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Texas Water Safari turns 50 this year

By Victoria Advocate
June 5, 2012 at 1:05 a.m.
Updated June 6, 2012 at 1:06 a.m.

Spectators watch as paddlers participating in the 2011 Texas Water Safari take off from the San Marcos Aquarena down the San Marcos. The race is celebrating its 50th running of the race this year, and has a record number of participants in it.

It started as a way to promote publicity.

Five decades later the San Marcos and Guadalupe rivers have hosted an annual pilgrimage for paddlers. And in that time, the Texas Water Safari has a deserved reputation as a grueling physical and mental challenge.

But, it all began when two businessmen, Fred Brown and Willie George, left San Marcos June 23, 1962 on what would become an unprecedented three-week journey toward the sea.

This weekend a record number of paddlers entered the Texas Water Safari, in part to commemorate the golden anniversary of Brown and George's trip.

Brown, who worked at the San Marcos Chamber of Commerce at the time, wrote an essay about his journey in Southwest Holiday magazine. As more people caught word of the trek, they banded together and started a race.

Among the things Brown recalled about his trip down the river: "A log jam is a contraption of the devil calculated to spoil rivers and foil the best efforts of men who take them on."

The 50th edition of the safari coincides with the 50th anniversary of Brown and George's trip down the river.

Victoria County resident Roger Zimmerman said that 1963 competition wasn't a race, but more of an adventure.

Zimmerman participated in that inaugural safari, which at the time ended in Corpus Christi. He paddled an estimated 315 miles before a 40 knot wind near Ingleside prevented him from making the checkpoint in time.

"After the '63 race I was so unhappy with not finishing," recalled Zimmerman, who now serves as the historian for Texas Water Safari. "I got to Austwell where there were 15 boats. . I got within three miles of the checkpoint and ran out of time.

I said I would never go again because I was so upset. Thirty years later a friend convinced me to try again."

By the time Zimmerman returned in 1993 the finishing point had shifted from Corpus Christi, to Freeport to Port Lavaca before eventually settling on Seadrift in 1971.

Zimmerman heard about the race from longtime Advocate outdoors writer Fred Strong. During the inaugural race Strong infused humor into his daily reports about the paddlers.

"Trying to keep up with this many boats on the river is like counting ants in an ant bed," Strong wrote.

As Zimmerman, and the 58 other entrants, made their way to Victoria Strong noted "we can expect at least seven or eight more boats through the Victoria area today.unless something happens to them between here and Cuero."

Once paddlers reach Cuero they may be in bad shape, but they persevere said Brandon Stafford. The 27 year-old Stafford will once again participate in a race that has sustained his attention since he was a little boy.

The relationship started years ago when his dad Bill "Polecat" Stafford bought some land on Guadalupe just outside of Thomaston.

"I remember being real young on the bank watching the race," Stafford said. "I knew one day I wanted to do it with him. We did it together in 2008. He's been doing it forever and I always sat back and watched. I went off to college and didn't have the opportunity. I finally had it and I've done it ever since."

Stafford planned on participating this year regardless of the other celebrations this weekend. However, his dad, and a few other paddlers, entered this year's race because it's the 50th anniversary.

Stafford's friend Andrew Condie will participate in his fourth safari, but this will be his first time competing alone. Since he began paddling, Condie has noticed the participants have not solely been from the Crossroads region, or the communities that hug the rivers.

Condie said it's proof how much kayaking has grown not only in recent years - but since Brown and George's trip 50 years ago.

He even went to Belize this spring to participate in the La Ruta Maya River Challenge, a 170-mile race down the Macal and Belize rivers in preparation for the Texas Water Safari.

"We were down there and training three days a week," Condie said. "We would do a five-hour downriver trip then we would do sprint training two days a week. It was nice because the weather was hot down there and it was good to do some early-season training to get used to this heat up here."

But not matter how much one prepares for the safari, Zimmerman and Condie said it's still a challenge unlike anything else. And that is where the support of those on the banks cheering on the paddlers makes a difference.

"We enjoy seeing people out there," Condie said. "It lifts your spirits and encourages you to keep going."

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