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Outdoors Outpost
World's Toughest Paddler
Wednesday, July 10, 2013 • Posted July 11, 2013

People ask me, just about every spring, if I plan to compete in the Texas Water Safari. These people are invariably unfamiliar with me, or unfamiliar with the Texas Water Safari, or both. Usually both. The only other option is that they’re just yanking my chain. Asking me if I’m going to do the TWS is like asking Michael Moore if he plans to compete in the Boston Marathon, or asking Joe Biden if he plans to say something intelligent. It’s possible, I guess, but statistically unlikely.

The Texas Water Safari is a boat race from San Marcos to Seadrift, a distance of approximately 37,000 miles. There are multiple sets of rapids along the route, and many portages, logjams, and other encumberances, not to mention the oppressive heat of a Texas June. Oh, and cottonmouths. Plenty of those. It’s no wonder the TWS is called the World’s Toughest Boat Race.

Contestants are allowed to be resupplied with water and ice along the way, but nothing else. The first race was held in 1963, and it still follows the San Marcos and Guadalupe Rivers, just like it did 51 years ago. Which is about how long it would take me to paddle that far. Assuming I was banged on the head hard enough to cause me to attempt it.

No. Thank you, no. Whenever I get an urge to enter the TWS, I lie down on the couch with a damp cloth on my forehead until it goes away. Canoeing and kayaking is supposed to be fun, not self-inflicted stupidity. I admire those who do the race, I really do, but I can think of far less vigorous ways to do permanent damage to myself.

Which brings us to Emily Jackson, who has been on the U.S. Canoe/Kayak Team for ten years. She came by that honest, as her father was an Olympic kayaker in 1992, and founded Jackson Kayak, the top whitewater kayak company worldwide. Jackson kayaks have pretty much set the bar, although I can’t, personally, see high enough to tell you where that bar is.

Emily has plenty of trophys, herself, including the 2009 Women’s World Freestyle Championship, a silver medal in 2011, and the 2012 World Cup Championship. She’s placed in the top three in every freestyle event she’s entered since 2006. And she’s just 23 years old.

The 2013 U.S. tour has not been especially kind to Emily, however. She didn’t win a major event all season, until she came through and won the last two, near the end of June, one of which was the Payette River Games in Cascade, Idaho. You can watch her winning performance at that contest online, although I don’t recommend it. It’s embarrassing, the talent this young lady has, especially since I’m doing good to keep a kayak upright in fairly calm water.

The most impressive part of the story, though, is that she is due to give birth to her first child July 19. At a point in her pregnancy when most women would be at home, nesting, Emily has been out winning national kayaking championships. At the Payette Games she actually edged out the current world champion, England’s Claire O’Hara.

The child, in case you’re wondering, was not at risk. In the Actionhub story, which was sent to me by a reader in order to make me feel inadequate, Emily was quoted as saying, “I was told by several doctors that as long as I was doing what my body was accustomed to that it would be safe for me and my baby.” So there you go.

My studied opinion, as an expert at watching other people engage in strenuous activity, is that being nine months pregnant gave Emily a lower center of gravity, which probably took some getting used to, but may have helped to keep her from turning over. That’s what I decided to go with, anyway.

But that won’t wash, either, since she does flips and such in her kayak competition, and those are liable to be a lot harder when you’re pregnant than otherwise. I wouldn’t know, of course, never having been pregnant. And if I ever do become pregnant I don’t plan on doing a lot of boating.

Kind of makes you wonder, though, what would’ve happened if Tom Jefferson had sent Emily to explore the west instead of Lewis & Clark. She probably would’ve gotten back a lot quicker than 2½ years, covered a lot more country and, being pregnant, come back with more people than she left with.

Or maybe she would’ve stayed and settled Idaho. You never know.

People who compete in the Texas Water Safari, while definitely far more impressive than most, are no longer my idea of the toughest paddlers in the history of water. Unless, of course, they do it while nine months pregnant . . .

Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and public speaker who never paddles upstream, even in the bathtub. Write to him at PO Box 1600, Mason, Tx 76856 or

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