FREDRICKTOWN — Just three hours as the crow flies from the city of Columbia, the St. Francis River cuts an ancient groove through jumbled granite at the base of the Ozarks’ oldest mountains.
The Saint’s water flows like glistening green ink through a prehistoric gorge, at times becoming a roiling froth as it navigates boulder gardens and spills over rocky ledges, creating crushing rapids and a constant, rhythmic roar.
It’s an invitation few whitewater paddlers can resist. And it’s the scene each spring where scores of boaters, many from Columbia, meet to test their mettle — against the rapids and against each other.
The Missouri Whitewater Championships celebrated its 37th year March 20-21 on the St. Francis River, luring 63 canoeists and kayakers from 10 states and entertaining hundreds of spectators. Hosted each year by the Missouri Whitewater Association, the event is one of the nation’s longest-running annual river races.
That’s odd. Southeast Missouri is an unlikely place to become a favored destination for whitewater enthusiasts. While the Show-Me State is known for its beautiful float streams, its whitewater offerings can’t possibly match the myriad creeks and rivers that tumble down mountains in the East and West or through states as close as Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky.
That’s exactly why the races succeed, MWA President Maria Crusius said. Because the St. Francis is the only real whitewater river in Missouri, it fosters camaraderie and strong organization.
“We only have one local river, basically,” Crusius said, “so we’re a pretty tight-knit community. If there’s water on the Saint, there’s a group of us there.”
The St. Francis carries a charm and a challenge all its own. When the water wanes, as it did for this year’s races, it becomes a maze of liquid and stone, requiring paddlers to maneuver their boats with precision to avoid being pinned against rocks or capsized. And when the river reaches its upper limits, it becomes a formidable force, featuring Class IV rapids and demanding that boaters demonstrate big-water skills.
So what causes a paddler to take the plunge? To move from surviving the rapids to racing in them?
“For a large part, it’s working on improving your river-running skills,” Crusius, of St. Louis, said. “Some people are wanting to compete against others, but a lot of us just want to compete against ourselves.”
“It makes you focus on where you’re going,” Crusius added. “You have to be more efficient in your strokes, and it forces you to go the way that you normally would not choose to go.”
David Wilson, best known in Columbia as an organizer of the True/False Film Festival and one of the people running the Ragtag Cinemacafé, has been kayaking for about 12 years. But he took up racing only a couple of years ago.
“I think when there’s not a lot of, you know, really big, steep, challenging whitewater, the racing can be a really great way to make fairly easy whitewater challenging,” Wilson said. He added that racing has made him a better boater overall.
The ability to “read” water is perhaps a racer’s most important tool. The best paddlers learn not to fight the current but to dissect its subtle contours, to use them for speed, momentum and steering. That’s particularly important in the slalom race, which requires the boater to negotiate a series of upstream and downstream gates strewn strategically across the stream. The clock is important, but penalties accrue when the boater touches a gate or misses one altogether.
Raw speed, by contrast, wins the downriver race. But the victors are rarely those who paddle hardest or flex the most muscle. Success, instead, requires finding the “lines,” or the most efficient routes for getting downriver quickly.
The Missouri races featured 29 classes of competition and lured some of the best boaters in the United States. Eli Helbert of Virginia, a former world rodeo canoeing champion, earned first place in the open-canoe slalom. And Steve Frazier of Georgia, known across the country for his dominating downriver skills, earned first place in that event’s open-canoe class.
Despite the stiff competition, Columbians collected several medals this year.
Steve Witzig sprinted 2.5 miles in 28:06 to finish only 14 seconds behind heavy favorite Chuck McHenry of Ironton, earning Witzig second place in the downriver’s plastic kayak division. And in the tandem canoe slalom, Jeff Barrow teamed with Bill Miles of Rosebud to earn third-place honors.
Wilson earned third- and fourth-place medals in the plastic and open-division kayak slaloms, respectively, and he finished seventh in a field of 21 paddlers in the expert class. Despite that success, he said racing will remain a casual venture for him. He’s more interested in the fun and friendship that comes with boating. The Missouri races provide just that.
“The atmosphere is sort of like a whitewater festival,” Wilson said. “The races are the center point, but it’s just as much about getting together with friends to paddle.”
Scott Swafford, an MU assistant professor and city editor at the Missourian, is a whitewater canoeist and member of the Missouri Whitewater Association.