It’s 8:58AM on Saturday, June 10th. My heart is racing. In two minutes, our three women team made up of myself, Cecili, and Morgan, along with 161 other boats, will begin the 260 mile journey from San Marcos, TX to the Gulf. We know a lot of what we will encounter along the way- rapids, log jams, alligators, 100+ degree weather, mosquitos, sleep deprivation, etc, but there are also a lot of unknowns. A lot can happen in 260 miles.
I look over at the bank and see my mom. She gives me a wave and a thumbs up. I take a deep breath and wait for the gun to go off. BOOM. The 2023 Texas Water Safari has officially started.
The first 60 miles of the Texas Water Safari are some of the most fun miles on a river (in my opinion). They are twisty and windy with portages, logs and rocks to dodge, clear water, cypress trees, and overall they go by pretty fast. We have run these miles over and over again before the Safari. We know where each little stick is and how the boat will react to each bend in the river. This isn’t just a two day race, but [for most of us] it’s a six month process.
Miles 1-16: The first 16 miles alone has six portages and a few tricky areas. Old Mill and Cottonseed Rapids are known for flipping and breaking boats. This year is a low water year so everything is more exposed and the lines are direct. There is little room for error. I am in the bow for both of these obstacles and even though we have practiced them over and over I am nervous, especially for Cottonseed. As we approach I block out the hundreds of fans watching and focus on drawing the boat around the sharp corner and avoiding the rocks. I hear Cecili behind me saying “You’re good Lydia! You got this!” We couldn’t have nailed it better. I take a deep breath, smile, and then get back to it. We still have 252 miles to go.
As we portage over Staples Dam, marking the end of the first 16 miles. I think we all breathe a sigh of relief. We made it to the first checkpoint and through some of the trickier parts of the course. Unfortunately, we did pass a boat or two that did not have the same luck, one had gotten a hole in their boat and one had flipped. But that’s show biz.
How the Texas Water Safari works is you have two designated people on the banks called your Team Captains. They are the only ones who can give you food, water, ice packs (very important when paddling in Texas in summer), or medical. Besides that you are on your own. You must carry everything else you think you may need. Lost your hat during the first six miles? I hope you brought an extra one. Battery packs stop working? Nothing anyone else can do about it. Hole in your boat? Let’s hope your repair kit was good enough to fix it. It might sound rough, but that is part of the race. Plan accordingly and hope for the best.
Miles 16- 40: By mile 16 we have settled in. It’s a long race, not won on the first day, but that doesn’t mean these miles aren’t important. Cecili takes over in bow while Morgan is still crushing it in stern. We are around two or three other boats, a four man and a tandem made up of a father/daughter duo. The four man is full of stoke and energy, but take a bend on the outside and get stuck behind a fallen tree. We pass on the inside and never see them again.
We try to switch out bow every hour and a half to two hours because in the bow you are pulling more. So about ten miles after at a section of the river where logs cause us to jump out, Cecili and I switch again. The next few miles go by quickly.
We are following the father/daughter duo down this section. During this section, we start to run into a lot of tubers. I don’t think any of us have ever seen this many out in the river. They can be annoying, but we don’t own the river, however, neither do they. So we do our best to maneuver around them, letting them know to stay put so we can get around them as we are all out trying to enjoy this beautiful river. We wish them luck as we know there are 150 boats still behind us, some with questionable driving abilities. Add tubers to the list of obstacles I wasn’t expecting.
The next four miles of this river are my favorite. They are technical with sharp turns, downed trees, and tight squeezes. We have practiced this section enough that I think we could all do it in our sleep, but we can’t get too cocky because that’s when it gets you. We stay alert and make it through all the rowdiness. Cecili goes back to bow, we get another ice pack from our TCs, and we are now done with the first 40 miles. Only 220 to go.
Miles 40 – 85: The next six miles are leading up to a dam so they tend to feel more like a lake. We break out our double blades for this section. Double blading tends to be faster and uses different muscles so it is a nice break. We get to the dam at Zedler Mill and must portage down one of the buttresses and walk down the rocky bank on the side. Although a small part of the Safari, it is important to be smooth and efficient at these portages. You don’t want a broken ankle, but you also don’t want to be wasting time.
The next 8 miles go by relatively easy. By this point, we’ve passed the father/daughter duo and have come across a six man who was having rudder issues. It looks like they got it fixed and are back in action. The next big portage is down Son of Ottine, a rapid that used to be runnable, but now there is a huge tree across the bottom so we portage around and after a little maneuvering, get through.
