There was no fear in her eyes as her head slipped beneath the waves, no panic as the river took her. The water churned, the foam enveloping her as she floated past, capsized.
Five feet away, I held my breath, watching, waiting. Seconds felt like minutes as the world shifted into slow motion.
The yellow keel of her boat swirled in an eddy. I could see the safety observer’s stance tense as he looked on in silence.
Then, with a powerful pop of her paddle and a strong flip of her hips, Diane McHenry’s kayak was upright again. There she was, paddling hard upstream to make Gate 15.
So it goes at the Missouri Whitewater Championships.
Wait, I know what you’re thinking: “Did he just say whitewater? In Missouri?’
I was thinking the same when I met a group from the Missouri Whitewater Association (MWA) at this year’s Mississippi Valley Bike & Outdoor Expo in January. A boisterous crew, they were excited to welcome all comers to their booth that cold and snowy day in St. Louis. “You should come down for the championships!” they raved.
Now, I was really curious. The Whitewater Championships. In MISSOURI! That was something I had to see.
Which explains how I ended up at Millstream Gardens Conservation Area in Madison County on a Saturday in March, watching McHenry Eskimo roll through Gate 14 as she ran the course along the St. Francis River.
“I was just hoping I didn’t blow the gate,” she said coolly after the race.
I learned that McHenry is an avid paddler and has rolled in competition before. “Oh yeah, it happens,” she said. “It’s not ideal, as you can lose time on the course, but you just pop back up, hope you made the gate, and keep on paddling.”
Yeah, sure you do. Sounds easy. (Note to non-paddlers: it’s not that easy.)
Eskimo rolls and blown gates aside, in a state where the idea of whitewater is somewhat foreign, the real question is: how does one get into the sport to begin with?
Lots of ways, it turns out.
McHenry was hooked after a rafting trip she and her son took in 1996 on the Ocoee River in the southern Appalachia Mountains. Seeing the kayakers there, she thought, “That looks fun. I can do that!” She came back to St. Louis, found a local clinic, got involved with the MWA in 2000, and has been paddling ever since. She met her husband through the MWA. Her kids paddle. Her grandkids paddle. She lives in Ironton and is on the water as much as her schedule allows.
McHenry’s story is similar to accounts I heard from other members of the MWA. In the case of Joe Sartori, it began with another hobby: fishing. He figured a kayak was a great way to get closer to his prey. He took a beginner’s course in the early ’90s, and the hook was set. He now leads an introductory class for the MWA. He was also the course designer for this year’s championships. His kids paddle as well.
A coworker from McDonnell Douglas invited Jim Warren to a class he was instructing in the early ’80s. Having just returned from a trip to Alaska, Warren was eager to learn how to kayak, if only to get next to the glaciers he vowed to see again. Warren has now been a member of the MWA for over three decades, has held numerous positions, including treasurer and race director, and is the current membership coordinator for the organization. He’s also a lifetime member, an honorary position he was elected to in 1996.
“I guess they made the right choice. I’m still active,” joked Warren.
There’s a common thread: however you get involved with Missouri whitewater, once you’re in, you’re in. The club becomes family. Kids get involved. You invite a friend or a coworker. An individual is introduced to paddling on vacation, joins a class, or comes to the championships and wants to learn. Throughout its history, the MWA has experienced very organic growth.
The association currently has around 200 members and is always looking to introduce new people to the sport. Opportunities to get involved range from an annual spring clinic on the St. Francis to courses held in local lakes and high school swimming pools. The club typically plans two trips a year, one for beginners and one for advanced paddlers. In addition to organized events, it’s not uncommon for a group to spontaneously plan a weekend trip and head out together. Due to the lack of whitewater in-state, these trips often involve long drives.
“The road trips are fun. You really get to bond with the people you’re paddling with,” said Sartori.
Back at the Missouri Whitewater Championships in March, it wasn’t hard to see why the event was celebrating its 52nd running. Millstream Gardens, just west of Fredericktown on State Highway 72, is a spectacular venue. Home to the St. Francis River — referred to as The Saint by local paddlers — it also happens to be the site of a remarkably unique protrusion of igneous rock that causes the river to drop at a rate of 40 feet per mile. (Most Missouri waterways average a drop rate around 3 feet per mile.) Combine that drop rate with winter snow melt, spring rainfall, and narrow chutes through the riverbed, and you have the secret recipe for whitewater.
