Don't Stop & Paddle Hard | Pt. III
Certain portions of the Safari are reliably difficult — the San Marcos, the cuts, the bay.
Ask any paddler, though, and you'll hear that timing is the real source of trouble, not the route.
As the Joneses tell it, morale on the Safari works on a sort of inverse bell curve, in which the start and finish are the anchoring high points, and night two, the swooping low. If teams could take the river, stretch it out, and arrange it along that curve according to their race, whatever portion night two contains is the worst, regardless of how technical.
The key is to ensure that portion is as close to the river’s end as possible; to hurry the eventual upswing of the finish along.
The Joneses have done the best they can to that end. Their sundown Victoria City Park departure put them just 60 miles from Seadrift, more than three-quarters of the way done with the race. They are right on schedule.
So too, though, are the night two terrors. Ed is suddenly enveloped in darkness once more, his nausea medication no match for the task at hand. Fatigue hits him and Brenda hard. Brian later suspects they forgot to take their second dose of Provigil, a wake-aid.
It's almost impossible to know for sure. One of the hallmarks of night two is that presence of mind starts to slip away. Hallucinations are an accepted part of the evening's festivities. They're discussed amongst paddlers humorously, with the same nonchalance of, say, sweating or muscle soreness.
Ed usually sees walls stretching from one side of the river to the other. Brenda's visions tend to involve critters. Brian remembers once seeing a longhorn walking on water, which is doubly amazing when you consider that he's an Aggie.
Still, the Joneses paddle on.
The crew, meanwhile, arrives at Swinging Bridge with time for a nap.
On night one, brief snatches of sleep left me feeling better. At some point, though, we reach a tipping point in which they make me feel worse. Going to sleep suddenly becomes a terrible tease, my mind and body screeching every time I force it back into consciousness — and I'm the most rested person in the group by a long shot. I can't imagine what it would be like to paddle or TC.
We get an hour and a half of rest before it's time to take our post. Tonya and Amanda shuffle around the truck bed, preparing supplies almost mechanically. They double check the wagon and we walk through sticky heat to the river.
Once the TCs successfully get themselves and their cargo down the short, steep incline, they find a lone cooler and immediately plop down on it, back to back. After a few minutes, there is a significant splash in the water near them. Both, in unison, turn the flashlight features of their phones on and scan the water. Amanda begins giggling uncontrollably.
"I love how we didn't even move," she says. "Like we want to see what's going to eat us even though we don't have the energy to run away."
They speculate for a while on what the source of the noise might have been, though there's really no telling. Tonya figures, with a shrug, that it's an alligator. They're common on this stretch.
"The alligators will duck down and go right under [the paddlers] before the canoe gets to them," she tells me. "Sometimes they're bigger than the boat."
Speculation ceases as the Joneses' canoe suddenly appears in view.
They are a haggard bunch. Brenda is still paddling strong but looks as though she's doing so in an alternate universe — her smile still present, but a bit vacant, and her movements wobbly.
Ed, on the other hand, is visibly ill. He's throwing up again, as predicted, and every heave of his stomach denies him valuable fuel for the task at hand.
Brian reports nearly having puked himself when he discovered that one of his usual applesauce squeezes was, in fact, apple and kale flavored. Tonya runs a hand through her hair in frustration, irritated that such a detail was missed. She assures him they'll double check their stock, and he assures her it's no big deal. It's not an accusation — it's matter-of-fact, as is his request that both TCs push him and his parents harder at the next checkpoint.
"Our stops are taking too long," he says. "It's not your fault."
A six-man boat that the Joneses were previously tight with made good time in the night and reportedly passed a solo paddler. Both are almost an hour ahead of Brian, Ed and Brenda; while the boat behind them, another solo male, is just thirteen minutes back. We are 33 miles from the finish. They can't afford to lose ground now.
The weary boat resumes its paddle, and we once again go from a flurry of activity to total stillness — reptiles and insects singing all around, intermittent bursts from fireflies the only light against the dark.
