By CAROLYN SZCZEPANSKI
At dawn on Tuesday, July 15, more than 200 people stared down a nearly 350-mile challenge. For the next four days, as they gritted their teeth and flexed their muscle, I played the role of river rat, scurrying after them as they paddled from Kansas City to St. Charles.
For the Missouri River 340, dozens of athletic tourists traveled to the Show-Me State and scores of locals were drawn to spend four-straight days in direct contact with our most-underappreciated natural resource. And they all came and left with so many stories, I could fit only a fraction into this week's feature story, "Up Show-Me Creek."
Travis Worley (right) and John Munger (left) help the journalist into their safety boat.
My first thought was to cover the race from the center of the action. No, not in a kayak. I'm no ultra-paddler. Almost everyone on the water gets a friend or family to act as their support team; following the race in a car and showing up at each of the eight checkpoints with food and other provisions. I started calling around to past participants and everyone was happy to wedge me in between the trail mix and Gatorade in their support van. Even West Hansen, a paddler from Texas who was the biggest name in the race, was excited to let me hitch a ride. It's not often marathon paddlers get much attention from the wider public, he implied. "It isn't much of a spectator sport; it probably doesn't even rank as high as hot dog eating," he said.
The cast of characters along the way was more than a single story could accommodate. One of the first guys I met at Kaw Point -- the boat ramp just east of Kansas City, Kansas, where the race started -- went by the pseudonym Uncle A Dog. He caught my eye, not because he was a tall dude in a straw hat and a white button down shirt that most people would wear to a business meeting rather than a river race, but because he had a deconstructed bike on the back of his kayak. He wouldn't tell me his last name, just his first: Adam. He's a fourth-grade teacher in Grandview and originally wanted to float the Big Muddy on a home-made raft of logs felled from the river's shore right there at Kaw Point. But conservation authorities probably would have frowned on that idea, A Dog confided, so he and his friend, Black Coffee (or "BC"), built their own kayaks from discarded lumber and chipboard.
Uncle A Dog, from Lee's Summit, packed his bike on his homemade kayak so he could pedal back to Kansas City with his boat in tow.
After they completed the race in a leisurely fashion last year, they decided to up the ante in '08. They each built a trailer, so they could bike back across the state with their kayaks in tow. To make room for their bikes, though, they had to paddle with few provisions. A Dog told me he had but one extra shirt, one pair of "undies" and about 10 hummus-and-mayo sandwiches. "Lots of mayo," he emphasized. "Thick mayo." Which, given the extreme heat and his lack of a cooler, seemed like a pretty risky dietary strategy.
After Kaw Point, I dropped by La Benite Park in River Bend, just a few miles into the race. Already, inexperienced paddlers were finding out how seemingly comfortable clothing can chaff in a canoe. One guy was slathering unseemly amounts of deodorant on his underarms and, it appeared, his chest, too. Then it was on to Lexington, the first official checkpoint. Because it's near the start, before the pack strings out over a hundred miles, this was the most hectic checkpoint. Throughout the afternoon, I watched as dozens of boats touched ground after 50 miles, some already getting cranky from the exertion. "I need help, not pictures!" one young, male paddler shouted angrily at his mother as she clicked away on her digital camera and he struggled with an Advil bottle.
From Lexington, I skipped over the next two checkpoints and got settled at a campsite at Cooper’s Landing, a river rat haven just south of Columbia. As the halfway point of the race, it was the perfect spot to hunker down for two days and see all the action. But to be honest, this wasn’t roughing it, by any means. Cooper’s is a popular hang-out, with cold beer in the small country store nearby and authentic Thai food cooked in a trailer next door. The first night I camped there, I stayed up until sunrise, waiting with volunteers at the campfire for the first paddlers to come through. The second night, the place was rocking as the bulk of the paddlers stopped to crash for a few hours on the top of picnic tables or carb-load on fried rice from the Thai food trailer. To add to the festivities, a local bluegrass band played live music from dusk until pitch darkness.
Spectators and paddlers gather at Cooper’s Landing for live music, authentic Thai food and a few moments of rest.
The next morning, a little after dawn, I met Kirk Freels, a Blue Springs resident and an electrician at the Claycomo Ford plant. This was his second MR340, he told me as he stood drinking coffee at the smoldering campfire. In 2007, on the first day of the race, he got a splash of river water on the straw attached to his water jug. He wiped it off and kept drinking. But that night, he got severely ill. And it wasn't the kind of ill where you can just lean over the side of the boat and be sick, he told me. He finished the race in 85 hours, but, let's just say, it wasn't pretty. When he got back home, he was diagnosed with dysentery. He probably wouldn't have been back in 2008 if it weren't for his son. Last October, he died in a car crash at just 40 years old. The father-son duo had logged countless miles together in a canoe, so Freels decided to complete the MR340 a second time in his son's memory.
