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Let’s Go Wild

No. 14 Texas Water Safari

San Marcos and Guadalupe Rivers

Heading down the San Marcos on the first day of the Texas Water Safari.
Photograph by Jody Horton

The names on our boat say “Lester”andDanny,” but that isn’t us. We don’t bother to correct all the people who call out in our direction as we wait in the middle of a crowd of canoes and kayaks at the Aquarena Center, in San Marcos. We’re at the start of the Texas Water Safari, an annual race down the San Marcos and Guadalupe rivers, and we have other things to think about. It is already hot—mid-June—and we have one hundred hours to make it to Seadrift, a small town on the Gulf Coast almost 265 miles away. 

Also painted on the side of our canoe is “Port Lavaca, Tex.,” which is where Lester and Danny are from. Keeping the lettering on the boat was Doug Johnson’s idea. Doug is the sternman in our two-person outfit, an Austinite in his mid-thirties whose notion of a good time is bow-hunting wild boar or entering hundred-mile mountain bike races. He’s told me that Danny is an old family friend who attempted the Texas Water Safari twice back in the eighties. Both times the man in the front of the boat—Lester, I presume—suffered a serious back injury and quit the race. The pair was training for a third try when, during a night run, a large alligator gar leaped into the boat. Danny called it quits after that, and the boat sat in a barn for thirty years until Doug discovered it. 

A bearded guy hollers something into a bullhorn, and we are moving, trying to keep our position as we haul the canoe to the water. There are 108 boats in multiple classes, a frenzied throng of human-powered watercraft. The first third of the race will take us down the clear green depths of the San Marcos River, whose banks are lush with water hyacinth, sedges, and mosquito ferns and shaded by towering bald cypress, pecan, and live oak. It’s also a litany of dams, bridges, and portages—some of which, like Staples Dam, involve hoisting your boat over a cement barrier and down a steep set of steps. Others, like Ottine Dam, require tramping through weeds on sodden cow paths, occasionally working under barbed-wire fences or through somebody’s front yard.

Failing to finish isn’t uncommon. The TWS bills itself as “the world’s toughest canoe race,” a claim that seems to go unchallenged, and nearly 40 percent of entrants drop out. There are longer races out there, but none with quite the same hazards—heat, rapids, grueling portages, dangerous wildlife—or potential trauma: twisted joints, broken bones, rashes, fevers, vomiting, snakebites, gear malfunction, and, of course, obliteration of one’s will. A ground-support crew, whose members are known as team captains, supplies each boat with food and drink at assigned checkpoints, but otherwise there is no outside assistance. 

We launch into the water and head downriver, dodging swimming children and Bud Light–toting dads in inner tubes as spectators crowd the banks. Around every bend there are families camped out in the shallows, chairs and sunshades in the water. The idea that we hail from Port Lavaca elicits frequent cheers—why, I am not exactly sure—but by sunset my lower back is on fire, and I’m cursing the restless spirit of Lester, who I’ve become convinced haunts the front seat. In a narrow boat like ours—a seventeen-foot aluminum Beaver boat—the bowman doesn’t exactly have a lot of room to stretch out. Despite the foam padding on the side rails, my knees and calves are already purpled with bruises. 

Still, Doug and I blaze through the early checkpoints, receiving fresh water, electrolyte drinks, and mesh bags of provisions—energy bars, apples, boiled eggs, dried fruit, beef jerky—from our team captains, Vaughn Johnson and Mari-Vaughn Johnson, Doug’s father and sister. We reach Palmetto State Park, the third checkpoint, sixty miles in, where Mari-Vaughn expresses concern for our innards. “You guys feeling okay? Lots of boats have been vomiting,” she says. She hands us another round of peanut butter and honey sandwiches; I take a bite and nearly gag. Doug refuses the food, turning to watch the river and the squadrons of dragonflies instead. Eating is a distant concern.

