Finding Flow on the Mighty MO

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Published on: Jun. 17, 2013

I’m 250 miles into a 340-mile kayak race. It’s Day 3. The intense July heat is taking its toll. I’m drifting slowly, my paddle motionless in my hands. The tension is unbearable. “This is ridiculous!” I finally holler, with an air of finality. “Then get out,” comes the terse reply. I’m arguing out loud with myself. Some part of me is done. Drifting past the boat ramp at Portland, I finally give that pesky little voice in my head the boot. Moments like this become the new normal — the MR340 normal. My body, now free from my internal critic, finds a perfect paddling pace. Everything else falls away. The line blurs between me, my boat, and the river. The next 40-mile stretch becomes e ffortless and one of the highlights of the trip.

It’s before dawn on a Tuesday morning in July. Nearly 500 chiseled athletes, misfit paddlers, weekend warriors, and river rats from 37 states look fresh and eager to take on the MR340 — the world’s longest, nonstop ultramarathon paddling race.

We’re at Kansas City’s Kaw Point, at the confluence of the Kaw and Missouri rivers. Under the whirring rotors of Kansas City news helicopters, the scene is a commotion of boats, biceps, and blades (paddles). Beat-up old aluminum canoes sit next to pedal-powered kayaks, high-dollar Hawaiian-style catamarans, stand-up paddle boards, tandem kayaks, canoes for six paddlers… it’s all here.

The race is about to start. Paddlers, many already with 1,000-mile stares, rummage through huge gear piles in one final frantic push to ditch some weight. There are true racers, cruisers, bucket listers, lifers, newbies, and race veterans returning to beat their best time. Cheering ground crews buoy them up with hugs and smiles, as well as some last minute taping up of hands.

I paddle my 18-foot kayak to the starting line. All of the competitors are in their boats now, with a mixture of smiles, concentration, and relief to have so many months of training and planning done. Now we can just lean forward and paddle. A blissful simplicity — enjoy the camaraderie of paddlers from all over the country and make miles.

A number of paddlers in wrestling masks and capes add to the carnival feel of the moment. We wave our goodbyes and thumbs-ups to family and friends on the bank. A Civil War cannon fires and we’re off. It’s simple, really. Paddle like crazy for 340 miles across Missouri from Kansas City to St. Charles in less than 88 hours. Nine checkpoints. Miss one and you’re disqualified.

The pack of boats soon stretches out over 5, then 10 miles of river. The front of the pack quickly disappears out of sight, at a paddling pace unfathomable even to many Olympic paddlers. The stifling July heat flexes its muscles early. The mercury rises to 108 degrees, with a heat index of 120, and stays there throughout the week of the race. The headwinds are relentless. Even for seasoned MR340 veterans, this is new territory. Due to the drought, we’re on a low, slow river, further stripping us of much-needed momentum.

Those looking for glory of breaking records or personal bests resign themselves to the new reality of simple rewards like staying hydrated and slowly making head-way on a race that alternates between agony and ecstasy.

My goal for Day 1 is to keep a 7-mile-per-hour pace, and to stay in the boat as much as possible. Dawdling around at checkpoints adds precious time to the clock. I remind myself that the hurt doesn’t get worse after Day 1. I may be lying to myself.

Soon we’ve paddled beyond Kansas City’s skyline and have entered the solitude of the countryside. An occasional town dots the otherwise forested banks. I make it to the Lexington boat ramp, 50 miles into the race at 2:15 p.m. Lexington is the first of nine checkpoints. In contrast to the solitude of the river, the checkpoint is another carnival of colors and commotion as ground crews lean in to assist their paddlers. I stay in the boat and check through as quickly as possible in an effort to bank some time that will help me further downriver. My mom quickly drops two bags of ice into my lap to help keep my core temperature down and I’m off again. I see many boats out of the water, already loaded up for the drive home. The heat is taking its toll.

Lewis and Clark Made Me Do It

Why am I here? Lewis and Clark made me do it. Being raised on stories of Lewis and Clark, John Colter, and Daniel Boone, paddling across the state has always been a childhood dream. The Missouri River is an ideal place to experience a wilderness adventure close to home thanks to dozens of communities and conservation area boat ramps along the way, which make the river incredibly accessible for paddlers and also easy for ground crews to meet up with paddlers throughout the race.

