Full Contact Paddling
The upper part of the course, the first 90 miles of the San Marcos River, is the most technically challenging. The river turns and narrows. It flows under water crossings too low for a boat to clear, and if you let yourself get swept under one, your boat is liable to snap, and you could drown. The river spills over 20-foot dams with currents at the bottom that can suck you up like a hairball in a Hoover. The river rushes around logjams in narrow channels strained through sweepers, the hanging branches of the riverbank trees so favored as resting places of cottonmouths and fishing spiders that look like tarantulas. A submerged stump in the hull can cripple a boat. A jutting branch in the ribs can disable a man. A big boat carrying six men and equipment can weigh 1,500 pounds and travel eight miles per hour in a sprint on fast water, easy. You don't want to get stuck broadside in front of one.
Six minutes into the race and the lead boats hit the first such obstacle, Rio Vista Dam. Rio Vista is a scenic little spillway of five or six feet with a notch in the middle through which flows a diagonal squirt of river water to the surface below. There are two accepted ways through: run the squirt, which almost invariably leads to a capsizing or at least the need to jump out in the shallow water and tump the boat free of water, or a full portage out the left bank above the dam, through a small corner of park, and back into the water below the dam.
The Mynar boat hits the dam first, double-bladed kayak paddles flashing like synchronized swimmers, and does neither. The members of the Mynar team have practiced the river so often, and so recently, that they recognize a smaller subsidiary notch at river left, with a smaller current, and they paddle their boat until the front 20 feet of it hang over the dam, scurry out of their seats and down the stone drop in their Aqua Socks, pulling the boat with them as they go, and scamper back in at the bottom in a collective motion as fluidly seamless as the river itself. The expertise involved is stunning. Slightly higher water would have swept the 40-foot boat uncontrolled over a six-foot cliff. Slightly lower water would have turned the notch into a boulder.
The California Boy boat chooses to portage, and the portage is clumsy. The California Boys are trained to race outriggers in open ocean, and they are inherently uncomfortable getting out of a boat. They lose a few seconds.
John Bugge's boat is right behind, shooting the squirt, righting itself on the down side and paddling away strong.
The Cowboys follow, and then the sloppier, slower pack, for whom it is a good thing that there are no more 1,500-pound boats coming up behind, shooting over the dam at them at eight miles per hour. There's enough trouble ahead.
Flash back a day. City Park, San Marcos, Texas, Friday, June 11, 1999, just after noon. The teams are arriving, unknotting canoes from elaborately padded pickup-top scaffoldings and lugging them to an oak-shaded grove swarming with no-see-ums and raining asps. Here, Texas Water Safari administrators have set up a card table with clipboards for check-in.
The boats are battle-scarred and epoxy-patched wonders. Seventeen-foot AlumaCrafts -- your father's aluminum canoe, the purist's standard. Translucent fiberglass We-no-nahs -- United States Canoe Association-sanctioned class boats built to fit exacting category specs. Homemade and custom-built wooden canoes, heavy as the weight of the world but glowing with varnish and the pride of craft. Short plastic whitewater kayaks -- detractors call them "Tupperware boats" -- backbreakingly slow but sturdy and hard to flip.
Then the monsters. Some over 40 feet long. Menacing black amalgams of molded Kevlar and carbon fiber. Carbon fiber like the Stealth Bomber. Kevlar like a bulletproof vest. Lightweight and strong. Boats with four and five and six seats with drafts so shallow you could paddle them across a wet piece of glass, and 19 inches wide at midships.
There are lighting systems to be rigged and tested, and these come in as many variations as the boats whose paths they are meant to illuminate through the nighttime stretches of the 260-mile paddling marathon that will begin the following morning. One boat's crew has spent almost $300 to purchase, from a military contractor, ultra-lightweight lithium cell batteries originally designed to power missile guidance systems.
Another racer mounts a 12-inch MagLite to his bow and leaves it at that.
Some supplies are dictated in the Water Safari rule book: life jackets, safety flares, first aid and snakebite kits, and a signaling device, like a whistle.
The canoe floors are littered with strategically mounted foam squares with indentations for the securement of water jugs, Leatherman tools, pen lights and film canisters with caps labeled in Magic Marker: vitamin B-12, Vaseline, vitamin E oil, Advil, antacid tablets, caffeine pills.