Tonya's arms are crossed and brow furrowed. A girl updating Safari social media accounts during the race ambles down the bank and asks Tonya how the stop went. She thought Ed sounded rough.
"Yeah, he gets sick at night," Tonya tells her.
The girl grimaces knowingly, adjusting her baseball cap.
"Man. That sucks," she says. "Hopefully he feels better soon."
"He won't," Tonya finally replies.
We load the truck back down and drive to the next gas station, only to find it's under construction. The next closest one, in Tivoli, is closed. The only option left, to Tonya's extreme frustration, is to drive into Seadrift and backtrack with supplies.
The three of us stumble into Bayside Express, a dingy station with decorations vaguely suggesting proximity to the ocean. I return from the restroom a few minutes later and find Tonya clutching a package of Powerade and staring blankly at a row of peanut butter crackers. The paddlers have reached the point where they want nothing to do with the food they've been eating, and Tonya is racking her brain for anything that might be a palatable vehicle for salt and energy.
"This is the part where you've gotta be creative," she laughs. "But I'm having a hard time being creative right now."
From Swinging Bridge, the Joneses must paddle 17 miles to Saltwater Barrier, the final checkpoint before the finish line.
The Joneses were hoping for it to take about three hours.
It takes nearly five.
The longer they paddle, the sicker Ed gets. Minds start to slip. Ed and Brenda have never paddled so hard and so long with no sleep. It’s catching up with them.
This stretch also contains the log jam. Not a log jam — though paddlers may face plenty. The log jam.
Log jams occur when felled trees wash downriver, piling together until they block water flow. The log jam is the most impressive of all; a pile-up that, depending on water levels, alters paddlers' course up to a mile.
There are two options when it comes to the log jam. The first is to portage around, lugging a heavy canoe on already-weary legs. The second is the cuts.
The cuts are an obstacle within an obstacle; a maze of smaller streams and bodies of water that have cut through the log jam over time or spilled over during flooding.
Experienced paddlers learn the pattern over time and can make their way through and back to the river. Inexperienced or disoriented paddlers can — and do — get dangerously lost. I’m told stories of a woman who was stuck in the cuts for 18 hours before finding her way out, and emergency rescues are not uncommon.
The Joneses know where to go, but the venture is still exhausting. And Ed, in his unwell state, descends to alarming levels of confusion; uncertain of where they are or what they are doing. It doesn't help his confusion when, after he guides a few turns so dramatic that the boat threatens to tip, Brian and Brenda agree that she should take over for Ed in the stern, despite having never practiced at that position.
Ed continues asking bewildered questions until, finally, an exasperated Brenda interrupts.
"Hey, Brian," Ed asks, voice full of doubt. "Are we going to take this boat and put it in this cut?"
"We're doing the Safari, Ed," Brenda pronounces briskly.
It's the only logical explanation for what they're doing, when you think about it. And for Ed, it's enough.
"Oh!" he responds. "Okay."
And with that, they paddle on.
The crew knows none of this, of course.
Which is why, when the canoe comes creaking to shore at dawn and Brian calmly announces that Ed and Brenda are going to lay down for a bit, Tonya is incredulous.
"Are you serious?"
Tonya looks at her brother in disbelief. Her job is to do everything in her power to get her team down the river as quick as possible, and just hours before, he requested she push them at this checkpoint.
The Joneses' goal was to be done with the race — or close to it — by sunrise. Now, the brightening sky is a visceral reminder that they are already far behind schedule.
They’ve been battling a headwind since south of Cuero, and it’s rumored to pick up viciously by mid-morning on the bay. A boat they helped guide through the cuts has since passed and put considerable distance between them. They're in no shape to make up lost ground.
The look in Brian's eyes and the tone of his voice, though, make it clear that he is, indeed, serious.
That was then. This is now. A lot has happened in between.
"Yeah, they need to lay down," he repeats. "Make them go lay down." He starts rummaging through the boat for weight to discard, tossing whatever he can overboard to lighten the load. "Make them go lay down."
