Fri - May 5, 2006

Adventures of a Team Captain – 4 Years of Texas Water Safari in Retrospect

I was surprised to see that Memoirs of the First Time Team Captain by my wife Connie had more readers than my Texas Water Safari reports. Her story was written in 2002 after our first safari. So, I have asked her to write some retrospective comments after 3 safaris and 5 years of our visits in Texas.

All pictures from Texas below were shot by Connie or her fellow team captains (except Colorado pictures of her horse). I believe that our visit at Antique Rose Emporium took place after 2004 Colorado River 100 race, not after the safari. Connie also provided a land support for me during that race.

"Adventures of a Team Captain" will be followed by her tips for team captains and paddlers in the next post.

Adventures of a Team Captain by Connie Uliasz

Marek asked recently if I might be willing to write some more about how I feel about being a Water Safari Team Captain now that I have had more experience. I have TCed for Marek for three years, and had agreed to TC the year that the Water Safari was flooded out as well, though we were unable to return to Texas to participate at the later date.

I don’t really have any more to say about my first year of TC-ing. In comparison, my second year was much easier. I knew a lot more of what to expect, and I was much more comfortable with what was demanded of me.

I still got lost on a regular basis and had a difficult time finding some of the access points but I had decided to use Daniel Boone’s philosophy. He once said, “I’ve never gotten lost. Sometimes, I’ve just been very confused for a few days.” This attitude worked fairly well for me and even when I had no idea of where I was, I knew that sooner or later I would figure it out and, more importantly, how to get where I needed to go. This helped me not get so stressed out, and being willing to trust myself and my TC access-point-finding-abilities was really helpful.

After the first year, I knew much better what to expect: the heat would be oppressive, the bugs would be annoying, I would be sleep deprived, and the people would be wonderful.

Year Two was the year that Sister Act was there and their TC was the husband of one of the sisters. At Westerfield crossing, I went to watch Marek (he didn’t notice me there) and then started back to my car. The Sister Act TC was standing on top of the riverbank and held out his hand to help me up. I grabbed onto it and clambered up. Now, I am not a very trusting person and it is rare that I will touch a stranger. So this simple and unthinking thing was very unlike me – taking the hand of a person I don’t know and allowing them to help me along. It was at this point that I realized that being a Water Safari Team Captain was changing me for the better. I have more confidence in myself and also more confidence in others, too.

In Texas I have also learned how to help people. In Colorado, even though we want to help folks in need, there are a bunch of other things that run through our minds when we see someone who could use a hand. Maybe they don’t want help…maybe they will be offended if I try to help them…maybe I’ll just get in the way and make things worse.

Heck, in Texas people will just jump right in and do what they see is needed or wanted and no two ways about it. It’s a wonderful and friendly thing and it makes the world a better place. I have tried to emulate this and it makes my life more pleasant and I like being this way, and this change is a direct result of taking my part as a TC and getting to know some Texans.

In year two, once again I was able to meet up with some of the TCs that I’d met previously, and I was glad to see both Chris and Charles. I saw Norm and Brenda again, and Devo and his son, Ian, and Mrs. Devo.

During year one, I had learned quite a bit. One of the most important things was that the first day would be very busy and extremely tiring. This being so, I decided to drive around as little as possible, going straight from one access point to the next, with few stops for anything in between. From time to time, this would allow me to set up my chair and cooler, get Marek’s ice and water ready, and relax with a book while waiting for Marek to come downstream.

I got so good at this that on the second day, at one of the checkpoints Charles started laughing at me. I had my lovely captain’s chair (which reclines) and my feet up on my cooler, and a nice ice cold drink in my cupholder, and was reading Agatha Christie. I looked – and was – so comfortable that Charles came by and said “You ought to be ashamed of yourself!” and I replied, “Oh, I am – 24/7!” And Charles took a picture of me in total relaxation, there with all the comforts of home and happy as a lark. In any case, I tried to keep to the plan of rushing about as much as needed but no more, and this helped quite a bit.

