Midwest Paddling

What is Midwest Paddle Racing?  Specifically, what makes canoe and kayak racing in the Midwest different from other parts of the United States?

Much of the credit has to go to Scott Mansker and the Rivermiles team.  The MR340 - a three hundred and forty mile race from Kansas City to St. Louis on the Missouri River - began with just 15 boats in 2006.  Now paddlers have to get on the waiting list it gets so full.  This year, 2014, over 500 paddlers were registered by March.  In these last 7 years, the Midwest - especially Missouri and Kansas - has seen the paddle sport community explode in popularity and participation.

The MR340 continues to anchor the community, but racers now have a good problem - there are almost too many races to choose from!  One thing that holds common though throughout the MO/KAN area is how the races are administered.  Unlike many kayak or canoe races elsewhere in the world, the majority of races in and around Missouri and Kansas focus less on boat specifications and more on the perfect match between boat and paddler.  You choose the boat that can get you to the finish line the fastest.  In sprint racing, obviously Greg Barton in a K1 is going to beat Greg Barton in a Sea Kayak.  But on long distance races, it has been proven time and time again that a craft with the right blend of speed and stability can win over a "faster" boat.

There can be criticisms to a lack of specifications when it comes to racing - but one thing is true:  It greatly reduces the barriers of entry.  Instead of 500 paddlers needing to buy the exact same specification of boat - they can show up in what they are the most comfortable in (and what they already own).  As Scott Mansker has said, "340 miles is a great equalizer."

It doesn't matter if you are a novice, a veteran, a serious competitor, or someone simply looking to get into the sport, Midwest paddling is easy to get into, because you can enter at your own speed by carefully selecting the boat that is right for you, and racing in dozens of races in the area without worrying about if your boat meets certain specifications. 

What's better, is that the community has a great foundation with super people who respect each other, are open to new people joining their ranks, and care about protecting the environment.  Most races partner with groups such as Missouri River Relief (In Missouri) or Friends of the Kaw (in Kansas) in order to bring awareness to the challanges that our natural resources face.

So what are you waiting for?  Grab your paddle and come join the best group of paddlers in the world!

Don't believe me?  Below you can read what people are saying about Midwest Paddling and Racing.  If you'd like to offer your contribution, send it to me!

Joe Mann

Kansas and Missouri Marathon Canoe Racing From a Texan's Perspective

   My first experiences racing in the Midwest took place at the United States Canoe Association (USCA) National Championships back in the mid 1990’s in Columbus, Ohio and Rock Island, Illinois. Racers from up north dominated the USCA divisions and continue doing so to this day. Texas is worlds away, not only in distance, but in its approach to canoe racing. Being so separated from the northern canoe racing scene, Texans merely found their own way and built their own boats. The movement in Texas began in the early 1960’s with the 260 mile Texas Water Safari. The “unlimited” division that evolved formed a mentality of “whatever is fastest” in terms of canoe design. Add the rough conditions along the course of the Safari and you end up with some very unique, but very fast boats that can handle almost any condition. In the north, with plenty of pristine rivers and lakes for racing, a more organized approach developed, with a movement towards uniform boat specs that leveled the playing field for all racers.

   The Missouri and Kansas canoe racing scene is evolving in much the way racing evolved in Texas, but at a much faster pace. I raced in the first Missouri River 340 several years ago. As far as I can tell, this was the first ultra-marathon canoe race in the Midwest, save for the 120 mile AuSable River Marathon in Michigan. A huge draw for Texans has been the close proximity and cooler, but not cold, weather offered by Missouri in the late summer, compared to Texas. While Texas languishes in a multi-year drought, the Missouri River still has a strong steady flow, even in the midst of their own drought. Moreover, the races administration wisely allowed the same wide range of canoe/kayak configurations found in Texas racing. Following the first year of the race, when only a handful of us showed up, the racing community has grown. While easily maintaining the attraction for one-timers or recreational paddlers, the MR340 attracts those who want to go faster than the other guy and/or faster than they went the year before. This niche is the fastest growing crowd, mimicking 50 years of Texas racing evolution, but in a mere 8 years.

