Steve Butler of Urbana paddled 260 miles through rapids, multiple portages and 100-degree Texas days last month to complete the Texas Water Safari, which calls itself “The World’s Toughest Canoe Race.”
The race begins near San Marcos, following the San Marcos and Guadalupe rivers, and ends with an 8-mile bay crossing on the Gulf coast to the town of Seadrift. The racers can use any human-powered watercraft — canoes, kayaks, even paddleboards.
“There are a handful of these really big, long-distance paddle races in North America. This is one of the older ones, starting in 1963,” Butler said.
He paddled the Missouri 340 — a 340-mile race on the Missouri River — in 2015 and 2016, but Butler said the Texas Water Safari is a much different race.
“It’s twisty and windy, and the more downriver you get, the current slows down more. It’s a more technically challenging river,” he said.
The first day of the race includes a lot of rapids and seven major portages in the first 20 miles. In the first quarter-mile, the 170 boats that started the race were funneled into a portage about as wide as a two-lane road.
“It’s complete and utter chaos. There are boats banging off each other in the whitewater, people smashing boats on rocks,” Butler said.
His boat was an ultralight racing canoe that holds a straight line and accelerates quickly, but also is considered the most challenging type of boat for this race, as it can be unstable in rough water and wind.
“I really like the boat. I love the way the boat feels and handles, even though it’s a bit of a challenge on a twisty, windy river. I was up for the challenge,” he said.
During his three days on the water, Butler slept a total of 2½ hours, pulling over for a thunderstorm on the first night and stopping twice on the second night when he was seeing things and having trouble navigating in the dark.
Because of the technical difficulty of the river, Butler had to stay alert.
“On the Missouri, you could float. In this race, there are all these logjams and trees you could sweep your boat into,” he said. “You have to keep your boat on course. You can’t just sit there. You have to think a lot more about what you’re doing.”
Butler trained for the race by beginning paddling in February in a drysuit.
“There were some chilly days out there. But if you take precautions, you can make it safer,” he said. “I tried to get in at least three paddles a week since then. I did shorter intervals on weekdays and long paddles on weekends, up to the eight- to ten-hour range.”
Although Butler was the one paddling, the race is a team effort. His team captain, Jen Gravley Burton of Urbana, signed him in and out of the race’s checkpoints and supplied him with food, water and ice.
“This race really recognizes the contribution of the crew,” Butler said.
Each racer is required to have a GPS transponder on the boat, so Burton could track Butler and estimate when he would arrive at a checkpoint. But his transponder malfunctioned during the race, and she was notified on the second day that an emergency signal had been activated. A search-and-rescue crew was sent out, and for three hours, Butler couldn’t be located on the water. A fire department crew eventually found him paddling along, oblivious to the fact that there had been a problem.
Burton negotiated with the race staff about whether Butler could continue. Once an emergency signal is activated, the rules declare the racer disqualified. But because Butler’s emergency signal was activated as a result of a malfunction, he was allowed to continue.
The time limit for the race is 100 hours, and Butler finished in about 60 hours.
“It’s somewhat cathartic, being out there on the river by yourself. It’s a very simple thing. The only goal is to keep moving downstream as efficiently as possible,” Butler said. “There are a lot of pieces of the puzzle involved in it all. I find it interesting how to move a watercraft between point A and point B as quickly and efficiently as possible.
“It’s a really fun race. It’s an adventure.”