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.

The stretch of the lower Guadalupe River between the Victoria Highway 90 bypass bridge (old Loop 175) and Tivoli is called Hallucination Alley. This is the longest checkpoint-less stretch of the marathon. Hallucination Alley's premier landmark is the Victoria-area DuPont plant, proud maker of "Nylons, Specialties and Ethylene Copolymers." Most paddlers will hit Hallucination Alley on the second night of the marathon. Through the dark and fog, they will see the lights and hear the noise of the plant long, long before they reach it. They will paddle for what seems like hours toward the light, and then the river will switchback and they will paddle away from the light. Alligator gar five feet long will leap toward the bow lights and splatter their canoes. Last year on this stretch of river, a gar leaped at the lights and hit a woman paddler mid-torso, knocking her out of her boat, across the gunnel and into a jutting branch. Ribs were broken.

The Hallucination Alley joke is tree people. How this far in, you start seeing things. People on the banks, following you, watching you. The expert advice is this: Call to them. If they answer, it might well be your team captain, ready to save your sorry ass. If they don't, they're probably tree people. Which is to say: Keep paddling.

This far downriver live alligators. They've been documented upward of 12 feet long. It is a fact that coastal alligators seek out the company of humans even less vigorously than humans seek out the company of alligators, but this fact is of little consolation when you're capsized in muddy water in 12-foot alligator country after 18 hours of nonstop paddling and a running conversation with a tree person.

At the DuPont plant, Mynar team captain Roger Meyer uses a plastic bucket to scoop mud off a boat ramp in an effort to secure sure footing for the water jug pass-off. An interested bystander grumbles about the rules, wondering about the practice of handing off water jugs in a plastic bag. Water containers are allowed, but the rules don't mention containers for the water containers. The bystander thinks John Bugge may be employing this particular ruse, and though he has trouble articulating exactly what competitive advantage a plastic bag might hold, he is certain that it should be illegal. Thus is the nature of feuds.

A light rain pops rings on the river surface. A discharge pipe funnels hot plant coolant water into the river, raising smoke on the water. Thirty-pound carp roll belly-up and slap their tails. An egret perches on a staub and voids its bowel into the river.

The Mynar boat, finally, stops here, and the team makes its only known mistake. Paddling away three minutes later, someone drops a paddle, and they have to back up for it before paddling away again.

At this point, the Safari is three different races. The Mynars are racing the clock. The Cali Boys and the Bugges and a select cast of extras are racing one other. And the pack is far behind, racing to finish.

Tivoli. A Porta-Can of a town. The Guadalupe is muddy and so thick with alligators there's a side-sport of tossing rocks at their hovering shadows and watching them slink away. Still, the banks are lined with homes, each with a rotting pier held up by an aluminum johnboat with a rattling outboard for fishing food from the skank. No-see-ums are fierce and interspersed with biting black flies, unnoticeable when they strike, but leaving itching red welts for a week. Last year, a lady bankrunner put her Chesapeake Bay retriever on a long leash and let her swim here. Observers watched an alligator pop its head up and make a beeline for lunch. Bystanders hauled the dog in to shore seconds ahead of the gator. That's one story, anyhow. Others says it's exaggerated, that the gator never got within 100 yards of that dog.

The two youngest Mynar boys are drooped over the bridge, awaiting the arrival of their elders. The youngest, a tow-headed blond, had intended to swim at every checkpoint along the way. He draws the line here. A conversation ensues in which the younger Mynar boy solicits bids for his bravado. He will jump in that water for 20 bucks. There are no takers, no one wanting to be responsible for the ugliness of the spectacle. Young Mynar asks a bystander: what would you do it for? There is no answer.

The Mynar boat comes into view. The time is 7:50 p.m., Sunday. Tivoli is the last checkpoint before the finish flag at Seadrift.

The team captain yells at Joe Mynar as he passes: "What do you want at the end?"

"Big Red," he replies, "and Blue Bell."

Seadrift's only motel has signs over the sinks in every room: "Please DO NOT clean fish or game inside the rooms."

San Antonio Bay is calm. There's about eight miles of it between Tivoli and the flagpole at the seawall pavilion that marks the finish, and it can be the roughest part of the course. Last year, a solo racer capsized in the bay's high water, and his boat blew away from him in the dark. He shot off two rescue flares, but shot them too low to be seen. Fishermen found him the next morning, walking in waist-deep water along the perimeter of the bay. His boat was gone, so he didn't finish. Another year, another soloist chose to walk his canoe around the edge of the bay rather than fight through the wind and waves with a paddle. He was within sight of the flagpole when he stepped on a stingray and had to be hospitalized. He didn't finish either.

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