   Changes in canoe construction and design do not happen overnight. Subtle shifts in material and slight edges to a hull have taken years of testing and racing to get to this point and continue to evolve each year. With this, the onset of fast surf ski’s that work really well in flat water have come just at the right time for Midwest racers. A strong contender for most popular racing craft is the fast sea kayak, which is stable, holds gear easily and has a fast cruising speed. The learning curve is short and many sea kayak racers eventually make an easy transition to the even faster surf skis. Coming into racing after all of these developments gives the new-ish racing scene in Missouri and Kansas a leg up on the competition.

   Missouri and Kansas speed-minded canoe racers quickly got up to speed on boat building and paddling technique, with a few making forays into Texas for races. With these racers, who are smart enough not to re-invent the wheel, there’s a pile of information available to help improve their speed and endurance. While initially these local racers weren’t considered a serious threat, based upon their finishes, over the years they have been closing the gap and are now considered serious competition to all comers.

   The flagship MR340 has also spawned several shorter races on many of the beautiful rivers that flow into the Missouri. Like Texas racing, these shorter races can only help make local racers faster and build a strong, solid racing community. With a pleasant climate, steady water, good wine and the extremely friendly welcome we always receive, Missouri and Kansas will continue to grow and attract world class racers from all over the country.

West Hansen
World Record Holder - Fastest Person to Kayak the Entire Amazon River
MR340 Record Holder - 6-Man and men's tandem, and overall course time
Multiple Class Winner - Texas Water Safari

West Hansen in the front seat navigating Cottonseed Rapids during the Texas Water Safari

2006 MR340
Christina is the one in the blue tandem in the very center
 - Photo by Connie Uliasz
The evolution of Midwest paddle racing not only includes the obvious fact that races on our local waterways have begun, bringing in a consistent amount of competitive racers and performance boats from other locations, but it also includes the growth of the cousin of these competitors - the recreational paddler.

Fifteen years ago it was a rare happening to just run into another paddler on the Kansas River. A two-day paddle trip might have included one random contact with a pre-dawn fisherman in a jon boat near a tributary. If you ever saw a canoe or kayak from a distance you thought there must be some problem happening on land with humanity that you didn't know about as you were disconnected from all media for two days! After 2007 or so, slowly there were more paddlers on the water. One of the reasons for that shift was that Scott Mansker's Rivermiles races had come about, offering local outdoor enthusiasts a new outlet that they might not have thought of before.

Recreational paddlers are easy converts for racing. They have a boat and enough fair-weather gear to get started, and with enough heart, it's not a big jump to make. Instead of going to the lake, they started making contact with people about accessibility on the Kansas River and other waterways. From these cousins, more racers were born. I've seen this happen time and time again, and when the proper event shows up, the race is on and the community has grown once more.

Christina Ruiz
Kayak and Canoe Racer
President, Friends of the Kaw
One of the "Original 13" to finish the 2006 MR340
Coming from the northeast where, like the upper midwest, the sport of paddling is well defined and regulated in terms of rules and regulations, I would describe the Missouri/ Kansas paddling scene like an emerging nation. Or maybe boys discovering girls and vice versa.

Confusion and wonderment all in one with a driving need to learn as much about the subject as possible. The growth of the sport follows the same pattern as in other areas of the country in that one high profile race peaks interest and helps spawn many others; in this case, it is the MR 340.

In the Northeast it is the General Clinton and Adirondack Classic, Canada the La Classique and in Michigan the Ausable.

In the few short years that the MR 340 has been around a plethora of races have cropped up. The next stage that we are entering into, as I see it, is a more formal and defined race schedule with races and events which will compliment each other and contribute to the growth of the sport.

