Heather Harrison and Courtney Martinez are racing tandem. Pam LeBlanc photo

You’ve got to have a screw or two loose to sign up for the Texas Water Safari, a 260-mile paddle race from San Marcos to the Gulf Coast.

Why else would you endure bobbing logjams, spiders, rapids, snakes, soul-sucking mud, exhaustion, extreme heat, alligators, mosquitos, and hallucinations?

I dropped by check-in for the grueling race, which starts at 9 a.m. Saturday at Spring Lake, the headwaters of the San Marcos River.

Colton Moore will attempt his first Texas Safari race. Pam LeBlanc photo

Among this year’s racers is Colton Moore, 31, who moved to Central Texas last year to prepare. He thinks he’s ready, although he’s apprehensive. This year marks his first attempt at the event, dubbed “The World’s Toughest Canoe Race.

“I just want to make it through the first 30 miles without breaking my boat,” he says, noting that many of the other competitors have years of experience on him. “They know these rivers, they know these boats. But I can do this.”

A few months ago, it looked like racers would have to deal with slow moving water during this year’s race. But recent rains have bumped up the flow. The weather forecast calls for high humidity and temperatures in the upper 90s.

Owen West, 83, will try for his 29th Safari finish. Pam LeBlanc photo

Eighty-three-year-old Owen West doesn’t seem at all worried about conditions. The 29-time contestant, known famously for carrying a baggie filled with Swisher Sweets cigars along on the route, chomped on a stogie as his grandson Alex West, 33, hovered nervously. West is hoping to become the first to rack up a finish in all seven decades that the race has been staged. This year he’s racing with two younger paddlers – his grandson Eric West and his friend Keegan McCally.

“It takes an army to get him down the river, but we don’t tell him that,” Alex West says. “He’s ‘Let’s get some cigars and Coca Colas and go down the river.’ We just want to make sure Owen is OK. I’m sure he’d love to die on this thing, but we don’t want him to.”

This racer taped a picture of his family next to his canoe seat to keep him motivated. Pam LeBlanc photo

The five-man Cowboys team is legendary in the event. John Mark Harris, 62, a member of this year’s cowboy hat-wearing crew, is looking for his 35th finish.

“I still get very nervous, but it used to be worse,” he says, explaining that during one of his first races he had to ask his dad to pull over so he could barf out the car door on the way to the start line.

So why do it?

“The short answer is you start out doing it to see if you can,” Harris says. “You keep doing it because you realize you can do better. And then you keep going because you realize you love it.”


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