toward the white noise roar we'd hear from them all night.
"J, say goodbye to the San Marcos!" I yelled as we took the sweeping left turn into the wider Guadalupe. J was a captive audience, and there was time to kill, so the Andrews and I started telling Jason tales about "The Golden Years" in a sort-of guided audio tour of our former glory.
Back in 2011, in a 6-man boat and hunting our rivals - the Mynars - we'd been 12 minutes behind at Zedler and staged a huge push to catch the leaders before Gonzales Dam. At this very confluence, after hours of hard paddling, we'd finally seen a faint trail of bubbles on the water and knew that we were close. We caught the Mynars less than a mile before the big dam at Gonzales. They had their light on and were chatting, relaxed; we snuck up behind them, running dark, and they only saw us as our bow drew level with their driver in 6-seat.
I'd been in the bow, giddy with the whole thing, and as we passed them, fast, I couldn't resist screaming - "WE'LL TAKE IT FROM HERE, BOYS!" They rose to the challenge, and in a story for another day, we paddled the next 120 miles within minutes of each other before the Mynars cracked like brittle wood and we surged on for the win, dominating them.
Here in 2019 we had no one to race, but the old stories made me tingle, and they passed the time, the endless paddling. Sooner than we thought we could hear what sounded like a stadium roaring away, then a sign, and a bright yellow light - Gonzales Dam, mile 80.
Gonzales Dam (85) to Hochheim (122)
Gonzales is a long drag, longer this year than in years past. We traded jugs with Captain Steve and hauled the boat down a long path past the dam. Back in the water, Stephens in the bow, and on and on, paddling on, with a bright moon and fog dancing on the water.
Our curse had faded and we weren't making errors; the only mistake at Gonzales was that we'd failed to place any source of caffeine in our prepared drop bag. Jason and I had packed our secret weapon from the Infinity Loop - Military Energy Gum, 100mg of caffeine per piece - and we were excited to share this Safari innovation with the Andrews. No dice for now. We'd get our gum at Wyatt's Bonfire, a few hours down the river.
We were alone until, quietly, another 4-man on doubles appeared behind us in the mist. They looked strong. Where had they been all day? Half the team, it turns out, were Kate and Steve Dawson, stud paddlers from New Zealand that had recently won the Hawkesbury Canoe Classic, 111km, one of the toughest races in Australia. They were in the US to complete the Safari, the Missouri River 340 and the Yukon River Quest, 3 of the longest races on the US marathon paddling calendar. They blew by us. We were alone again.
I was tired. I could paddle with my eyes closed, feeling the rhythm of the boat, but Jason had to focus hard on his timing and couldn't relax. The Guadalupe alternates between large, sweeping turns and long straightaways, where you can see the lights of teams ahead or behind. We saw no one. We did see what looked like the glow of Hell on the horizon, the evil, flickering red of, what? Dozens of oil field candles burning? It may have been the End Times brewing.
Hours into our night run we came upon a solo paddler, charging hard, focused. I remember Jason saying something like, "Oh god. I can't imagine doing this in a solo boat." Join the team. As we passed him, a yell from the right bank - "Boat 159!" It was Captain Steve, sliding down the mud out of the trees in a section of complete Jumanji level wilderness. This was Wyatt's Bonfire, one of our secret stops. Steve told me later that when he'd met Wyatt, the landowner, in the middle of the night at his gate, Wyatt had told Steve that "anything you see that you want, you go ahead and shoot!" Steve had lain quiet for an hour as families of pigs ran by, waiting in the dark until he heard our paddles and saw our light.
Speaking of running pigs! That's the name of my favorite nighttime hallucination of the Safari. When the course takes you near a branch sticking out of the water, the shadow cast by the branch races backwards along the shore, faster and faster until it drops out of sight. It looks like just a little running Javelina. Jason started seeing them and we all passed the time keeping watch for those pigs.
On again, to Hochheim, mile 122, armed now with caffeinated gum and bottles of Ensure. Soon, in a difficult navigational section we saw a boat grounded on a gravel bar - the Kiwi 4 man team! They didn't know how to pee in the boat and would stop for minutes to do the deed. We passed them, they caught us on singles, and we stayed together for an hour, slowing the stroke rate down but moving very fast on singles as Stephens in the bow swapped stories with the Kiwis. They told us about wrapping their boat around a tree in this section the week before - "The boat cracked in half, the stern touched the bow" - and finishing the 30 hours repair just in time to race.