Tonya and Amanda start hustling a delirious Ed and Brenda out of the boat, Brian urging them to hurry from the driver's seat. They are equal parts stiff and shaking, and it takes a few false starts before the pair make it onto the bank. Safari regulations prohibit them from providing physical aid, so Tonya and Amanda resort to Olympic levels of verbal cajoling; fighting gravity and the Joneses' total lack of balance with passionate encouragement and instruction.
"I can't help you, but I can point out the best path, okay?" Amanda chatters, walking just in front of Brenda and motioning like airport ground control. "Come on, come on!"
Eventually, both make it to the other side of the barrier. They keep trying to talk —Ed wants to discuss technical issues they've been having with their tracker — but Brian demands they lay down, firmly. He's already letting them sleep. They can't afford to lose any more time.
Ed is out within seconds. Brenda, though, seems to have moved to some dimension beyond tired. She tosses, trying to get her body to rest. She has a nasty case of trench foot and requests a gallon of fresh water to pour over her grimy water shoes.
"This has been a rough one," she comments wearily as Amanda hands her the jug.
She administers the water to her river-soaked feet and immediately lays back down, but I'm unconvinced she ever truly sleeps. Her eyes don't seem to want to close, and every time I look over, her muscles are fidgeting violently. It's as though she's trying to paddle even outside the boat.
Meanwhile, Brian pares down and reconfigures supplies as much and most efficiently as possible.
"Boy, do I have some stories for y'all," he tells us with a grin as he goes about the task. "They're gone. Gone."
After a few minutes of rearranging and generally gathering his strength, he straightens, gestures towards the bank on the other side of the barrier, and informs us flatly, "I'm going to carry this boat up there."
"Oh my gosh, okay, well, toss out everything," Amanda scurries alongside, ripping anything that might add extra weight from the bowels of the canoe as Brian suddenly heaves the boat out of the water. He pauses when he hears the thud of his parents' water jugs hitting the ground.
"Are those full?" he queries.
"Yeah," Amanda responds.
He gives a hollow laugh. "That's why this boat is so heavy."
Brian drags the canoe down the bank, under the bridge. Tonya joins him. She hands him a water bottle and a peanut butter sandwich, and they stand there together, shoulder to shoulder, quietly consulting.
"...didn't really have a choice," I hear Brian say. "Someone has to drive and someone has to paddle..."
I leave the moment to brother and sister; retreating back to the take-out point in time to hear Amanda mutter, "Let's play a game called what part of Amanda didn't get covered in mud?" to herself. I grin in spite of the tense mood — which is Amanda's particular magic on this team.
After a few more minutes, Tonya heads back towards the truck to grab supplies. Brian stuffs the last bite of his sandwich in his mouth and checks his watch.
"I'm peeing," he announces, walking as far underneath the bridge as possible. We turn away to give him some semblance of privacy.
"I'm glad he warned us," Amanda says cheerfully.
He then drags the boat the rest of the way to the bank and declares it's time to wake Ed and Brenda. Soon all three are back in the boat, weary but better prepared to continue towards the Gulf. For just a moment, they float there next to the crew, warm rays of light spilling across the water as the sun begins its climb.
"Remember Dad," Tonya says, "your mind will quit before your body does."
She gives a pleading smile.
"So just... quit thinking and paddle."
He nods fervently, picking up his single blade.
"Okay, okay. I'm gonna try."
We see the Joneses twice more before they head into the bay. Once from the Highway 35 bridge in Tivoli, where we cheered mightily as they passed below, and then again, just minutes later, at Wooden Bridge.
Wooden Bridge is the last time crews see the paddlers before the cross the bay — a chance to prepare for it, to resupply, to strategize and offer encouragement.
Given the situation, the Joneses need to be quick. They’re in 12th place now, and true to the forecast, the wind has kicked up considerably by the time they arrive. They disembark as soon as the canoe touches land, and Tonya and Amanda begin swapping out supplies immediately.
Daylight, nap, and proximity to the finish line have worked wonders on Ed and Brenda, who are miles more coherent at this stop than the last; and Brian takes advantage of their strength and the time it will take to ready their boat for the bay to get some rest himself. As Brenda begins to snap on the canoe’s skirt — a covering that keeps it from filling with water as they traverse the waves — Brian walks away, past the frenzy, and hurls himself facedown in the grass. It appears he is asleep before he hits the ground.
