Between winds so strong they triggered a small craft advisory, swells so big the paddlers disappeared between them, boat-flipping chop and a few other setbacks (we’ll get to that), the Third Coast Cowboys’ Epic Kayak trip is puttering up the coast at about half its intended pace.
But things may be looking up.
Expedition leader West Hansen predicted the five-man team, which includes veteran paddlers Jimmy Harvey, Tim Curry and Jeff Wueste, and Branndon Bargo, co-star of the PBS documentary “The Highpointers,” would make the 385-mile trip from the southern tip of Texas to Sabine Pass near Port Arthur in a swift eight days.
Then they had to move their start from Boca Chica Beach to South Padre Island. And the winds picked up. And one of the paddlers swallowed way too much seawater on day one and couldn’t keep any food or drink down.
The team never made it to Mansfield Cut that first night, where I was hoping to meet them. They finally reached us at the end of day two, after delays that required a brief consultation with the Coast Guard. (Bargo got separated from the group and the others pulled ashore when they couldn’t find him. Hansen alerted the Coast Guard, then caught a ride in a truck up the beach where they spotted the missing paddler chugging along. Hansen returned to the group and paddled in.)
A few hours later, as I stood at the end of the jetty, I watched Wueste get pitched from his kayak just a few hundred yards from shore.
“Never a dull moment,” Hansen said when the team finallyregrouped on the beach.
We pitched our tents, enjoyed a gorgeous night on the beach, and slept until sunrise. (Harvey and I slurped up dehydrated chili from Packit Gourmet, an Austin-based company that makes really yummy camping meals. Just add boiling water.)
This morning, the team shifted its path to the Intercoastal Waterway, to avoid the worst of the seas. They’ve been making steady progress today, but even at their current clip of between 4 and 5 mph, I’ll be surprised if we meet them at Bird Island tonight as planned.
I’ve been having my own adventures as the paddlers battle the ocean. Terlingua-based Jason Jones, longtime friends with Hansen and the crew, has been driving me all over the place – it’s a 2.5-hour, 60-mile drive down the beach just to get to the cut. Once there, I discovered a population of racoons living between the giant granite blocks that make up the levy. I managed to wrap myself up in the tentacles of a jellyfish. (Jason volunteered to pee on it, but I declined the offer.) Jason made friends with a scrappy little dog named Xena the Warrior Princess.
Looks like I’ll be snoozing on a yacht belonging to a friend of a friend tonight, so life’s still good. If we don’t meet the guys tonight, we hope to catch up with them tomorrow.
When the world starts opening up again, our travel habits will probably look a little different.
I’m already dreaming about a road trip, complete with a pop-up camper and a bunch of parks where I don’t have to gather in close quarters with anyone.
I don’t have a trailer of my own, but twice I’ve gotten a loner from Outdoorsy, which works sort of like the VRBO of the recreational vehicle world. People with campers sitting on their driveways can sign up to rent their equipment to people (like me) who need one.
Outdoorsy’s cool. And the Austin-based company announced this week that it’s giving selected healthcare workers free road trips after the peak of the pandemic passes. That makes me like them even more.
For every trip booked between now and June 30, Outdoorsy will match the booking with free road trip nights that will be donated to healthcare workers. Winners get a three-day, two-night rental, a gift card to cover the costs of a stay at any Kampgrounds of America location in North America, and a membership to Harvest Hosts, which offers free camping at more than 1,000 wineries, breweries, distilleries, farms, and other locations.
To nominate a doctor, nurse, EMT or anyone working in healthcare, go to the program page at https://www.outdoorsy.com/m/healthcare-heroes. RV owners who want to lend their vehicle for the cause can also sign up on the program page.
Five Texas paddlers are heading to the Third Coast this week to paddle from Boca Chica Beach in Brownsville to Sabine Pass near Port Arthur.
I’m tagging along on that mini-expedition, which should take about eight days, but not in a boat. I’ll be on shore, chasing the team, camping on the beach, and documenting the adventure as it unfolds.
West Hansen, who led a 2012 paddling expedition more than 4,000 miles down the length of the Amazon River, heads up the team, which also includes Jeff Wueste, Jimmy Harvey, Branndon Bargo, and Tim Curry. Hansen, Wueste and Harvey are part of the upcoming Arctic Cowboys expedition to kayak the Northwest Passage.
Collectively, they haul around boatloads of experience. Hansen has finished the grueling 260-mile Texas Water Safari canoe race 20 times and won the Missouri River 340 as a solo paddler. He’s also a member of the prestigious Explorers Club, whose members include astronauts, mountain climbers and underwater explorers. The other paddlers are experienced canoe racers and Safari veterans, too.
They’ll cover roughly 385 miles on the next week’s Texas trip, paddling outside the third sandbar as they go to avoid the worst of the surge and wave action. I’m bringing my swim gear, so I can log some ocean miles while I wait for them to come in. (As a side note, we’ve all gotten COVID-19 tests, to make sure we don’t cross infect one another along the way. And we’ll practice social distancing.)
I managed to stay upright this morning while simultaneously wrangling cameras and paddling a racing canoe alongside the guys as they chugged up and down Lady Bird Lake on a shakeout run.
Check my blog for updates.
I just got a shipment of dehydrated meals, the first sign of my upcoming trip to the Texas Coast to follow the Arctic Cowboys (plus one) as they paddle from Boca Chica Beach to Sabine Pass.
I’m pretty psyched, since I’ve been at home since flying in from Canada on March 5. To celebrate, I got a brain-tickling nasal swab COVID-19 test at a drive-through station today, something all four members of the expedition – trip leader West Hansen, Jeff Wueste, Branndon Bargo and Jimmy Harvey – are also doing to make sure we don’t cross contaminate one another.
The food came from Packit Gourmet, an Austin-based company I discovered in 2016, when I wrote about them for the Austin American-Statesman. (Read the article at https://www.statesman.com/NEWS/20161208/Austin-based-Packit-Gourmet-makes-meals-fit-for-the-back-country?_ga=2.143733554.663474386.1589468570-1283764380.1333191630.)
Sarah Welton hatched the idea for the company, which makes lightweight camping meals that taste like real food, instead of heavily-salted cardboard, while she was earning a graduate business degree from the University of Colorado Boulder. She’d grown up paddle camping with her parents, self-described hippies who dehydrated their own ingredients to cook along the way.
Welton’s mom, Debbie Mullins, developed some of the recipes, which Welton tried on her classmates. The company officially launched in 2008 with a few items including Austintacious tortilla soup. A popular backpacking blogger bought mentioned the meals on her blog and recommended them to Backpacker Magazine, which awarded Packit Gourmet an editor’s choice award.
I took an array of meals along when I backpacked the John Muir Trail four years ago, and loved the stuff. I poured boiling water into what looked like a bowl of confetti but bloomed into a piping hot bowl of chicken and dumplings. The Texas State Fair Chili got the highest marks from me. (I wasn’t so thrilled about the “hamburger,” which requires a tortilla for wrapping.) The breakfasts are the best – particularly the West Memphis Grits Souffle. And who doesn’t like banana pudding, especially while backpacking?
Today’s shipment includes a few I haven’t tried yet: Polenta with Pork Sausage and Pasta Beef Bolognese. Stay tuned for a full report on those.
In all, the company offers about 50 different meals, including vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and dairy-free options, all easily prepared with hot or cold water. Top sellers include Big Easy gumbo, high-protein smoothies and something called Ramen Rescue, a pack of dried veggies designed to spice up your own noodles.