This is the Part 2 of Carter Johnson story on his surf skiing through the 2007 Texas Water Safari. In the Part 1 we left Carter just after the first portage over the Lake Dam. He continues down the San Marcos River.
This is one of the 10+ portages on the San Marcos river. Many of the 6 man boats weight over 400lbs loaded and they actually just lower them directly over the dams.
The San Marcos is called a river but I beg to differ. Fast moving creak comes to mind as a better description. I knew that this was 85 miles of river where a single foot off the “runable” portion of a rapid or shooting a dam in the wrong location would cost you your boat. Most of the locals knew the river well. My only chance of survival was to find some veterans and stick with them. I would follow the person in front of me closely till the river opened up a bit, then leap frog to the next boat. Even while doing this, I somehow still managed to make several good attempts at ramming my self into a log or running directly over some hidden rebar. Soon though, there were only three 6 man boats in front of me and I was tailing the 3rd.
The San Marcos “River” is more like a creek by my definition. It is narrow and riddled with rapids, portages, rocks, shallow water and obstacles for 85 miles. Knowing the river is the key to success in this stretch. Top left is the Rio Vista Dam. Top right is Cotton Seed rapid. I made my best efforts here to eat a fallen tree for lunch.
My team captain (Richard Ameen) was great. He is the only person who can give me advice or water thru the course of the entire race. I am not altogether convinced that his job was any easier than mine. He had to face endless fields of poison ivy, steep muddy banks, full submersion while trying to hand off water to me without stopping as wells as racing down dirt roads through cattle gates without sleep trying to get to the next checkpoint before I did.
Richard is very cunning and I later found out that he was always skirting the boundaries between lies and truth with the race updates. I would ask, how far up is the next boat. He would reply “Only 8 minutes, give it a sprint and you’ll catch them”. How far back is the next solo. “15 minutes only, better keep it moving.” I had no idea, nor did I really want to, but 15 back really meant 50 back, and 8 minutes up really meat 30 mins up. Richard was amazing though and risked body and limb to keep me on track and moving along.
Often, the team captains would have to wade out into the middle of the river to exchange your water. Fast teams had it down to a science and would not miss a stroke at the check points. The team captains also had to stay awake for most of the duration of the race as the check points were often only 1 to 3 hours apart.
I made it through the first 85 in one piece and was able to leap frog all they way into 3rd place. I was able to pass up the 3rd 6 man boat just a few hours before dark. I stopped at a portage just around 9 o’clock and got my lights. Sparks came out of the switch. (I seem to have a lot of light issues, its difficult to keep them working in total submersion). Lucky though, a local gave me some advice that I actually did follow. He warned me to connect the switch on a different circuit then the light so you can remove it if it fails. I ripped the switch out and plugged directly into the battery. Ah yes, nice white light. I could not turn it off but since there was 13 hours of battery it hardly mattered. The next 85 miles went by rather painlessly.
I pulled into a check point at about 4:00am. My team captain said "you look really good." I told him that I had been sleeping since 10:00pm. He looked at me oddly, but never asked another question. On an open river such as the “Guad”, there really is no reason to have your eyes open at night. With an estimated 40 hour finish for me I needed to take every moment of shut eye possible. I would open them for just a split second and take a bearing, then do 10 strokes with them closed, re-open them just long enough to take another bearing, then close them again. There were some near misses with floating debris and some very large splashes around me as gar skirted away from the boat, but other than the few scares, it worked out perfect. I never hallucinated as most do and felt really good on day 2. I would love to tell you more about this part of the river, but I really never saw it.
This photo shows the average river conditions on the Upper Guad. Nice open river with a swift current. It was easy to keep the eyes shut while paddling at night thru this section.
After traveling all night by my self I finally caught up with the 2nd place 6 man boat, a team called the “Cowboys”. It was about 5 am and I spotted them emptying out their boat on a steep muddy river bank. I am not sure what happened to them, but it was a yard sale out there. Their gear that they lost when they capsized was bumping off my surfksi as I plowed thru it. I quietly passed them up and kept a move on it. The river at this point was all new to me and I was following a line on my GPS along with some carefully placed waypoints.
