Missouri might not be the first state that comes to mind when you think of whitewater paddling, but that doesn’t bother the people at the Missouri Whitewater Association, hosts of the annual Missouri Whitewater Championships (MWC) competition on the St. Francis River.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the event, which will take place March 17-19 at the Millstream Gardens Conservation Area of the river near Fredericktown, Mo. Depending on rainfall, this section is considered class II or III whitewater and contains the largest whitewater drop on the river. Whether novice or expert, young or old, participants in the MWC all slash, splash and crash their way through a churning, boulder-strewn riverbed as they maneuver their way through the course in three different events.
“It’s the time when we get the rust out after a long, cold winter, and it helps you hone your skills and kick off the paddling season,” said Joe Sartori, of Chesterfield, Mo. “This was the idea 27 years ago when I first started racing, and today it’s much the same. While kayaks have gotten shorter and the design has changed to make them go faster, the purpose of the races remains the same: get out on the water, have fun and sharpen your skills for the season ahead.”
Three Events in One
The MWC is made up of three events: downriver, whitewater slalom, and boatercross.
The downriver race kicks off the weekend on Friday afternoon. It’s a solo sprint down a 2.5-mile segment of the river with nothing more complicated than simply seeing who can get the fastest time.
“It’s 25 minutes of all-out effort, with intense river reading requiring an almost chess-like approach,” said Chuck McHenry of Ironton, Mo., who has been competing in the event since the 1980s. “You have to plan your moves well in advance. This means that I’ll enter a rapid so that I’ll be set up for the next one down. You’re trying to extract every erg of energy from the water, while paddling full speed and trying to miss rocks. I’ve never done the perfect run in 30 years of trying!”
Whitewater slalom racing may be the event most familiar to people from seeing it on TV during the Olympics. Here, a competitor tries to get downstream in the fastest time while passing through a series of hanging gates.
“Touching a gate incurs a five-second penalty, while missing one entirely adds 50 seconds,” explained Jim Warren, who lives in University City and has coordinated the scoring of the MWC for years. “The best kayakers will do it fast and clean. Two and a half or three minutes is a typical time for the course.”
While negotiating any gate can be challenging, the fact that a third of the 20 or so gates in the slalom event must be approached from the downstream side — going back upriver against the rushing water — makes the event that much more difficult.
Boatercross is a newer competition in which four to six boats go head-to-head, trying to reach the finish first. A favorite with spectators, the event requires the racers to negotiate gates, buoys and obstacles, all while also trying to avoid collision with the other paddlers. The top performers in each of the preliminary heats advance to the finals.
One of the best things about the MWC, according to those involved, is how friendly and encouraging the event is for participants of all levels.
“The organizers of the event, the Missouri Whitewater Association, are very accommodating and welcoming. You’ll see folks from all over the Midwest come to race,” said Joe Sartori, who has participated since 1991, and whose children Danielle (18) and Josh (16) are now competing as well. “Many new paddlers each year come with the paddling club from Iowa State. We’ve got canoers, kayakers, even stand-up paddleboarders running the gates. Our course isn’t usually too difficult. It’s perfect for novice and expert paddlers.”
Josh Sartori agrees: “When I’m around the whitewater community, everyone is so nice and welcoming. We all know each other by name and are always asking how the runs went down the river. Last year was my first time helping set up the races, which was a great experience to just see all the effort that every one puts in to help these races happen.”
The MWC offers multiple categories in each event based on a paddler’s age, skill and boat type. This creates the opportunity for multiple runs for competitors and lots of action for spectators, who can number more than 300 on a beautiful spring day. Viewing and parking are free.
“There are excellent views all along the course,” said Warren. “And the Millstream Gardens, what a beautiful place. The river goes through shut-ins there, these big pre-Cambrian granite rocks that make the rapids. An announcer sits up on the overlook by the main rapids explaining the action, and people hang out, sitting on the rocks next to the river watching the races.”
The MWC first started in March 1968 on the Silver Mines section of the river, downstream from the current location. It moved to the Millstream Gardens in 1988 after the section became a conservation area. Sixty to 70 competitors typically take part with support from 100 volunteers who set up the course, provide safety, judge time and score the racers.
And though it is a competition, most of the racers are there for the fun and camaraderie.
“Kayaking is a solo sport and you rarely get to test yourself against others,” said Chuck McHenry. “All in all it’s a chance for people to test their skills and a personal challenge.”
Food and music help enhance the vibe as well. Live music Friday night after the downriver event and a Saturday night banquet are a big part of the overall feel.
Josh Sartori’s favorite event is the boatercross, which is held on the final day of the weekend. Nearly anything goes in this rough and rugged competition, though the fun-haters who made up the rules do specify that one may not punch, grab or pull another competitor during the race.
“Getting pushed around while trying to get in front of the other competitors gets my adrenaline flowing,” admitted Josh, who has competed the last four years. Josh along with his sister, Danielle, are considered among Missouri’s most promising young paddlers.
With this being the 50th year of the event, organizers of the MWC are going all out, and there are many aspects of this event you might enjoy, including concessions on site; lodging and food in nearby Fredericktown, Ironton and Arcadia; and camping at Silver Mines Recreational Area.
From the most novice paddler, to the veteran who has been navigating gates for decades — or even for those who just want to sit on the pink granite boulders at Millstream Gardens and watch the people race — the Missouri Whitewater Championships offers something for everyone and is certainly a unique aspect of our region’s outdoor scene.
Author: David Fiedler is a regular contributor to Terrain magazine.