To get to the finish line from Cooper’s, though, I tagged along with Travis Worley and John Munger, two race officials who were manning one of the event safety boats. (The story’s photographer, Nicole Reinertson, shuttled my car to meet me.) They, too, had competed in the MR340, the very first year. Worley said they originally planned to make the journey in a paddleboat. When they realized that would be way too slow, they decided to stick a car battery in the middle of their canoe and hook up a DVD player. Even when a low mist prevented them from actually seeing the picture, they listened to movies like Top Gun and Footloose as they paddled. To commemorate their journey they both got tattoos of the MR340 logo. Now, Worley is one of the three race owners. This year, they listened to Metallica and Christian rock as they motored delicately through the middle of the pack, making sure everyone was OK.
One guy I met, Richard Lovell of Lake Waukomis, didn’t make it to the halfway point. But his story was, by far, the most dramatic of anyone on the water.
For Lovell, paddling the Missouri River was something he wanted to do while he dies.
In 2006, Lovell found out he had tongue cancer. Radiation killed it, but it also damaged his salivary glands, required the removal of most of his teeth and forced him to eat out of a feeding tube sticking out of his stomach. A year later, the cancer spread to his lungs. Lovell knew it wasn’t curable.
Richard Lovell battled the river cancer.
But chemotherapy didn’t keep him from kayaking. Lovell had spent 25 years traveling sections of the Missouri River, from its northern reaches in South Dakota to the confluence with the Mississippi. In 2004, when he lost his job with Deffenbaugh Waste Management, he spent the summer following the Lewis and Clark re-enactors as they floated across the state to celebrate the explorers’ bicentennial.
As he started chemo a second time in April 2007, Lovell worried that his time on the river was now slipping away as his health deteriorated. So he entered the MR340 in 2007.
“It looked like the last time I’d see the river,” he said.
He was one of the slowest racers on the water that year. He was so far behind on the last day that a friend who followed Lovell in his own kayak woke him at 2:30 a.m. to paddle the final 40 miles to the finish. Lovell completed the race dead last after more than 97 hours on the river.
This year, Lovell bought a faster kayak. He began training in May, four hours a day, three days a week out on Lake Waukomis, in Platte County. He managed to put on 15 pounds. The first day of the race, Lovell was hitting the checkpoints with time to spare. At Lexington, eight hours and 14 minutes into the race, he was keeping pace with men in tandem canoes. Four hours later at Waverly, he still wasn’t at the back of the pack. Just past 2 a.m., he made it to Miami, a small town a two-hour drive east of Kansas City. He figured he had plenty of time to get a few hours of sleep.
When he shipped out of Miami at 9:30 Wednesday morning, Lovell felt exhausted. His left foot, pressed against the pedal that controls the rudder, edged toward numbness. His arms felt limp. Even if he did make it the next 150 miles to the finish line, he knew he might have to be carried off on a stretcher.
As he paddled, a stiff headwind blew bark from the trees and whipped the flat surface of the water into choppy surf. Even the most experienced paddlers were miserable. The agitated ripples caught the sunlight in dancing shards, making it difficult to navigate the sparkling horizon.
He had a moment of carelessness that morning. He was 14 miles east of the Miami checkpoint. A gust of wind swept him toward the bank. He hit a rock, and it flipped his kayak. He held his paddle in one hand and used the other to drag his kayak behind him as he struggled to swim to shore.
He spotted a red canoe nearby and yelled for help. By the time they maneuvered to meet him, Lovell had steadied himself on a wing dike, a rocky jetty built to channel the river’s flow. He handed the couple in the canoe his paddle and water bottle as he tried to climb back in his boat.
But again, his kayak tipped over.
Now, the couple in the canoe was joined by another pair of racers. They all started asking questions. Do you need water? When was the last time you ate?
Sunset over Plowboy Bend near Easley, Missouri.
Lovell tried to explain that he doesn’t eat, not regular food, at least. Since his salivary glands don’t work, he told them, he can only drink cans of Ensure. The other paddlers figured Lovell was confused, that he was too tired to keep paddling. They towed his boat to the shore and tied it to a tree. They called Mansker and asked Lovell if he’d stay put until help arrived.
Grudgingly, Lovell agreed. It wasn’t until after he’d cleaned the mud off his clothes and shoes that he realized the helpful passersby had left him stranded. They even took his paddle.
When race officials showed up an hour later, Lovell grudgingly agreed that he needed to pull out of the race.
Lovell knows the MR340 may have been his last time in a kayak. The chemotherapy drugs reduce the hemoglobin in his blood. Next year, he may be too weak to even watch from shore.
“When it’s on the high end, I’ll be lucky to be able to go get groceries,” he said.
The majority of paddlers made it safely – albeit with minor injuries and very bizarre sunburns — all the way to the finish. Uncle A Dog and BC finished the course in 59 hours, though I never found out if they made it back on their bikes. I saw Freels at the award ceremony, too, with a stogie in one hand and a beer in the other. Lovell, who had gone back home to recuperate, drove four hours to be part of the race one last time.