This was a beautiful section, keeping time with another boat, slicing through the fog. Soon it was over; we hit Hochheim, another jug-trade with Steve and we were out a bit later than the other team. I switched into the bow here and we stayed on singles. The Kiwis ahead looked for a while like their light was broken, and we started to catch up, but soon their light clicked on, they cheered and disappeared into the white.
Hochheim (122) to Cheapside (147)
Sunrise. Our boat was filling with water, slowly but noticeably. Soles noticed a crack on the carbon on the right side that our pumps, low on batteries, weren't helping to keep at bay. We were hauling hundreds of extra pounds of water that we were hauling down the river, equivalent to two dead paddlers. The banks were too muddy to pull over and empty the boat. What to do?
Jason came up with an idea that I'm sure raised Stephens's blood pressure. How about we stop paddling and let the water shift toward the bow, where the working pumps could send it overboard? It was the right call and gave us a couple of minutes to eat and pee. Lighter, we paddled on into a thick blanket of mist that felt thick, almost like a dense matrix of bugs, so unusual for the second day of the Safari.
Hours of paddling, hours to kill. Anytime the Andrews or I felt bored they'd pass the time by giving Jason technique advice that sounded, to him, frustratingly vague.
"J, watch your timing." "Jason, use that bottom arm." "Watch your catch, Jason, the catch is the most important part of the stroke!"
Jason was a great sport, but this wasn't the best learning environment. "Guys," he'd say, "I literally can't see the differences in timing you're talking about." To my combined sense of sight, feel of the boat, everything, it seemed obvious that he was deeply off in his timing. But how far? Milliseconds? How could he tell?
Another fun game to play is to try and find new positions for your legs and sit bones. One option is to fully lock your legs and tuck in your lower back, rolling your weight onto the meat at the front of your butt. You can cross your legs, but you lose connection with the boat and the boat gets tippy. There are effective compromises, but I won't ruin the secret, as searching for good positions is a great passer of time.
Ahead on the left through the thick fog, I saw what looked like a boat. Was I hallucinating? Nope, just team Kiwi out for another pee break. It was a strange strategic decision. Why would they go so fast, drink all your calories, purge any food stop... and then blow their lead at the spa, stopping to pee like that?
We pulled over to dump the water out of the boat on a gravel bar and switched to doubles. If this fog hovered all day we'd avoid the 100+ degree temperatures, but we'd also have no excuse not to double blade. Either option was nauseating. Oh, well. We kept paddling, moving fast in the uncomplicated river, happy to be through with the first night.
Cheapside (147) to Cuero 236 (161)
We met Steve at Cheapside, under another tall bridge. There was nowhere to dump the boat so we got our jugs and kept pushing onward. I reapplied more diaper rash cream, all over my neck and face, suckling some by accident. Tasty!
The next section rolls by Cuero Dam, which I remember from Safaris Past as being a rough rapid that oxbows you around in a confusing whirl. The water was so high that the "rapid" felt tame compared to anything we'd survived on the upper river. The strange fog burned off, finally, and we switched to single blades in the heat to save our energy for the big push at night. The days are about survival. The nights, about pushing harder than anyone else in the cool, snaking the competition. (What competition? The Kiwis?) Railroad bridge, then Heaton Street. Cruising by checkpoints.
Soon, Cuero 236, mile 161, so far into this damned race. The girls were with Steve; they'd slept through the night and picked up again spectating our Push to Glory. Jug swap, thank Captain Steve, switch Jason into the bow, push off, sort jugs, argue about whether we should eat, keep rolling, keep the boat moving.
Cuero 236 (161) to Thomaston (178)
Cuero 236 marks the start of the old 40 mile "Prelim" course. A strong finish in that race - officially called the Texas River Marathon - wins you a good starting position in the Safari and saves you the trouble of smashing past dozens of small boats, as we'd done all those hours ago.
Jason loved the bow. The beautiful thing about sitting up front is that you don't have to follow anyone! You set the timing, and everyone else figures it out.
