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Unfinished Missouri River 340 Still Rewarding For One Tired Paddler

August 11, 2006

Jefferson City, Missouri - Don Wilkison didn't win the Missouri River 340. In fact, he didn't even finish the race. However, in the 270 miles he covered in four days he did learn several things about floating the Muddy Mo. He and other participants also got something that is increasingly difficult to obtain these days - an authentic adventure.

The Missouri River 340 is the brainchild of two Kansas City area residents, Scott Mansker and Russ Payzant. They conceived the race as a way to focus attention on the neglected recreational opportunities offered by Missouri's namesake river.

They organized the 340-mile canoe and kayak race from Kansas City to St. Charles on a shoestring. Many Missouri paddlers didn't know about the river marathon until after contestants left Kaw Point, near the mouth of the Kansas River, at 8 a.m. Aug. 2. Just to make it interesting, they decided to require that participants finish the race in 100 hours, a little over four days.

Wilkison found out about the event three weeks beforehand. He had been planning a leisurely, two-week float on the Missouri River in September, but figured he might as well join the race. It would save him 10 days of vacation and make him part of something big and exciting.

As a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, Wilkison knew the Missouri River's current at this time of year is 3 mph. Therefore, just drifting with the current should get him 300 miles downriver during the prescribed time. He figured he could easily make up the remaining 40 miles in four days of paddling.

Wilkison's competition consisted of 20 other paddlers, comprising five tandem teams and ten solo paddlers. One of the soloists dropped out within 500 yards of the start, because his kayak was overloaded. One team dropped out several miles into the race when it became clear that the physical demands were beyond what a 70-something paddler should tackle.

As the remaining contestants - mostly in racing kayaks - forged on, Wilkison found himself falling behind. He had learned about the contest too late for serious training, so instead he concentrated on resetting his sleep cycle to allow him to paddle through the cool of the night and rest during the day. That worked, to a degree.

He had calculated that he should reach the riverside community of Lexington by 2 p.m. Arriving there several hours behind schedule turned out to be a blessing in disguise. He reached the safety of a public restroom at Lexington's river access just before a terrific thunderstorm struck. Safe and dry, he and his chow-mix dog, Trex, listened to 50 mph winds howling around the concrete privy.

Miles downriver, solo paddler Dawn Keller of Outer Banks, N.C., (whom Wilkison described as "uber-kayaker woman") and her Seda Glider kayak were flying - literally. She was hurled through the air, by what she still is not sure. It could have been a tornado or a downburst created by a super-cell thunderstorm. Whatever it was dumped her on a rock-covered bank. Race organizer Mansker responded to her distress call and found her "covered in centipedes and bruised, but otherwise unhurt. She and most of her gear had been ejected from the sealed kayak, but the boat was still intact, so she and her rescuer took off downriver. When a second storm overtook them, they hastily pitched a tent on a sandbar, where they rode out nature's fury.

Back upriver, Wilkison had gotten back on the river after the first storm subsided. He found himself on a barren stretch of river when the second storm broke. All he could do was lash his canoe to rocks fore and aft, put on all the clothing he had with him against hypothermia, and take Trex to the highest part of a rock wing dike to huddle in the fetal position as the storm lashed the rocks. He wasn't sure what time it was - probably between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m.

"I was just glad to be alive," said Wilkison.

Did I mention that the Missouri River 340's logo is a skull and crossed paddles?

Wilkison got back in his canoe after the second storm passed and gained the town of Waverly about 5 a.m. "I hadn't even been out one full day and I was dead dog beat," he recalled.

As he and Trex paddled doggedly downriver, he learned from periodic updates that the rest of the racers were pulling farther and farther ahead. Wilkison was surprised at how deeply grateful he was for human contact when the motorized boat bringing up the rear visited him periodically to check his condition, deliver sport drinks and relay news of the front-runner.

Meanwhile, Wilkison toiled on, paddling until around 2 p.m. each day. He would rest through the heat of the day, eat and catch a "power nap," then hit the water again around 6 p.m. He had never entertained illusions about winning the race, but never doubted that he could reach St. Charles in 100 hours. Somewhere around the midpoint of the race course, however, he began to have doubts.

"I was in way over my head," said Wilkison during a rest stop at the Carl R. Noren Access across the river from the State Capitol. It was mid-morning on the fourth day of the race. Fatigue and sleep deprivation, combined with a double shot of espresso from a local shop, left him a little manic. You got the feeling he might fall asleep in mid-sentence in spite of the caffeine.

"I really don't have any business doing this. I'm in more of a touring canoe than a racing canoe. I'm doing okay. Slowly every day the gap widens between me and the rest of the racers. Yesterday I was within 15 miles of a couple of women. I think they're going to make it."

By then, Wilkison had decided he would not make it to St. Charles. He planned to camp on a sandbar across the river from the tiny town of Portland that night. The tavern serving cold beer and hamburgers across the river might have figured in his choice of camping spots. He said he didn't care if he never saw another Power Bar.

His original goal was to reach St. Charles exactly at noon Aug. 6, the official end of the race. Instead, he moved his own personal finish to Hermann, about 70 miles upriver. "It's not perfect, but it's a game effort," he said philosophically. "I've always wanted to canoe all of the Missouri, but it doesn't have to be all at one time."

"This has been a combination of ecstasy and misery," Wilkison said in summary. "It's an endurance race. It's very grueling." He says he will be better prepared physically for next year's event. He said paddlers who aren't in top form might want to just enjoy the river the way he originally intended to, waiting for pleasant weather and camping on sandbars at night. He also suggested not floating when severe weather is forecast.

Wilkison was struck by the kindness of many strangers who helped him in various ways. Several people shared refreshments. One good Samaritan even took him to her home for a shower and a four-hour nap.

"I learned from this trip that we do nothing alone; there is no such thing as a solo venture. Everyone relies on the kindness of strangers as well as friends and family to do anything in life."

One contestant, Katie Pfefferkorn of Columbia, described her experience as a of voyage of self-discovery. She finished the race in 98 hours and 36 minutes, time during which she completely escaped everyday cares and pressures.

Planning for next year's event already is underway. Payzant said his electronic mailbox is clogged with notes from people who want to be part of Missouri River 340 - 2007.

"They want to know how come we never did this before," he said. "It's right in the center of country, easy for lots of avid adventurers to reach - much easier than the Boundary Waters or the bottom of the country. They can't wait for next year."

Asked what the race accomplished, Payzant said, "All the people who entered plus their support teams discovered there is an incredible river valley out there that they had never seen. There were 20 humans who found themselves in real situations, reaching into themselves and finding a person who they didn't even know existed, and that person looked pretty good. All of them came away with a real connection to each other. There were hugs and kisses at the end. It was an incredible human experience."

Visit rivermiles.com/ for more information about the Missouri River 340. For more information about more leisurely Missouri River floating, visit www.mdc.mo.gov/conmag/2002/07/10.htm.

-Jim Low-
 

 
 
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