Full Contact Paddling

Safari tests brains, strength, endurance and the willpower to persevere when you're puking out of your boat. And pissing in it.

And according to more than one racer in the know, it probably doesn't help relations between the two camps that back around the turn of the decade, a Mynar son dated a Bugge daughter. "But you're not going to get them to talk about that," says a source who prefers anonymity, "because they don't."

And if the intriguing machinations of the Bugge/Mynar rivalry weren't already enough to drive a miniseries (some racers whisper privately that the one-upsmanship has gotten out of hand and has detracted from the spirit of the race, but a widely circulated motion to restrict the Safari to tandem boats was quashed), they are further complicated this year by the fact that John Bugge himself is not racing the six-man boat that he built. Instead, he'll be racing in a four-person boat of his own design in the mixed-gender class with his wife, Donna, and a California couple by the names of Phil and Mary Jo Gumbert.

"Well, see," says Bugge, "when I'm not running for the unlimited, I typically win whatever class I'm in." This is not modest, but neither is it braggardly. Over the years Bugge has placed first in nine different classes. The only categories in which he hasn't won are Standard, in which he seems to have little interest, Novice, which he did actually win once, but before it was made an official classification, and Women's, which, the oft-repeated joke goes, would require major elective surgery. He has not, however, beaten the Mynars in head-to-head competition with an equal number of "horses" since the pre-escalation days of three-man boats.

Theories on his retreat vary. Bugge says he had intended to race Solo, then his wife's Mixed team fell apart and he joined up to make an even four. Others say it's no retreat at all, that just like Joe Mynar stepped out of the fray last year to race tandem with his boy, Bugge's just taking a year out of the Unlimited class limelight. It is suggested that Bugge's disciplinarian style, single-minded focus and Mynar fixation are making it increasingly hard for him to round up five willing teammates. The state of his physical conditioning is questioned, though never -- wisely -- to his face. His team captain and brother-in-law presents a curious theory: Bugge is going to let the overexcited pack-leading six-man boats battle themselves out of the race via exhaustion or tree stump and will methodically slip in as an unexpected champion after all. A former Bugge teammate says, "I don't even want to get into it," and doesn't want his name revealed at that. There's even a suspicion that Bugge is simply biding his time before hauling out the 50-foot eight-man canoe that friends and foes alike secretly hope he's building, by moonlight, out behind a hidden rural garage somewhere.

West Hansen, meanwhile, thinks he knows why Bugge won't be steering his six-man. He wasn't invited, and he's none too happy about it.

Hansen and regular teammate Allan Spelce raced with Bugge last year and came in second. This year Hansen and Spelce recruited the lauded California Boys, who had been on the second-place boat with Bugge in 1997. Bugge rented the new team his six-man boat, for $2,000, but he did it, Hansen says, "between gritted teeth."

"I know for sure that he believes there was a conspiracy, before we even raced last year, to kick him off the team and 'steal' his team, his California Boys. I think he's rooting for the Mynars for the first time in his entire life."

The theory behind that assumption, of course, is that if Hansen and Spelce do what Bugge could not do -- win with the California Boys -- then Bugge is toppled off his perch among the top two.

Will Bugge again race for the crown in a competitive boat?
"A lot of it," says Hansen, "will probably depend on how we do this year. If we get second, then he'll probably be back in a big boat with a decent team. If we win... hmmm... ummm... that may be it."

So is set the stage on Saturday morning in San Marcos City Park. The garbage cans are brimming with wads of duct tape and banana peels as honorary speaker Big Willie George recalls his original trek through a portable PA to a standing O. The Bugges cement laminated checkpoint maps into the bottom of their boat. The California Boys hustle and stretch. The Mynars huddle and do not mingle. Racers dressed in long-sleeved heat-retardant white ease their canoes over a concrete bulkhead into the crystalline San Marcos and try to hold their position against the current in rows six boats wide and 13 deep.

There are all sorts of people occupying those boats. Sweet father-and-son teams who live in separate states and use this race, of all things, as an annual bonding renewal. Solo women on private missions to overcome fear of dark, or water, or snakes, or the unknown. There are yahoo-adventurers who read about the Safari on a Web site and decided it'd be a cool thing to do. There are three-time nonfinishers -- many of them former yahoo-adventurers derailed by injury, or fatigue, or equipment failure -- who won't let themselves quit until they make it. Stiff competitions are taking shape in the Solo and Standard class races.

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