I am feeling pretty good after the race, my hands are achy and still a bit swollen, my legs are covered in poison ivy, I am eating like a ravenous beast, and I am super sleepy tired. So bear with me as I try to encapsulate a complex and dense adventure into a shorthand highlight reel. (If you want to cut to the chase, there is a slideshow at the end of this post.) Yall have been with me every step of the way for the past year so I want to give you a flavor of this wild expedition…
SATURDAY – DAY #1
I did not enjoy the first day. There were just so many damn boats to avoid and navigate. Everything was so amped up, I tweaked my back at the second portage literally 15 minutes into the race so that was stressing me out.
The first day on the upper San Marcos River is the hairiest section with fast narrow turns, tree limbs and stumps coming at you in rapid fire pace, and more portages than the law allows. Combat paddling at its finest. We had to portage a little island just after the start, Rio Vista rapids, Cummings Dam which is at least 24 feet high and was a total backlog of stressed out amped up racers and boats. Chaos.
We navigated the old broken down mill rapids seamlessly having scouted it during training. I was pretty proud of our execution there. Then we had Cottonseed Rapids which we also had a plan…that went so-so. I wasn’t at the top of my game there. But hey, we made it through unscathed so that’s the most important thing. We also stayed upright at Broken Bone rapids which has tumped Phil and me (and Banning and me!) the last four or five training runs.
We portaged both Martindale Dam and the low water bridge at the same time. That felt like a long haul. I was cursing every ounce of food and gear we brought. Phil estimates our 45lb boat was about 125lb fully loaded. And we packed lean. Things just add up…ounces turn into pounds fast.
The first checkpoint was at Staples Dam which was another weighty portage.
Things went smoothly until our second checkpoint at the Luling 90 Bridge which was a chaotic handoff. There were just so many spectators and recreational crowds and tubers. It was a nutty blur.
We plowed ahead to Zedler Mill and the Luling Dam which we portaged really well. We had a plan, communicated efficiently. It’s a pretty narly takout without much bank, then up and over a low concrete wall, push through the spectators to get the 24-foot boat lined up just right. And then we worked the boat down the 30ft rocky slope. This was our last major obstacle in daylight hours.
I was very glad the first day and the upper section was over. I did not enjoy the intensity of it all, I was worried about my back, and Seadrift seemed like a faint dream way too far away.
SATURDAY – NITE #1
I had been pretty nervous about night paddling. There are just so many obstacles that jump out during the day, I couldn’t imagine how it would go.
It was dusk at the Son of Ottine Dam which we awkwardly portaged river right. In retrospect with the high water we could have run the dam, but it wasn’t too bad. We had to swim the boat awhile down the right bank to find a place to get back in. I nailed a few rocks and tree branches which beat me up a little but that’s okay since it was my poor call to portage right.
We reached Ottine Dam at dark with a backlog of about three boats trying to portage up the hill. While waiting our turn we put away sunglasses and hats and rigged the boat for night travel, mounting the bow light and getting headlamps out. Or did we do the bow light after the portage? At any rate, the 6-man aluminum boat that was blocking the portage path had to move aside to let others get by. We actually portaged Ottine – usually a beast – very well. We worked the boat up the 40- foot dirt bank, dragged it across the grassy field up top and then lowered it down the narrow cut on the other side back down to the river.
Here was a surprise for me…I liked running at night. I felt reinvigorated and for the first time in the race, a little bit more on my game. The sun wasn’t beating down on us which was relief. Since I was in the bow I had to focus keenly on the potential stumps in the beam of our light, which actually gave me something to zone in on as paddling became monotonous.
The next checkpoint was Palmetto low water bridge. Again we talked through a strategy and executed well. It’s a dangerous spot with a sweeper on one side and the water level just inches under the bridge which means the boat could easily get sucked under. There is a bend in the river so without a straightaway view, the bridge comes up very fast.
But we were on the ready, I jumped out on the right and scurried to the bank which gave me leverage to get up on the bridge while Phil got the boat lined up closer to the bridge. Then he jumped out and we hoisted it up and over….and we were on our way.
It was a long eerie night. From Palmetto to the Gonzales Dam the river calms down quite a bit. Just a stump here and there – I felt like the sailors on the Titanic on lookout for icebergs. It was somewhat relaxing paddling at night, the stars were gorgeous, the frogs were loud.
I’d say relaxing…until about 1:30 am when it went past relaxing right into soporific. We had to pull over for a rest. We found what we thought was a nice dirt-packed ledge above a bank where we could pull out. We grabbed out Ridgerest pads, took off shoes to dry feet, set watch alarm for an hour, and turned the lights off.
Unfortunately your body starts dumping heat, your clothes are wet and it’s freezing. Mosquitoes were vile. I think we only slept about 15 or 20 minutes so we picked it up after about 45 minutes rest and paddled on.
We reached the confluence where the San Marcos flows into the Guadalupe. I was happy to reach this landmark. About three more miles to the Gonzales Dam…
We were getting low on steam and a little bored so we started singing. Different musical tastes and lack of brain cells made it hard to think of songs we could both sing…but somehow we stumbled on the genre ‘Soft Rock of the 70s’ and made some progress.