The Missouri River has long been a testing ground for man against nature. This dates back most famously to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with their stories of trials and tribulations. John Colter, one-time member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, became a legendary mountain man traveling its headwaters. Daniel Boone is credited with opening up the Missouri River valley for pioneers. He used the conduit of the Missouri River for both living a life full of exploration and for exploits that further refined his character through wilderness epics and challenges overcome there. Later waves of explorers were also defined in part by the river.

Author John Niehardt wrote, “In the history of the Missouri River there were hundreds of these heroes, these builders of the epic West… They thirsted in deserts, hungered in the wilderness, froze in the blizzards, died with the plagues, and were massacred by the savages. Yet they conquered. Heroes of an unwritten epic! And their pathway to defeat and victory was the Missouri River.”

This wild river has changed since those early days, but our need to test ourselves on wild rivers has not. Today the Missouri River still offers a wilderness setting to sharpen your mettle. Niehardt wrote, “If you wish to have your epic spiced with the glamour of kings, the history of the Missouri River will not fail you.” MR340 paddlers are dipping into a deep river, indeed.

The Real River Comes Out at Night

At 6:45 p.m., I paddle through the Waverly checkpoint, and push on to Miami. I reach Miami just after mid-night, 105 miles into the race. Day 2, I pass through the Glasgow checkpoint at noon, and am back in the boat within 45 minutes. I’m 141 miles from Kansas City, and all my thoughts are on reaching Jefferson City 82 miles downriver today if possible.

Just past Glasgow, a megaphone blasts, “Brett from Rocheport, number 1024, go get ’em!” From a shaded porch high on the forested bank, someone is cheering us on. They find our boat numbers on the race roster and shout words of encouragement as each paddler goes by. Whoever you are, thank you!

Near dusk on Day 2, the heat of the day is finally gone, and I drift for quite some time as I float past Rocheport at mile marker 186.5 — virtually the halfway point of the race. An eagle lands in its nest in high trees on the right bank. Numerous turkey vultures ride the thermals above the bluffs. Maybe they’re eyeing me as their next meal, I muse. At many points along this stretch, cyclists on the Katy Trail State Park seem to appear out of nowhere from behind forested banks. The Rocheport to Jefferson City stretch is one of the most scenic, with 100-foot-high bluffs along one bank, making it an unforgettable float with the moon as your guide.

The sky soon cascades into deep blues and purples with a sunset I will never forget. A full moon throughout the race allows paddlers to make miles until 3 a.m., or for some paddlers, to paddle all night long.

The navigation lights on the kayaks far ahead and behind me look like a faint string of Christmas tree lights curving their way down the river. The evening paddling on tranquil stretches under full moons renews spirits and elevates us. The slow meanders of the river seem to pull us along, with promises of new discoveries around each bend.

Soon, we ride atop the moon’s silver tongue on a river of black ink. My mind struggles to put a name to the blackened banks, the blackened river, the different shades of black, the empty spaces that are vacuum packed with absolute darkness. As the miles meander by, the only constant becomes the flow of this artery of the planet’s life force, immeasurable force flowing down deep, flowing forever, largely enveloped in silence.

This is a fleeting moment of disconnectedness with man’s worship of hurry, man’s constructed world of not enough time. But it is a palpable connection to what is real. Here, life around you has reached equilibrium. Life stripped to its simplest level of appreciation, where dipping a paddle into a silent, sleeping river is enough.

It’s 2 a.m. and the moon is dipping low. I make it to a broad sandbar at Marion Bottoms, mile marker 160, just above Jefferson City. A quick three-hour nap allows me to be up by 5 a.m., back in the boat by 5:15 a.m., and to make the Jefferson City checkpoint by 8:30 a.m. to meet up with my ground crew. I’ve been paddling for about 48 hours with some stops, and have covered 223 miles. team up with Dave Shook, from Aurora, Mo., to start pacing ourselves for the slog to the finish. Day 3 takes us to Hermann by 6:20 p.m.

