Texas Water Safari

Texas Water Safari: 260 miles of rowing your boat

The Dallas Morning News
June 27, 2003

SAN MARCOS – To finish the Texas Water Safari, you have to paddle nonstop in a canoe or kayak for 260 miles from Aquarena Center in San Marcos (where Ralph the Diving Pig once performed) down the San Marcos and Guadalupe rivers to the flagpole at Bayfront Park in Seadrift, Texas.The safari, which was run earlier this month for the 41st year, is called "The World’s Toughest Boat Race." That’s justified by the distance; the rules (you must finish in 100 hours, and team captains supplying crews can provide only water and ice); the stamina (visualize sleep deprivation); and physical demands (millions of paddle strokes).

With more than 300 people racing solo or in teams of up to six people, the safari is also the Texas equivalent of climbing Mount Everest en masse.

Those who complete the race talk in glowing terms about the murky hell, riddled with snakes, fire ants and alligators awaiting them. They speak of the "Gnarly 40" – 40 miles of tree-clogged river channel between Staples and Palmetto State Park – as if it were a ride at Schlitterbahn. They wax nostalgic recounting trips down Hallucination Alley, which is wherever you get so tired you start seeing things.

They sure aren’t in it for the money. Complete the race in 100 hours or less, and you get a patch and a plaque. Be the first across the finish line, and a crowd of maybe 60 will be cheering.

Outside the norm

The Parkers of Tyler don’t appear too outside the norm – other than Marvin Parker, 53, and his brother Charles, 50, having matching gray beards long enough to give ZZ Top a run for the razor.

Then Luke, Marvin’s 16-year-old son, breaks into a goofy grin and says it: "We’re crazy."

Luke and Marvin won the parent-child division in 2001, the first year Luke raced. Last year, they were blown out when the legendary Mynars fielded a father-son team.

"It’s mostly mental," Marvin says. "Keep your mind right, and you’ll make it."

"That’s all I heard about it when I was a kid," Luke says. "How people start hallucinating after a while. That got me worried."

Are the stories true? "Well, I saw myself one time on the banks looking at me," Luke says. "That was scary."

"I saw a solid cement wall the first year," volunteers Marvin. "I was thinking if it didn’t go away, we were going over the dam. But it went away."

A few feet from the registration table, two novices, Julie Basham of Coppell and Ann Best of Houston, sort protein powder, coffee crystals, and some strange stuff called Gu. They declare they’re up for the challenge.

"We’re both 40," says Ms. Best, a marketer for Hewlett-Packard. "I’ve always wanted to do the safari. I just needed a victim to do it with me." She found one in Ms. Basham, her kayak class teacher. In the span of a few months, Ms. Basham had divorced, lost her job and lost her father.

"He’s riding with us," says Ms. Basham, reaching into their canoe and fetching a green pill bottle from a Styrofoam holder. "This is Dad – his ashes, actually. I’m going to spread them at Seadrift. Before he died, he said he wanted to watch me finish."

The two women have paddled 87 miles straight, practicing for the event – long enough for Ms. Best to have seen E.T. going through Hallucination Alley. Two hundred sixty miles is another matter.

Ms. Basham calculates 78 hours to finish.

"Maybe 80," Ms. Best hedges.

"Seventy-eight hours," Ms. Basham says emphatically, splashing bottled water on Ms. Best and soaking her SpongeBob T-shirt.

Adventure in life

Since 1992, save for one year, a Mynar or three have been in the winning boat. The patriarch, Joe Mynar, 55, a stout, steely-eyed truck driver from Kopperl, owns the Texas Water Safari, having racked up 14 wins.

"There’s not much adventure in life these days," he says. "Everything’s pretty much programmed. But for a few days, it’s you, your team, your boat and the river."

This year, Joe’s son, Brian, who lives in Abbott, and Joe’s brother, Fred, who lives in San Marcos, are racing in another boat.

Joe’s crew includes John Dunn, 36, a fire ant researcher and ex-paramedic from Austin who has racked up nine wins paddling with Mr. Mynar, along with Tom Goynes, 52, of San Marcos, a seven-time safari winner, and Bucky Chatham, 60, of Seadrift, a retired shrimper with cancer.

