By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Bugge yells, "How's it look?" He wants to know how far he is off the lead.
A wooden bridge spans the San Marcos at the crossing known as Prairie Lea No. 1. Tri-ethnic kids from a local halfway house are jumping back flips off it in an understandable attempt to impress a pretty young thing posing belly-deep in the green water.
A team captain with a crew cut and a boom box sets up on the bridge and plays a looped tape of the Aggie fight song for his brothers who'll be paddling through shortly.
The Mynars have opened up a 12-minute lead on the Cali Boys, and though Bugge is falling back from the leaders, he's opening his lead on the pack behind.
Luling, Texas, is in the throes of its annual Watermelon Thump Festival. At the town's main intersection, all four corners are occupied by adversary cuties, each holding a sign reading "Please Vote So-and-So for Thump Queen," a dubious but doubtless deadly serious honorific.
At the Luling Gravel Bar, formally the Luling US Highway 90 Bridge, team captains are massed, and dogs and kids are swimming in the now-muddying water. Upriver two preteen boys shimmy out on a 50-foot-high railroad trestle and jump into the river below. Two minutes later a train rumbles across the bridge.
The Mynars have been here and gone, opening a 14-minute lead on their pursuers.
Thunderstorms beat the Cali Boys, but not the Mynars, to the low-water crossing at Palmetto State Park. The lead is now 24 minutes, and the time is roughly 5:30 Saturday evening. Eight and a half hours of nonstop paddling. Six thousand eight hundred calories consumed, 210 miles to go.
Hochheim Bridge is a happy juncture in this year's race. In previous years, the checkpoint had been an overpass-shadowed mudhole, an uncomfortable campground for the team captains of the many boats that hit Hochheim (pronounced "ho-hime") in the dead of dark. This year a private landowner has donated his waterfront to the race, and the river bottom is peppered with cozy campsites, including that of a team of ham radio operators, one of whom is a retired duck hunter from Wyoming, and the other of whom seems to have been a mid-level CIA operative in a previous life.
The Mynars power through at 1:21 a.m. They do not stop for water, but yell toward the bank to call 911: A half a mile back some bank-dwelling dipshits were tossing beer bottles at them from the shore.
The Cali Boy boat passed through at 2:22 and stopped for water.
John Bugge's boat came in at 4:10 and didn't stop.
At 6:38 a.m., with dawn cracking, the campground awakes to a shout of "boat," and the Cowboys have arrived. Only one of four is still wearing his white cowboy hat. Sternman John Mark Harras, who had said his team wasn't very fast, is in 11th place. Harras rolls out of his boat and sinks knee- and elbow-deep in the riverbank mud. He stays there, staring at the muck, for long minutes before, without raising his head, he begins moaning with the resigned desperation of people who think they're going to die.
"I'm too old for this, man. I'm too old for this, man." The angle makes it hard to see if he's puking or not.
The Mynars pass the Thomaston Bridge outside of Cuero at 9:16 a.m. The Cali Boys are almost two hours behind now, with Bugge still in third, an hour and a half behind the Cali Boys, making up time. A trailing five-man boat has moved from fifth to fourth place but lost a man to exhaustion in the process.
The Nursery Highway 447 Bridge is usually just another in a seemingly endless series of rural river overpasses, but last year it distinguished itself as the home of the dead cow.
Shortly before the 1998 race, the river flooded badly, overflowing its banks and lapping at the underside of a bridge that's now, in low water, 100 feet above the surface. Seems a dead cow floating downstream got hung up in the bridge's undergirding, and when the water receded, the cow remained, hanging by a wedged hoof, dessicated head dangling down.
The cow is still there, still more dessicated, and it's not an encouraging sight to most paddlers, the majority of whom are hitting this spot about 55 hours into the race, with 25 hours and two mosquito-ridden nights to go. The cow is a nasty gatekeeper: From here on in, the river really sucks. Checkpoints will no longer be wooden bridges and gravel bars, but chemical plants and alligators.
Word travels down from Hochheim Bridge: The mayflies are swarming in clouds there. They drop into the boats by the hundreds and die, rotting into a gut-wrenching wet oatmeal of insect decay that weights the boats down, and the smell of which makes the exceptionally difficult task of keeping food down all but impossible. Jay Daniels, a veteran paddler in a four-man boat, jumps out at Hochheim to tump the evil-smelling mass out of the canoe-bottom. He yells, "It went the wrong way!" and his teammates think he's talking about the direction in which the boat is being tumped. He's talking about his knee, which landed badly in the mud and hyperextended. His teammates continue. He is out of the race, the Safari's first documented mayfly casualty.