It had been about 10 years since I was last in a whitewater kayak, so a mix of excitement and anxiety swelled in me as the 2017 Missouri Whitewater Spring Clinic approached. Luckily, the Missouri Whitewater Association (MWA), which hosts the clinic, also offers pool sessions a few weeks in advance to help registrants learn — or in my case re-learn — the mechanics of being in a kayak.
The pool sessions are held at different facilities around town, including Mehlville High School, where I participated. MWA instructors Joe Sartori and Jojo Newbold provided a combined 40 years of kayaking experience along with astute coaching using a calm, often comedic delivery.
We learned to rely on each other while paddling around the pool, taking turns practicing half rolls by pushing off one another’s boat. As Newbold was assisting a student with his hip snap, an important motion to roll your kayak back over if you tip, she noticed I was holding my paddle wrong. “Flip it around and adjust your stroke to a toes-to-knees motion,” she said.
Simple adjustments, but they made a world of difference. I immediately felt more control and confidence in my stroke.
Hitting the “Real” Water
With the pool time cleaning off some of the decade-old rust, I was looking forward to getting out on the “real” water. The day before the Spring Clinic, I went to pick up my boat at the pool, and one of the class members asked Sartori about the rainy weather forecast. Sartori scratched his head and replied confidently, “Tornadoes. If there’s a tornado, we shouldn’t go out on the water.”
His assessment was surprisingly reassuring.
That night, the clouds clapped and the rain fell, but tornadoes were nowhere in sight. I made the one-hour drive south of St. Louis the next morning and turned onto Highway 67 toward Fredricktown. This is where you get to see a true gem of Missouri: the St. Francis Mountains. Older than both the Appalachians and the Rockies combined, these mountains are withered-down giants, resting in retirement among the temperate deciduous forests, bucolic pastures and freshwater springs that define Missouri.
As I pulled into the Silver Mines Recreational Area, the rain fell and the temperature dropped. This did not dampen the mood, however. Folks happily unloaded their boats for the day’s adventure. After signing in and grabbing a life jacket, I joined everyone in listening to a briefing on the river conditions and safety precautions from MWA Clinic Director John Holdmeier.
The 90 of us were split up, and I was assigned to Sartori’s group. I slid into my kayak for land instruction on the sweep and forward stroke, a main technique we would focus on for the day. Just before getting ready to hop in the water, Sartori asked the eight members of our group to come up with a team name. The subsequent silence gave way to “Team Crickets.”
Our route called for a 4-mile stretch on the St. Francis River (locally known as “The Saint”) from the campground to an unmarked bridge downriver. The rain had swelled the river into the trees on each bank, which provided a great opportunity to pull in and out of eddies (calm pools behind rocks and trees). Throughout the paddle, Sartori led the way, having us “raft up right” or “raft up left” in the eddies. From there, each member of Team Crickets practiced moving in and out of the current.
I soon realized the clinic was about much more than kayaking. It was about the people, the river and the art of pure observation. In a 4-mile paddle, Team Crickets, with Sartori at the helm, improved together and got to know each other. Each team member had something special to offer, whether it was Sartori’s humor and excellent demonstrations, Joe and Sally’s eye for safety and encouragement to “paddle hard into the current,” Stephanie and Bev’s near perfect bow strokes, Tim’s calm demeanor while underwater waiting for a T-rescue, Wes’ razor-like turns into eddies, Chris’ knowledge of the bird life (we saw two bald eagles, by the way) or Ken’s GPS-like information on the surrounding peaks. Suddenly, Team Crickets wasn’t so silent.
Wrapping up the clinic, I slid my kayak back into my car and headed home with a smile on my face. The next morning, sore but aching for more, I flipped open a map of Missouri, traced the St. Francis River with my finger, and wondered how much farther it could take me and how much further this experience could go.