We made it though with rounds of ‘Bye Bye Miss American Pie’, ‘Country Roads’, ‘Take It Easy’, ‘Life’s Been Good To Me So Far’, and ‘You Are The Woman That I’ve Always Dreamed Of’…let me save you a trip to Google…Firefall sang it.
We reached the Gonzales Dam around 4:30ish am? You may remember the Gonzales Dam from the post about the dead cow. We were keen not to follow the hefer over this fatal fall so we paddled carefully looking for the best path up. We saw the safety light and a solo racer trying to hoist his boat up the dirt bank.
This was a tough portage. Phil got up on land and tied the the bow rope around a tree. I climbed my way out of the water onto land and we inched the boat up the hill. Then we scouted around for the best way down. Nothing popped out. Argh. So begrudgingly we began to work the boat down these awkward rocks and boulders.
Whew. Another mile or so to the Gonazales checkpoint where we napped for almost an hour until sunrise.
SUNDAY – DAY #2
Groggy. Wow. Didn’t I got to college? Wasn’t I well trained in all-nighters? The sun was bright enough to lull me to nodding off and the stretch toward the Hocheim checkpoint is about as boring as it gets. No bridges, no spectators, no other racers – the boats has spread out by this point.
It was a long 38-mile grind to the next checkpoint. We had to dip in the water often to wake up. We reached the Hocheim pretty whipped. My back no longer hurt, but my knee ached and my fanny was starting to hurt. We were almost to the halfway mileage point and got a little testy with each other. We had to set the reset button on the team demeanor and grabbed a 30-45 minute nap before pressing on.
We finally started to run with a few other boats as we neared the Cheapside checkpoint. At this point in the race I started to get into a groove.
SUNDAY – NITE #2
Pretty much everything looked like Mardi Gras floats or Carnival costumes coming at me. I also saw a herd of Jack Russells, a deer corpse pierced through a stump, several mini mt rushmores, and a washing machine.
After the Cuero checkpoint we were on the prelim course which Phil and I both recognized fairly well at the start. Then it started to seem different. And it was a WILD ride. In the dark of night in high water we came up fast on the series of Nursery Rapids which were hairy. Am thrilled we didn’t tump. Whew.
I think it was about 4am when we really needed sleep. I could tell when Phil nodded off in the back because the boat jiggy-jagged. He could tell the same. It’s a miracle we didn’t fall asleep and jerk and tump the boat. Once we decided to sleep, it took ONE LONG GRUELING HOUR to find a slice of the bank where we could pull over. That was tedious.
MONDAY – DAY #3
It was a good nap – about an hour? We woke at dawn excited to have two days and two night behind us. The end was in sight….it was possible that we could reach Seadrift without another full night on the water.
We reached the Victoria checkpoint about 8am in great spirit and super focused. We ditched trash, reapplied Desitin, unloaded unnecessary items, and were paddling by 8:29.
Another brutally boring hot long stretch to the Dupont checkpoint.
Our upbeat euphoria in Victoria wore off after a few hours. We took breaks to dunk in water but a lot faster – Seadrift was a real carrot at this point. We had opportunity to hit the finish line before midnite.
Luckily we finally paddle up to our friends Max & Mike and ran with them over ten miles which was fun and took our minds off the monotony and pain. My fanny was killing me in that seat. My shoulders were really aching.
Without question this was the most mind-bending, boring, hot, achy, un-scenic stretch of the race. But we were making headway. We reached the Dupont checkpoint and our bank crew was excited at our pace. Our team captain was taking food orders to have waiting for us in Seadrift since we’d arrive middle of the night. The thought of a pile of pasta, a dry bed, and the cool sensation of an ice sock around my neck made me feel a ton better.
Just two more legs until the finish line! That was pretty exciting.
Of course we also had two of the our biggest obstacles: the logjams below Dupont and the bay, which is always a wild card.
Luckily we hit the logjams during the day as they were gnarly. They weren’t as bad as the tales from previous years. The first logjam was the toughest, and we fouled up our approach which added some extra work for us. In retrospect we think our original plan was probably sound but who knows. We went conservative. We were dragging that boat through brambles and tall weeds and bushes and fire ants and poison ivy and mosquitoes. It was pretty nasty.
I guess the logjam created about a 500 yard portage for us? I’m not great judging distances so who knows. I will get Phil to weigh in on that.
But we made it through!
The next two logjams were cupcakes compared to that. We actually rammed through them at their weak points and were able to jump some logs and/or push up on over them so we didn’t have to carry the boat again.
My body was wearing down. Shoulders ached. Bottom ached. Knees sore. Sleep deprivation was getting to me. I knew we were racing the clock for a good finish but I needed a minute at the Saltwater Barrier checkpoint. I laid down for 5 minutes. Then I just walked around to get the blood flowing and stretched my arms. It helped. As did the positive vibe from Phil and the team and crowd at the Barrier. It was our last checkpoint! Next stop, Seadrift!!