Night falls, and we press on, threading through a narrow section choked with trees. We paddle by the light of a nearly full moon until the canopy overhead forces us to turn on the set of flashlights we’ve mounted on our bow. For a few seconds we get a clear cone of light, and then every flying insect for a square mile funnels into its beam: mayflies, Asian tiger mosquitoes, sphinx moths, and midges, all of them coursing into the light vortex and into my teeth. After an hour or so we have to turn on our headlamps to stomp on the spiders nesting in the boat. 

Suddenly, a large, clawed branch rakes the length of the boat, ripping our lighting off its mount. We pull over so that Doug can do some repair work with a Leatherman and a handful of zip ties, while I swat mosquitoes and curse the darkness. Back on the water, we immediately hit an impenetrable morass of downed trees and debris. We make out some boat tracks and footprints to the right and decide to head to shore again. As we haul the boat up the thirty-foot bank, the deep, viscous mud rips the sandals off our feet. We drag the boat through poison oak, thorn bushes, and fire ant mounds, finally sliding into the water on the other side, exhausted. 

By the time we pull into Gonzales, it’s five in the morning, and we’re filthy, our clothes smeared with mud. I am so crusty with my own salt that I can peel it off the back of my neck like a scab. We’ve been awake 24 hours straight now. Our goal is to finish in 70 hours, and we’re a couple of hours ahead of pace, so we decide to nap, stretching out on the gravel beach like dead men. The irregular egg-size rocks are terribly uncomfortable, but before I can give them much thought, I’m out cold. Vaughn kicks my foot half an hour later. My muscles are tight like piano wires, and everything aches, but I am refreshed. I look at our boat pulled up on the gravel, a slice of pale metal. One hundred and seventy-eight miles to go. 

Catalog of wildlife observed: snakes—6, none venomous; turtles—60; herons, egrets, and cranes—hundreds; children with second-degree sunburns—a baker’s dozen; floating beer cans—36, an alarming number of them full, Keystone Light the favorite. 

The second day has the longest and most uneventful sections of the race, from Gonzales to Hochheim to Cheapside to Cuero. The river slows and widens, changing from the active green of the San Marcos to the sluggish brown of the Guadalupe, and the course becomes an unrelenting slog. The tubing enthusiasts and picnickers we saw upriver have become scarce, and the signs of civilization fade, replaced with layered limestone cliffs. We see the occasional fisherman or “South Texas river condo”—a folding chair and rusted-out grill—but little else. Sycamore, cottonwood, and more bald cypress line the banks; there is primrose and phlox everywhere. Clouds of butterflies and cottonwood seeds drift like a fog in the heat. Hours go by without our seeing another boat; our paddling, despite the pain, becomes trancelike into the night. The river looks the same around every bend, as if we aren’t going anywhere.

The third day dawns hot and hazy, and we spend much of our time hugging the riverbank, searching for shade. We’ve been relieving ourselves into empty plastic bottles as we paddle, and sometime after noon, I fill a twelve-ounce container with something that looks like beef broth, a reddish-brown color that is clearly not right. We’ve grown silent, barely trading a word for hours at a time. I feel delirious, and my arm and back muscles are shredded. I begin to think about my wife and two young children with an ardent affection.

Catalog of wildlife observed: alligator gar—23, including the one that jumps in my lap and vomits his dinner (large moths, a few still alive); alligators—12 or more, hard to say; river houses made of shipping containers—8, a couple of them architecturally interesting; gun aficionados on the bank—3, including somebody going full-auto; spiders—legion.

A few miles south of Victoria, about 235 miles into the race, we hit a series of permanent logjams at about midnight. At the first big jam, we haul the boat up the six-foot bank and, using a rope harness, drag it like mules down a grassy fire road for a quarter of a mile. We get the boat back in the water only to discover another jam fifty yards later. Again we pull out, again we drag. Our leg muscles are shattered, and we hunch over, panting and cursing. We forge through the dense woods, following faint paths through the undergrowth, a confusion of headlamps and savage mosquitoes. 

