Graham Zimmerman is a Jefferson City resident who recently competed in a kayak race on the Missouri River.
Ol' man river,
Dat ol' man river
He mus' know sumpin'
But don't say nuthin',
He jes' keeps rollin'
He keeps on rollin' along.
– "Ol’ Man River, Paul Robeson
After graduating from college in May 2011, I packed together my livelihood – books and clothes, old furniture and new snow boots – and headed west from North Carolina to Jefferson City to start a career in marketing. It was at the end of the three-day trek, driving south from Kingdom City and crossing into Jefferson City that I saw the Missouri River for the first time.
I’ve driven over the Missouri countless times since then. Some days the water might be higher than before. Other days I might look down to see it painted gray from a morning rain, but it has always been there, every time, rolling along. The Missouri River, to me, became a constant, in many ways something to be taken for granted. It wasn’t until Sept. 14, after I paddled 15 miles down it, that my perception changed.
Once a year, Missouri American Water holds the “Race to the Dome,” a canoe and kayak race on the river to help raise money for Missouri River Relief, a not-for-profit volunteer organization "dedicated to connecting people to the Missouri River through hands-on river clean-ups, education events and stewardship activities," according to its website. There were more than 150 participants this year, including myself and a few friends, who hopped in their canoes and kayaks in Providence and Hartsburg and paddled the respective 26.6 miles and 15.8 miles down to the finish line at Serenity Point, the river access below the Jefferson City bridge.
As soon as Hartsburg disappeared behind us I immediately felt like I had been transported to a different world. The riverbanks from Hartsburg to Jefferson City are largely uninhabited, save for the blue herons or occasional bald eagle you’ll see flying over your head. The sound of the river surrounds you, a noise not loud but rather, as author Paul Schneider wrote, “vast and soothing, more like wind over grasses than a waterfall.” The only other people we saw over the three-hour paddle were those riding bikes on the Katy Trail or a train conductor’s greasy arm hanging out the window as he hauled his freight past us. Spending time on the Missouri River is an incredible experience, one that commands your senses and forces you to embrace the beauty and breadth of the water that rolls alongside you.
The race ended at Serenity Point, and as we hopped out of our kayaks we were greeted by the rest of the racers, supporters, live music, Jimmy John's food and drinks. The sun was at its highest point, and a light breeze came off the river as hundreds gathered to crack open a beer, share the time with friends and family and listen to a few numbers from the Dirt Leg Benders. One could easily tell, looking around at what Missouri River Relief had put together, that this river was important.
Since its inception in 2001, Missouri River Relief has removed over 718 tons of trash from the longest, and one of the oldest, rivers in North America. This past Saturday I got to spend time on the river and around the people that dedicate a large part of their lives to keeping it clean. I look at the Missouri River differently now, and every time I drive over the Jefferson City bridge, I remember the experience I had and the extraordinary job that continues to be done by Missouri River Relief to keep ol’ man river rollin’ along.
For more information on the Race to the Dome and Missouri River Relief, please go to www.riverrelief.org.
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