Every year before the race Scott Mansker (the moving force behind all this) publishes what he calls his “Dispatches.” These are bit of wisdom for the racers – especially those who’ve never done this kind of thing.
They give you a good feel for the race, so I thought I’d post some exerpts here. At this time there are 3 dispatches. As Scott posts more, I’ll plug them here. So, check back once in a while.
For many, the 8th Annual MR340 will be a second, third or even eighth(!) attempt at crossing the state of Missouri by boat. For those veterans, the experience of previous attempts is hard earned and priceless. They know what’s out there and surprises will be few. But the rookie faces a tough task. Because the challenge is so great, there are a thousand details to account for. And while most are competent to meet those thousand details, they first have to know what they are! When you don’t know what you don’t know, it’s tough to ask the right questions.
The most technical portion of this race is the first 3 miles. It involves the transition from the slack water of the Kaw River into the fast water of the Missouri, followed by a series of closely placed bridges through downtown KC. When I say this is the most technical portion of the race, that doesn’t mean it’s difficult. It just means that the remaining 337 miles are very boring in comparison.
The confluence of the Kaw and Missouri is tricky only because there will be so many boats crowding each other there. As the boats hit the fast water, the current pushes them downstream and then there are collisions and paddles knocking together and folks lean into a stroke that misses the water and we have boats flipping, etc. Please note that the mouth of the Kaw is quite spacious and there is plenty of room for boats to make this transition without a pileup. We can’t have 200 boats try for the same line. If you want to avoid the cluster, choose a more upstream entrance where there will be less people. Or, let the madness happen ahead of you and then proceed as the way opens. It’s not a difficult transition. Just keep some speed up and don’t be hesitant. You want to minimize the time that half your boat is in the Missouri and the other half is still in the Kaw. This is where you end up with a boat getting pointed the wrong way, etc. But if you go at it with some moderate speed, your boat will behave and you’ll be moving down the Missouri without a hitch.
Under the bridges we ask that boats steer clear of the bridge piers as they tend to hurt if you hit them. Give each other room to maneuver. The swift water rescue teams from Kansas City will be under these bridges to assist if there is a need.
Checkpoints and Cutoff Times:
- Kaw Point, mile 367, Race Begins, 8am (7am for solo) Tuesday, July 23rd.
- Lexington, mile 317, (50 miles) 5pm Tuesday Leg avg. 5.56mph Total avg. 5.56
- Waverly, mile 294, (23 miles) 9pm Tuesday Leg avg. 5.75mph Total avg. 5.62
- Miami, mile 262, (32 miles) 11am Wed. Leg avg. 2.29mph Total avg. 3.89
- Glasgow, mile 226, (36 miles) 6pm Wed. Leg avg. 5.14mph Total avg. 4.15
- Katfish Katy’s, mile 180, (46 miles) noon Thurs. 2.56mph Total avg. 3.60
- Wilson’s Serenity Point at Noren Access (Jeff City), mile 144, (36 miles) 7pm Thurs. 5.14mph Total avg. 3.78
- Hermann, mile 98, (46 miles) 10am Friday 3.07mph Total avg. 3.64
- Klondike, mile 56 (42 miles) 6pm Friday 5.25 mph Total avg. 3.79
- St. Charles, mile 29, finish line, (27 miles) Midnight 4.50mph Total avg. 3.85 mph
Day 1 cutoffs of Lexington and Waverly are arguably the most difficult for an unprepared paddler. This is because it’s Day 1 and all your planning mistakes are exposed. Typical errors we see as someone struggles to make Lexington are:
- Overloaded Boat
Physics says there’s a cost for every gram of weight aboard your boat. Just because your boat floats, doesn’t mean you get a free ride on weight. A boat weighing 400 pounds when loaded with paddler and gear requires 33% more energy to get to St. Charles than a 300 pound outfit. And the elite solo racers will probably be closer to 225 pounds of paddler, boat and gear. Some skinny paddlers even below 200! Travel as light as possible, checkpoint to checkpoint. Try to carry just enough liquids to go that leg of the race. Of course, this is predicated on having a good ground crew to meet you at each checkpoint and resupply you. Unsupported racers have to carry more. But even an unsupported racer learns they don’t need as much as they thought they would. When we close the checkpoint at Lexington, we typically see gallons of water jugs that have been jettisoned from boats as paddlers realize they are carrying too much. Now I don’t want to have the opposite problem, where paddlers are carrying too little. And there is no magic formula I can give you for the proper amount. Your knowledge will come from the training you do this season. Going out in a variety of conditions and paddling at different speeds. You’ll learn how much water you need an hour at what temperatures and paces. Then you’ll know what to put in your boat to get to Lexington that first day.