In our boat, the front seat was particularly plush due to an inflatable cushion that the Andrews had added to lift their hips up above the gunwales ("gunnels") of the boat. Stephens suffered huge bruises from our training run without these. By the end of the race, both Andrews remarked that they'd lost good weight and fit much more comfortably inside the boat.
Conversation was sparse. Jason asked, "What are the odds we'll see a gator tonight in the swamp?"
"100%", I said, as Stephens responded - "0%".
How did that make sense? We'd seen alligators on all three of my Safaris.
"That's because we were in the front," explained Stephens. "The other boats'll scare them away." Bummer.
Thomaston (178) to Nursery (187)
Jason led us through to River Haven at mile 170, then on to Thomaston. The day was fully cooking by now. Here's us pulling in to some aid station, I think Thomaston:
I remember seeing Jenna and Juno on the bank, here, waving as Jenna stood in the slick mud by the river, thinking - what the hell happens if she slips and drops Juno? I'd of course dive in and grab Juno, then rush her up the shore toward the air conditioned car. I'd yell back to the guys, "GO ON, KEEP GOING WITHOUT ME!" I'd be a hero! And I'd get to stop paddling. Hmm...
"It is fucking HOT," I yelled to Jenna, pushing aside those thoughts.
"Why can't you guys get out and rest for a few minutes?" she asked.
The answer was that that wasn't the game plan, we had to keep moving, but instead I nodded at Stephens, who was yelling that we had to GO - "THAT'S why." Bad joke that freaked them out. Did the guys want to stop? Was Stephens a monster?? Nope, we were all living the dream, and we'd stop when we hit Seadrift.
We pushed off, chugged Gatorade, kept paddling. Monotonous river, brutal heat, all the Safari classic elements that I remembered. The banks were covered in cypress now. By this point in the Golden Years I was hallucinating bridges and crew members at every bend in the river.
We came up on a bigger rapid, Thomaston rapid, and ran it on the right side. We hit a good line and then, boom, a wave broke over us, and the extra water caused the boat to slosh enough that more water slopped in, then again, and then we were out, flipped, riding the rapid with the capsized boat.
"KEEP THE BOAT STRAIGHT!" screamed Stephens, and we managed to point the boat toward a gravel bar. Miraculously nothing was floating out of the boat... until we hit shallow water and rolled the boat upright. Pill bottles, my shoes, paddles, everything dumped out. Jason and I grabbed the paddles but so much other stuff yardsaled out into the current. This was more like an Estate sale.
Stephens was yelling and flustering Jason, and I was flopping around trying to get my bare feet under me to help lift and drain the boat. We got the boat onto the gravel and dumped it out, losing more supplies. Finally we'd emptied the boat fully and got back in and started working our way down the river, slowly.
"Andrew, we need to get those salt pills. It's too hot to lose those," I said, nervous.
"It's fine, keep paddling," he said, and we passed just so much stuff. What the hell were we doing? Stephens seemed almost manic, rushing us, but Soles jumped in and noted that it was fine, we did have backups for the things we were passing. Okay, well, that's fine. More offerings to the River Gods. We retrieved my shoes, which I'd taken off in the boat to dry out my trenched feet, and kept the pressure on toward Nursery rapid, another rapid that we decided we'd need to ride OUT of the boat.
We reached the rapid, aimed for a line on the left and got into the water. My big memory here is of Stephens yelling, "Keep the bow straight, and DON'T GET PULLED LEFT INTO THAT STRAINER!" The strainer was a big cypress tree standing on roots like jail cell bars slicing the main flow of the rapid. If you got caught against those roots you'd be pinned by the current and almost certainly drown.
"How do we stay right?" I yelled.
"I don't know!" he screamed back. "SWIM RIGHT!"
Oh boy. We got through the rapid, swam right, it worked, and we found a gravel bar to get back in. Jason managed to pee again in the water as everyone stared, willing him to pee faster. What fun, I can imagine.
Back in the boat, paddling toward Nursery aid.
Nursery (187) to Victoria (200)
More jugs at Nursery, more quick waves to the families, then back out again.
It was so fucking hot. I moved into Coward Mode here in a big way, practically begging the team to let us get out and have a "soak"; I tried to mask my desperation by comparing what I wanted to the soaks that young Mormons get after up in Utah. I was sort of expecting Jason to side with me, but even J denied my attempts to stop the boat. "Let's just get to Victoria, dude, and get out of this heat for good." Fuck. Why couldn't I have kept my cowardice to myself, just my little secret? That's the key to getting through an ultra. Lock your sad thoughts inside and don't tell. It'll all be over soon enough.
