A little over a year ago, just before the pandemic, I was browsing through YouTube videos and came across a video from an event in Texas. It contained lots of performance boats speeding across a beautiful lake that wound like a snake through lush, green, rolling hills. Being a freelance photo-journalist, I casually made the comment on the video that “I would love to shoot that event some day”. Just a couple days later, after reading my comment, I received an email from a woman from that event, Sharla Carver, who was a member of the Possum Kingdom Muscle Boat Association (PKMB). She had just lost her regular photographer for their event – the Hell On Water Poker Run – and was wondering how serious I was about shooting the event for them, which she was in the process of planning for that August of 2020. Typically held in June, the event had been pushed back to August because of the pandemic.

Excited at the randomness of the contact, I replied with an enthusiastic “yes”! Soon we were on the phone together planning travel, event logistics and photo strategies. But in the end, it wasn’t meant to be. Sharla was unable to secure permits for the event, and was forced to cancel it for that year. Possum Kingdom Muscle Boat Association has been around since 2016 and this would have been their 5th poker run if it weren't for COVID. Instead, this was their 4th Hell On Water Poker Run in 5 years, which was created as a way to raise funds for their local volunteer fire department.


Fast Forward 1 year and I received another call from Sharla. With much more optimism she kindly asked if I would still be interested in coming out to Texas to shoot the event, and once again, the answer was a resounding yes. Being a fairly small poker run, their resources were modest. Photographers were typically posted up on cliffs or marinas around the lake and forced to shoot from a single location. It all worked fine for the time being, but I felt like there was an opportunity to step it up a notch. They did have a local resident who was a pilot and offered to donate a flight to shoot from, but shooting from a plane is not an ideal situation for good photos. I needed a helicopter, but that wasn’t in the budget. I told her to give me some time and I would see what I could do to help fund it. With a couple of calls, I soon had sponsorship for my aerial platform. River Daves Place generously sponsored my helicopter for the event, with some additional help being provided by Bill Picot and his cleaning product, Knockout Grime, based in Texas and facilitated by Greg Adkins through his River Whips page.


Sharla and her team were excited because this would be the first time in the events short history that they would have aerial shots from a professional photographer in a helicopter dedicated to chasing the boats. However, mother nature wasn’t done dealing the blows just yet. For three weeks leading up tot he event, the big Texas sky’s had been unloading floods of rain, accompanied by lighting and thunder storms which threatened to shut down the event. But, with a couple days to spare, the weather improved and the event was a go. However, there was one unfortunate side effect. All that rain had washed tons of sediment into the feeding river, and turned the lake from its typical crystal blue water into “chocolate milk” as Sharla put it.


It was definitely a bummer to know we’d have brown water for our shots, but I decided that it was better than the alternative of not flying at all because of the storms. Undeterred, I boarded my flight to Dallas, where I got my rental car and made my two hour drive through the beautiful green farmland of North Texas to Possum Kingdom Lake. I wasn’t sure what to expect from a small event on a lake in such a remote location. Judging by the small, slice-of-Americana farm towns I passed through, I wasn’t expecting much in the way of boats. Hell, I hadn’t seen a freeway in over an hour as I continued driving down two lane farm roads for miles and miles, grateful that I still had a connection to cell towers which were providing my navigation.


Upon arrival, I was pleasantly surprised by the beauty of the lake. Sure, the water was brown, but you could see the potential as appeared through the rolling green hills. Better yet, as I arrived to the show-n-shine kick off party at the local Chamber of Commerce (which consisted of a simple steel building on a gravel lot), I was relieved to find some legitimate muscle boats on display, as the club’s name implies. With food trucks on site, a DJ playing music, and some very cool cars, trucks and boats on display the atmosphere was festive, with a down-home, small-town, Mayberry kind of feel. I never get tired of the good nature and Western charm of the Texas culture. And I love their accents, too!


I woke up the next day very excited for the Poker Run. Possum Kingdom Lake is known for a famous landmark called Hells Gate – a towering ridge of rock that runs through the middle of the lake with a several hundred foot break in the ridge which forms a “gate” between one section of the lake to the other. I had heard about it at great length leading up to the event, so I was really excited to see it from the air. As luck would have it, a local resident of the lake had a house on the shore with a view of Hells Gate – and even better, his own personal helipad – so this is where we arranged for the chopper to pick me up.


We lifted off and flew up over the gate to go catch the fleet. It was an amazing site, even with the chocolate brown water. There were 79 boats registered and they were all waiting for us in the marina. As instructed, the lead boat took off down the lake to the first stop and the pack followed. From above, you could see how the lake wound back and fourth, almost doubling back on itself in some places This worked in our favor, where we could cut across the peninsulas of land to catch up with the faster boats.


It really was a shame that the storms had ruined the water. I’m told the water is normally a very clear, crystal blue with a 15-20 ft visibility. In fact, one of the residents gave me a picture of they took as the mudflow rushed into the Hells Gate Bay, which you can see below. However, nobody let that stop them from having a good time.


As you can see by the photos, I was very pleasantly surprised by the high-dollar hardware that showed up. It may be a lake in the middle of no where, but it wasn’t lacking wealthy residents. Some of them live at the lake full time, but it sounded like for most of them, Possum Kingdom was their weekend playground. And even so, it had a very warm, endearing small town vibe where everyone knew everyone, and everyone was your neighbor.


After all the card stops (which they replace with Dog Tags), everyone gathered back at Hells Gate where they anchored out in front of one of the participants houses for a free concert by local cover band, “Poo Live Crew”. Don’t let the name fool you. They rocked the lake with their perfectly duplicated covers, and they did it Texas style, in 100 degree heat on 70% humidity. The raft up was huge, and the party was bumping for the rest of the day. From there it was on to the awards party where casino night was the theme, and everyone finished off the day playing craps, blackjack and other games under the sunset sky. It was a fantastic event that exceeded my lofty expectations, and I really hope I get the opportunity to visit the lake again, if for nothing else than to visit all the new friends I made. Texas hospitality is a legit thing ya’ll.


So next year when you’re working on your poker run itinerary, and you want to do something new, different, and fun… consider putting the Hell On Water Poker on your schedule. Ya’ll will be glad you did.