Logjams, man-sized gar and hallucinations: Texas Water Safari kicks off Saturday

Team Dirty Dogs lowers their five-person canoe over Cummings Dam on the San Marcos River on Sunday. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

Once they negotiate the boat-bashing chaos of the start in San Marcos, they’ll face the first rapids.

Then will come a twisting stretch of river, a mud-slickened portage or two, a dam, more rapids, more portages, more dams, more twists and turns, and an onslaught of discomforts that starts with aching muscles and sunburn and works its way, like a building tsunami, into a horror show of indigestion, stinking boats and exhaustion.

In all, paddlers who start the Texas Water Safari have signed on for about 260 miles of nothing less than misery.

Veteran paddler West Hansen scouts a stretch of the Guadalupe River near Tivoli. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

I’m going to be writing about the Texas Water Safari this year, so I’ve been spending as much time as I can with the local paddling community.

During the course of what’s been billed as “The World’s Toughest Canoe Race,” solo paddlers and teams of up to six will face logjams and mosquitoes, poison ivy, clouds of nose, eye and lip-coating mayflies, mosquitoes, a snake or two, actual alligators and, even more horrifying, human-sized alligator gar. It draws macho guys, bad-ass women, couples, families, friends and the just plain curious.

They’ll paddle through all of it, for hours on end, many not even pausing to sleep. The hallucinations will come, and so, too, will the disgruntled digestive systems and inflamed skin and mud-smeared bodies. In the end, though, they’ll earn a coveted finisher’s patch which, one can only presume, makes it all worth while.

Pam LeBlanc had her sandals sucked off her feet during a training portage. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

I got hooked on paddling last year. I paddle slow. I like to camp along the way, look at nature and soak up the silence. But for the past few weeks I’ve been rubbing shoulders with a whole new breed of paddlers.

These people buy bulk containers of Spiz liquid food mix, they hold entire conversations about jug foam, they tell horror stories about sleep deprivation-induced hallucinations and fish that jump into their canoes with such force they break ribs.

A few weeks ago, I spent the day at Palmetto State Park, where many of them had gathered for three days of training. My husband and I enjoyed a leisurely three-hour run in our 17-foot Alumacraft canoe while they humped it twice that far in the same amount of time. I could barely keep our boat going straight. I ran us into the bank a few times.

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Then, last weekend I took a field trip down to Cuero, where I scouted a huge log jam with a couple of veteran racers. My shoes got sucked off my feet in the mud. I (temporarily) lost a paddle during a portage. I saw half a dozen small alligators. I screamed and nearly fell out of my boat – four times – when a gar with teeth like needles and nearly as big as me (I’m not exaggerating) surfaced near my bow.

This weekend I hopped into seat four of a five-person race canoe, filling a seat on one of the Dirty Dog’s training runs. We scouted their first few portages on the upper stretches of the San Marcos River. I slipped and bashed my shin while wading around in the river. We saw a snake. I tried to paddle in synch with people who knew what they were doing. I struggled (unsuccessfully) to keep up when they shifted into high gear, practicing going fast and furious. I kept slamming my paddle against the side of the boat.

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I’ve spent hours chatting with people who have done this race before, asking them why they do it (it’s a challenge, it’s a way to bond, it’s peaceful, for the adventure) and how they push on when they want to quit (because everybody does), how they stay awake and what happens when nature calls (they pee in a bottle or jump in the river to do their business).

The race kicks off at Spring Lake in San Marcos at 9 a.m. Saturday. The leaders will likely cross the finish line in Seadrift sometime very late Sunday or early Monday. They’ll be blistered and sunburned, delirious and dehydrated, exhausted and thrilled.

Look for my story in mid-July.

West Hansen carries his one-man canoe out of the river after a Sunday training run that finished near Tivoli. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

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