West Hansen pulled his kayak up the boat ramp at Walter Umphrey State Park in Port Arthur at about 5 p.m. Monday, stepped around a dead fish and greeted the small crowd of family members gathered there to cheer him in.
“Well, that’s done,” he said, 13 days of stubble bristling from his chin.
Hansen, 58, and four other paddlers left the tip of South Padre Island on May 20, then spent two days chugging through swells and chop in the Gulf of Mexico before shifting into the Intracoastal Waterway for the rest of the trip up the Texas coast. Tim Curry dropped out after four days, but the others – Jeff Wueste, Jimmy Harvey and Branndon Bargo – celebrated Monday afternoon by sharing stories and eating homemade chicken, potato salad and cookies in the shadow of the Sabine Lake Causeway Bridge between Texas and Louisiana. The 3rd Coast Cowboys Epic Kayak Journey covered 420 miles in all, and the kayakers paddled an estimated 65,000 to 70,000 strokes most days.
The paddlers spent their final night in cattle pens at a grassy crossing of the ICW about 5 miles northeast of the State Highway 124 bridge, lulled to sleep by croaking bull frogs, under the watchful gaze of a 6-foot alligator. Paddling into Port Arthur that last day, they went through another downpour, and steady headwinds.
“It was hard,” Harvey said while driving back to Austin a few hours later. “Today was a slog because the wind was blowing in our face all day and it felt like we were going upstream.”
Hansen originally guessed that the trip would take eight days; that stretched to 13 when the team encountered stiff winds, coastal squalls and swells so big they lost sight of one another. Instead of 50 miles – the distance Hansen covered on an average day during his 2012 Amazon Express expedition down the entire length of the Amazon River – they paddled closer to 35 miles.
“Was there ever a moment you wanted to quit?” someone asked Hansen as he feasted at the finish.
“Yeah, every one,” joked Hansen, his nose sunburned and lower back rubbed raw from his seat.
Besides challenging conditions in the Gulf, the team endured a series of storms, including one that wrecked several tents, swarms of mosquitos, and enough sticky ooze at one campsite to host a mud-wrestling competition. They also paddled alongside pods of dolphins, pitched tents on spoil islands covered in lush green and rust-colored grass, and watched serene sunrises and sunsets. One night Hansen sang songs from his tent; each morning they gathered for coffee before pushing back into the liquid highway. Along the way they swapped stories, tried to trip each other up with riddles, and pondered trivia questions.
They also met people, including a friendly fisherman who shared bags of fresh fruit, someone who needed a hand righting an overturned bathroom, and a constable who escorted the kayakers around a construction zone to replace the last operating swing bridge in the state. In the busy Galveston Harbor they paused to admire the three-masted Elissa, a tall sailing ship launched in 1877, before sprinting across the Galveston Ship Channel to Bolivar Peninsula, where they camped on a beach strewn with litter.
Thirteen days into the adventure, the paddlers finished strong and looked happy.
I’m writing about the adventure for a statewide magazine. I’ll share details when it publishes.