The minutes pass quickly. There is a small crowd at this stop; friends and family offering advice and lifting morale in an excited buzz. Brenda has the canoe ready in record time. Someone fiddles with the tracker, which has been inconsistent at best. Tonya and Amanda make their final adjustments. Ed and Brenda don their life jackets. Soon, all that's missing is—
A violent whoosh silences the crowd. Like something scripted from a sitcom, we all simultaneously pan until we land on the source of the sound: Brian, facial expression wholly unchanged, enveloped in a suddenly inflated, highlighter-green life jacket. There is a pause.
"Well," he mutters, "I didn't know that was gonna happen."
The laughter feels like relief, releasing the tension of the night out onto the wind whipping clouds through the sky above. The Joneses pile back in the canoe, green life jacket and all, and prepare for the final home stretch.
At the last second, Brian gives Tonya his water jug. She protests, but he insists — they have just a few miles to go, and he doesn't want any extra weight. As the ragtag group on the bank cheers, the Joneses take up their paddles and push forward into the wind.
"See you soon," someone calls.
Fields of cotton and rust-red sorghum stretch for miles down Highway 185, rushing past my window as I follow Tonya to Seadrift.
The Joneses love this race and the little town it ends in so much that they recently bought a home there — a cozy two-bedroom high on stilts, with breezy porches and plenty of room beneath for all things canoe.
With no more checkpoints left, we head to the house. Tonya sets about unloading what she can from the truck, cleaning out coolers and washing off supplies and waving Amanda and I off to go take showers.
By 11 a.m., we're all clean and standing around the kitchen, eyes glued to the clock and the tracker — which, given the technical issues it's given the team throughout the race, we're unsure is even accurate.
The crew has been going non-stop for over 48 hours. In theory, Tonya and Amanda should feel relief — their job is done. In reality, that means there's no longer any outlet for their nervous energy. Tonya paces around, stopping to stare out the window towards the water every few minutes. The wind is blowing onshore at 21 miles per hour now. It will get as strong as 27 by this afternoon. The bay is whipped into foamy whitecaps as far as the eye can see, and it becomes clear what should have been a short and straightforward six miles will take much, much longer than expected.
"I wish they had more stuff with them," Amanda sighs.
"I know," Tonya replies grimly. "Brian freakin' gave me his jug. I tried to tell him."
Amanda's eyes widen.
"So Brian only has one Gatorade?" she asks, slowly, as if it couldn't possibly be true.
Nervous laughter from Tonya tells her, in fact, it is.
"Well, he'll just have to..." Tonya starts, then trails. There is silence for a while as she considers what he'll just have to do, and realizing there isn't a great strategy, changes course entirely. "At least it's not super hot right now."
We keep watching the tracker, though by now, we're convinced it's simply not working. It hasn't moved in ages. After some discussion, we decide to grab lunch and take up a watch post on the bay. Sooner or later, the Joneses will arrive. They've paddled this far. They're not stopping now, no matter what the tracker says.
The tracker, as it turns out though, is functioning properly at this point. The reason it's not moving is that the Joneses aren't.
They emerge on the west side of the coast and battle their way to the east. A long string of islands formed from the dredges of barge canal construction line this side of the water; and boats must make their way up and around them to cross the canal and reach the stretch of land on which Seadrift — and the race finish — sits.
The islands are a beneficial point of reference, and walkable if necessary. The waves, though, rise forcefully against them. The paddling is the most demanding of the entire race, requiring stops to rest at best and tipping vessels entirely at worst. And once you're out of your boat, good luck getting back in — choppy waters and wasted legs aren't conducive to maneuvering one's way into a skirted canoe.
Brian, Ed and Brenda are running on empty, and while they avoid properly "tumping" (as Brenda later refers to it in true Texas fashion), they come close enough on multiple occasions to require recovery stops.