Here my mind and body starts playing tricks on me. I get in my head with how far we have come and how far we still have to go. I begin to feel like I am going to throw up. We get to the checkpoint at mile 60, Palmetto State Park. This is always a big check point. You have the most technical section of the river behind you and you are usually preparing for nightfall here. We put our lights on our boat and one of our bank crew, Kaitlin, asks how we are doing. I respond “Okay” and upon hearing this she asks why just okay. I explain that physically I feel okay, but mentally I can’t get there. Kaitlin gives me a good pep talk, reminding me that I can do this. I try to believe her and get back in bow. Right before we head out, I make a split second decision to tell someone and turn to my friend Shannon and say “I feel like I might throw up” and then we leave.
Now, throwing up is one of my least favorite things in this whole world. So even though I feel like I might, I figure I won’t until a mile downstream when I’m leaning over the side of the boat and throwing up some strawberry banana applesauce. Cecili asks if I want to go to seat two for a bit. I agree and get a ginger ale from Morgan. I finally let them know that I’ve been struggling. They comfort me and tell me to do what I need to do to recover. I continue paddling, but make sure I sip on the ginger ale and eat in small amounts.
Seven miles later, we came across another bridge. I wasn’t expecting our Team Captains to be there. Luckily, since I told someone how I was feeling, they were there, with more ginger ale and some stomach medicine to make me feel better.
The next 15 miles or so go by in a blur. I am just concentrating on feeling better, not letting my teammates down, not being the weak link, and getting to the finish line in Seadrift. Night falls and it begins to cool down. I take my long sleeve shirt off and immediately feel cooler.
We make it to the next checkpoint at Gonzales Dam. This is a longer portage and rocky. We empty the boat of all the trash we’ve gotten and get fresh new jugs. I see my friend Sam there on the banks and look her dead in the eyes and say “Sam, I threw up”. She shrugs and says “Good, it’s out of your system.” And just like that I start feeling better. I get a cup of Ramen at this stop and start sipping on it. I feel invigorated and am faking it a little. But hey, fake it till you make it, and I am going to make it. 85 miles down. 175 more to go.
Miles 85 – 125: This section of the river is the longest part of the race without any interruptions. It is 40 miles and tends to take 12 years. With the cool(er) night air and Ramen on my stomach I start to feel 110% better. We continue on our way.
As you can imagine, it can be harder to see at night. Our light is amazing, but it can only cast so far and can sometimes play tricks on you. We were supposed to have a GPS track for this portion, but it appears we have the wrong one, so we are going solely off of what we can see. For the most part, we don’t have many issues, however, there are one or two spots where we can’t tell if there are rocks or waves until we are right on them. We hop out and run the boat through.
The first night always tends to be the hardest. You have already been paddling for over 12 hours, the pain hasn’t quite settled in yet, you’re fighting sleep, and you know you still have a whole other day in front of you. Morgan says “does anyone have anything to talk about?” After training for six months together, and being best friends, you don’t have much you don’t already know about each other or haven’t already talked about. But we get by talking about Safari and who we think is where and what our favorite part of day one was.
Halfway through, at about 3AM in the morning, we come across our TCs at a secret spot. We don’t need anything from them, but it is amazing what just seeing others and hearing Kesha blaring from some speakers can do for your energy and stoke.
With tenish miles left until the next checkpoint, we start seeing lights behind us. It can suck to see a boat approaching you and you’re tempted to start padding faster, but it’s a long race. We continue paddling at our own pace and make it to the next checkpoint as the sun is making its way up. 125 miles down, only 135 to go.
Miles 125- 166: When we get to Hochheim, a soloist is there cooling off in the water. As we do our quick change, we are told we are now in fifth place. Having the longest section behind us we make our way on. This next section is nothing to write home about. Pretty flat with only a few fun bends to make you think. We switch from singles to doubles and back a few times to wake up different muscles and cool off some.
The boat with the light we saw during the night finally catches up with us when we choose a left side around an island instead of the right. It is a mixed four man. We pass another checkpoint and continue sucking down water and electrolytes. As the sun rises, we can tell it is going to be another hot one.
We’ve been noticing for a bit that our pumps (devices that pump water that has come in the boat, out of the boat) for the boat are not working properly. The front one will only work occasionally, the middle one has completely stopped, and the back one turns on whenever it feels like it. We make the call to pull over and dump because we are carrying a lot more water weight than we need to be. As we pull over, we take a look at the pumps and the mixed four man from earlier in the morning pass us. As frustrating as it can be to have a team pass you while you are pulled over, we get back in the boat and immediately are happy with our decision. The boat feels so much lighter.
We can see the four in the distance, so once again, we fight the temptation to pick it up and we go our pace. Slowly we start reeling them in. We ride next to them for a while and into the next checkpoint. We get fresh jugs, food bags, and ice pack. We are back to paddling in the blink of an eye.