- Unsuitable Boat
Any boat can make it to St. Charles. Eventually. But an inefficient hull will slow a paddler down AND, maybe more importantly, wear them out.Boats come in all kind of shapes and are built for different applications. Some are super sleek and lightweight and built for flat water racing like the 340. Others are recreational takes on the same designs, but are a bit more stable (and affordable) and will do a fine job of getting you there. But some boats are built for fishing or for whitewater and are not the best choices. Yes, you might finish, but it will be much harder and so the odds you’ll fail will be greater. In looking for a boat, longer and sleek is better than shorter and wide. There are many good boats out there at affordable prices that aren’t going to win the 340, but will definitely get you there with a very respectable time.
- Not Physically or Mentally Prepared
You do NOT have to be some kind of Olympian with 2% body fat to finish this race. That’s been proven time and time again. People of all shapes and ages finish this race every year. But there’s a difference between being a physical god or goddess and being physically prepared. Being physically prepared means you’ve spent significant time in a boat, paddling, so that your body (butt, back, shoulders, hands, and even feet) is up to the task. You should be in reasonably good shape. Every pound you lose will help. (See item #1) Any long term health problems have been discussed and cleared with your doctor. Mental preparation is big. I would say the race is 80% mental and I think many paddlers would agree with this. Your body can get you there. But your mind will be telling you to quit. How do you build mental toughness? Start pushing your body now. You don’t have to be in a boat. Start jogging. Enter a 5k and train for it. When the weather gets better, enter some of the smaller canoe races that start as early as March in mid-Missouri. Anything that puts you in a position of pushing your body into discomfort and fighting the urge to quit. Discomfort is a HUGE part of this race. You will want out of the boat. You will linger too long at checkpoints. You will think of reasons not to get back in. You will convince yourself to quit. Finishing this race really comes down to staying in the boat and moving downstream. And we beat that drum a lot on this forum. Your discomfort only ends when you get to St. Charles. So get there as fast as you can. There are many strategies for minimizing discomfort and maximizing speed. We’ll talk about those in subsequent posts.
One of the best parts of the MR340 is that it has a high Daydream Quotient. The entire event only lasts about 100 hours from Safety Meeting to Awards Ceremony, but you get to spend far more time than that thinking and strategizing about the race. And reminiscing after it’s over.
Spouses or partners have probably come to recognize that far off look when a paddler’s mind wanders back to some moonlit stretch of river during a previous 340. And while it can be annoying to have your partner mentally check out like that, it may be preferable to the 100th retelling of a story from the race.
If this is your first 340, your mind might have a little trouble wrapping around the enormity of the event. There are a blur of checkpoint names you’ve never heard of, and all sorts of new vocabulary to learn. Boats, paddles, maps, foods, etc. Luckily, we have plenty of time to familiarize ourselves before the big day. Plenty of time for questions and answers so that when you actually get out there, even if you’ve never been on the Missouri River before, your surprises will be few.
Let’s walk through the first 24 hours or so.
Monday, July 22nd there is a mandatory safety meeting as noted in the previous dispatch. Time and place can be found there so I won’t repeat that. Let’s talk about what you might do before and after that meeting.
If you’re from out of town you should make a plan to find Kaw Point Park. It’s very near the hotel where we have the safety meeting, but it may be the most confusing one mile drive on the planet. Mark that off your list early. Also, many racers will leave their boats there overnight so as to have one less thing to do in the morning. We have security at the park, watching over boats starting at 1pm.
Activity starts at Kaw Point around 5am when it’s still dark. The DJ sets up and starts playing music and the morning TV shows all send camera trucks and the reporters start interviewing paddlers. The solo boats start launching and paddling around the harbor.