In the darkness we hear a team just behind us, a man and a woman dragging their canoe. I train my headlight on the side of their boat: Blood, Sweat & Beers. Doug and I exchange a look. The canoe is in our same boat class. We rush to the water, desperate to maintain our position, and hastily put in, finding a watery bypass we can take—only to discover this route also blocked. The banks are fifteen-foot mud cliffs, straight up. Behind us, we see Blood, Sweat & Beers thrashing through the woods, lights searching for the same bypass. In a kind of hysterical state, Doug and I decide to scale the cliffs. We find a few floating logs lying against the bank, next to a nest of inverted tree roots, and we devise a plan wherein I’ll flop out of the boat onto a log, then climb the root system carrying the bow line. I’ll haul the boat up the bank as Doug lifts from below. It is complete lunacy. 

I turn on my headlamp and find half a dozen hairy spiders perched on the log, each one the size of my five-year-old son’s hand. There’s nothing to be done, so I shut off the light and flop, catching the log in my midsection, then scramble spastically up the roots and to the top of the cliff. I find my footing and haul, Doug pushing from below, neck-deep in the water. Somehow, it works.

I squat in the weeds, exhausted and furious. Doug hoists himself up the cliff like a corpse coming out of the grave. He stands, takes one step, grinning, his floppy hat set back on his head—and then, suddenly, his foot slips, and he falls backward into darkness. No splash, just a sickening thud. I hear him cry out, and I am more annoyed than worried. “You okay?” I say halfheartedly. Miraculously, he has landed on a log in a sitting position, just inches away from the nest of tree roots, which would have skewered him like an action-film villain. 

We put on our rope harnesses and haul the damn boat through the woods again, running and falling until we reach the other side of the jam. Our feet and ankles are slashed and bloody, and my whole body itches from the silty, fetid water. I can feel the beginnings of a rash that will make it hard to sit for a week. Worse, I discover that during the logjam melee I neatly snapped the shaft of my paddle. Now I have to use our spare, a hunk of plastic with a blade surface twice the size and three times the weight.  

“I will never do this f—ing race again!” I shout at Doug. He stares, hollow-eyed, and spits a stream of tobacco out the side of his mouth.  

“Are you mad at me?” he asks.

A line from Blood Meridian floods my consciousness. “How these things end. In confusion and curses and blood.” There are competitors who attempt this race multiple times, some as many as twenty. Why? Why would they subject themselves to this? 

The last twenty miles of the night are a hallucinatory horror. We’ve slept two hours over the past three days, and my brain is determined to have its dream time, even if I am awake. Every tree stirring in the breeze is a looming face, a caricature, like a child’s toy or puppet. The naked rocks are large billboards advertising circus shows and carnivals. A pale shape appears in the river, and as we near it, our light illuminates a naked old woman standing in the water, clutching something to her chest. Later, as barred owls coo to each other from the banks, I stare into the water and see a boy—no more than ten years old, shirtless, his skin milky white in the moonlight—standing on the bottom of the river, aiming a crossbow directly at me. 

I look away. I think about Lester, the vengeful spirit in our boat. I think about my son, my three-year-old daughter, my wife. An insect storm swarms into our light, and we see the electronic-blue gaze of alligators gliding along the banks. I try to fix my eyes ahead and paddle. But I am desperate for the apparitions to speak. 

“Doug, is there a house over there, with a whole family out on the deck, waving to us?” 

Doug pops his can of Copenhagen and fingers out a dip. “It’s four in the f—ing morning, dude. No family, no deck, no house. Just paddle.”

