Adventurer and author Rod Wellington has paddled all 2,341 miles of the Missouri River as it meanders south and east from its source high in the Centennial Mountains of Montana to where it converges with the Mississippi just north of St. Louis.

“I used a packraft for the first 300 miles and then switched to a sea kayak for the remainder. In the years since that expedition, I’ve section-paddled most of the river between Kansas City and St. Charles, Missouri,” he said.

“With the exception of the very scenic White Cliffs section in north-central Montana, the lower Missouri likely sees the heaviest concentration of paddlers,” Wellington continued. “Whether it’s hundreds of racers competing in the annual MR340, or half a dozen recreational paddlers gathered for a day outing, the water between Kansas City and St. Charles certainly attracts its share of enthusiasts.”

Some might think it peculiar, then, that this section of the Missouri River doesn’t have more access or amenities — or its own designated national water trail. That’s something Greg Poleski, director of the Missouri Paddling Coalition, hopes to change.

Other states around us are kicking butt in water trails

“Other states around us are kicking butt in water trails and access,” said Poleski. “Iowa, specifically Des Moines, is the role model. We have nicer rivers, in my opinion, but we can do much neater stuff than we are currently.”

Imagine a Missouri River with directional and interpretive signage, multi-modal options for river engagement, shoreline restoration and improvements, expanded parks and businesses, and more.

“One thing I like to do is ride down to the river on my mountain bike, paddle, and then ride home. Bike storage lockers at designated put-ins would help facilitate this,” said Poleski. “Some places in other states use big, steel shipping containers for kayak, paddle, and life jacket rental. All you do is go online and pay to access the container, and you have everything you need to paddle.”

Poleski, who is also a board member of both the Mississippi Water Trail Association and Greenway Network, Inc., helped establish the Missouri Paddling Coalition in 2018 in part to push the development of a Missouri River Water Trail. So far, there’s a website that “is a good start,” he said.

Missouri River Trail Website

Missouri River Water Trail website

“We need to urge the Missouri Department of Conservation to take a more active role in the water trails. They have a lot more land along the river [than the Army Corps of Engineers],” he continued. “Citizens can contact the Department of Conservation and ask them to support paddle sports and water trails in Missouri with more funding.”

The Missouri River Water Trail isn’t the coalition’s only goal. “We have members from across the state and different paddling organizations. Whitewater, fast water, fishing kayaks, standup paddleboards. It’s very diverse,” said Poleski. But the water trail is a good first step because it would connect towns across the state and encourage tourism and economic development, like the Katy Trail.

“We have great rivers in the Ozarks, but it’s a shame to drive for two hours to go somewhere when we have such great paddling here on the Missouri and Mississippi,” said Poleski. “But you need to learn how to paddle on a big river first. You wouldn’t jump on whitewater without instruction, so you shouldn’t jump on a river. All water can be dangerous, but done safely, it’s fine.”

Author: Brad Kovach is the editor/publisher of Terrain Magazine