August 11, 2006
Jefferson City, Missouri - Don Wilkison didn't win the
Missouri River 340. In fact, he didn't even finish the race.
However, in the 270 miles he covered in four days he did learn
several things about floating the Muddy Mo. He and other
participants also got something that is increasingly difficult to
obtain these days - an authentic adventure.
The Missouri River 340 is the brainchild of two Kansas City area
residents, Scott Mansker and Russ Payzant. They conceived the race
as a way to focus attention on the neglected recreational
opportunities offered by Missouri's namesake river.
They organized the 340-mile canoe and kayak race from Kansas City to
St. Charles on a shoestring. Many Missouri paddlers didn't know
about the river marathon until after contestants left Kaw Point,
near the mouth of the Kansas River, at 8 a.m. Aug. 2. Just to make
it interesting, they decided to require that participants finish the
race in 100 hours, a little over four days.
Wilkison found out about the event three weeks beforehand. He had
been planning a leisurely, two-week float on the Missouri River in
September, but figured he might as well join the race. It would save
him 10 days of vacation and make him part of something big and
As a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, Wilkison knew the
Missouri River's current at this time of year is 3 mph. Therefore,
just drifting with the current should get him 300 miles downriver
during the prescribed time. He figured he could easily make up the
remaining 40 miles in four days of paddling.
Wilkison's competition consisted of 20 other paddlers, comprising
five tandem teams and ten solo paddlers. One of the soloists dropped
out within 500 yards of the start, because his kayak was overloaded.
One team dropped out several miles into the race when it became
clear that the physical demands were beyond what a 70-something
paddler should tackle.
As the remaining contestants - mostly in racing kayaks - forged on,
Wilkison found himself falling behind. He had learned about the
contest too late for serious training, so instead he concentrated on
resetting his sleep cycle to allow him to paddle through the cool of
the night and rest during the day. That worked, to a degree.
He had calculated that he should reach the riverside community of
Lexington by 2 p.m. Arriving there several hours behind schedule
turned out to be a blessing in disguise. He reached the safety of a
public restroom at Lexington's river access just before a terrific
thunderstorm struck. Safe and dry, he and his chow-mix dog, Trex,
listened to 50 mph winds howling around the concrete privy.
Miles downriver, solo paddler Dawn Keller of Outer Banks, N.C.,
(whom Wilkison described as "uber-kayaker woman") and her Seda
Glider kayak were flying - literally. She was hurled through the
air, by what she still is not sure. It could have been a tornado or
a downburst created by a super-cell thunderstorm. Whatever it was
dumped her on a rock-covered bank. Race organizer Mansker responded
to her distress call and found her "covered in centipedes and
bruised, but otherwise unhurt. She and most of her gear had been
ejected from the sealed kayak, but the boat was still intact, so she
and her rescuer took off downriver. When a second storm overtook
them, they hastily pitched a tent on a sandbar, where they rode out
Back upriver, Wilkison had gotten back on the river after the first
storm subsided. He found himself on a barren stretch of river when
the second storm broke. All he could do was lash his canoe to rocks
fore and aft, put on all the clothing he had with him against
hypothermia, and take Trex to the highest part of a rock wing dike
to huddle in the fetal position as the storm lashed the rocks. He
wasn't sure what time it was - probably between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m.
"I was just glad to be alive," said Wilkison.
Did I mention that the Missouri River 340's logo is a skull and
Wilkison got back in his canoe after the second storm passed and
gained the town of Waverly about 5 a.m. "I hadn't even been out one
full day and I was dead dog beat," he recalled.
As he and Trex paddled doggedly downriver, he learned from periodic
updates that the rest of the racers were pulling farther and farther
ahead. Wilkison was surprised at how deeply grateful he was for
human contact when the motorized boat bringing up the rear visited
him periodically to check his condition, deliver sport drinks and
relay news of the front-runner.
Meanwhile, Wilkison toiled on, paddling until around 2 p.m. each
day. He would rest through the heat of the day, eat and catch a
"power nap," then hit the water again around 6 p.m. He had never
entertained illusions about winning the race, but never doubted that
he could reach St. Charles in 100 hours. Somewhere around the
midpoint of the race course, however, he began to have doubts.
"I was in way over my head," said Wilkison during a rest stop at the
Carl R. Noren Access across the river from the State Capitol. It was
mid-morning on the fourth day of the race. Fatigue and sleep
deprivation, combined with a double shot of espresso from a local
shop, left him a little manic. You got the feeling he might fall
asleep in mid-sentence in spite of the caffeine.
"I really don't have any business doing this. I'm in more of a
touring canoe than a racing canoe. I'm doing okay. Slowly every day
the gap widens between me and the rest of the racers. Yesterday I
was within 15 miles of a couple of women. I think they're going to
By then, Wilkison had decided he would not make it to St. Charles.
He planned to camp on a sandbar across the river from the tiny town
of Portland that night. The tavern serving cold beer and hamburgers
across the river might have figured in his choice of camping spots.
He said he didn't care if he never saw another Power Bar.
His original goal was to reach St. Charles exactly at noon Aug. 6,
the official end of the race. Instead, he moved his own personal
finish to Hermann, about 70 miles upriver. "It's not perfect, but
it's a game effort," he said philosophically. "I've always wanted to
canoe all of the Missouri, but it doesn't have to be all at one
"This has been a combination of ecstasy and misery," Wilkison said
in summary. "It's an endurance race. It's very grueling." He says he
will be better prepared physically for next year's event. He said
paddlers who aren't in top form might want to just enjoy the river
the way he originally intended to, waiting for pleasant weather and
camping on sandbars at night. He also suggested not floating when
severe weather is forecast.
Wilkison was struck by the kindness of many strangers who helped him
in various ways. Several people shared refreshments. One good
Samaritan even took him to her home for a shower and a four-hour
"I learned from this trip that we do nothing alone; there is no such
thing as a solo venture. Everyone relies on the kindness of
strangers as well as friends and family to do anything in life."
One contestant, Katie Pfefferkorn of Columbia, described her
experience as a of voyage of self-discovery. She finished the race
in 98 hours and 36 minutes, time during which she completely escaped
everyday cares and pressures.
Planning for next year's event already is underway. Payzant said his
electronic mailbox is clogged with notes from people who want to be
part of Missouri River 340 - 2007.
"They want to know how come we never did this before," he said.
"It's right in the center of country, easy for lots of avid
adventurers to reach - much easier than the Boundary Waters or the
bottom of the country. They can't wait for next year."
Asked what the race accomplished, Payzant said, "All the people who
entered plus their support teams discovered there is an incredible
river valley out there that they had never seen. There were 20
humans who found themselves in real situations, reaching into
themselves and finding a person who they didn't even know existed,
and that person looked pretty good. All of them came away with a
real connection to each other. There were hugs and kisses at the
end. It was an incredible human experience."
Visit rivermiles.com/ for more information about the Missouri River
340. For more information about more leisurely Missouri River
floating, visit www.mdc.mo.gov/conmag/2002/07/10.htm.