West Hansen won’t lead a kayaking expedition through the Northwest Passage this summer as planned, but he will paddle across Alabama instead.
Hansen, who paddled the entire Amazon River in 2012 and the entire Volga River in Russia two years later, will compete this September as a solo paddler in the Great Alabama 650. The news comes a few weeks after Hansen postponed the Arctic Cowboys 1,900-mile expedition through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago for the second time, due to the Covid pandemic.
The Alabama race, which promises warmer temperatures and an alligator or two instead of polar bears, starts Sept. 18 at Weiss Lake in northeast Alabama and finishes at Fort Morgan in Mobile Bay. Paddlers, who compete either solo or in two-person teams, have 10 days to complete the event, the self-proclaimed “toughest paddle race in the United States.”
Then again, the Texas Water Safari, the 260-mile race from San Marcos to the Texas Coast that Hansen has completed 21 times, makes the same claim.
Hansen will bring four boats, including a plastic surf ski, to Alabama for the race, switching vessels as needed depending on conditions. The route, which follows the Coosa, the Alabama, and the Mobile rivers, features an 8-mile stretch of whitewater with Class 2 and 3 rapids.
“It was kind of a last-minute gig when things looked like they weren’t going to happen in the Arctic,” Hansen says. “I got on the wait list for this thing and was surprised when the (organizer) called last week and asked me if I wanted to do it.”
A maximum of 20 paddlers – five each in four categories – can compete. As of today, three spaces remained open. The top male and female solo finishers, along with the top two-person team, will each win a $2,000 prize.
Two Texans, Mollie Binion and Holly Orr, finished second in the tandem division and fourth overall in the 2020 race, and two more, Bill Siersdorfer and Scottie Trevino, plan to compete this year.
Top teams typically finish the race in six to seven days. Hansen considers veteran endurance paddler Salli O’Donnell, who grew up in Alabama and competed at Auburn University as a gymnast before blowing her knee out, among his toughest competition.
“She’s a badass racer,” Hansen says of O’Donnell. “She’s almost won the Safari outright in solo, almost won the Missouri River 340 outright in solo, and almost won Alabama twice solo. She was edged out by guys in all these races at pretty much the last minute. I think she’s pretty formidable.”
Hansen’s own resume is packed with paddling accomplishments. He’s won the Missouri River 340, a 340-mile paddle race down the Missouri River whose website helpfully notes, “this ain’t no mama’s boy float trip,” four times overall, including once as a solo paddler.
Hansen this year completed the Texas Water Safari, in which he and teammate Allen Spelce still hold a record set in 1997 in the USCA C-2 category, for the 21st time. He has racked up category and overall wins in an array of regional races.
Unlike the 260-mile Water Safari, during which top finishers forego sleeping, paddlers in the 650-mile Alabama race stop to rest along the way. Hansen hasn’t yet determined if he’ll stop a few times for longer stretches of sleep, or more frequently for shorter naps. He’s now assembling a bank crew that will support him as he makes his way down the rivers.
Hansen says he’s excited to compete.
“I’m also anxious. It’s a new race I’ve never done on a river I’ve never paddled, and a distance I’ve never done,” he says. “All the variables make me anxious.”
But the race gives Hansen, who works part time as a social worker in East Texas and part time in Austin doing construction projects, a goal to get in shape, cut out junk food and booze, and provide some needed time away from the buzz of modern life. “And it’s nice to see what I can do, to push myself a bit,” he says.
In the meantime, he’s giving up checking ice flows and temperatures in the Arctic for now.
“It’s nice to step back from the Arctic expedition,” he says. “It’s kind of nice to let that go.”