By Karen Cernich
Whether you paddle for sport or pleasure,
Let the Missouri River Be Your Destination
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
By the end of this year’s MR340 race on the Missouri River, Jay Doty, a landscape architect from St. Louis, was exhausted. He’d completed the 340 miles from Kansas City to St. Charles in just under 58 hours as part of a tandem team with very few stops and very little sleep. But despite the intense focus and pace that participating in this popular endurance race requires, Doty was still able to appreciate the beauty that surrounded him on the river.
The vastness and size of the Missouri is always the first thing he notices, but the scenery is not to be missed, especially the 15-mile stretch between Hermann and New Haven, which Doty describes as “the prettiest along the Missouri” because of how the bluffs practically meet the water’s edge with only the Katy Trail tucked in between. And then there’s the wildlife — bald eagles, blue heron, egrets, coyote packs howling at night, screech owls . . . once he even saw a fawn swimming across the river.
“There are so many different looks and feels to the Missouri,” Doty said.
Over the years, he’s paddled different sections of the river, both for sport and for pleasure, but he never gets bored with it, just as Heraclitus stated.
If you missed out on this year’s MR340, you can start prepping for next year’s race (read on for more about the experience from Doty and fellow paddler, Bob Menees). If you need to get some Missouri River paddling experience under your belt first, there’s no better event than Paddle MO, coming up Sept. 21-26. Only a handful of spots remain open at this time, but check the website (www.paddlemo.org) for slots that may become available due to last-minute cancelations. This year, like last, organizers are limiting the roster to 40 participants and 10 staff/volunteers. Under normal, non-pandemic circumstances, Paddle MO is open to 80 participants from Hawaii to New York and 20 staff/volunteers.
Paddle MO Is an Excursion, Not a Race
This year marks the 6th annual Paddle MO. The first was held in 2016 in partnership
with Magnificent Missouri, which continues to serve as a sponsor and partner today.
Unlike the MR340, Paddle MO is not a race. It’s an excursion down the last 100 miles of the Missouri, from Hermann to the confluence with the Mississippi River. There are three distance options — a 5-day, 3-day or weekend trip. Organized by Stream Teams United, Paddle MO is part outing, part educational program, part fundraiser for Missouri waterways. Participants float down the river as a group, stopping at various historic towns along the way and eating really good food. Ecology experts Bill and Jody Miles of Earth’s Classroom, the nonprofit outdoor experiential learning center in Rosebud, serve as on-water guides for the trip with other scientific and historic experts joining in to give presentations over lunch on a sandbar or after dinner. Overnight accommodations are at campgrounds with real bathrooms and showers.
One of the biggest benefits of Paddle MO for anyone new to the Missouri River is that event organizers take care of everything (short of paddling) for you. They figure out all of the logistics and provide all of the support. All you need to do is show up with your gear — but even if you don’t have the right gear, they help you with that too! Need a boat? Organizers will help you borrow or rent one.
Safety Is a Priority
Paddle MO is sanctioned by the American Canoe Association; Bill Miles is one of the highest level instructors. Life jackets are required for all paddlers, regardless of experience, on the water. Prior to getting on the river, all participants go through safety training, and the event is never held during flood stage. Rain alone isn’t enough to stop paddlers, but if a storm with lightning or strong winds is expected, the group gets off the river.
The majority of the paddlers come to the event with an intermediate level of paddling experience, although they may be beginners to the Missouri River. Mary Culler, executive director of Missouri Stream Team Watershed Coalition, said it’s advisable for all participants to have some paddling experience before signing up for this trip.
‘We Work to Build a Culture of River Conservation’
According to Culler, 100% of the funds raised from Paddle MO support Missouri waterways.
“This event is a fund raiser for Missouri Stream Team, and our mission is education, stewardship and advocacy for Missouri’s rivers and streams,” she said. “The money raised from the event helps us do different educational programs and also support our advocacy efforts throughout the state. We work to build a culture of river conservation in Missouri.”
Registration for Paddle MO opens every year on January 1, and dates are posted in December. “We get a rush of people right away, selling half the trip in the first couple of months,” Culler said. “There’s another rush of sign-ups in July.”
If you weren’t able to register this year, check the website in January to sign up for 2022.