Some teams carry two kinds of paddles: traditional single blades and double-bladed kayak paddles. The best of them cost $260 and weigh 11 ounces. Double blades are faster but can be hard to use in tight spots. The two use slightly different muscle groups, and switching from one to another can relieve tedium and provide rest, of a sort.
Some teams will wear heart-rate monitors to gauge their performance and maintain pre-proscribed beats-per-minute.
A yellow-shirted Safari official moves from boat to boat, clipboard in hand, registering every item in every boat. This serves a dual purpose: to ensure that each team is carrying the required items, and to serve as a reference in case -- as occasionally happens -- one team accuses another of receiving illegal help from the shore-bound team captains who follow each boat down the river. Safari rules are strict. Team captains may provide only water and ice to their paddlers at various checkpoints on the river. Everything else that a team may need has to be carried on the boat from the start. So the race official counts and tallies "every last aspirin."
Then there is the matter of food, and it is the matter of food that separates the true competitors among the 80-odd entrants from the mere adventurers and would-be finishers. A body at this kind of work might burn 800 calories an hour, but the same body can metabolize only about 500 incoming calories in the same hour, and so the inescapable fact is that a body paddling nonstop for several days will quickly begin to consume itself. The primary goal is to feed that body as much sustenance as it will take to minimize self-cannibalization. The secondary goal, for a paddler who intends not just to finish, but to win, is to maximize the convenience and minimize the weight of that food.
Take the Cowboys. Four men, each from Texas, each over 40 years of age, who have been paddling the race together in various configurations for almost 20 years. The Cowboys are famous within Safari circles for wearing weirdly patterned leggings and white cowboy hats and having the best tall tales to tell at the finish line. They usually place within the top ten, because they are strong men, but they don't paddle to win, and they don't pack to win, either.
Their boat is filled with stacks of supermarket chicken cacciatore dinners with built-in chemical heating elements and tin cans of Dinty Moore stew for cold spooning and plastic grocery sacks overflowing with individual serving-size bags of Fritos. Cowboy Gene "3 Dot" Carlile, who his teammates say was "demoted" into the boat after several years of serving as team captain, scans the vittles and explains.
"I like to throw up."
Cowboy sternman John Mark "Lone Wolf" Harras clarifies: "We're not that fast."
Check out a fast boat. Smithville's West Hansen is one of six men who will paddle it, with every intention of winning. He's blond and blue-eyed, handsome, muscled and coiffed like a beach volleyball player or a JCPenney model, and he's methodically brushing wet swaths of contact cement onto tiny cellophane packet after tiny cellophane packet of crumbled Ruffles and halved Oreos and bite-size chunks of beef jerky, and sticking them to the interior hull of his canoe. These foodstuffs are carried for variety, to counteract the drudgery and stomach acid buildup of the competitive racer's primary sustenance, which is powdered carbo-and-calorie mix to be swilled down with water, and petite foil-lined servings of concentrated athletic supplements.
Hansen offers one such to a curious bystander.
The milky goop that squeezes out of the tooth-torn top of the 1.1-ounce bag has the spackle color and viscous consistency of ejaculate and a sick, sugary taste that conjures death and coats the mouth like wax. The flavor is "Viva Vanilla," which is constituted of brown rice syrup, sea salt, potassium citrate and magnesium oxide. It carries 100 calories and substantial doses of sodium, potassium, sugar and carbohydrates. This particular pouch is marketed under the brand name Clif Shot as a "natural energy gel."
If you want to win the 37th Annual Texas Water Safari, this is the kind of crap you have to eat.
The Texas Water Safari began life in 1962 as a publicity stunt.
Bill "Big Willie" George, owner of a San Marcos hamburger stand, and the late Frank Brown, then the chief of the San Marcos chamber of commerce, set out in an 18-foot V-bottomed aluminum fishing boat with the intent of floating motorless from the headwaters of the little-used San Marcos River to Corpus Christi and drawing some national attention to their tiny Texas town. George and Brown made the trip in 30 days, feeding themselves with the bounty of fishing rods, a .410 shotgun and strategic shopping trips at riverside towns along the way. In 1963 the course was institutionalized as a race, and as hoped, Life magazine came to town to photograph a lush spread on what would, in retrospect, turn out to be the precursor of modern-day extreme sports.
The rules have remained simple. Any boat is eligible, as long as it is powered solely by human muscle. And racers have 100 hours to reach the finish line. A boat coming in at 100 hours and three minutes cannot be said to have finished.