By 7am there are lines at all the launch zones and most of the solos are in the water when the gun goes off for the Solo Start. Tandems and bigger boats continue to launch. By 8am, we fire the cannon for those boats and Kaw Point is empty and quiet. But there’s all kinds of activity out on the river.
As discussed before, the first 3 miles of the race are probably most intense. There’s a lot of andrenalin at the start… then you move from the slack water of the Kaw to the fast water of the Missouri and that transition can give people some trouble. After that there are the bridges of Kansas City which are bunched together and your surrounded by scores of other boats and it’s exhilarating and awesome.
It’s really a blessing to have so many boats because it keeps that feeling going for a long time on day 1. There’s so much to look at and so many people around to talk to and interact with, that the first 10 miles goes pretty quickly.
But soon, reality sets in. It starts to get hot. You might start to feel some discomfort from being in your boat so long. The pace you’ve been setting may not be sustainable and you notice you’re getting passed up by boats you had passed earlier. You start to wonder if you can do this.
Fear not! You are having a completely normal Day 1 reaction. Things will get better. But they will also get worse! Only a veteran of an ultra will understand that.
Your first challenge is to get to Lexington before the cutoff time at 5pm. One of the first things a 340 rookie learns is that you do yourself no favors setting a pace you cannot sustain. The best paddlers go roughly the same speed from Kansas City to St. Charles. Everyone has a different speed. It depends on your skill level AND your boat. Some boats can glide very well. Others do not. Trying to push a boat past its natural glide speed is a waste of effort. Hopefully, you’ve been in your boat enough to know what that magic speed is. Usually, if you hear a bunch of loud water around your boat, you’re pushing it past that speed. A quiet boat is an efficiently moving boat. Resist the temptation at the start of the race to go faster than you should and wear yourself out. Find a pace you think you’ll be able to still make by sunset that day. Lots of folks will pass you that first hour or two. You’ll see the white foam under their bow and hear that loud water. But 3-4 hours later, you’ll be passing them.
It gets hot in July in this part of the country. You’ve hopefully trained in the heat and figured out what works for you in such an environment. The river water will likely be about 80 degrees and will feel pretty good on your body as the day heats up. Use a sponge or wet cloth to keep yourself cool. The sooner you get ahead of that curve, the better. Staying appropriately hydrated is important and that means you are replacing electrolytes with your fluids. Eating is also crucial and too many paddlers end up having to quit due to food problems. Understand that you are pushing your body to do something big. And that takes big calories. It doesn’t have to be fancy sports food. In fact, if you’re not used to pushing hard on fancy sports food, don’t bring it along. Eat simple stuff that your body is used to. And eat steadily. If you have a partner in the boat, make sure you watch each other that you are both eating and drinking regularly. If your partner stops eating for an extended period because they don’t “feel hungry” they are heading for trouble. That is an unsustainable situation and he or she will soon crash. Keep the calories going in. Steadily.
You’ll see lots of safety boats out there on Day 1 as the group is still in fairly tight formation. Their job is to monitor you as they pass. They all have certain assignments as to where to be at sunset and they are instructed to keep an all day pace to minimize their wake and maximize their time underway, watching.
The one boat to really watch for out there will be The Reaper. This boat will be keeping the minimum pace required to meet the cutoff time of each checkpoint. If the Reaper is behind you, you’re ahead of the pace. If it’s in front of you, you are in jeopardy of not making the cutoff time. All boats that hit a checkpoint AFTER the Reaper are disqualified.
The Lexington checkpoint gets very crowded with boats and support vehicles. For that reason, many paddlers opt not to stop there for support, instead stopping at one of the boat ramps upstream of Lexington. All boats are required to check in via text message when they pass Lexington, so your ground crew will be there (or your home based ground crew will be watching) as you pass. Be sure to pass near enough to shore that your ground crew can discern you from the other boats if you are not planning on stopping. I’ve seen some teams use those 2 mile walkie talkies with success to talk to ground crews when they don’t stop. Handy for telling them your status and what you’d like at the next checkpoint.
Typically, Lexington has a local non-profit group selling grilled foods and water/soft drinks at the ramp. This is handy for those who don’t have a physically present ground crew.
