Sheila Reiter, left, paddles in the bow of a three-person boat as Phil Bowden, owner RiverFitness, paddles a solo boat alongside her during an April training session for the Texas Water Safari. Photo: Pam LeBlanc

I can distinctly remember telling a friend a decade ago that I’d never compete in the Texas Water Safari, a grueling 260-mile paddling race from San Marcos to the coastal Texas town of Seadrift.

“Sounds horrible,” I said. Snakes, rapids, mud, spiders, heat, and sitting on a hard plastic canoe seat for two or three days? No thanks.

Follow the journey to Seadrift live at texaswatersafari.org

Somehow my mind changed, and this year I’m registered to compete in the event as part of a three-woman team. We’ve been spending weekends paddling various stretches of the San Marcos and Guadalupe rivers, where the race, which starts June 8 on Spring Lake, takes place.

In order to earn an official finisher’s patch, you’ve got to reach Seadrift within 100 hours. Chances are, parts of the trip will be downright horrible.

While training for the experience, I’ve learned that the river changes constantly. Trees fall, water swirls, and debris piles up, creating log jams that contestants must cross.

Jeff Wueste, left, climbs over a log jam while Debbie Richardson, one of his paddling partners, steadies their five-person boat during a training run on May 12. The two are part of a five-person team training for the Texas Water Safari, which begins June 8. Photo: Pam LeBlanc

Hatching mayflies will clog your nostrils, alligator gar as big as German shepherds will surface near your boat, snakes will slither across the river, mosquitos will suck your blood, spiders will drop out of trees, and you’ll sink into oatmeal-thick, soul-sucking mud. Quite possibly you’ll hallucinate, and you’ll likely flip your boat once or twice, too.

The trick, finishers say, is mentally preparing for all of those things. When you want to quit, eat something, take a quick nap, make sure you’re hydrated, shift in your seat—and go on. Stopping kills your momentum.

Another tip? Embrace it.

“You need to cherish every minute of [the race] because it’s such a unique opportunity to spend that much time on the river and see things most people never get to see,” says 11-time Texas Water Safari finisher Debbie Richardson, one of my paddling mentors.

She’s right. The San Marcos river runs clear and cool, with lush waving grasses and towering cypress trees turning it into a tunnel of green. It also delivers a steady stream of new surprises.

Sheila Reiter, part of writer Pam LeBlanc’s three-person team training for the Texas Water Safari, eyeballs a local as they paddle down the San Marcos River during a training run in March. Photo: Pam LeBlanc

Recently, while paddling near Luling, I watched a slice of packed soil the size of a car cleave off the bank like the edge of an iceberg and crash into the water, showering Richardson with mud and water.

I’ve flipped a boat at Cottonseed Rapids, hoisted a canoe down Cummings Dam, and portaged over mud, rocks, and poison ivy. I’ve sunburned my nose, seen owls perched in trees, and spotted half a dozen four-foot alligators near Victoria. My legs are scratched and my back is sore, and I’m nervous as heck.

Through it all, though, I’ve gained confidence—and an even greater appreciation of our state’s beautiful rivers.

 

 

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