Hot, hot, HOT. It was close to 105 down by Nursery. But Jason came alive, probably as an allergic reaction to my cowardice, OWNING the bow, getting everyone fired up, calling out obstacles in the river and pushing hard in the heat. I ate more caffeine gum and felt better and joined in.
The push lasted for over an hour, and then J started to slow down. He was feeling dizzy, he said, obviously trying to hide his physical distress. He kept dipping his hat in the river and splashing himself, but nothing was working. How far to the aid station? I was worried and wanted to stop and get int he water for a "core reboot", but Jason insisted that we keep paddling and demonstrated how "okay" he was by paddling for a few strokes every minute or so. This is one of many unusual dangers of the Safari - that our time goal could cause us to push hard enough to get heat stroke, surrounded by millions of gallons of cool water.
Finally, only a few turns of the river past where Stephens guessed, we saw the Victoria boat ramp. We pulled in and jumped out of the boat, and oh, fuck, the cool water felt fantastic.
Jason stayed underwater a bit too long, but got himself onto the dock and packed his thighs and neck with tube socks filled with ice. The girls were here, and I was so happy to finally speak to Jenna and Juno for more than a moment. The rules, and common decency (the smell!), prevented me from touching them. Juno's look sums up the encounter:
I was also proud to show off my three detached fingernails. The ring finger is the most obvious. Can you spot the other two?
Here you can see Soles looking great with his popped collar; Captain Steve looking for trash, socks or mesh food bags to reclaim; Stephens looking antsy as hell to get away from what he called my "campout".
I tried so hard to steal a minute, to drink an extra Gatorade and relax, but I looked over to see the other guys in the boat, pushing away from the dock.
"THIS BOAT'S GOING TO SEADRIFT... YOU COMING?" yelled Andrew. I guess I was. I felt reset from the ice, stepped into the bow and we headed down the river on singles. It was late afternoon on Sunday.
Victoria (200) to Dupont (231)
The next checkpoint was Highway 59 bypass, two hours away. The oxbows here were endless, and we could hear the highway for at least twelve huge turns before we finally saw the bridge. My hallucinations kicked into gear, as the wall of rubble at the end of one straightaway presented itself as the side of a concrete bridge covered in graffiti.
It was important to make it past 59 bypass before dark so that we could navigate the potentially clogged section of river just beyond, before the long push through to DuPont chemical factory. We found Steve as dusk settled and kept the pressure on. The heat was out of the day and I felt much better; in another happy surprise, the river was completely clear, just large oxbows with nothing blocking our path. In most years this section is full of forests of branches and huge logs that you have to navigate around. We could see them all about five feet under the flooding water of this year's Guadalupe.
One of the Andrews suggested we take advantage of double blading on the clear river. I was game for a couple of miles, but when it became clear that we were only 30 seconds faster per mile than singles I shut the experiment down and switched us back. My left bicep tendon was torched, and my post-Golden-years self wasn't interested in digging a deeper grave. I could feel the disappointment radiating from Stephens, and the almost orgasmic relief from Jason, who told me later that he was dreading the semi-bonk that double blading invariably induced.
We saw our alligator! It was on the left bank, eating a dead pig. Holy shit, don't fall out of the boat.
My hallucinations became more intense, shifting from a tendency to identify shapes and faces in the trees to a difficulty not seeing those things. Once the sun had set and our light was back on, I was no longer able to see the trees at all, just massive bobbing animals and huge witch and wizard heads looming over the river. They appeared as densely layered woodcuts of different bright colors. There was no delay where the tree became one of these figures... I looked and there they were, all around.
I tried to see if I could force a vision of Juno and Jenna in the trees and couldn't do it. Just as well, I thought, as a horror fantasy came to mind. What if I did see Juno, crying, looking scared and helpless in the woodcuts? And then at the next aid station, Jenna, frantic, told me Juno had crawled off into the forest? Juno, trapped in the trees, and the only way to save her would be to repeat the Safari course to create the right state of mind to see her at all in the world beyond.