We stay around the four man for the next few miles, kind of talking, kind of not, in the heat of the day the three of us aren’t really chatterboxes. We pull over and dump another time after we get some water in the boat after a little rapid, but have slowly made some time on the four by this point. It’s hot, but we’re staying as cool as we can with ice packs and hydration. As we round the corner and see River Haven RV park and our TC, we’ve got 166 miles down only 94 to go.
Miles 166-200: Here we dump our boat one more time. I get a bandaid for one of my fingers because my hands are starting to blister, and we are back in action. This section of the course is where we have the prelim, the race that determines your starting position. That was back in May, so we are familiar with this section. Although hot, it goes by relatively quickly. We catch the four man (again) and put some time on them.
There are two spots called Nursery Rapids in this section. If passing through at night they can be a boat buster, but during the day, especially in the low water it is obvious where to go, and we make it through. Now it is mostly open water, including the longest straight away of the course, until Victoria.
If you are wondering about our nutrition and hydration during the race we are sure to stay on top of it. If you don’t, that can end your race. In previous years, I have a timer set for the top of the hour and you eat something then. This year we have a timer for every 15 minutes. This allows us to eat smaller portions (a bite of an UnTapped Waffle, a handful of chips, a sip of Ramen) more frequently than doing it all at once. I also have a bottle of a meal replacement drink that I drink for calories. And we rotate water jugs and electrolyte mix to keep a good balance, which we drink through straws so we can continue paddling as we hydrate.
We make it to Victoria. This is a major milestone. This is where we say the race really starts. 200 miles down, only 60 to go.
Miles 200 – 230: The sun is starting to set as we pull out of Victoria and in a mile or so we pull over one last time to make sure we get all the water out of our boat. By this time we have put enough time on the four man, they don’t pass us again. We sit in fifth place, but we still have some of the trickier sections of the Safari left, so we can’t get too comfortable.
None of us have seen this section in at least a year. It isn’t one that we scout because it tends to be relatively straight forward, except for the 105 turns. At night, it can start to feel like you are going in a circle, especially if you are tired. Luckily, we are all still solid of mind and know we are going the right way.
We see our support crew at the next bridge which feels like it takes forever to reach. They give us some data on the upcoming log jams. Cecili takes over driving and Morgan hops in the bow. The trees have started changing shapes in my mind, but I try to shake it off. Hallucinations are common during the Safari. Some people see clowns, some see boats, and this year I am seeing skulls and creepy shapes. I don’t like it at all, so I try to ignore it as much as possible.
Now when you are tired, have been paddling for 35+ hours, and it’s 1 in the morning the last thing you want to do is get out of your boat and drag it through fallen trees in knee deep mud, but lucky us, this is exactly what we get to do.
We get to the first log jam and see footprints to river left. We hop out of the boat and immediately go to our knees in mud. We begin the process of carrying/pulling the boat over the muddy bank and lifting it over a fallen tree. If you want to see sporadic teamwork in action, this is one of those times. The mud keeps trying to steal our shoes, but we all make it out with two shoes and a lot of mud.
The next jam goes very similarly, but the last jam we go through the middle right. It is solid to walk on, about a fourth of the time. We are sinking down through this disgusting jam, swimming through who knows what, and trying to pull the boat over. At one point, Cecili is standing on a tire in the middle. Ya just never know what you’ll find at DuPont. Finally, we get the boat through and get to the next checkpoint where we try to wash the disgusting jam off of ourselves, only to get replaced by more mud. 230 miles down, 30 left to go.
Miles 230-250: We say see ya later and head on into the rowdiness that is known as the Cuts. These are small sections of the river that have been formed over time from flooding, log jams, etc. We take these cuts when there are jams in the river that are too long and hard to get through.
We have about six miles until the first cut. It’s about 2:30 AM now. We see several orange eyes looking at us. These are gator eyes, shining orange from our light. They don’t want to mess with us, and we don’t mess with them.
Eight miles down our eyes are peeled for the entrance of the cut, miss it and we could be all jumbled up. We don’t miss it and head straight in. The cuts are tight and windy. Immediately there is a portage over a fallen log. Then right after that a sharp left turn all the way to the right bank to avoid a down tree. I hear a loud thump and a shout from Cecili behind me. We stop dead in our tracks.
Fearing that she just nailed her head on the tree, I look back. What I see is Cecili on her seat and a big ol’ alligator gar flopping in front of her. Now, if you’ve never seen an alligator gar before imagine a dinosaur and then imagine it as a fish. These prehistoric terrors have been known to flop up and break ribs of paddlers and give you a scare when they swim away from your boat so fast.
What we discover in this moment is that neither Cecili or myself like fish, especially these Jurassic Park wannabes. Cecili tries scooping it out with her paddle, but everytime the fish moves and flops off. It then starts burying itself into the jug foam. I try to help Cecili get the fish with my paddle too, but to no avail.