The Final Push to St. Charles

Day 4 starts early with the alarm clock going off before dawn at the boat ramp in Washington. Snoozing paddlers are draped across picnic tables and on any available patch of grass. Not your typical cup of morning Joe. Despite being only 50 feet from the train tracks, we catch three hours of zzz’s, and continue to hit the snooze for another hour. What’s the rush? The heat has cooked us from the insides out. Our bodies are moving deliberately to conserve energy. “Slowly but slowly” becomes our new mantra.

Forty miles to go. Dave and I make early miles to beat the heat and to enjoy some placidly smooth river before the headwinds re-emerge by 8 a.m. I cringe as we pass several canoes being paddled solo with their bows high in the air — obvious signs that partners have dropped out of the race for reasons unknown. The headwinds send the canoes in a haphazard zigzag down the river.

We paddle past the Klondike boat ramp at 9:10 a.m., the final checkpoint before the finish. We stay in our boats, feeling strong after a few hours rest. With less than 30 miles to go, Dave and I find ourselves suddenly surrounded by the jovial River Ramblers flotilla, a touring group of 100 paddlers enjoying a leisurely multi-day float from Jefferson City to the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. They are talkative, fresh, and paddling fast — exactly what we needed to make the final push into St. Charles. They treat us like rock stars and we do little to dispel that myth.

At 2:25 p.m., with overwhelming relief, we reach the finish line, the sandy beach in front of the Lewis and Clark Boathouse and Nature Center in St. Charles — 79 hours and 25 minutes since leaving Kaw Point. By the end of the week, more than 100 have dropped out. Those that make it to the finish line in St. Charles are changed, transformed. Many, still shaky with exhaustion, are already talking about next year as they eat a celebratory meal, held in bandaged, blistered hands.

Bandaged, blistered hands. Sunburns. Numb hands and feet. Dehydration. Heat exhaustion. Elation. Huge smiles and hugs with cheering ground crews — the ones who make it all possible.

I have always been more of a float-trip guy, happy to drift with a cold beverage in hand. I entered the MR340 once because it seemed too insane, too irrational, too, well, right up my alley. My first year, I signed up two weeks before the race and showed up in a borrowed boat. I have been fortunate enough to finish each year since. Now I’ve just finished my fourth MR340 race. I found out early on that my place in the race is squarely in the middle of the pack — but no matter.

I find myself going back each year not only to test myself against the river, but to paddle with my amazing river tribe, and to push myself to extremes seldom explored in daily living. The MR340 reminds parts of me lying dormant that there are still rivers, indeed deep parts of myself, that remain unexplored, and that pondering unfathomable questions on endless rivers is sometimes better than finding the answers we seek.

What is it all for? Entering the race, let alone finishing it, is not about one thing — it’s about surviving the early morning wisps of fog-shrouded doubt, it’s about feeling the slow, almost imperceptible, warmth of the day start to build at dawn, it’s about embracing the hope to be found before the day’s headwinds awaken from their nightly slumber, it’s about facing the moments of despair on 108-degree afternoons, the moments of bewilderment that are soon followed by unexpected deep resurrection, when new-found reserves of mental and physical strength emanate from behind dusty, forgotten doors.

Focusing on simple tasks such as paddling, breathing, hydration, calories, and pace with no distractions from the outside world can be a very liberating experience. The race is about all of that. Not one thing, but many — the chance to face all that is ‘to be alive’ in a beautiful setting among friends.

Plan Your Own Missouri River Adventure

If you are interested in floating the Missouri River for an afternoon, or even from border to border at your own, self-guided pace, visit the Missouri Lewis and Clark Water Trail website, developed by the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Conservation. It includes maps, tips, and other useful information for planning your Missouri River paddling adventure: dnr.mo.gov/ water-trail.

Discover Missouri’s rivers and streams with the updated and revised Paddler’s Guide to Missouri. Detailed sections include northern streams, the Missouri River, and floats from all corners of the state. Each waterway includes easy-to-read maps, descriptions of access points, camping, state parks, and conservation areas along the way. Gorgeous color photographs in this new, revised edition will make you want to float Missouri’s rivers soon. Available for $8 from Conservation Department Nature Shops and online at mdcnatureshop.com.

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