This was not a nice train of thought. I shook it off and tried to enjoy the images, which really did look like the most bewildering fantasy art I'd ever seen, totally persistent. If I had the skill and the time to sit here and draw them I'd win awards. I chewed some caffeine gum and the images receded a bit; I could see the trees again, and the stumps in the river that I was supposed to be helping us avoid.
Suddenly, Stephens pointed out a cut in the bank on our right and we drew hard and spun to enter, everyone yelling, total chaos as we slid the boat into a narrow channel and through an almost-impossible turn. Then, Stephens, loud, "No, this isn't it, this is an illegal cut, BACK UP, BACK UP!", and we were reversing back out, minutes wasted, onto the river and paddling again. He'd thought that he'd spotted the one legal cut that would trim an oxbow off of the river; we were wrong and paid with a few minutes.
The mayflies were out and swirling in wild gyres in front of our light, dying all over our boat. Jason was great at helping me navigate past the hallucinations, totally recovered from the earlier heat episode.
The Alligator Gar is one of the more legendary swamp beasts of the Safari. We could see their huge bodies rolling beneath the water. A smaller fish jumped at the mayflies and hit me in the ribs. Thank god the gar weren't as hungry.
Here's a shot my dad took in 2010 of a Gar that some locals had shotgun-hunted and leashed:
Here are the hunters for scale. Such legends!
After some time we saw a chemical plant ahead, pouring out light; not the right one. Keep paddling, on past a densely overgrown bridge, some sort of fairy bridge. We each started up on Military Energy Gum again. Soles continued to remind us all: "Don't burn out, DON'T get dragged in here and go too hard." He was right; it felt like there was so little left, but even once we hit DuPont we'd have 30 miles to go, a huge day, at least 5 hours of paddling.
Finally we spotted a strange building ahead with a TWS sign and pulled up to the steep muddy bank where our crew was waiting. DuPont! Steve used a fixed line to get down and deliver us food, caffeine, Ensure, and wish us luck on the next stretch.
Dupont (231) to Saltwater Barrier (249)
We were now in the second to last stretch of the race and the water was completely glassy. Fog tornadoes, dozens of feet high, danced on the water and broke as we passed. The river was flowing fast, and I couldn't shake strong sense that the boat was still and the land was sliding backward past us.
Everyone's abs and butts were shot. The boat leaned hard to the left as Jason shifted his feet to get comfortable. Stephens tried to correct the problem by pushing hard with his right foot. This worked until Jason relaxed his pressure, jogging the boat into a right lean, which forced J to lean back left. And so it went, the team arguing about who was actually leaning, the classic canoe fight. Hey, it passed the time. We hit Railroad Bridge at mile 237, truced and started the watch to time the 35 minutes until the "3:00 cut" through the swamp.
The cut is a route around the massive permanent logjam lodged in the Guadalupe. A logjam is a mess of debris, grass and trash that's lived long enough to become covered in grass and wildlife. Scorpions, fire ants, snakes, all manner of hell-beasts live in there, and fast water is rushing underneath. You can't push the boat through without getting it stuck, and if you try to step out to free the boat you'll punch through the grass and get pulled underneath the jam to your death. You're allowed to portage around, but hauling the boat overland along the steep bank would be too difficult, so various teams have cut a path through the forest out to a parallel (and profoundly confusing) water route through the swamp.
Soon, we're there. We spotted the choked mess of logjam ahead and brought the boat in on the right, looking out with headlamps; finally Stephens saw the trampled section of bank where other boats had hauled through.
I jumped out and ran up front to help Andrew move the boat, trying to grip the thwart and pull hard against the horrible pain in my blistered hands. "One, two, PULL! One, two PULL!" over and over again. I was redlining, zone 4, after hours of moderate paddling.
We all struggled and pushed the boat through the brush, over the log at the end of the portage, and rocked it forward on to the muddy bank and out into the water. Back in, Stephens in the bow. We started paddling hard, and as we slid into the swamp a light appeared behind us on the bank. A stealth boat on the portage!