Common mistake at the first checkpoint is to take an extended shore leave. You’ve finished the first 50 miles, which is a fairly good chunk of the race, but you’re sore and hot and it feels so good to be out of the boat and you are reluctant to get back in. Many pull out of the race at Lexington for this reason. They just can’t imagine 290 more miles. And that’s fine. No shame in paddling 50 miles. But if you intend to continue, sitting at the boat ramp is not a good strategy. You’ve worked so hard to arrive there ahead of the cutoff time. Every minute you sit there is making your next cutoff time more lethal. Try to make your time at checkpoints as short as possible. Let your ground crew refresh your boat while you walk around and stretch. But then back in the boat as quickly as possible. A burger in one hand and a cold Coke in the other. Drifting towards Waverly while you eat. Looking over your shoulder for the Reaper.
Waverly is your next checkpoint and the cutoff is 9pm. If you made Lexington by 5pm and didn’t stay longer than a few minutes, you should make Waverly before the cutoff. Here paddlers are faced with a decision that may determine their fate for the remainder of the race…how long should one linger in Waverly?
By 9pm, it’s getting dark. Waverly will likely have the boy scout food grill setup similar to Lexington. There are flush toilets and running water near the top of the hill. There are also train tracks running right through the middle of the park, making sleeping difficult.
The last 4 years, we’ve had nobody stay the night in Waverly. It’s just a bad decision. Most who wake up in Waverly on day 2, quit that morning. It’s a long haul to Miami, the next checkpoint, and it would be a big push to make that in time. Those that do attempt it are usually pulling out at Miami or Glasgow later that day. The race will have left you behind if you stay in Waverly. And it’s so hard to be motivated when you can’t see any other paddlers ahead or behind you.
So, what are your options? Well, there are racers who paddle all night. That may or may not be for you. Difficult to say unless you’ve done this before. You won’t know until you are out there. But many people have surprised themselves and their ground crews by doing this. Ideally, you will have practiced night paddling during your training and will be comfortable with your lighting system, etc. But short of that, you will also be around other paddlers who have done it before and you can simply follow them through the night.
If you’re unsure about the river at night, how about a safety boat escort? The last two safety boats in Waverly will be the Reaper and the Jupiter. They usually leave there by 11pm or so with the last paddlers out. They can shepherd you through the dark and you’ll be in good hands. Their destination is Hills Island, about 12 miles downstream. Hills Island is a big, treed island with a large sandy beach. It is only accessible by boat, so ground crew can’t join you there. It’s quiet (no trains) and we always keep a big campfire going there all night. It lends itself to a good couple of hours of sleep. And while it may not seem like much, that extra 12 miles sets you up for a much better Day 2.
Of course, many people reading this will go much further than Hills Island on Day 1. Miami will be busy all night (105 miles) and Glasgow will start seeing paddlers as well. (141 miles) the very back of the race will be at Hills Island.
If you catch some rest at Hills Island and want to move on before sunrise, we will be moving a safety boat around 2am from there to Miami and you are welcome to tag along. Another boat will leave Miami and head for Glasgow late night as well. A third boat will travel all night from Glasgow to Jefferson City. All other safety boats will be moored at the various checkpoints and available to assist you with any needs you might have.
By now you’re starting to get the idea. The more time you spend in your boat vs. on shore, the further you go each day. And the further you go each day, the more likely you are to finish the race and finish well. No day is more crucial than Day 1… so we can assume you’ve got plans to go at least as far as Hills Island. But in your planning and staring at maps, it may be helpful to know what else lies beyond Hills Island as options for Day 1. Here is our list of spots where we plan to have safety boats on station for Day 1/Night 1.
Hills Island (mile 281)
Grand Pass sandbar (mile 272)
Miami (mile 263)
Mouth of the Grand River (mile 250)
Dalton Access (mile 239)
Glasgow (mile 226)
Franklin Island Access (mile 195)
Katfish Katy’s (mile 180)
Cooper’s Landing (mile 170)
Jeff City (mile 144)
Consider these options in your planning process. Might be handy to have some notes on your map about where these are so that as you pass Hills Island, feeling good, you know you’re only 9 miles from the next safety boat downstream. And once you get there, it’s only 9 more miles to Miami.