MONDAY – NITE #3
It was pretty exciting to think the next time my head hit the pillow would be a nice bed in a hotel with AC. That said, my body still ached and we had to cross the bay at night.
There were about ten more river miles until the mouth of the bay. It was hard to stay awake when it got dark. The trees all looked like wacky paper mache. My legs were itching like mad from the nastiess of the logjam portage. Phil and I discussed our strategy for the bay. We agreed on where we wanted to cross and our route up the marshy island and across the barge canal. He was very clear that for our fast but tippy boat to make the bay crossing upright I would need to paddle hard, strong arms, vertical catch with the paddle, perfect form.
I assured him I could do it despite the fact my arms were withering and my paddle was barely dipping sideways into the water. But I knew the challenge of the bay would lift me up into action. We decided we would wait to put on our spray skirt and life vests until the mouth of the bay where there is a grassy patch around the right side of the mouth. If we tumped in the spray skirt it would be nearly impossible to wiggle back into our tippy boat without a bank and terra firma.
It was a long slow dark eerie grind down river and the banks closed in on us. It gets very narrow down there. Fish camps and river houses disappeared and the land turned marshy on either side.
I thought I was hallucinating again when the water looked like it had a tide to it. I looked again, “Is it my imagination or are there waves in this river?”
Whoa! In a nanosecond the waves became bigger and we were on a roller coaster. Boom! We were at the mouth of the bay and trying to paddle upright in 3 foot rolling waves!
Phil steered us to the right point of the mouth of the bay where we hopped out and clung to a scraggly dead tree in the water. The boat went sideways and we couldn’t get turned around. Crisis. Immediate need was life vests. He got mine undone in a flash and handed it to me.
I hopped out of the boat while the waves were lifting us up and down dramatically. I clung to a branch which broke in my hand, I grabbed another one which broke, then finally grabbed a solid one. I wrapped my knees around the branch and awkwardly bobbed in water putting on my life vest. Then it was Phil’s turn.
The waves just kept undulating us up and down. Just as we had our life vests on and we were going to try and decide what to do next we saw the light of another boat rocking toward us in the waves.
Turns out as we were clinging to this tree trying to keep our boat from swamping, the grassy knoll was about a foot or two behind us in the dark.
We pulled the boat up as did our fellow racers, Gary and Kristen, a father-daughter team. Soon another boat came, Jamie and his son Brian. And then our friend Max and Mike arrived as the rollers were about 4 feet.
We all gathered with our boats on this grassy point at the mouth of the bay, clearly not getting to cross that night.
We kicked around for about an hour, looking for a spot of dry grass that wasn’t six inches deep in water. Max/Mike and Jamie/Brian decided to sleep there as they could stay in their boats. We couldn’t sleep in our boat so we decided to paddle back upstream a few miles to solid ground and a few hours sleep, hoping the bay would be calm at daylight.
Ugh. No hotel room. No decent food. No finish line Monday night. Just more paddling, wet clothes, sore body and a violent attack of poison ivy itchy like mad.
We slept until just before dawn. Mosquitoes were bad which had me hopeful the winds were dying down. No such luck, winds were howling, trees blowing. My poison ivy was burning and I was scratching like a junkyard dog.
I took some Motrin, slathered the last of the Desitin on my poison ivy, and we labored over the map of the bay again. We decided to go for it.
We paddle the same few miles back to the mouth. Waves again inside the river but not quite as bad. We decided to tackle the bay and not retreat which meant to get out of the mouth upright we had to paddle as hard as possible and not stop until we crossed over.
It was nuts! Winds were sustained 25mph with gusts that almost took us down. The angle of the wind and waves were favorable though, save the initial crossing. We made it to the marshy island in the middle and traveled along it as long as we could.
When we reached the tip and made the turn across the barge canal the wind and waves were too much and we tumped. But we managed to get back in the boat and paddle across the barge canal. Then we were on the seawall and Seadrift was in sight!
We knew we would be walking and/or swimming the boat at some point but we wanted to paddle as long as possible. I gave it all I had. I literally was paddling as hard as I physically could, with my best form and best stroke possible. I couldn’t take me eyes off the waves directly in line in front of me for fear I would shift my weight and tip us. I was breathing deeply and controlled like a yoga class to keep my hips loose and one with the boat so we could move with the waves.
There was the pavilion in sight! There was the flagpole at the finish line! There was my family and our team captain who driven up to the top of the seawall to look for us. They scrambled back in their truck to get back to the finish line and we paddled as the bay got rougher.
As we closed in on the finish line we tumped, but it was shallow and we walked the final yards in. It was exhilarating. Crossing that finish line and walking up those steps to meet my family was one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever experienced.
Whew. Sorry to type so fast and use such poor syntax but I am a little short on energy and time at the moment. That said I have been dying to share the quick story with you…there’s more to tell but that will come. For now, all I have to say is THANK YOU to Phil, Monica, my family, my friends, and all of you for cheering so hard!
We did it. 39th place out of 92 boats. Finished in 73 hours and 21 minutes. My first Safari finish.