Over the years, the course was shortened to the present 260 miles, ending in Seadrift, Texas, and various rule changes were enforced, the most important of which had to do with hydration. In the early years, boats could receive no assistance of any kind from the shore, but after enough racers took ill drinking out of the river, the current allowances for delivery of water and ice were codified. These did not, however, make the race substantially easier. In 1966, out of a field of 16 boats, only one team, Howard and Jay Bludworth, managed to finish.
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.
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.
For most, there is at least the simple pleasure of canoeing, the erasure of daily distractions and responsibilities -- no wife, no husband, no kids, no job -- the distillation of fragmented lives into a fundamental goal and its infinitely repeatable achievement: one more stroke. All of these people, awaiting the starting gun, sitting back in the pack, can expect triumph to be logged, experience to be had, drama to unfold.
For the remaining few, those so bored with their own mundane success that only in extremity can they find pleasure, there is something at stake far more precious than mere triumph, experience or drama. There is winning.
After ascertaining that this story would be published after, and not before, the race, West Hansen described his team's strategy.
"We are going to consider this a 90-mile race, and we are going to kill ourselves. We are going to go like a sprint all the way down the 90-mile stretch of the San Marcos River, because that's generally when the Mynars get their huge lead. I graphed all their checkpoints for the past few years and found out where they're good and bad. And they kick butt on the San Marcos. It's the most difficult section of the river. So Allan and I have gotten to know every bump and bruise on that river, and we are going to kill ourselves to stay with them on the San Marcos and not give them a break, and just hammer and hammer and hammer, and then when we get to the Guadalupe, we'll start making our move then. Their advantage is driving. Brian Mynar is probably the most talented driver out there for big boats. If we can stay with them on the twisty water, we have enough muscle to catch them on the open water."
Team captains are the designated unsung heroes of the Water Safari, and racers at race's end trumpet their virtues loudly as the without-whom-this-never-could-have-happened support group on which all success hinges. This praise is true of course (without water, no one could paddle nonstop for 260 miles), and yet hyperbolic at the same time, an especially meaty bone tossed to the gullibles tricked into performing a team's crap tasks.
Team captains -- every team must have one -- wait at predetermined checkpoints along the river until their boats come through. If the boat's water supplies are fresh, the team captain merely shouts encouragement -- invariably a variant on "you guys are looking great." If the team needs water, it is the team captain's job to have water and ice, or ice water, prepared in water jugs with plastic tubes for hands-free sucking, ready to drop into the boat. He or she may have to stand in waist-deep mud to accomplish this. Or they may have to swim to mid-river with a full ice chest and sit on a stump.
At the same time, the team captain is responsible for gathering the empty water jugs that his team has just thrown to random spots in a flowing river. Littering the river is grounds for disqualification under Water Safari rules.
The team captains also yell out the boat's split times, or the amount of time elapsed since they passed the previous checkpoint, and the boat's distance behind the boat that passed before, and maybe that boat's split times too.
And then, when their charges are safely downriver, the team captains register the boats' time-in and time-out on the Texas Water Safari log sheet posted at riverside, get in the truck and leapfrog downstream through a maze of county roads and private bridges and interstate overpasses to the next checkpoint, where they may have to wait five hours for a boat, and where likely as not, they'll be greeted with complaints about the unacceptable warmth of the ice water and yelled quotes of reciprocal encouragement like, "I'll get me a real team captain on the bank if you can't get me some fucking water."
In their favor, team captains enjoy the camaraderie of their peers, they can afford to drink beer, and for large chunks of hot days in June, they've got nothing better to do than swim in a cool river.
At Staples Dam there's a tree-nailed poster advertising "BBQ, Burgers and Cow Beer" and a gorgeously slapdash house cantilevered over the eddies beneath a 15-foot drop-off. Upriver, local kids are swinging from a rope tied to an oak over the water, and downstream a 12-pound channel cat rots dead on the shore.
When a boat hoves into view, two things happen. The first citizen to see it, not always the team captain, yells, "boat." Then a cheer rises up from the peanut gallery.
The Mynars portage and pull away, but in the same frame of vision, the Cali Boys hit the dam. The Mynars had leaped and landed. The Cali Boys didn't trust their feet. But they were close, within sight. They rounded the bend with a skidding oversteer, but righted themselves and pounded on.
John Bugge was a distant third, chased tightly by a three-man boat manned by Wade Binion, David Rechel and Rob Wytaske.
