Rolling on the river

MU student cultivates interest in local canoeing and kayaking
Tuesday, October 7, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:02 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 10, 2008

Each year, Steve Witzig anxiously awaits December, when the air is bitingly cold and the wind rips through Columbia. On icy winter weekends, Witzig gets out of bed and bundles himself in a thick sweater and his favorite pair of swim trunks. Witzig is going kayaking.

Witzig, an MU graduate student, started the MU Canoe and Kayak club, better known to members as MUCK, in 2001. The idea stemmed from the closure of the MU Wilderness Adventure Program, which had left more than a dozen canoes and kayaks sitting unused at the MU Student Recreation Center.

As a registered student organization, MUCK was able to gain possession of the boats as a donation, and additional boats were purchased through campus funding.

Witzig teaches clinics for paddlers

In the club’s first organized year, Witzig received his American Canoe Association whitewater certification when he brought in a whitewater instructor trainer from Colorado for a five-day class. Now, as a certified whitewater instructor, Witzig and his more experienced partners teach clinics for paddlers of all levels — and in all seasons.

“It is an inherently dangerous sport, and myself and the club really push for all members to take one of our clinics or get some sort of training from a certified instructor,” Witzig said. “The focus of the club is instruction. It’s awesome to see the expression on someone’s face when they do something that they couldn’t do before and it’s because of you.”

Lake Fest will be held Saturday at Finger Lakes

This year, Witzig is excited about Lake Fest, which will be Saturday at Finger Lakes State Park north of Columbia. More than a dozen canoes and kayaks will be available to the MU community, and small group lessons for all levels will be offered throughout the day. People interested in the club can attend the event and get their feet wet.

“We want more undergraduates to get involved to lead trips and to get involved with pool classes,” Witzig said.

As an avid kayaker, Witzig knows something that many of his MU peers don’t: Columbia is a mini-Mecca for canoers and kayakers across the state. Witzig has gone so far as to map out nearly a half-dozen of Columbia’s local creeks, charting their rapids, pools and obstacles so that future boaters can better understand the water.

“Steve has been very influential in reconnecting the canoe and kayak community,” said Chris Kelly, a member of the Missouri Whitewater Association.

Now in its third organized year, MUCK has more than 40 active members. The club plans nearly a dozen activities and trips annually, all of which the MU community is invited to attend.

“If you enjoy the outdoors and you enjoy the sport, it’s a great challenge,” Kelly said.

Members score high in pool slalom

Nearly a dozen members of the club have made a name for themselves among the national whitewater community by pulling in high scores at pool slalom events sponsored by MUCK and the Missouri Whitewater Association.

Pool slalom takes place in the Hickman High School pool, where dozens of kayakers from Missouri and neighboring states compete for time on standardized courses. Event winners and times are posted on the USA Canoe and Kayak Web site. This winter’s pool slalom event will be in January.

Brent Pfeiffer joined the club a year ago. Pfeiffer has been canoeing since his early teens, but he didn’t get seriously involved in the sport until last year’s fall clinic taught by Witzig. He has since attended a whitewater festival in North Carolina and has run huge rapids in Tennessee.

“I had had enough experience to paddle a larger river, so at the festival I bought my first boat, but the rule was that you had to take any new boat onto the river the first day,” Pfeiffer said. “I had only been on two rivers in my whole life in a kayak. So that day, when I got my new boat, I took it down one of the East’s premier whitewater rivers. The next day we did the Ocoee River in Tennessee, and it had the biggest whitewater I had ever seen. It was really scary, but really exciting. I’ve been hooked ever since.”

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