“We’re very fortunate,” said Warren. “There’s nothing like it for 500 miles.”
Sartori spent several years learning the nuances of whitewater course-setting before taking over the responsibilities for the championships. “You have to know the river, have to get a sense for it and go with what the river allows,” he said.
He spent four weeks preparing for this year’s championships: marking trees, identifying rapids, poring over weather reports. “Even then, there are last-minute adjustments to be made on race day. You have to be prepared,” Sartori said.
Depending on one’s perspective, he either did a great job or a maniacal job this year. On the day of the races, the announcers repeatedly referenced the “diabolical course-setter” as paddlers battled to make all the gates during their trek down river. It was unquestionably entertaining for the onlookers; for the paddlers themselves, perhaps not so much. The shoreline acted as a natural amphitheater, with spectators perched on the rocks lining the river. A truly beautiful setting.
Racers came from all over: Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Arkansas, Oklahoma. They came in all ages, shapes, and sizes, from pre-teens to senior citizens. They came from all skill levels and abilities, from green-gilled beginners to decorated Olympians. They came to race the slalom, the downriver (paddling from Point A to Point B as fast and direct as possible), and the “boatercross,” an event that pits up to six kayakers against one another in a shared heat — no flipping your opponent allowed!
The Missouri Whitewater Championships is an action-packed, fun-filled contest, complete with a big pre-event group paddle and party, live commentary on race day, and a celebratory awards dinner at the conclusion. What’s not to love?
Along with the growth of the MWA and the long-running championships, the sport of whitewater paddling is developing regionally as well. In 2014, the city of Siloam Springs, Arkansas, opened a $2 million kayak park, funded by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. Jim Walton had been to the area with his children and, in an effort to use the outdoor features of northern Arkansas to promote the region, decided he would like to see a park with engineered rapids built on the site.
I spoke with Holland Hayden and Don Clark, communications officer and community development director of the City of Siloam Springs, respectively, to get a feel for how the opening of that park has impacted the community.
“We get paddlers from all across the southern Midwest — Texas, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma,” said Clark. “They come from near and far to enjoy the park. Hundreds of paddlers a season in kayaks, canoes, rafts, innertubes….”
The Siloam Springs Kayak Park is situated at a bend in the Illinois River, 4 miles south of town. It features two manmade rapids as the river flows downstream, along with picnic areas, a beach, and a parking area. Depending on water levels, waves can form at the base of each feature, providing kayakers the opportunity to surf the rapids.
There are plans in the works for a larger whitewater center to be built downstream, also on the Illinois River and also with the help of the Walton Family Foundation. This facility is slated for the old Lake Frances Dam location, just across the border into Oklahoma. The plan involves diverting river flow through a manmade section, complete with designer rapids, shaded viewing areas, changing facilities, restrooms, beach access, and improvements to river safety and ecology. The $15 million project is currently in the permitting phase, but with backers such as the Walton Family Foundation and the Grand River Dam Authority (GRDA), hopes are high.
So, what are the prospects for the development of a whitewater park in Missouri, say somewhere near St. Louis?
“There has long been talk of projects. One failed due to lack of leadership, another due to lack of funding, something else due to lack of permits,” Warren said. “We’ve been bitten so many times, we’re all in ‘wait and see’ mode.”
Well, maybe not everyone.
One member of the MWA did share thoughts on the prospect of developing a local park. Wanting to play things close to the vest, he asked to keep the specifics off the record. “I know the place. I know the right people to talk to. I know how to get this project moving. I’m just waiting for the right time to move on it.”
Wishful thinking? Real possibility? Yet another waterpark idea soon to wash out through the hydraulic of local bureaucracy? Only time will tell.
One thing is certain, the sport of whitewater is alive and well in Missouri — and its enthusiasts aren’t going away. The sport is gaining momentum regionally, backed by powerful supporters with deep pockets. Given that, it feels almost inevitable something will eventually take shape.
Whitewater? In Missouri? You betcha.
Author: Nick Tilley is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine
Top Image: Courtesy of John Niebling and Missouri Whitewater Association