Don't Stop & Paddle Hard | Pt. I
260 miles. 134 canoes. 100 hours. 90 degree temperatures. A much, much lower success rate.
The Texas Water Safari is the self-described "world's toughest canoe race," though no one is arguing the claim. The four day, four hour time limit is the equivalent of boarding a canoe Monday morning and paddling it until your lunch break on Friday, and under circumstances that make the office look like the Ritz Carlton.
Racers begin by navigating the 85-mile-long San Marcos River. Narrow and writhing, with a bit of a mean streak, the river is littered with rapids, sweepers, dams to portage and the occasional log jam. She demands technical mastery, or, at the very least, a sense of humor.
Where the San Marcos ends, the Guadalupe begins; and with it, a whole new set of challenges. While the former tries to chew you up and spit you out, the latter is content to simply wear you down. The water is flatter, so the paddling harder. The longest stretches between checkpoints occur on the Guadalupe, and towards its end are the infamous log jam and the cuts, every bit as ominous as they sound.
Survive all that, and the only thing standing between you and the finish line is the bay, a temperamental six miles of sea water. Crossing can take an hour if she’s glass. If not, already-exhausted paddlers can strain against or be stranded by her wind and waves for an entire day. It all depends on her mood. It’s usually not great.
The further you go, the more company you have — mosquitos, spiders, snakes and alligators, that is, and reportedly in increasing size. Puking and poison ivy are noted rites of passage. And it’s Texas, so the whole thing is hotter than — well, you know.
There is little to no sleep, perhaps less hygiene, and the cuisine consists mostly of things you can squeeze from a plastic bag.
The point is, the Texas Water Safari isn’t done casually. It is something of a miracle that anyone starts it at all, and a miracle that anyone finishes. Even for the most experienced paddlers, it takes extraordinary time and effort, and a dash of something else.
The Safari is kind of crazy.
And in 2008, Ed Jones needed something kind of crazy.
Born in Tyler, Texas to a man who ran his household like a tight ship, Ed was raised with discipline at the core of family life.
At 18, his parents landed in Austin. After venturing just down and out of the city to what was then Southwest Texas State, Ed returned with degree in hand to put down roots of his own.
He met and married Brenda, and as two became four, Ed parented the only way he’d ever known.
"I started out our family life kind of ruling the household," Ed said. "Demanding certain things, because that's what I knew."
But while he had been a naturally compliant kid — not thrilled with his father’s rules, perhaps, but content to abide by them — both Tonya and Brian were fighters. And fight they did.
"We had horrific teenage years with them," Brenda stated.
"It created tremendous friction in our household, and it was shockingly sad, and I didn't know how to fix it," Ed remembered. "I was doing what I knew and being the type of person I thought I was supposed to be, but mainly, I was just angry. And I think partly because of that — there were other factors, but I take a big chunk of the responsibility — Brian and Tonya really struggled with that level of authority."
With parents and children fiercely opposed and neither side willing to give, relationships fractured.
Tonya, the oldest, left the home early. Brian was kicked out at seventeen. Ed and Brenda were left in the wake, their own relationship bearing the strain of total fallout with their children.
The Joneses were a family by only the most basic of terms. Shared DNA. A common name. Not much beyond that.
Time, distance, and circumstance eventually did its work on Ed and Brenda’s relationship with Tonya, repairing it into something more cordial, if only out of practicality.
Brian, however, remained estranged. His parents had helped him move into an apartment with a friend, and he proceeded to wrap up high school on his own, graduate, and go on to Texas A&M University. He studied accounting and filled his free time with hobbies revolving around the outdoors.
As Brian's college graduation approached and he prepared to enter the workforce, Ed felt the window for reconciliation closing.
It had been nearly seven years since father and son had really spoken, much less spent any quality time together. He knew it wasn’t something he could do casually.
It would take something of a miracle to even start the healing process; even more so to finish it. It would take extraordinary time and effort, and a dash of something else.
It was almost crazy.
Maybe that’s why, when Ed first heard about the Texas Water Safari, his outdoors-loving son crossed his mind.
“I knew that it was going to be probably the toughest thing that either one of us had ever done, and I hoped it would draw us together,” Ed said. “And we would definitely be spending a lot of time together training."
It sounded like the perfect — if a bit drastic — opportunity to reconnect. Ed mentioned it to Brenda. They batted the idea back and forth.
“We finally decided to pull the trigger, and I asked Brian to paddle with me,” Ed said.
And surprisingly, Brian said, “Sure.”
“It shocked us,” Brenda admits ten years after the fact.
Once the initial surprise of Brian’s yes wore off, though, the real work began. The new teammates agreed to bury the hatchet, if only for the time being, and began training in earnest.
"This was 2008 when he asked me to do our first race,” Brian explains. "At that point, my parents didn’t really work out or anything, they weren’t that adventurous, so I wasn’t sure it was really going to work.”
That didn’t stop him from giving it a shot, though.
In fact, looking back, Ed believes inexperience almost worked in their favor.
“We were so, so completely new to paddling,” Ed laughed. “New to paddling and new to this particular river and new to racing — it was all just a muddy mess. But we also didn’t know enough to know how hard it is. So we just started."
They bought a boat, skimped as much as possible on accessories, and got out on the water.
The paddling community is a small and tight-knit one, and even more so at the time of the Jones’s first race. Information wasn’t easily found either on or offline, nor was it always readily shared with beginners. The primary teachers in their canoe education were trial and error, and the primary lesson seemed to be that they were in over their heads.