By the time they approached the very tip of the islands, Ed and Brenda were so depleted that Brian seized the canoe himself and started dragging it ahead, telling his parents to simply focus on walking.
"I'd walked the boat as far as I could to get it to a spot where we could get back in the water," Brian later recalled, "and I realized I couldn't see them anymore."
For all the wind, sleep deprivation, and kale-flavored applesauce, this was the lowest point in Brian's race.
"That was the point in the race where I wasn't sure we were going to get top fifteen," he remembers. "I thought they'd stopped to sleep or something, and I was angry — not at them, really, but just like, man. If we don't get top fifteen, it'll go down as one of my biggest personal failures.
"We tried so hard and worked so hard to get to this point, and there just might not be another chance to do it."
Ed and Brenda, though, have not given up. The journey has taken just about everything left in them, physically and mentally alike, but when Brian backtracks to find them, they're still walking towards the finish line.
The goal is still within reach, but it's clear the strategy must adjust.
By the time they reach the canoe again, Brian has had time to evaluate.
They've arrived at the tip of the island, and the barge canal stretches before them. It will require a burst of heavy paddling to get across, but once they are, Ed and Brenda will continue to walk the coastline as quickly as they can. Brian will use the water, however choppy, to his advantage and tow the boat alongside. They'll meet up just before the finish line and wade in all together.
They settle in to build up the strength, praying the weather will die down in the meantime.
Back in town, the local Mexican restaurant buzzes with Safari conversation. Every table and booth is filled by spectators and crew members, and over plates of enchiladas, we learn more about the situation at hand.
Turns out, the Joneses aren't the only canoe stranded across the barge canal. They may not be able to see each other depending on their positions, but boats are slowly stacking up on the islands, caught between waiting out the weather and risking the energy to battle it.
The good news, of course, is this evens the playing field. The Joneses can rest without losing ground, since no one can easily get across.
The bad news, of course, is that this evens the playing field. The Joneses have given their all to be out front, with room for error at race's end. That room shrinks as the minutes tick by, letting boats further up river and more shielded from the wind make their way down and close that gap. Just because they couldn't keep up with the Joneses for the first 254 miles doesn't mean they can't win an even race of the last six.
The Joneses entered the bay in 12th place. What place they — and every other stranded canoe — will exit in, though, basically comes down to when they make it across the canal.
Somewhere in the neighborhood of nine boats have made it to the finish by the time boats begin getting stuck in the bay. Spots 10-15, then, are up for grabs.
One by one, boats begin making a run at the crossing. Many don't succeed. One does, though.
There are only three top-fifteen spots left.
We pay our bill and jump back in the truck, driving along the bay until we find a row of trailers at its far edge.
The vantage point is perfect, and there aren't any signs prohibiting parking, so we do. Then we pile out and onto the shore, standing on rocks jutting out towards the water, trying to get as close as possible, as if we are magnets, pulling the Joneses in.
We shield our eyes and squint into the sun at the shoreline ahead, willing them to appear. The wind grabs at clothes and hair, blowing fiercely around us. We wait.
Around the same time, Brian decides he can't wait any more.
Weather may have ruined their schedule, but it hasn't yet kept them from reaching their goal. Once it becomes clear the wind isn't going away and they are sufficiently recovered, all three agree it's time to try again.
They opt for double blades — more effort, but also more speed, strength and stability. They check their skirt. They assume their positions.
And then, with a fury, they paddle.
All the way across the canal.
The canoe looks like an indiscriminate dot at first. It takes a while for anyone to notice it, and even longer to confirm that it is, in fact, a boat.
Once we do, though, it is a frenzy. What boat is it? Can you tell? I can't see yet, it's too far away. It's moving too much. It's a solo boat. Stomachs drop. No, it's too long to be a solo boat. A flicker of hope. It doesn't have anyone with it at all. Yes it does. Where? There's someone in the water. Do you know who it is? Can you see the number? What boat is it? Can you tell?
Tonya digs frantically through the supplies still in the truck.
"We have everything but binoculars," she hisses, pawing through every possible box and bag. Suddenly, her eyes widen, and she whirls around to me.