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.
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.
Sitting on the seawall after dark on Sunday night is John Stockwell, a former military man in his late fifties from Austin. Stockwell was running the race as a novice but had to drop out below the Luling 90 Bridge when his seat came unglued from the floor of the canoe and slid crashing into his wiring setup, disabling his lights and bilge pumps. If that weren't enough, Stockwell was struggling with a sour stomach. You want to try to keep your urine clear, he says. Not yellow. Yellow indicates high acidity. It's easy enough to check: Competitive racers wouldn't dare sacrifice the paddle strokes necessary to hop out on the bank. They just piss in the boat where they're sitting.
At 10:06 p.m. the Mynar boat follows its light into the concrete steps at the flagpole. The finish time is 37 hours and nine minutes. Someone slaps a cold can of Big Red into Joe Mynar's hand. The team wobbles on uncertain legs and a fat teenage boy muscles in and starts asking John Dunn questions: How long has he been racing? What kind of race food does he recommend? Dunn offers some polite nods and maintains a middle-distance stare until his wife grabs the boy by the shoulder and pulls him away. She is fuming.
"My husband just spent 39 hours in a canoe, and I haven't even seen him yet, and the last thing he wants to talk about is canoeing. Now get the hell out of here."
The boy slumps off.
The Cali Boys struggle in at 2:31 a.m., almost four and a half hours off the lead. Twice the margin of defeat of any second-place boat in the past two years. Whatever the cause of the field's inability to knock off the Mynars, it's clearly not John Bugge, who finishes third a mere hour and 19 minutes behind the Cali Boys in a four-man boat half-powered by women. It's after 5 a.m. before another boat reaches the finish, and they will continue to trickle in at more or less hourly intervals for the next 56 hours and collapse on the shore or wander like zombies, too tired to fall down.
The grassy seawall fills with boats through Monday, and recovering racers stroll the grounds hearing the stories behind snapped-off paddle blades, and cutting a wide berth around the Bugge boat, which is a quarter full of rotting mayfly carcasses that look and smell like congealing barf.
A traveling masseuse has erected a tent by the pavilion and does a brisk business kneading knotted backs. Tom Goynes, who finished in a tandem boat with his daughter Sandy in 54.5 hours, suggests that a portable therapy tent might do even better.
At the awards banquet at noon on Tuesday -- technically, there are still 25 hours in which to finish -- a serving wagon dishes out fried catfish, fried shrimp, fried hush puppies and lemonade. Eighty-two boats started the race. Twenty-nine have dropped out for one reason or another. Thirty-seven boats are in, and 16 are known to be on the way.
After the eating, announcers hand out the awards. Finishers get a Texas Water Safari patch. Winners in the class categories get plaques to keep and their names inscribed on a traveling trophy cup that goes home with the winner for a year. There is no prize money. Just bragging rights.
Finishers make small speeches as they pick up their plaques. These usually involve thanking the people who have helped, praising the community of paddlers and something self-deprecatingly funny.
Veteran Owen West says finishing the race is "like getting out of college, finally."
Sandy Goynes thanks the organizers of "this stupid, ridiculous race."
Former champion Mike Shively tells how he and partner Jim Pye passed the long hours between Gonzales and the Hochheim Bridge with a vomiting contest, scored on the Olympic ten-point scale, which Pye eventually won.
Finally, the announcer arrives at the number two boat, West Hansen, Allan Spelce and the California Boys. Spelce takes the mike first and gets a laugh when he describes how his boat kept it competitive "right up until Rio Vista," 259 miles back.
Rich Long confesses: "I haven't had my butt kicked this bad since the fourth grade."
There is much bowing and scraping to the Mynar team, and modest hopes to provide stiffer competition next year.
And then the Mynar team takes the stage to receive the trophy they're surely getting used to. Joe Mynar quietly thanks Tom Goynes for the use of his shop and then relates that he lost his father earlier this year, and a good friend three weeks later. "I miss both those guys" is all he says, and he carries away the original 1963 Argosy Cup (donated by the now-defunct adventure magazine) to thunderous applause.
A short time later, while West Hansen and Allan Spelce are already scheming improvements, Rich Long, the beefiest of the California Boys, wanders by the winning boat and calls out to Brian Mynar.
"Hey, you guys taking reservations for that six-man next year?"
E-mail Brad Tyer at email@example.com.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.