I'm calling changes in the second seat and Andrew is taking us through the most confusing section of the race. "Straight... straight, now LEFT LEFT LEFT!" cross-drawing and yelling instructions back to Soles in 4-seat working the rudder, threading us through boat-wide holes in the low tree limbs that other racers have cut a path through. He's looking for sawn-off branches and disturbed foliage; these loom into the light at the last second and we swerve one way or another, water boiling in every direction, the flow not giving us any hint of how to get back to the river. At some point Jason says to me, grudgingly, "this part? This is actually really cool."
After a long while of this virtuoso performance we pushed past our last branch, the water picked a direction and boom, we were back on the river. To our right, over the bank, I could see an open-looking area that Stephens told us is called "Alligator Lake". It's much more confusing than the cut we've just navigated, but if you can memorize the route you can skip quite a bit more mileage before re-entering the river.
We'd drained most of the water out of our jugs in the madness, and the next checkpoint was still an hour away. We each drank some of the remaining Gatorade. We ate a bit. Stephens, rarely truly annoyed, snapped at me for mentioning food yet again. "You eat too much. You used to be good with Perpetch alone... back in the Golden Years. Remember?" Sort of, but I don't know how I did it.
After a long while The San Antonio river joined in and accelerated us; the bank was flying by, now. Eventually, finally, an orange light ahead, not a hallucination. We'd reached Saltwater Barrier, mile 249.
Saltwater Barrier (249) to the San Antonio Bay (259)
Bart, Andrew's dad, yelled at us to pull the boat up right. We emptied the boat again and stocked up for the last stretch before the dreaded Bay. Bart surprised us by saying that the Kiwi team had left just 4 minutes before we showed up. (They'd passed us in the heat earlier and we hadn't expected to catch them again.) This news torqued Stephens up, six to midnight, and once we'd sorted our pumps we were back in the boat to pick up the hunt.
The water was so high that we didn't have to portage the Barrier. We paddled right over the usual drop on single blades. I was in 2 seat and could see that Stephens was strong on one side, destroyed on the other. We were all low on calories and falling apart. The boat leaned left, right, left. Who the fuck was doing that?
"Go easy and conserve for the Bay... like, a LOT," said Stephens, low. Conserve! That was a line I hadn't expected from him, but he was right. The Bay crossing was the crux of our race, and we were almost there. Don't blow it.
I chewed two more MEG gum pieces. We talked about how we'd approach the Bay crossing - long, powerful strokes, minimizing our time in the air. Soles coached Jason on how to use the paddle to brace if we started to flip. Keep the blade flat against the water. Lean hard, use it as a kickstand if we start to roll. Keep the boat up.
Stephens to Soles - "Hey, I think that Dodge is up here somewhere on the right."
Soles - "Yup, I think so."
The year before they'd been convinced, just ahead, that a Dodge truck was idling up on the bank. Stephens clambered up to try and ask for directions. No Dodge, just hallucinations and trees. Soles, trying to pull the boat in for Stephens, grabbed a branch and shook loose a hornet's nest that swarmed the two as they fled toward the Bay. This was not a nice part of Texas.
Stephens and I spent time looking for a place to pull over and put our sprayskirt on for the Bay crossing. There was probably no remaining bank to use, but there might be some dock in the last miles. My hallucinations were acting up again and I could see many docks, docks lining the river, some with people on them, barbecuing, drinking and laughing, none at all real.
Until! Until a group of humans appeared on the right. It was Captain Steve and the rest of our crew! They'd driven to a lot just opposite the Traylor Cut, the entrance to the bay, that the Safari race organizers had secured.
I switched into the bow. We got our spray skirt out of the sealed stern hatch and the Andrews in the water stretched it over each seat, pulling hard on the stiff material to line it up with the snaps on the side of the boat and clicking it into place. The skirt was on tight, but missing a few snaps that we'd smashed off of the boat earlier in the race.
Captain Steve seemed flustered (for the first time!) by our decision to not take any more Gatorade or food into the bay. He forced us each to drink some soda and made sure that we each had some treat from the Saltwater Barrier handoff. We might see each other again in an hour... or in 15 hours, if we flipped and had to walk it in.
Lifejackets on, light adjusted, skirt cinched, we turned left into Traylor Cut toward the bay.
San Antonio Bay (259) to Seadrift (265)
I was so excited to be in the bow for this stretch. Leading to Seadrift, setting a pace that won't burn us out... and soon we'll be done, holy shit.