"Your camera!" she yelps, pointing. "Can't you zoom in on that thing?"
I rip the camera from its bag and twist the lens as far as it will go. I lift it to my eyes and aim it towards the boat.
It's tough to get a clear picture — the canoe is still so far away, and bobbing wildly against the waves. I adjust the focus frantically, holding my breath.
The boat rocks upward.
The boat dips down.
And there, behind the bow, I glimpse bright, highlighter green.
The next half hour proceeds in slow motion.
Not long after we confirm that the boat is, indeed, the Joneses' being towed by Brian, Ed and Brenda round the bend into view. We yell, jump, wave our arms wildly. They spot us and begin waving back, no binoculars necessary for their smiles.
So intense is the relief, it feels like victory in and of itself. This isn't Tonya's first Safari, though, and she's quick to squash premature celebration. Her focus, bolstered by a collective paranoia based on the events of the past 15 hours, inspires a group effort to keep Ed and Brenda moving as quickly as possible down the road.
"Top ten was the goal; but top fifteen, I'll take it," Ed says as they struggle down the path. "Especially since—"
"—this is the hardest one I've ever, ever done," Brenda finishes, Ed nodding his emphatic agreement.
"Well you're not there yet, so keep walking," Tonya reminds them.
Brian gradually brings the canoe closer to the shoreline, and our ragtag band inches forward until we reach a boat ramp a half-mile from the finish line. Ed and Brenda make their way down, hand-in-hand, and rejoin their son for a final march to the finish.
A small crowd of family, friends and fellow finishers gather and walk alongside the Joneses on shore, spurring them all the way home.
After 260 miles, 54 hours and 51 minutes, Brian, Ed and Brenda stagger to the bright orange finish-line buoy. With a hand each on their canoe, Brian takes the bow and guides it forward, pushing it and them past.
The Joneses finish the Texas Water Safari, together, in 13th place.
Time speeds up to a happy blur. Ed, Brian and Brenda exchange hugs and high-fives, making their way to the seawall and clambering onto shore. Tonya and Amanda are next in line for embrace, and all around, people laugh, cheer, clap hands and shoulders. It's a happy mess.
The stories and good-natured ribbing start immediately — "And then he said, 'That's not Brian,' and I said, 'Yes it is!' And he said, 'Well then, where's our boat?' and I said, 'Well I'm sure he's put it somewhere!'" — and don't stop for days afterwards. Ed and Brenda are giggling like overtired teenagers at a slumber party, and Brian seems to be in a contented daze.
Both TCs are laughing and throwing their own yarns into the fray, but Tonya won't fully relax until her family is home, showered, fed and rested.
"Hey, Tonya," Brian stops her at one point back at the house. She pauses, arms full of other people's bags.
"You don't get top fifteen without a really good team captain," he says. "Thanks."
The Joneses receive their plaques and patches the next day at a casual awards ceremony preceded by an enormous fish fry. Everyone who has finished thus far gathers under a hodgepodge of white tents matching those back at the starting line in San Marcos, plates piled high and folding chairs crushed together around long, greasy tables.
When the Joneses' names are called, they rise together and head to the front without fanfare, smiling and laughing amongst themselves. One by one, they are awarded their finisher's patches and their gleaming, Texas-shaped, top-fifteen plaques.
The Joneses are thrilled with their awards, to be sure.
But after a round of photos and a few minutes of admiration, they're set aside for the real reason they race.
The stories resume; the jokes, the memories.
The point was never a plaque, after all. The point was reaching a goal in the race that saved their family, as a family; and the relationships they share are the ultimate prize.
"This race... it brought us together," Brian says again after the fact, trying to find the words to describe what it means to them. "It's almost like this big family reunion every year. It's the thing that defines a lot of our years.
"I honestly don't think this will be the last time my parents could get top fifteen... but it definitely felt good to get them there that first time. It sort of brings things full circle."
The Texas Water Safari is kind of crazy.
But for the Joneses, it's been crazy good; and they're not stopping anytime soon.
Photos Ryley Rush, edits Austin James