We reach the coast at daybreak. The mosquitoes are savaging us through our clothes, and I have bites inside my ear and on my eyelids. The wind is blowing hard from the south, meaning we’ll have to go the last five miles upwind on the open bay, fighting whitecaps the whole way to Seadrift. We stop at a low marshy area to put on our spray skirt and mandatory life vests. A small alligator about three feet long sits on the bank, and Doug nudges him out of the way with his paddle so we can stretch and urinate. I see gator tracks and nest areas everywhere. I do not care. 

Daylight makes things comprehensible again, but paddling into the wind is futile. We decide to walk the boat through the shallows, dragging our feet through the mud to scare off stingrays. Then I put the rope harness on and tow the boat while swimming. 

It is slow work. Before long, we see a two-man aluminum canoe coasting toward us, headed the wrong way, and the sternman calls out to me. “Do you know where Seadrift is?” 

Everyone knows where Seadrift is at this stage, so I am wary. I gesture around the point, tell him it is a couple of miles east. He shakes his head, a rueful grin on his face. A fierce rush of anger overwhelms me. Here I am, swimming in heavy chop with a rope around my chest, dragging a canoe after seventy hours of paddling, and this guy is messing with me. He has come to goad those still struggling through the end of the race. 

“What are you trying to say?” I yell at him. “Just say it! Tell me what the f— you want to say to me!”  

Doug, about twenty yards behind, is standing in chest-deep water, looking like a stranded scarecrow, and the men paddle over to confer with him. I tread water, the whitecaps breaking in my face. In the washed-out light, the low islands of seagrass and churning brown bay are a watery apocalyptic vision. 

I hear the sternman say, “The town is gone, man, it ain’t there!” The poor guy, it appears, is simply disoriented. The two are going the wrong way. Doug eventually convinces them of their mistake, and I turn to keep swimming. Last time we see them, they have beached their canoe and are standing in the mud watching us, hats in hand, sentinels on a wasted plain. They’ll have to head upwind again, all that distance adding hours to their time. The mere thought of this, how it will extend the suffering for these men, makes my heart ache.

We finally make the turn eastward, Seadrift now a faint mark on the coastline. The sky is clear and blue, and the air and water seem charged and luminescent. Exhilaration takes over. I yell to Doug over the roar of the wind, suggesting we just gut it out, paddle hard into the heavy gusts. He nods, and we get back in the canoe. 

I paddle these last miles like an automaton, empty of thought, perhaps closer to some kind of Zen state than I’ve ever been. At 43, I’ve presumed to have an understanding of the breadth and depth of my person—physically, psychologically, spiritually—or at least to know what I am capable of. But I had no idea. I keep stabbing the paddle at the water and pulling. I’ve reached some kind of primordial frame of mind where it is all just instinct, all here and now. I feel like I could go on like this forever. Lester, that restless spirit, is gone.

It is late morning when we finish, in just over 74 hours. We place third in our class and forty-second overall. We carry our canoe up to a lively crowd of people, a lot of handshaking and pictures. Then I see my wife and children, who have made a surprise trip from our home in Dallas to meet me. I kneel down to embrace my son and burst into tears. 

At the lunchtime banquet, I eat three plates of fried seafood and the best beans I’ve ever had in my life. I sit in a lawn chair and hold my kids. I don’t say much. I keep getting emotional when I try to talk, and I realize it is because I am afraid. I have scraped bottom, dug deeper, and found more room. But now I don’t know how much more space there is. And I know that I will have to find out.

At the finish, I meet the original Danny, who is there to congratulate us. I ask him about Lester, his ill-fated teammate. “Oh, that was someone else,” Danny says. “Lester was never even in that boat.”

Getting There: The Texas Water Safari is held every year in June. The best viewing areas for spectators are the Aquarena Center, in San Marcos, where competitors launch into the water; the first major portage, at Rio Vista Dam, where the gutsiest racers run the dangerous spillways; and the Cottonseed Rapids, on the San Marcos River, whose rocky stretches end up wrecking many boats. For course maps, schedule, and entry information, visit texaswatersafari.org.

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