MR340 Demands Strength & Stamina
Held July 20-23, this year’s MR340 included more than 500 participants from all across the country. Among them was Bob Menees, an environmental attorney with Great Rivers Environmental Law Center, who participated with his wife, Susanna, in the mixed tandem division. They didn’t have any paddling experience outside of the occasional float trip with friends, but Menees said through his work, he had heard enough about the MR340 that he felt it was high time that he took part.
“I announced to my wife in November that I wanted to do it, and we slowly started preparing. Did fitness training, rented boats and went out training – on the Missouri River, Bourbeuse River, Meramec River, Creve Coeur Lake . . . ,” Menees said.
Their prep work paid off. The couple finished the race in 62 hours, coming in 12th in the mixed tandem division and 103rd overall. Those are numbers they are proud of, especially considering that it’s pretty common for first-time racers not to finish at all. Doty was among that group in 2017 when he first attempted the MR340. He only made it half way.
Organizers only allow racers 85 hours to complete the entire 340 miles, and they bump a good number of them the very first day if they don’t reach the initial check point in time.
“The first 74 miles is a real slog, because that’s the cutoff — you have to go 74 miles in 12 hours,” Doty said.
There are a lot of factors that make the MR340 challenging, but Menees said the heat and exhaustion are the worst of it. He and his wife ended up paddling through the night after their plan to sleep for 90 minutes in a car was interrupted by a car alarm going off unexpectedly. While paddling through the night on no sleep was difficult physically, it provided the most visually beautiful moments of the race.
“The first part of the race, there were a lot of people around, we were talking to everybody, then as the sun went down, the traffic thinned out, and it was really beautiful with a full moon,” Menees said.
Doty and his tandem partner made a conscious decision not to leave their boat much during the race. That was their strategy to making good time.
Naturally, they didn’t get much sleep, and Doty said he was told he was actually “sleep paddling” for part of the race, but their strategy worked. They did take an occasional nap, but they stayed in their boat — a 20-footlong Wenonah canoe. Doty did draw some awkward looks from his fellow paddlers as they passed by because of his choice of paddle — a Greenland, which looks a lot like a 2×4. It’s made of a light-weight Western Red Cedar, allowing Doty to paddle bare-handed without any injury or pain.
In addition to the heat and exhaustion the MR340 puts participants through, the river itself presents a few challenges – barges, fog, buoys, trees under the water . . .
“A buoy weighs something like 2,000 pounds, and it’s not just bobbing up and down out there,” Doty explained. “It moves side to side and can move 30 to 40 to 50 feet. You can think you’re giving it plenty of room and, all of a sudden, it’s right next to you.”
Ready to Do It Again
Menees said as hard as completing the MR340 was, he and his wife plan to do it again. That’s no surprise. Many racers either come back to compete again or they return in a support role. Doty, after bowing out of the race in 2017, returned last year as a volunteer, something he recommends for all paddlers at some point, just so they can appreciate all the hard work that’s required of the support crew — being at the ramps every time before the team gets there and just be a servant for the team.
“The neat thing is there is such a camaraderie among the 340 Community,” Doty said.
“One of the things the support crew does is they are there to help other boats and other crews getting them things they need, share their understanding and wisdom. It’s just a real community of people who make this trek down the river.”
Honors Friends Going Through Cancer Treatment
Unlike the Meneeses, Doty didn’t do any special training for the MR340, other than his usual weekly kayak trips, but he did something special to honor several friends who are going through cancer treatment. A social media post by one of them stated, “Quitting is not an option,” and Doty decided that was going to be his approach to the race.
“People who battle cancer do not get any training; they just get thrown into this heavy-duty battle, and in that essence, while they are fighting a much tougher battle than I did on the 340, there was that similarity that neither of us are going into this with any kind of training,” Doty said.
“So I went out and bought three handkerchiefs, painted them purple and gold, added the saying, ‘Quitting is not an option’ with their name and ‘Stay in the Boat.’ ”
Doty kept the handkerchiefs with him throughout the race, tucked in his pack. “I didn’t need to see them to be inspired by them,” he said. Once he completed the race, Doty delivered the handkerchiefs to each of his friends and shared a special moment with them. It was a small way that he could offer encouragement to his friends.
‘Something Magical About Paddling the Missouri’
The beauty of Missouri River Country was on display throughout the length of the MR340. Menees, who lived in the Pacific Northwest for a while, said he appreciates the diversity here in Missouri, and he was proud to hear a fellow paddler declare “what an amazing slice of Americana Missouri has in this river.”
Doty can relate to that comment. “There is something magical about paddling on the Missouri,” he said.