As the sun was coming up, I came to a dam that I had marked as a portage. The river however was ripping past the dam 90 degrees in the other direction. The force was so strong that I eventually got sucked down with it. I was warned “make sure you are on the right river.” I looked at my GPS and I was not going where I wanted to be. Ok, time for a mad sprint back up stream! It took nearly 5 minutes to get back where the dam was. I was baffled and not sure what to do next. There was no obvious place to portage so I made the decision to wait till the Cowboys caught back up with me. Luckily they were only 5 minutes back now. Turns out that the high water washed a cut around the dam and the washout did eventually make its way back to the main river.
As the Cowboys passed, I jumped on the wash of their 44 foot long 6 man canoe and enjoyed the ride. The amount of water they pulled was amazing. Paddling behind them was no joy ride though. Following them was faster, but it did come at an expense.
There were 6 of them and only 1 of me. At any point, they could loose a paddler for a bathroom or food break and keep on moving. If I had to take care of any of the above, they would pull away fast. For the next 9 hours, every simple task got boiled down to 1 motion at a time. Taking an Advil or even a bite of a cliff bar was a 5 step process. Grab bar, 10 fast strokes to get back on their tail. Open bar, 10 more strokes, Take 1 bite and chew, 10 more fast strokes, collect wrapper so it did not fall into river, 10 more fast strokes…. Even getting an Advil out of my pill container and swallowing it was a 5 minute ordeal. I eventually picked up on who their faster paddlers were. When they went out for a break the boat really slowed. I would use these opportunities to take a bathroom break. On several occasions, they got 100 meters ahead of me. I had to give it everything I had for 15 minutes to catch backup. The ride was great, but it was exhausting. With so much going on though the hours peeled off.
The 6 man boats had a great wash, but keeping on it while eating, and taking bio breaks was a sport of its own. Every simple task needed to get broken down to the smallest individual steps, with mad sprinting in between to get back into the wash without loosing them.
I was warned about the log jams that formed on the lower Guad. They petrified me. Imagine hitting a 100 meter long complete river blockade in a twisty muddy marsh deep in the bayou. (Note, this is where all the alligators, snakes, boars, spiders and gar live). I really was not looking forward to getting out of the boat. I asked lots of questions before the race but nobody would give me straight advice. Some people said you rammed them and belly walk over the logs, others said you had to portage. Yet others even talked about secrete cuts thru a so called “Alligator Lake”
I had no idea what to do. I figured I would stay with the Cowboys till we got there and I would follow their lead. About an hour before the jams, the Cowboys slowed down. I started to harass them about being to slow. What a dope I am. It was part of their master plan to loose me in the swamps.
This GPS plot shows the deviation off the main river through the swamps and back into the channel. Major parts of the this section were 100% blocked by logs. It was an accident that I missed the U bend here, but a good one. Turns out that this entire piece of river was stopped up. Locals even put up signs leading you down incorrect paths or cuts. This section of the river is coveted and any knowledge is kept close with those who know it. It felt like right of passage.
Not aware of their plan and not willing to slow down, I gave into passing them up and hit the first log jam alone. It was big. I jumped out of the boat and crawled my way to shore. Water was rushing round me and my water bottles and pills kept on falling out of the boat as I clumsily climbed over some logs. It felt like I was in constant collection mode. The river was running everywhere but there was no navigable path to follow. I was again perplexed and waited for the Cowboys to catch up. They pulled off on the other side of the river and got ready to portage. OK, back into the boat I go and cross the river to where they were.
Being solo, I was much faster at getting in and out. I started to get out of my boat and head down the path on river left. No sooner did I realize the Cowboys were back in their boat and going river right where I just came from. Oh my! I knew at this point they were playing with me. On my own again I guess. I took a few reads off the GPS and figured out what direction I needed to be going, made some wild guesses and started portaging through the swamps.
5 minutes into the first portage, a shadow cast over my face. I had but one though and it was Mike Shea. He was laughing at me or smiling down from some greater place than this earth. I am not sure what kind of spider it was or if it was even poisonous, but it truly was the size of my fist and it was crawling over the bill of my hat. This was no daddy long leg either. If I had to guess, I would say it was some sort of banana spider? I ripped the hat off, drop the boat and continue to scream into the woods.
After the minor melt down, I retrieved the boat again and found my way back into the main channel. My path through the maze turned out to be good and I hit the next checkpoint just a few hours later.
Texas Water Safari