San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

July 12th, 2015
Behold: These aerial photos make the Texas Water Safari look like a tranquil river outing. It is not.

ESSAY by BRAD ROLLINS | PHOTOS by RUSSELL WILDE

When viewed from above, the colorful flotilla of canoes and kayaks resembles a spectacle carefully choreographed on Spring Lake’s hypnotic blue-green canvass. Like something staged for a travel brochure or maybe an ambitious music video.

Of course, there is no choreography involved in the Texas Water Safari, except for the liquid athleticism with which the better crews move as a single body — boat included — mile after mile down the river. Nothing about the safari is staged because no scene set in nature ever can be.

Of the 78 passionate and enthusiastic teams that began the trek at noon Saturday, six had dropped out before first light Sunday. The first of these made it as far as Staples, less than 17 miles from the starting line; four others dropped out at Luling, less than 40 miles into the 265-mile race.

Having made it even that far, these people probably are not what one might call soft. But they are not as hard as the Texas Water Safari this time out.

“The TWS bills itself as ‘the world’s toughest canoe race,’ a claim that seems to go unchallenged, and nearly 40 percent of entrants drop out. There are longer races out there, but none with quite the same hazards—heat, rapids, grueling portages, dangerous wildlife—or potential trauma: twisted joints, broken bones, rashes, fevers, vomiting, snakebites, gear malfunction, and, of course, obliteration of one’s will,” Matt Bondurant wrote in Texas Monthly after completing the race last year as half of a two-man crew.

For 52 years, competitors have endure the elements — and the raw limits of their own endurance — in the nonstop sprint down the San Marcos and Guadalupe rivers to Seadrift on San Antonio Bay.

In 2012, the race claimed its first fatality. Brad Ellis, a 30-year-old Dripping Springs man respected by other teams as a potential winner, died downriver of Gonzales after the salt levels in his blood plummeted, a condition called hyponatremia, apparently caused in this case by drinking too much water. In the sleepless crucible of sweltering heat and ceaseless churning, more than a few paddlers over the years surely thought the safari would kill them, too.

These bird’s-eye view images of the safari’s first moments on July 11 were captured by Wimberley area resident Russell Wilde, a professional journalist whose hobbies include drone photography. Selections from Wilde’s work, self-published at From Above Texas and on a companion Facebook page, deal primarily in everyday people and places observed from a loftier perspective. His portfolio includes photographs of Rattler Stadium, Kyle’s iconic water tower and the Old Hays County Courthouse, to name a few.

But his images of the Texas Water Safari are particularly noteworthy for their tranquil and tidy depiction of an event coursing with suffering and tenacity.

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