I did have one scare during this race. There was a bad car wreck on the bridge that we have to cross to get to the Hochheim checkpoint. I got there at about 2 a.m. and had to weave past the flashing police lights and through broken glass and pieces of destroyed automobile. It was a terrible wreck and clearly whoever was in the car was either dead or very badly injured. All of us TCs who saw it were very much afraid that it was another TC and the wreck served as a cruel reminder that many of us were driving around unfamiliar roads in the pitch black, half asleep, and with one eye on our directions as we drive. The dangers of driving were very much on all of our minds and we TCs talked about it at the riverbank as we waited for our paddlers. Sir Nate was there and he felt exactly the same as I did. Not much chance of sleeping after that for a while, either, which didn’t help the situation. I checked the newspapers the next day and it was a local man who had been in that wreck and he had, unfortunately, died in the crash.

I still think the driving is the most dangerous part of being a Water Safari TC. I have seen plenty of snakes while being a TC, been bitten by lots of bugs, and have gotten really stressed out about not making it to the next checkpoint in time to beat Marek there, but it really is the driving while reading directions and being half asleep that worries me.

This was also the year that Robert Youens was the race director. I think he was really exceptional at it and seemed to be at all the places where he was needed. He was there when Zoltan’s boat got swept under the Palmetto low water bridge, destroying the boat, knocking Zoltan out of the race, and blocking part of the access to that portage for incoming boats. I heard that he was able to grab onto Zoltan to keep him from going under the bridge along with his boat, but I didn’t see this myself having arrived at Palmetto right after the boat got stuck under the bridge.

This year was interesting, too, because there were really three races that people were paying attention to. There was the race of who would finish first – always pretty exciting, and how quickly they would finish. There was also a race between the two best tandem teams. These were the teams of West Hansen/Ian Adamson and Mark Simmons/Pat Petrisky. Many people thought that the Hansen/Adamson team would win, both of them being good paddlers and of course Ian Adamson has become famous as one of the premier international adventure racers.

However, the locals who know Simmons/Petrisky were fairly sure from the beginning that they would be the victors. The locals were right – during the last day of the race this team was steadily pulling ahead and increasing their advantage consistently.

The other race that people were paying attention to was in the Parent/Child category. While there were several good teams (the Zeeks for example), two teams were unusual for having very young competitors. John and Jessica Bugge (9 years old) and Devo and Mini-D (aka Ian -- also 9 years old) Devoglear. Both of these teams had incredibly strong dads and tough-as-nails kids.

We on the bank found ourselves in the interesting position of having two favorites and while we generally were pulling more for one team we were also heaping our good wishes on the other as well. It was really fun to see how things unfolded in the Parent/Child category. As it turned out, all six of the Parent/Child teams finished, with Devo and Mini-D taking honors in this category, finishing in an incredible 47.5 hours, the third tandem unlimited and 10th place overall. I know how hard people will try to get in the top 15, so this is really something. John and Jessica also did incredibly well, finishing as the second place Parent/Child team in 51 hours and 23 minutes and 17th place overall.

To compare, Marek finished 66 hours and 5 minutes, more than half a day later, but bettering his time by a full 12 hours from the year before. For a while I was driving ahead to cheer on Team Devo but they eventually got far enough ahead of Marek that I couldn’t do this any more.

I also had an interesting experience during this race at the second Victoria access point. There is a long, steep bank/boat ramp here that people often fish from. It is just made of dirt and is nice and easy when everything is dry but when it’s wet it gets really slippery. Marek always likes to have the option of getting extra water and ice here because he arrives during the hot part of the day.

When I arrived here it was nice and dry – no problems. However, not long before Marek came there was a brief but heavy rainstorm that turned the bank as slippery as a sheet of ice. I had put my ice and water down near the river while it was dry and then went back to stand under the bridge with some spectators where we could watch upstream to see when paddlers were coming.

When Marek came around the bend I went down to the riverbank and slid down the ramp and waited for him there. I really didn’t know how I was going to get back up, though. Marek came, got his ice and water and left. I honestly could not get back up. I would try, slide down, try, slide down, over and over. Luckily, I wasn’t alone.

