Paddlers Mike Buck, Kent Fish and Mark Huteson round a bend at Cottonseed Rapids on the first day of the Texas Water Safari. The race begins at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment in San Marcos. Pam LeBlanc photo
This is it. In less than a week, I’ll be slogging down the River of No Return while Mother Nature aims a hell of a blow torch at me during the Texas Water Safari.
I know (sort of) what to expect. I did the paddling race in 2019, as part of a three-woman team called That’s What She Said. We paddled 260 miles down the San Marcos and Guadalupe Rivers from San Marcos to Seadrift, finishing in the top quarter of the pack. We didn’t stop to sleep along the way, and we took care of all bodily functions while balanced in a moving boat.
I can only describe it as off-the-charts horrible. Truly.
I have vague memories of hallucinations, man-sized alligator gar, actual alligators, log jams and nausea. It sucked more than anything I’ve voluntarily done in my life, but we made it and afterward it felt glorious, even if the rash on my butt stuck around for two more weeks.
The race taught me I could do things I thought were physically impossible. Something deep inside me wanted to suffer a little, just to know I could come out the other side.
Pam LeBlanc nibbles cold tangerine slices a few minutes after finishing the 2019 Texas Water Safari. Photo by Chris LeBlanc
But I swore at the finish that I’d never do it again. (I think my exact words included an f-bomb or two.) I staggered around a few minutes, crawled onto a cot, and passed out. My ever-understanding husband took me to a rental house, bathed me, and put me to bed. I didn’t feel normal – no lie – for an entire month. Sleep deprivation will do that to you.
But here I am.
Six months ago, I wondered – out loud, apparently – what it would be like to do the Texas Water Safari as part of a big boat. Veteran canoe racer Debbie Richardson took the bait and invited me to join her five-human team, which includes three other paddlers (two of them from Colorado), all with multiple Safari finishes.
Related: Texas Water Safari is one month away and I’m officially freaking out
Texas Water Safari 2022 starts at 9 a.m. Saturday
Team Fists of Fury 5 – John Murphy, Steve Daniel, Deb Richardson, James Green and Pam LeBlanc. Photo by self-tier
At 9 a.m. Saturday, Deb, James, Murphy, Steve and I, aka Team Fists of Fury 5, will start at the back of the pack, where we were relegated because our full team didn’t make it to the preliminary race. We’ll have to maneuver our way around dozens of boats and try not to run over (or get run over by) anyone else.
It’ll be chaos. And after that wretched start, a fresh slate of horrors will await.
It will be hotter than blazes. The last I looked, the forecast called for record heat, with highs of 105 both Saturday and Sunday.
The river will be slower than molasses. We can expect no push of any kind getting downstream. It’s so shallow now that we’ll have to jump out of our 40-foot, five-human racing canoe and drag it in numerous spots.
It will be hell.
RELATED: Logjams, hallucinations and Mother Nature: Texas Water Safari tests paddlers with grueling 260-mile race from San Marcos to Seadrift
Last time I did the race (with badass teammates Sheila Reiter and Heather Harrison), we finished in about 53 hours. This time, even though I’ll be in a theoretically faster boat with four extra arms paddling, it might be slower. That’s how low the water is.
Honestly, I’m scared.
Portages, mosquitos and alligators at the Texas Water Safari, oh my!
We’ll have to portage something like 10 times. That involves lugging the extremely heavy watercraft up the bank and around whatever obstacle – dam, tree, bridge – that stands in our way. It will be exhausting.
Related: I survived the Texas Water Safari
We’ll have to dodge revelers who set up their folding chairs in the middle of the river and do our best to avoid people who don’t hear us holler at them to please get out of our way.
Our boat has no brakes. It’s a 40-foot torpedo gliding down the river. We might have to get out and walk it in stretches, just to avoid collisions.
Isabella Hansen tends to her father, West Hansen, at the side of the river on the second day of the 2018 Texas Water Safari. Pam LeBlanc photo
I might get trench foot. I might barf. Mosquitos will swarm us. Mayflies will flap into our mouths in the dark of night.
Alligator gars the size of grown men will breach the surface of the river. Alligators will eyeball us from the bank. Snakes will slither past. Huge spiders will drop out of trees and mosey across our arms. Blisters will rise on our hands and our butts will seize up. We’ll have to hoist our boat over trees in the river. We will see dead and bloated cows (always do) and smell natural gas around Luling.
I’ll pee in a cup and eat mashed potatoes, peanut butter sandwiches, Fritos, fruit, energy gels, meat and cheese rolls, and cold oatmeal. I’ll swill Muscle Milk and Nuun, and pop Hammer Nutrition electrolyte tablets like they’re candy.
Team Fists of Fury spotted this alligator in the river beneath Victoria while training for the Texas Water Safari in June 2022. Pam LeBlanc photo
I’ll feel like shit, but I won’t stop paddling.
Unless, that is, I break a bone.
Words of wisdom from a veteran Texas Water Safari racer
Which brings us back to Debbie, my teammate. She’s finished the race 12 times out of 12 starts. “Has anyone on your team ever quit and gotten out?” I asked her the other day.
“Never,” she said, between tales of teammates who “lost their cores” and couldn’t sit up in the boat, and stories of others who wandered aimlessly along the shoreline, so out of their minds after 40 hours of non-stop paddling that they temporarily stopped racing to pick up trash. A few years ago, she chuckled, an alligator gar swooped in and chomped one of her male teammates, leaving a ring of raw red teeth marks around one of his nipples as a calling card.
Related: Nothing goes as planned when training for the Texas Water Safari
But Deb is prepared. She’s thought of everything – Super Glue to close wounds, extra seat pads to cushion our asses, ice packs to lower our body temperature. She’s coached me how to drive the boat and boosted my confidence when it’s flagged.
And all of those people in her battle stories, Deb points out, still made it to the finish line, just like we will.
“Everybody finishes,” she says in her characteristic, chipper style, “unless you’ve got a bone sticking out.”
So, cheers to no protruding ribs or femurs. With any luck, we’ll make it to Seadrift in good spirits.
Pam LeBlanc takes a break while her team is stopped on a small island near the finish of the Texas Water Safari in 2018. Heather Harrison photo
Want to track our progress during the race? We’re team number 5, Fists of Fury 5. You’ll be able to follow along online as we make our way through the course. Go to www.texaswatersafari.org.
Even better? Come on down and cheer us from the banks. If anything will help us conquer whatever Ma Nature doles out, it’s a smile of encouragement from a friend.