About this time,I start getting mad. We did not come all this way to be stopped by a fish. However, not mad enough to grab it with my bare hands. These things are slimy, spikey, and have teeth that can cut ya. So I start yelling at this fish and find a plastic bag. The tail is facing Cecili so we pump her up to grab it through the bag and toss it out. She goes and the fish flops and the tail is facing my way. I yell some choice words at it, grab it hard, and toss it into the water. We are free at last.
When we were entering the cuts we said “what happens in the cuts, stays in the cut” because your best self can shine while going through. And they did. We saw the cuts twice before the race, in the daylight, in higher water. So we get in there and everything looks different to me. I try to holler instructions to Morgan in the stern as much as possible. I nail some of them, but not all. After eating about twenty spider webs, jumping out of the boat twice to pull it around a log I didn’t see, and having no idea exactly where we are, we finally make it back into the river.
The next 8 miles go by as the sun comes up. We are now officially on day three of the Safari. We come to the final checkpoint of the race. Our team is there looking amazing and pumping us up. We ask about the team ahead and behind us. We are putting more and more time on the team behind us and gaining on the team ahead. We are sitting in fifth place with the bay still left. 250 miles down. 10 to go.
Miles 250 – 260: We are almost done. But the bay is one of the biggest obstacles yet. That is one thing I love and hate about the Safari. You can never relax and say “we’ve made it” until you are about five feet away from the finish line. You can spend anywhere from two hours to twenty-four hours in the bay. There are folks who make it all the way there and then DNF. It is no joke.
We paddle until we get to a spot called wooden bridge. Our team is waiting for us and we pull over and jump into action. We empty the boat of everything we don’t need. Our single blades, head lamps, all the trash and leftover food. We are each given one jug and then a communal food bag. We take the life jackets out and the skirt. Cecili and I start working on clipping the skirt on while Morgan works on the pumps. We are hoping the two pumps that are kind of working will stay working in the bay.
The skirt can be described as a piece of material that is stretched over the whole boat to prevent the waves of the bay from getting in. There are holes for us to sit in and then it cinches up to our chest. We pull our drink tubes through because there is no easy access into the boat. We aren’t taking any chances. We leave our single blades behind as doubles provide better stability in the bay. We are told we are looking at a relatively calm bay, but you always prepare for worse. The bay can change in an instance.
As we are leaving, we hear “DOMINATE DIGGER STATUS!” and that is exactly what we plan to do. We paddle the last few miles to the bay in almost complete silence. I’m nervous. Up until now, I’ve never had to skirt up for the bay during the Safari, I’ve only had calm bays. Morgan has never flipped in the bay in her ten safaris. I don’t want to be the first.
We enter the bay, and I am tense. The waves aren’t bad as we take them head on. I try to sync up to Cecili in front of me and remain calm and loose. We head to a spot called Fosters Point. It doesn’t appear to be getting any closer, but honestly I’m barely looking around. I’m trying to put all my focus on the waves coming, so I can anticipate how the boat and water is going to move.
A wave hits me on the side and pulls down my skirt with the weight of the water. Morgan tells me to get the water off and pull my skirt up. I do just that while gripping my double blade so the wind doesn’t knock it out of my hands. We pass Fosters Point and Morgan lets us now we are down to one pump. She is going to take us to Spoil Island so we can dump. As we start heading that way she has a change of heart. “We’ve got the one pump working. I’m going to take us on a conservative line and hopefully we can make it without having to dump!” “Okay!” Cecili and I yell back. We have full trust she is taking us where we need to be.
Right after we pass the island we cross the barge canal. This section is the gnarly section. The water is deeper so the waves are bigger. It has been known to flip many boats. We are going perpendicular to the waves in order to keep water out of the boat. A few catch us on the side, but for the most part we are doing a good job of moving as a boat with the waves. My abs are hurting, but it is also kind of fun. I’ve started to relax some, but not too much of course.
I take a moment to look up and I see we made it across the canal. We can do this. We are doing this. The waves are still coming, but we aren’t close to tipping. “Y’all are doing amazing! The finish line is straight ahead!” Morgan says. She is driving us like a boss. I still don’t know how she did it.
I look at the big white tents and urge them to get closer. Slowly they do. The bay calms down a little and soon I see the orange buoy and hear cheering. I can’t stop smiling as we make our way across and our nose passes through the buoys. We’ve done it. We have finished the 60th Texas Water Safari. 260 miles down. 0 to go.
Our legs are wobbly as we get out of the boat and hug each other, our team captains, and pretty much anyone around. We crossed the finish line in 49.5 hours. Fifth place overall. 1st womens. Proud doesn’t even begin to cover it.
PC: Ashley Landis, Sandy Yonley, Jill Mulder