Along with me was another TC and a man who’d been in the race but had gotten heat stroke during the first day and had been hospitalized. After getting out of the hospital he came to watch the other racers and cheer them on. He and the other TC were at the top of the bank and I was at the bottom. The TC at the top held onto a tree. She took off her belt and she held it and helped lower the man down the bank, with him holding onto the other end of the belt. He stretched out his arm to me and the two of them got me back up to the top. He ended up absolutely covered with red mud, and so did I. What fun, ‘eh?

Nothing else really unusual happened during this race. I got a hotel room at one point but have decided it’s too risky to sleep in a room and away from the race. I’d go there to shower and clean things up but did all my sleeping at the checkpoints waiting for Marek. I still get pretty darned tired and there is no way to get enough sleep if you’re by yourself. Still, you do get more sleep if you sleep at checkpoints and only get a room to clean yourself up and cool off.

At the Tivoli salt-water barrier, Robert Youens was trying to help me out by saying things like, “Now, remember to tell your paddler to take a left at the second fork of the river.” I’d reply with something like, “Huh?” Then he’d tell me some other useful piece of advice, to which I’d reply “Wha?” Honestly, at that point in time I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find my own car. Happily, Robert is a bright boy and gave up on me, deciding to remind Marek himself. This year went really well for Marek and I. He finished in time for us to take a nap before the awards ceremony, and then we had a nice, long, uneventful drive back to Colorado.

The year after had the river flooding and dangerous, and we weren’t able to make it back for the rescheduled race. Last year I TC-ed for Marek again, but I didn’t want to do it. My horse, Griffin, was dying from cancer and we all knew that he wouldn’t live to see the autumn. The pictures below show me and Griffin during his last show in July, 2005. I didn’t really want to leave him for the two weeks it takes us to travel to Texas and participate in the Safari, but Marek talked me into it and I went.

What this really meant was that I had a pretty bad attitude the entire time. I didn’t want to deal with the heat and the bugs and I argued with Marek about how many places he really needs to get refills on ice and water. I wanted to just restock him at the checkpoints while he insists that he needs ice and water far more frequently. I tell him that Norm gets along just fine with getting support only at the checkpoints and Marek replies, “Well, I’m not a Ranger” and we get nowhere.

This year Chris was really upset with his tandem team too. They were bickering a lot and as a result Chris had just as bad an attitude as I did. His team ended up half finishing, with one of them paddling in while the other left the boat somewhere between DuPont and Seadrift and hitchhiked to the finish line.

The most upsetting thing, though, was that I was late to the Tivoli salt-water barrier checkpoint. I’d gotten a hotel room by that time so I’d have a place to bring Marek right after his finish. I went there to shower and eat and make a thermos of hot tea to be ready for him at the finish line.

I was driving to the checkpoint when I got a call on my cell phone from one of the other TCs saying that my paddler was at Tivoli waiting for me and was I on my way. I was still quite a distance from the checkpoint and poor Marek ended up waiting there for me for about 45 minutes. He needed water to get through this last stage and couldn’t really go until I got it to him.

I was surprised at how fast he got there – it turned out he had decided to make a run for it from DuPont to Seadrift and had a really good time between DuPont and Tivoli, being faster in that section than any previous one. This delay really took the wind out of his sails and I still feel bad about being late. Neither of us had any idea that he could pick up the pace so much at the end of such a long race, but now we know better. If he smells the finish line and the weather cools, he can really step it up!

antique roses On the way home we stopped at the Antique Rose Emporium in Brenham, Texas, and bought some really beautiful roses for our yard. I love old roses and this is one of the best places in the U.S. to get them. They have over-wintered beautifully and will soon be clambering all over our trellises.

What I’ve really learned from these three years of TCing is that if I want to be there and am motivated, I will find wonderful scenery and fabulous people, and will enjoy the experience no matter how difficult it is. If I don’t want to be there, the difficulties will seem far more difficult. For the paddlers, attitude is everything. For the TCs, attitude is everything, too.

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