By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
For years the Safari held more or less true to its roots. Teams were invariably comprised of solo or tandem boats, mostly aluminum, and heroes emerged. Tom Goynes, a red-bearded man with impossibly thin arms, remains tied in the record books for most wins as an individual (seven) and as a member of a consistent team (three). Owen West has logged records for the most finishes (22), most solo finishes (12) and longest streak (West finished every Safari from 1969 to 1988).
As canoeing gained popularity as a sport, fiberglass replaced aluminum, and in the early 1980s canoeists discovered Kevlar. Backyard enthusiasts began molding tandem boats out of the lightweight material, and a new breed of Safari royalty ascended in the persons of John Bugge and Joe Mynar.
Bugge (pronounced "boogie") is a dark-visaged plumber-by-trade who lives in College Station and employs his engineering degree as a hobbyist boat builder who rents out many of the boats entered in this year's Safari. Joe Mynar is a quiet man from the Waxahachie area who reportedly drives big rigs for a living, paddles nearby rivers for fun and anchors a familial canoe dynasty that includes his brother Fred, son Brian and a younger son Kyle, who became the Safari's youngest ever finisher in a tandem boat with his father in 1997 at the tender age of 12.
Throughout much of the 1980s, John Bugge and Joe Mynar traded wins in tandem boats. There were larger three- and four-man boats on the river, but it was a consistently proven article of faith that the tandem boats were unbeatable. They could turn quicker. They could handle shallower water. And they were lighter to carry through the portages of a course fractured with low-water crossings, dams and logjams.
According to unofficial Safari historian West Hansen, it wasn't until the late 1980s that canoeists' skills began to catch up to the possibilities of the larger boats.
"Tandem teams were beating four-man teams up until about 1985. Then three-man boats started kicking butt, up until about 1991. And at that point the Mynars showed up with a four-man boat and did extremely well."
And a different kind of race altogether was under way.
"The next year, John Bugge shows up with a four-man boat and kicks butt, and all of a sudden people started upping the ante with more horses." By which Hansen means paddlers.
In 1996 Bugge arrived with a five-man boat and beat the Mynar's four-man. The Mynars (minus patriarch Joe, who raced tandem with son Kyle) countered the following year with an unprecedented six-man boat and beat Bugge's five-man, stocked with Mike Shea, Rich Long, Jeff Verryp and Jack Kraus -- four decorated California imports from the world of open-ocean outrigger racing. Water levels were high that year, and the Mynar boat set a seemingly untouchable record time of 29 hours and 46 minutes.
In 1998 John Bugge and Joe Mynar both raced six-man boats. Hansen and his longtime teammate Allan Spelce paddled with Bugge, and the Mynar team -- Joe, Fred, Brian and ringers John Dunn, Tim Rusk and Mike Vincent -- won by two hours and change.
The nearing-50 Bugge allows that the competition between himself and the Mynars has been "quite heated," along with the standard-issue bromides about good competition making for a good race, but co-competitors aren't so politic.
Race veteran Tom Goynes: "I'd say that they're not on the best of terms."
Safari co-organizer Jerry Cochran, the only man to have won races in both Mynar and Bugge boats: "I wouldn't say that they hate each other... but they've got a healthy respect for each other. I don't know how to stay in the middle here..."
Rich Long, one of the California Boys: "This race can best be summed up as the Hatfields and McCoys. I think between John Bugge the individual and the Mynars collectively, there's not a lot of love lost there. There's not much friendship going on there."
But West Hansen, recommended as a "full of it" source by Bugge himself, is more explicit.
"The Bugge/Mynar rivalry, there's actually been words exchanged during races, threats made, accusations of cheating. And this is both ways. You don't have one that's a white hat and the other a black hat. A lot of this is gunnel-to-gunnel racing where you're banging boats together and it's like full-contact paddling. There's the 'belly stroke,' when you paddle off the next guy's gut, blades hitting people by 'accident,' and a lot of it I honestly believe is accident, but there's so much animosity between the two that it's a powder keg waiting for a spark."
The differences between the two reigning camps of the last 15 years of Water Safari are subtle, but they're there. The Mynars, observers say, are a more instinctive team, a put-it-in-maximum-and-go-as-hard-as-you-can bunch with a secretive demeanor that can come across as paranoia and an approach to conversation that more than one racer likens to pulling teeth. Their ace in the hole is sternman Brian, widely acknowledged as the most talented big-boat driver on the scene.
John Bugge, on the other hand, takes a more methodical approach, concerned with maintaining appropriate heart rates and studying nutritional science. Racers credit Bugge with an infinite patience in helping train novices (which in Safari parlance refers to anyone -- Olympic gold medalist or otherwise -- who hasn't yet completed a Safari) for the race, but his stature within the world of the Safari can translate as glowering pedagogy.