Charlie Lockwood
Columbia Missouri
Canoe Racer
Owner, Thetis Paddles
Race Director, Perche Creek Gutbuster 

Charlie Lockwood monitors the racers as they stage for the Perche Creek Gutbuster
Los Humongos, the legendary canoe racing tandem, have their eyes on the prize.


Passion for paddling in the upper midwest traces its roots to the early explorers and Native Americans of the region who traveled by canoe. Being an area with an abundance of beautiful lakes and rivers, the deep rooted passion for paddling never left. That passion combined with the spirit of competition in the midwest has fostered some of the oldest, largest, and most highly contested canoe races in the world. Midwestern paddlers have embraced both history and sport and is welcoming group that offers a dynamic range of racing. During the summer races can be found throughout the region that range from traditional marathon canoe racing on pristine rivers to surfski and open water racing on the Great Lakes. No matter what kind of paddling you like, the upper midwest is truly a paddler's paradise.
Wally Werderich

Yorkville Illinois
Canoe Racer
Luchadore Wrestler

Midwest paddling has a lot to offer to all tastes and skill levels.  We have beautiful, clean Ozark streams to big river adventure on the Missouri and the Mississippi.  We even have a class III/IV river (Saint Francis) and creeks with granite shut-ins and lots of adrenaline when the water is flowing.  One of the words that best describes Midwest paddle racing is unique.  In just a decade, I have become familiar with several races right here in my own backyard.  Each race has its own unique venue and character that sets it apart for a quality and a FUN river experience.  Starting in 2001, I began racing the third weekend in March in the Missouri Whitewater Championships on the Saint Francis river at Millstream Gardens.  I first entered the downriver race and later as my skills improved I had the chance to race the slalom in several classes.  This year they are hosting the 46th Annual Missouri Whitewater Championships on March 16 & 17th.  Some years there is hardly any water to "dink" down the river and last year we ran a race in full flood.  The races are always fun with great competition from all over Missouri and out of state.  One year was even the qualifier for the Olympic trials for the Midwest region.  The joint effort of people to organize and pull off this quality event is amazing.  It starts the racing season for me, from here the list has grown tremendously.

     Scott Mansker gets a lot of credit for "growing" the flat-water racing scene in the Midwest.  Starting in 2006 he organized and held the "Missouri 340", which is now the American Water Missouri 340.  My husband Chuck and I were fortunate to get in on that first race as a tandem team when he posted the race opportunity on our whitewater forum.  It is a 340 mile non-stop race across the state of Missouri, from Kansas City, MO to St. Charles, MO.  This year will be my eighth (8th) attempt to finish in a three person canoe with my dad.  Scott organized several other races of various lengths all with their own challenges & character, such as the Gritty Fitty, the Kawnivore, and the Kawlloween.  Many races have grown in the Midwest, the GAS on the Gasconade River, Race to the Dome, the Race 4 the Rivers (one of my favorites) and new races are starting every year.  Two new races on the Missouri river last year were the Missouri Shootout and the Missouri Freedom race.  Both of these were a big success in their first year.  One of the bigger purses can be found in the 2 Dam Days race, a two day stage race across the Lake of the Ozarks in September.  There are races I plan to do for the first time this year, such as the Perche Creek Gut Buster.  Last year I did the Ironhorse Paddle Race on the Black river near Poplar Bluff for the first time.  Some of the best times I've had are in the informal, unsanctioned, "Show and Go" events.  The Meramec Marathon (26 miles) was just plain FUN last fall.  Chuck and I would love to do one on the Current River this year.  There is something for everyone who loves to paddle and race.

Di McHenry
7-time Finisher MR340
MR340 Record Holder - women's tandem, mixed tandem

Di McHenry stands alone as the only person to have raced and completed all 7 MR340's.  In the above picture, she is paddling on the Kansas River, with sun protection from her famous Turtle hat.
Photo by Marek Uliasz
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