"He had surgery in November and wants to run the safari one more time," Joe Mynar says in a low voice, out of earshot of Mr. Chatham. "We just want to make sure we get him to the finish line."

The last two times a Mynar didn’t win, John Bugge, 52, did. The plumbing contractor from Bryan holds the record for finishing the safari – 25 times. This year, he’s paddling tandem with his granddaughter, Jessica, 9, the youngest entrant in the 2003 race.

Asked to explain why she’s going, the freckle-faced brunette giggles and shrieks, "For fun!" then grabs the hand of her sister, Cecili, 3, and runs off.

"We’ve done the San Marcos River maybe four times and almost all of the Guadalupe," Mr. Bugge says. "She’s practiced running logjams, riding currents, going through stuff in the middle of the night, sleeping, eating and relieving herself. She’s already decided she wants to go solo next year." Before she goes solo, though, they’ll have to finish together this year, he says.

Mr. Bugge’s goal is 55 hours in their 21-foot hybrid boat, if all goes according to plan.

"She doesn’t believe me when I tell her how hard it’s going to be," he says. "But if she finishes, she’ll know more than most adults know."

Donna Bugge, John’s wife, admits some friends think they’re crazy for letting Jessica race. "Then again, they think we’re crazy anyhow," she says.

More intense

This year’s celebrity, Ian Adamson, 38, is a professional adventure racer from Sydney, Australia, who’s won the Eco-Challenge four times.

Paddling with his friend West Hansen, 41, a broad-shouldered barn builder from Austin, Mr. Adamson compares the safari to a single leg of an Eco-Challenge. "But this is more intense. To me, this is the best boat race I’ve ever run, starting in a clear freshwater spring and a tight channel and winding up in swamps with alligators and the coast. The barbecue at the end of the race certainly is unique."

Mr. Hansen estimates 40 hours. "If we get rain, maybe 38. At least in these conditions, we shouldn’t break the boat in half again."


Nearby, Elmer Haby, 48, inspects his 10-foot Minnow kayak. The Devine resident completed the safari with a partner 18 years ago. Now he’s ready to try it alone. "I’d like to finish under 100 hours," he allows as he lights up a cigarette.

He knows his boat is not made for long distances, and his friends have been second-guessing him, saying things such as, "Are you out of your mind?"

"Probably," he says. "But I won’t know until I try."

John Mark Harras’ blue button-down Oxford shirt, rattlesnake pantyhose and straw cowboy hat stand out in the crowd. He’s a "Cowboy," one of a six-man crew known for its over-the-top behavior. Mr. Harras, 44, of Houston, bubbles enthusiasm as he recounts throwing up during races ("You just keep paddling"), getting a fishhook stuck in his ear, and seeing things in Hallucination Alley.

"I used to race with a woman," Mr. Harras says. "One year, she pointed to the riverbank and said, ‘See that giant priest up there, praying for our sins?’ I looked. It wasn’t a priest. It was a great big Quaker Oats box."

The results

Fred and Brian Mynar and their crew, dressed in matching white hats and white shirts and paddling with military precision, were the first to Seadrift, arriving in the Sunday evening twilight, 36 hours and 15 minutes after departure.

John Mark Harras and his Cowboys were second in 40 hours, 4 minutes. Bucky Chatham came home to Seadrift with Joe Mynar’s crew in 42 hours, 35 minutes.

Jessica and John Bugge made it in 51 hours and 23 minutes. Luke and Marvin Parker clocked in at 61 hours, 43 minutes. Ann Best, Julie Basham and Julie’s father’s ashes finished in 79 hours, 29 minutes. Elmer Haby dropped out before the first checkpoint at Staples Dam, 16 miles from the start.

One racer suffered a snakebite, though he didn’t realize it until 80 miles later. Heat exhaustion, dehydration and hypothermia sent several to hospitals. A thunderstorm over San Antonio Bay swamped four boats. Sane or insane, most will be back in the safari race for more next year.

Because it’s there.

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