We were each yelling our comments now with the excitement of the Bay approach. After a few turns, a final right turn and there it was, the Bay, the crux, our nightmare... and the water was almost completely calm. Had our effort paid off? Had we nailed it?
This is our route through the Bay, courtesy of our Strava file. It was so hard to tell where we were; we could see lights across the channel that we thought might be mounted by the barge canal, and lights ahead that Stephens was convinced was another Safari boat. But it was two lights, vertically stacked. The shore to our right seemed to wrap around in front of us, and a glow in the distance, very far away, we decided was probably Seadrift.
Were we making any progress against the wind and the current? How hard should we go? It was hot, and I was sweating more than I had all race, setting the tone, keeping the pressure on. I could hear Jason gasp-grunting like a demon behind me, pulling almost too hard on his blade, just like we'd instructed. Every so often we passed a white buoy in the water, fast, which was proof that we were doing the work, hard as it was to believe. The lights farther away didn't seem to move at all.
We decided to check Gaia on my phone ("Steady, don't fucking flip the boat, don't drop my phone, Stephens,") which revealed that we were in the middle of the bay, pointing toward Seadrift (over the "Guadalupe Bay" words in the picture above). Keep fucking paddling. An illusion developed where every time I looked at the lights to our left they'd move slowly backwards, making it look like our boat was moving quickly. Yet if I glanced away and back, the lights would have snapped back to where they'd been before... and start to move backwards again. Oh boy.
We were out of sync and limping along, but the water stayed fairly calm and we could see that the lights really were moving back. Ahead and to our left Stephens spotted a faint green light that actually was another Safari boat, in the shallow water by the barge canal island, aiming to intercept our line at the mouth of the bay. We kept our line and soon (though we didn't know it) we'd reached the island at the mouth of the barge canal, turned left and paddled across, establishing a line at some set of faraway lights that made no sense to Stephens; Stephens was spazzing out, right on schedule, convinced we've made a wrong turn. We checked the phone again ("DON'T FUCKING DROP MY PHONE!!") and realized that we were much farther along than we'd thought, and aiming at Seadrift, at the finish. The water had stayed calm. all the way out of the bay.
To our left Stephens spotted another boat, moving fast, over against the seawall. It was the Kiwi boat! I started going apeshit, paddling hard - DIGGING - finishing strong, and I could hear Jason chuffing in the back now and pulling so hard that his paddle is cavitating in the water, trading forward force for chaos. Soles is aiming us beautifully at the Seadrift steps where we'll finally stop; Stephens is eyeing the other boat and missing the changes I'm calling, narrating the story of the Kiwi boat. "They just hit the a pier! They're stuck! They're out!"
"Stephens, why the fuck does it sound like ESPN in the back of this boat? SHUT THE FUCK UP AND PADDLE!" I screamed back at him. I called a change and, whoop, bobbled my paddle in the wind and almost launched it out of the boat. I realized I should chill a bit... we weren't racing anyone now. What if I'd dropped the paddle and arrived a passenger at Seadrift, paddled in just sitting in the bow? The most exquisitely lame Safari finish of all time.
The seawall. Lights. The Safari arch on the lawn at Seadrift, looming in the dark. We hear cheers... and then, finally, after 44 hours and 14 minutes, we were done.
What a strange scene, finishing on a glassy bay in the early morning, memories of the Golden Years winking in from the past. I couldn't believe I'd come on down to Texas to do this again.
Soles and Stephens are incredible friends, agreeing to race this reunion tour knowing full well how miserable it might be. Steve Sampson, my father-in-law, shocking us all by nailing his Team Captain duties alone with no complaints. What a gentleman. And Jason Antin, completely new to the sport but always down for a good sandbag.
Here we are, not long after surrendering our boat to the wonderful volunteers who dragged it up out of the bay for us:
I'd been talking about this race for 7 years to Jenna, and I was so happy to finally be able to get this picture with her and my little daughter Juno:
And to offset the sweetness, a classic Hands shot, courtesy of Jason after he peeled off his bike gloves:
So long, Seadrift! I can't say I'll ever do this race ever again... but I've said that before, and look where that got me.
There's usually some great reporting on the Safari in the Victoria Advocate, and other racers occasionally write up reports like this. I'll add them here as I find the good ones.
For a much shorter take on the whole experience, check out Jason's Instagram story about the race.