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Southlake Style

Canoes for a Cause

Jun 01, 2018 09:27AM ● By Maleesa Johnson

The week of his sixth birthday, Weston Clark was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. This diagnosis was preceded by a traumatic episode of being rushed to the hospital because his pancreas was failing. Several nights in the hospital is rough on anyone, but the six-year-old handled it with courage that inspired his parents.

“Over the course of several days he really just came to accept it,” says his father, Kyle Clark. “It wasn't a month or two later he was giving himself shots. He has been extremely responsible and on top of it.”

Three years later, Weston’s bravery in the face of adversity became a driving force for Kyle to turn his involvement in the Texas Water Safari into a fundraising opportunity for diabetes research.

‘World’s Toughest Canoe Race’

Last summer, a fellow Southlake dad, Jeff Ferguson, found himself roped into an event that would bring friends together, challenge their physicality and ultimately raise money for the Junior Diabetes Research Foundation. He and a high school friend from Austin, Tom Hallberg, regularly sign up for events that will keep them fit and keep them in touch. Last year, the friends competed in two Spartan Races – races that involve a series of obstacles and can range from three miles to a marathon. But this year, Tom had something else in mind.

"I had never heard of the Texas Water Safari, so he kind of briefly described it me and I agreed. I kind of wish I had looked it up more before I agreed,” Jeff chuckles.

Later that summer at the Clark’s Fourth of July party, Jeff told Kyle about the race. Kyle was onboard immediately and soon the teams grew. Now, six men and two canoes are involved. That includes Jeff and Tom on one boat and Kyle with Haslet resident Brian Smith on the other. The team captains – an essential on-land position – are Southlake dads Glenn Holland and Mike Blumberg. 

“All of our kids have grown up together,” Jeff says of the teams. “So we've all been friends for 10 to 12 years.”

Heralded on its website as the “toughest canoe race in the world,” the Texas Water Safari starts at the headwaters of the San Marcos River and ends in Seadrift – roughly 260 miles later. Contestants have 100 hours to finish the course, or they are disqualified.

“It's not a canoe trip with a case of beer and a picnic basket,” Kyle says. “It's a very difficult trip. No sleep, heat, alligators, rapids."

Yes, you read that right: alligators. However, as the event is held annually on the second Saturday of June, the heat is likely the larger threat. Contestants have reported hallucinating toward the end due to high temperatures and sleep deprivation, Jeff reports.

"It's a lot. We started thinking, 'Ok, we've probably bit off more than we can chew,'” Jeff says.  “When you read all of that, you realize you're really in for it." 

Contestants are required to have all the supplies they need on the boat with them. They may only receive food, water and ice along the way. These items are provided by team captains – in this case, Mike and Brian – who are tracking them and driving through the Hill Country, ensuring their teammates hit every checkpoint.

“We're going to be relying on these guys to keep us headed in the right direction,” Jeff says,

Even so, those in boats are not allowed to have radio devises or cellphones. Instead, team captains are tracking the boats with GPS devices provided by the Texas Water Safari. Teams can even be tracked on computers at home for any family and friends who stay behind.

“We won't have any contact with the outside world until we're done,” Kyle says.

And if they finish in time? Well, the Texas Water Safari officials will give them a patch. But the six men all know: they are racing for far more than a patch.

The Driving Force

Among a list of team names such as “Ignorance is Blisters” and “Team Beeracuda,” a team of three called “The Finger Prickers,” makes its mark. The team is comprised of Kyle, Brian and Glenn. The name was suggested by Weston, who has to use a device called a lancet up to six times every day to test his blood. The family appropriately calls the lancet a “finger pricker.” It’s not easy, but Weston says, “I’m used to it.”

Weston is now in third grade at Old Union. Despite some intense challenges, he lives a relatively normal life. That was his parents’ goal: to have him live normally with it and not let diabetes define him. And that’s exactly how Weston goes about his day. He played basketball for a while and has now moved onto drums. His favorite subject is math. He is your typical eight-year-old boy, with the exception that he has to regularly give himself shots, finger pricks and be very careful about what he eats.

"I really don't mind,” Weston says of going to the doctor every three months. “As long as it gets me out of school, I'm ok with it."

For Kyle and those that know Weston, his bravery is inspiring.

“It takes a lot of toughness to deal with this disease,” Kyle says. “It's not fun and he has done such a good job of handling it. Watching him taking it face on was really my motivation to do this race.”

And while the canoe team has several things in honor of Weston – his birthday is 6/14 and the canoe is numbered 614 – their biggest effort is to raise money that goes directly to researching diabetes.

“Our families are all pretty close,” Jeff says. “We watched them go through the diagnosis with Weston as a family. It was really tough because they didn't know and it just kind of hit him out of nowhere.”

So, earlier this year, the teams made the decision to turn the race into a fundraising opportunity.

“It became more serious,” Jeff says. “It went from getting into to shape to doing it for a good cause. If we're going to ask people to donate the money they've earned, then we've got to take this seriously and we've got to finish this race.”

The team certainly is taking it seriously. They have been heading to the Hill Country about two weekends out of each month to train. The group takes lessons from a guide who has personally been through the race. When they aren’t familiarizing themselves with the San Marcos river, the teams practice paddling on Lake Grapevine. The generous community around them is taking is seriously as well: within the first three days of starting the online campaign, they had raised almost $6,000 for the Junior Diabetes Research Fund.

With the goal to raise $15,000 and finish the race, the group still has a long way to go. But they are determined to make it happen.

“We're trying everything we can to make sure we finish the race,” Kyle says.

The race starts on June 9, and Kyle is hoping to finish on June 12 – exactly two years from the date that Weston was diagnosed.