Safety boats stationed at locations other than checkpoints will be instructed to leave anchor lights on all night so you can spot them. You’re welcome to visit their island or sandbar for a rest. Most will have fires going and be generally hospitable.
Taking the race in small bites is good both physically and mentally. Rather than stare down the 18 miles from Hills Island to Miami, consider a 9 mile chunk. Or, the 37 miles from Miami to Glasgow can be broken into 13, 11 and 13. Not to mention myriad other places to pull over and catch some rest. Assuming normal water levels, there will be lots of sandbars and shoreline.
It’s interesting to dissect what makes a good ultra marathon paddler. We could talk about speed and proper form and stroke rate… and there’s plenty of that stuff on this forum if you dig for it. But at a more fundamental level, what makes a good ultra marathon paddler? Are YOU a good ultra marathon paddler?
Well, if you’re reading this, you probably are.
Why? Because you’ve self-selected to be here. It’s a huge leap to go from hearing about the MR340 to actually signing up for the MR340. Lots of serious thought goes into that. And there are many people on this planet who have forgotten what it’s like to take on an adventure or to test themselves. They will be safely in their cubicle or on their couch July 23rd. You will be attempting to cross the state of Missouri in a boat.
So good for you. The fact that you’ve got the guts to sign up says a lot about who you are and what brought you to this point. We like you already. You’re not boring or sedated or just riding this ball of rock in circles. You’re tapping into the same energy your antecedents did when they decided to grab a sharp stick and challenge the mammoth. Yes, they were badasses. So it should be no surprise that you are too!
For better or worse, we have it pretty easy these days. Food is plentiful, cars have airbags and our phones can talk back to us. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan. But I think we all know there can be side effects to a modern, convenient life.
If you’re reading this at work, like most of us do, just look around at your co-workers. What do they look forward to? What do they daydream about? The answer would probably depress you.
You’ve got maps and cool flashlights and a boat! All the ingredients for a great adventure. And, not coincidentally, you’ve signed on for a grueling, life changing quest. Does that make you superior to them? Yes. In so many ways. But try to remain humble. There’s still lots of work to do.
Just because your grueling, life changing quest is still over 5 months away, doesn’t mean you can’t start doing grueling, life changing things right now!
1. Get in (better) shape.
Note, I did not say get in perfect shape. I mean, it’s a great goal and go for it if you want to… but it’s not essential to having a great 340. But I think improving your overall physical condition has lots of great bonuses that come with it. There’s a mental discipline and toughness that comes from pushing yourself. And with that discipline and toughness will come some confidence. Do NOT roll your eyes. It’s very true. If you start some sort of realistic, committed approach to getting in better condition, the physical and mental benefits are equal. And the race is probably more mental than physical.
Think about it. If you go into the race thinking, “I’m in horrible shape. I’m completely unprepared for this.” Well, have you’re ride meet you in Lexington. You will surely have talked yourself in to quitting by then. But contrast that with “This is the best shape I’ve been in in 5 years.” I will see you in St. Charles with a smile on your face.
Here’s some more advice. START TODAY. You know what to do. You do not need a gym membership. Make it a goal to be sore tomorrow. Along with that limp will come some swagger. I promise.
2. Develop your Missouri River literacy.
A lot of your possible anxiety about the race may rest in the fact that you’ve never paddled on the Missouri River. So you are concerned about what it may be like and if you’re up to task. You keep hearing about barges and wing dykes and whirlpools and boils and it starts to sound a little intimidating. I recommend you make an effort to get out on the river, if possible, for some training runs or some of the shorter races offered prior to the MR340. This will go a long way towards assuaging your anxiety. It’s also helpful to use a program like Google Earth to look at the places and things we’re talking about in these dispatches. You’ll be able to see the wing dikes, the islands, the checkpoint towns, etc. Won’t be long and you’ll have the whole route memorized. You’ll know where the tributaries come in and where the best sandbars are for the impromptus that make up the race. Get your ground crew acclimated as well.
