“Tanner, would you like to get on the water—a 15-minute canoe ride?” my friend, Greg Poleski, asked as I scrambled to get my booth ready for Race for the Rivers Festival 2016. Greg was instrumental in the planning of the event, which would not start for an hour; however, it was only my second time setting up the flooding demonstration model that I had borrowed from the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center (NGRREC), so I wanted everything to be ready before the festival began.
“Ummmm….. SURE!” I exclaimed.
I was excited for another opportunity to cast off in one of Big Muddy Adventures’ (BMA) lengthy, voyageur-type canoes, which, astonishingly, can hold about twelve people at once! According to Wikipedia, “The voyageurs were French Canadians who engaged in the transporting of furs by canoe during the fur trade years. Voyageur is a French word, meaning ‘traveler’.” Race for the Rivers 2015 was one of my first events with the 1 Mississippi campaign, and riding in one of BMA’s voyageurs on the Missouri River—a 2,341-mile tributary of the Mississippi River—had influenced me to begin searching for a canoe of my own. I had been stricken with a desire to paddle on the great rivers!
Remember, before considering paddling on the great rivers, especially the Mississippi and Missouri, consult professional, river paddling guides like BMA or Quapaw Canoe Company to ensure you have a safe and enjoyable experience on the river. Local canoeing and kayaking organizations, like St. Louis Canoe and Kayak Club, are also established along the rivers to ensure that you are able to access these rivers safely. Another good way to acquaint yourself with paddling rivers is to attend safe paddling and self-rescue workshops hosted by outdoor equipment stores. Also, reference either of the following sites for comprehensive information about safely maneuvering on the Mississippi: Mississippi River Water Trail Association OR The Rivergator: the Lower Mississippi River Water Trail.
After readying my booth, I meandered through exhibits and vendors until I arrived on the same shoreline that I had admired so much a year before. “Big Muddy” Mike Clark of Big Muddy Adventures waited with aspiring paddlers by one of his new boats, the red Clipper Langley, a 29-foot voyageur, which we lugged toward the river. The leisurely ride was a necessary relief before the festival began.
After hours of conversing with potential River Citizens while their children gleefully flooded the miniature river in NGRREC’s demonstration, I was aching to return to the water. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised by a request for participants to engage in an impromptu voyager canoe race.
At the Big Muddy Adventures tent, about twenty people were fitted with life jackets and paddles before we were split off into teams of twelve. Big Muddy Mike and several seasoned racers, including Joan Twillman of the Mississippi River Water Trail Association who had raced four times in the MR340, a 340-mile ultra-marathon race from Kansas City, MO, to St. Charles, MO, were to take the opposing boat. My boat was mostly well-qualified paddlers, including one of Big Muddy Adventure’s river guides, Derrick, A.K.A. Captain D, and some of whom had just competed in the tiresome Race for the Rivers earlier. Assuming we would lose, I still prepared to paddle my hardest since I wanted my first canoe race to be a “W”.
The beginning of the race was a challenge. After the canoes each navigated a dangerous wing-dam, a rock structure jutting out from the bank to maintain a navigation channel in the altered river [Wingdam picture above], the boats launched upstream toward the I-70 Bridge, the midway point of the race. Big Muddy Mike’s 30-foot Junebug I’s seasoned crew pulled ahead of my team’s canoe, the Clipper Langley, which was led by Captain D. Moving with unified strokes, Mike’s crew made it look easy. Our boat was riddled with the familiar sound of wooden paddles contacting each other between strokes, highlighting our need to paddle collaboratively. Meanwhile, “Left, right, left, right” or “Stroke, stroke!” were heard from the other boat—our cue to do the same! As we solidified our movement, Derrick swiftly guided us through rocks, debris, and logs while we passed under a bridge that carried pedestrians to a wrecked barge.
As we approached the halfway point where both voyageurs would begin to head downstream, my team’s collaborative strokes and newfound unity helped us overcome and pass the Junebug I. Downstream, we maintained at least a boat’s length ahead of the rival craft and crossed the finish line at full power as a horn sounded. WE WON!!! Afterwards, everyone was exhausted, especially those who had already done twenty or forty-mile races earlier in the day. We attempted to unite for a couple pictures, but everyone scattered as the festival was winding down.
While all of us were drained by the voyageur race, many, including myself, were also energized by the experience. Afterwards, I decided to wind down by picking up trash along the Katy Trail before sitting along the majestic, ever-so-muddy Missouri River to reflect on the day.
A big (and muddy) thank you to Big Muddy Adventures for educating and directly engaging scores of people with the Missouri River by taking them paddling—a universal way to create some of the most powerful water stewards on the planet! (For information about how BMA can safely get YOU on the Great Rivers near St. Louis, check out their website HERE.) (Our Mississippi River Network partners at Quapaw Canoe Company are your best and safest source of adventure along the entire Lower Mississippi River.)
And a HUGE thank you to Greenway Network, fellow Mississippi River Network members, that brought hundreds of river rats from all directions to St. Charles for Race for the Rivers 2016. Greenway Network is a grassroots volunteer based organization. Their mission is to conserve natural resources, encourage sound management of the watersheds and protect the quality of life for the residents of the greater St. Louis area.
If you are interested in safely paddling on the Mississippi River, contact your local 1 Mississippi Outreach Assistant and ask them about upcoming group outings–It could be an enriching experience that shapes your love for the Mississippi.
Thanks for reading! See you on the River!
1 Mississippi Illinois/Missouri Outreach Assistant