“I just thought it was the most awful thing I’d ever seen,” Brenda remembers. “Ed and Brian would get off the water after a practice and Ed would look like he was half dead. I would wonder if I was going to have to take him to the emergency room, he looked that bad — he was throwing up, he was pale, I mean he just looked terrible. I didn’t know why anyone would ever want to do it."
And beyond the toll of physical preparation was the technique learning curve — which, unbeknownst to the Joneses, was steeper than usual due to water conditions.
“Our first race was in 2009, which is kind of a critical fact because it was a low-water year,” Ed explained. “We didn’t know at the time there were low, medium, and high water years — to us, whatever we were paddling was just the norm. But it was hideously awful in learning to paddle, because you’ve got to have really good technique to paddle low water well."
"Your canoe bogs down. You ground out on gravel bars if you don’t know what you’re doing, and we didn’t. Trees on the inside curves will have fallen down, and that’s where the current is because that’s where the deepest water is, so we were constantly getting our canoe stuck in trees and falling out."
Ed ticks off one obstacle after another that becomes exposed or heightened when the river recedes, grinning as only a veteran racer can at his own naiveté.
“We didn’t know it was going to be that hard, and we didn’t know it was going to be that much harder because it was a low-water year, but it turned out to be a significant challenge,” he said.
Nevertheless, on the morning of the race, Ed and Brian were in their designated spot at the starting line. Their aluminum canoe was a beast, though forgiving, and nearby racers gave the Jones' wooden paddles a good-natured ribbing. They had trained, as Brian put it, “a lot, but not enough,” and for the most part had no idea the array of obstacles to come or how to handle them.
The Safari’s unofficial tagline is “don’t stop and paddle hard.” It’s said as something of a joke, a gross oversimplification of the task at hand; but the punch line is in its truth. At the end of the day, that really is what the Safari boils down to. At any given moment in the 100-hour race, it really is the thing to do.
Don’t stop. Paddle hard.
And when the gun went off, the Joneses did just that.
95 and a half hours later, they crossed the finish line.
It had taken nearly the entire 100 hour-time limit, and they had encountered what felt like the full breadth of unexpected challenges. Even for seasoned Safari racers, the year was a tough one. Out of about a hundred boats that started the race, only fifty finished.
“It was pitifully hard. Over four days your body just breaks down to a… a terrible place,” Ed laughs.
“We barely finished. It was a miserable experience,” Brian agreed. “During the entire race I kept thinking, ‘I’ll never do this again, this was so stupid.’"
But the view from across the finish offered a different perspective.
The Joneses had started the Safari estranged. They’d finished it as a family.
“It was a miserable experience,” Brian said again, “but I always look back on it and think, that’s one of the best times we’ll ever spend together. That race brought us all back together. I’m not sure we would have ever been able to really repair our relationships if it wasn’t for that."
“I guess that’s what this race means to me."
Fast forward nine years.
Despite vowing never to race again in 2009 — and every year since, Ed and Brenda note with a laugh — there hasn’t been a Texas Water Safari without at least two Joneses in the lineup since.
Ed has six Safaris under his belt, Brenda seven and Brian nine. Between the three of them, they have a whopping 17 finishes; and for the past three years, Brian has finished in the top ten.
They may be paddling different boats, but the Safari continues to be the source of familial closeness. Tonya, an experienced weightlifter, has become the unofficial family trainer, coaching her parents and brother through workouts in the gym together three days a week. She’s been team captain for one of their boats every year, as well; coordinating food, water and supplies checkpoint to checkpoint down the river and ensuring each race goes as smoothly as possible.
Weekends revolve around training runs, the event itself is the highlight of the year, and the stories are endless — and endlessly shared. What started as a last-ditch resort at reconciliation has become an annual, whole-family affair, with a meaningful community of friends and fellow paddlers to boot.
Brian, especially, has become deeply embedded in the paddling world. The 33-year-old now serves as the president of the Texas Canoe and Kayak Racing Association (TCKRA) — a fact I learn from Ed, not Brian.
“I never would have mentioned it because honestly I don’t think it’s that big of a deal,” Brian grumbles when I inquire about the position, though he softens as he talks about how and why he got involved, and his hopes and ideas for the future.
In short, Brian wants to ensure the sport that has had an enormously positive impact on him is as accessible as possible. The Safari changed Brian’s life, and he wants the same opportunity for others.
He does his best to foster a collaborative, service-oriented spirit. He looks out for beginners. He talks enthusiastically about bringing back the TCKRA newsletter and sharing more inspiring stories, and has new ideas for how to encourage race growth.
“He’s been cheerleading for the paddling community all this time and continuing to build the entire community up. I love that about him!” Ed declared, beaming with pride. “He plows everything he’s got into all of this, and the [TCKRA] is starting to head in new directions that I think are good for the community."
Of course, as the race grows, so too does the competition.
Every Safari finisher receives the coveted finisher's patch. Top 10 finishers, though, receive a trophy, and the top 15 a special Texas-shaped plaque. Brian has received both a handful of times at this point, but despite being strong and veteran paddlers, neither Ed nor Brenda has ranked so high.
Perhaps because he helps drive the growth that makes it more difficult each year.
Perhaps because they got so close in 2017, slipping from 15th to 25th in the eleventh hour due to weather conditions.
Perhaps just because the memory of his dad reaching out to him and asking for that first race changed his life, and he wanted to complete some sort of figurative circle.
Whatever the reason, nine years after that first race, Brian reached out to Ed and Brenda before the 2018 Safari. He asked his parents if they would race with him, as a three-man team, and go for a top-15 finish.
And of course, they said, “Sure.”
Family photos courtesy of the Jones family.