3. Proceed as the way opens.
I came upon this philosophy while reading the book River Horse and it has served me well ever since. We can never have every detail planned out and to be encumbered by a wish to have control over every aspect and possible outcome of an undertaking is to doom it. So often we talk ourselves out of things because we don’t have all the answers. Or, we have so regimented ourselves in how we approach a task that we can’t adapt to realities we didn’t foresee. Proceed as the way opens is a great mantra to have out there during the race. You may have your whole race planned out on paper and be convinced you have the one true formula for your success. But there are unforeseen things that will happen. Some will be setbacks and some will be opportunities. You have to be open to that flow and be willing to release your plans and embrace some new ones.
Many philosophies invoke a river as a metaphor for how to approach life. Well, you’ll be riding one great big metaphor all the way to St. Charles. Seems a shame not to embrace that just a little bit in both your preparation and execution.
I could write pages of examples for how this can play out during your race. Maybe you planned to sleep at Hills Island until sunrise. Your ground crew is meeting you in Miami at 10am. You approach Hills Island, paddling with a group of people you met that day… they’re plan is to keep going all night. You feel great. You want to keep going. But the plan you wrote at your desk last month says stop at Hills Island. PROCEED AS THE WAY OPENS. Text your ground crew and tell them things have changed. You’ll be at Miami 8 hours earlier than you thought. And you’re craving pizza.
Example 2. A brutal headwind starts blowing on the afternoon of day 2. The river is rough and you’re struggling to make progress in the heat. You’re exhausted but you want to make Katfish Katy’s before you stop and get some sleep. PROCEED AS THE WAY OPENS. You see a nice treed sandbar up ahead. You beach your boat and find some shade and sleep. Upon waking, the wind has laid down and the temperature has dropped. You’re behind your schedule, but you’re rested and now you can just touch and go at Katfish Katy’s. Net gain!
So for now, as you plan your race strategy, promise yourself that you will be willing to adjust to both setbacks and windfalls.. It’s good to have a solid plan and to prepare for that plan. But be confident, flexible and river literate enough to adjust to your advantage.
Next dispatch I want to talk more specifically about night paddling, fog and related weather issues.
It is not required that you paddle at night to finish this race. However, you’d have to be making very good time during daylight hours in order to lay over during the 8 hours of darkness each day.
If the thought of paddling at night on the Missouri River makes you nervous, congratulations! You’re sane. But with some preparation it can be a very rewarding and wonderful part of your race. For many, it’s among the best moments they take away from the week.
When the race begins on Tuesday, July 23rd many paddlers will be on the Missouri for the very first time. Probably not an exaggeration to say that at least half will be brand new to the river. And that’s ok. It’s not what you would call a “technical” river. The first 5 miles are probably the most technical only in that there are things to steer around and boats crowded around you. But after that, it’s pretty sedate. A lot like paddling on a lake. However, there are some things to be aware of on the river, day or night. Let’s list these out and break them down.
These are jettys of rock that extend from shore to maybe a quarter of the way into the river… one side or the other… all the way to St. Charles. They are there to keep the water swift and deep. That’s a good thing. Especially in a dry year. After about 10 miles you’ll know about all you need to know about wing dikes. And that will serve you will when it gets dark. And there are other obstacles to note on your way to sunset.
There are navigation buoys in the water. Not everywhere but you’ll probably pass 150 or so on your way to St. Charles. These are large steel cylinders, some red, some green, anchored to huge concrete blocks on the river bottom. These should be avoided as they sometimes float or dance erratically if debris is stuck to their cables beneath the surface. Give them some room.
We go under a bunch of bridges the first morning. After that, they are rare. But if you paddle at night, you’ll likely go under one in the dark, especially near a checkpoint. You should stay in the middle of a span and avoid getting close to the piers. Driftwood can stack up against them just under the surface. Very hard to see at night. Stay in the middle of the channel span, lit by a green light or green reflector, and you’ll have no trouble.
Barges and Dredges:
Dredges mine sand from the river and are usually anchored midstream. There are cables that stretch way out ahead of them and these can rise and sink quickly. You don’t want to be near a dredge. But that’s like saying you don’t want to be near a killer tortoise. It ain’t going to hunt you down…you’d have to get close to be in trouble. Plenty of room to avoid these.
Towboats push barges up and down the river. And also ferry sand and empties back and forth from dredges. Be aware of this and stay out of their way. Barges parked along shore are also dangerous. You don’t want to get pinned against one by the current. But again, this falls under the killer tortoise category. We’ll go into more detail about barges, moving and parked, in a subsequent dispatch.
