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Texas Water Safari makes waves down the river

June 11, 2011 at 1:11 a.m.

Dale Hildebrandt, of Victoria, paddles to one of the spillways in the Rio Vista Dam in San Marcos after he portaged his boat over the first part of the dam Saturday morning during the first day of the Texas Water Safari. This year is Hildebrandt's first attempt at the "World's Toughest Canoe Race," which spans 260 miles of water from San Marcos to Seadrift.

After forcing down a bagel, Dale Hildebrandt, 44, of Victoria felt queasy.

His nerves were getting the best of him Saturday morning, just hours before he started his first Texas Water Safari.

Hildebrandt had been anticipating the start of the race since he, his wife and team captain, Rhonda, 38, and their 12-year-old daughter Erin checked into a hotel in San Marcos on Thursday.

He made a few final purchases in San Marcos and took a warm-up run Thursday afternoon.

Friday he checked in with the other competitors, showing race officials every item he had brought to pack in his kayak.

And now the big day had arrived. Unable to eat the rest of the big breakfast planned for energy in the 260-mile Texas Water Safari, he turned his thoughts to preparing for the race.

When Hildebrandt arrived at Spring Lake in San Marcos, he was welcomed by Victoria residents who heard he was participating in the race this year and came to wish him luck.

Other contestants also offered their advice to the first-time contestant.

"It's kind of exciting," Dale Hildebrandt said as he prepared his boat to launch. "People are really helpful, offering advice on stuff to bring - maybe more of one thing and less of another," he said.

Hildebrandt's greatest fear was that his kayak, normally 55 pounds, would double in weight with all his gear.

"My kayak lost 20 pounds," Hildebrandt said, noting his kayak's starting weigh of only 90 pounds.

A new challenge will be the 3-foot wall he will have to rope his kayak over, then control the weight of the kayak while he travels over the wall.

Seasoned participants advised Hildebrandt that for a soloist traveling in a plastic kayak, his first Safari should be about 80-85 hours.

At 8:40 a.m. Hildebrandt slipped into his kayak through a break in the trees to join the other competitors in the starting area for the 49th annual Texas Water Safari.

Rhonda and Erin joined the other well-wishers gathered along the shore to see their friends and loved ones begin their journey.

"I said a prayer that all the participants will stay safe," Rhonda said. She is confident Hildebrandt will be able to finish the race.

Ready to launch

"Fast canoes on the right, slower ones keep left," Tim Goynes' voice could be heard over the loud speaker above the commotion. Goynes is a Safari legend, a seven-time champion, and has logged 22 successful Texas Water Safari treks since the beginning of the Texas Water Safari in 1962.

Five minutes before the race was supposed to start, competitors slowly angled their boats down current. The waters stilled and the commotion died down, giving way to train horns singing in the distance.

Hildebrandt lowered his glasses.

Jonna Sosa, 16, of Austin, sang the National Anthem followed by excited cheers from the competitors and the fans.

Finally, the noise died down waiting in anticipation of the siren that signals the start.

With a flurry of motion and an explosion of splashes, they were off.

Hildebrandt paused when he reached the second portage at Rio Vista Dam about three-quarters of a mile into the race, contemplating whether to brave the slightly foamy spillway or portage - carry his kayak over the shallow part of the dam.

Just as he made the decision to portage, a red canoe that sped into the spillway tipped over in front of him.

Hildebrandt's strategy of brains over brawn prevailed. He climbed down over the dam then pulled his kayak behind him.

Observers cheered as he glided through the next two spillways.

In Martindale

Fans lined the shores of the Cotton Seed Rapids in Martindale, seven miles into the race, as children and dogs waded in the river while they waited for the canoes to arrive.

A loud horn announced the arrival of the first canoe speeding through at 10:24 a.m.

Hildebrandt paddled through the Cottonseed Rapids in 69th place of 103 competitors at 1:30 p.m.

Rhonda and Erin were there to welcome Hildebrandt when he pulled into the first mandatory check point at Staples Dam Farm-to-Market Road 1977 at 1:39 p.m., about 14 miles into the race.

"I just gave him a couple more half gallons of water," Rhonda said. Hildebrandt had slipped into 97th place by check point one.

"He was still going strong I think, I think he will make the 8 p.m. cut off in Luling," Rhonda said. "But I told him he needs to step it up a little bit."

Hildebrandt did make it to the Luling cut off in time checking in at 7:56 p.m., 4 minutes before the deadline. He has survived day one of the grueling Texas Water Safari.



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