So, that’s a pretty good list of things you could encounter at night. But there is 100% certainty you’ll encounter all of those things on day 1. You’ll have about 13 hours of good daylight to get used to how to navigate around such obstacles. Then, when it gets dark, you’ll have a pretty good handle on what’s around you.
Pay attention to the noise that water makes as it goes around wing dikes and buoys, or any fixed obstacle for that matter. The river is generally pretty silent. Amazing to witness hundreds of thousands of gallons moving that fast without a sound. But it can get pretty noisy around a fixed object. And that will help you a bunch at night.
First thing to remember… it doesn’t just suddenly get dark. It’s a process and you’ll have time to adjust. Another thing to remember, you likely won’t be alone. With 300+ boats out there, you’ll be with a group as darkness falls. Travelling with a group at night is highly recommended. For one thing, you always paddle faster with a group. Whether you’re drafting or not, there’s just an energy in a group and everyone keeps everyone else’s spirits high. Time goes quicker as you talk through the night. But more importantly, you have multiple pairs of eyes and ears paying attention to the river and navigation.
As you start to get tired after a Day 1 that probably started for you at 4am, your alertness starts to flag. That’s why a group is so important. You’re talking and interacting so you stay alert, AND you’ve got other paddlers paying attention so that if you’re in a slump you’ve got someone else to pick up your slack.
Remember, you’re on the same river you’ve been on all day. The wing dike pattern is consistent. The noises are the same… and if anything, at night they seem louder. Your job is to make easy miles in the cooler temperatures under the full moon and the stars. Stay in the middle as there’s rarely anything other than buoys out there. You should have a good, strong handheld light aboard that you can pick up and flip on easily if there’s something ahead you want to light up.
Another good reason for paddling with a group is that your eyes can play tricks on you out there. I remember one year… it had to be 2007 or 2008, I was making a night run downstream of Jeff City during the race. I was by myself in my safety boat and very tired as this was night 3 and I had very little sleep. Up ahead I saw what I thought was the front end of a barge lit up. I slowed and sort of hovered midstream. I couldn’t get my eyes to see anything but what I thought was the raked bow of a barge with a solitary light on top. I kept creeping forward a little at a time, ready to bail out right or left once I could tell what I was seeing. After 20 difficult minutes of this, I got close enough to realize it was a light on shore. But the illusion, partially of the lights on the water and partially my sleep deprived mind, led me to think it might be a barge. Had I been with others, someone may have pointed out the shore light and the game it was playing with me. But I was alone.
Another thing to factor into your decision whether to paddle on or not is the water level. As of this post, all signs point to slightly below normal water levels. There are blessings in that forecast. At normal or below normal levels, you will have countless options for places to pull off the river safely and sleep. Miles of shoreline and hundreds of sandy beaches between KC and St. Charles. So, the decision to push on another mile or two or ten or fifteen is filled with options for rest, just around the bend. But in a high water year when you leave a checkpoint, you’re more or less committing to the next one. Or a night spent on a steep, muddy bank in the bug filled treeline. Unpleasant.
Having lowish water also means more reaction time for avoiding any obstacles you may find in your path. You’ll hear veteran racers complain about low water… but if you’re new to the Missouri River, it’s a blessing. Especially on your first night.
One thing to watch for while night paddling is fog. Fog on the river can come up quick and can be very disorienting and very dangerous. If fog starts to build, get off the river. What’s the worst thing that will happen if you beach your boat for a few hours? You’ll just get some much needed sleep which will allow you to travel farther, faster during the fog free hours. Do yourself and your family a favor and stay off the water if fog develops.
Traveling on the river at night is one of my most favorite things. I’ve been doing it for 24 years now and look forward to it every single time. Like any endeavor, there are ways to minimize risk and make it a safe and fun experience. And there’s an advantage to be gained by paddling during the cool hours of night and resting during the beastly hot hours in the afternoon.
So, as darkness falls on night 1, pledge your allegiance to a pod of paddlers as they race toward the dawn. Take it slow and keep your eyes and ears alert. Enjoy the moon and the company. Maybe I will see you out there!