Columbia resident prepares to canoe the Colorado River

Tuesday, October 2, 2007 | 7:22 p.m. CDT; updated 9:17 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Columbia's Chris Kelly is taking a whitewater trip down the Colorado river.

COLUMBIA — Chris Kelly is feeling older everyday.

He is 60 years old and his reflexes aren’t nearly as sharp as they once were. He’s supposed to become a grandfather any day now, when his daughter gives birth to her first child. But at an age when many Americans begin to settle down to live out their retirement years in peace and quiet, Kelly is doing anything but.

Kelly has been busy these days running for the Missouri House of Representatives in the 24th District, but he is also making time for his favorite hobby. On Oct. 5, Kelly will set out with a group of 16 friends to canoe the Grand Canyon portion of the Colorado River. The group will camp at night for 18 straight days while floating the 200-mile stretch of river.

The group will include two canoes, at least three rafts and three kayaks. Kelly will be in a twelve-foot whitewater canoe, which presents a different set of challenges than rafting. Kelly said that the large size of rafts are much more forgiving when faced with the crushing rapids that the river will produce.

“It is much rarer to canoe the river than it would be to kayak or raft it,” Kelly said. “I would guess that maybe only a couple dozen people canoe it every year, certainly less than 50. The advantage of canoeing is that it sits higher off the water but that is also a disadvantage because the center of gravity is higher. The great advantage of the raft is it is buoyant and big and drives through waves with momentum. It has a much wider base and it is harder to flip a raft than a canoe or kayak. There is no question that I will flip. The question is will I successfully roll back up.”

Kelly says that the Colorado River will be particularly difficult because of the its size.

“I’ve canoed technically higher water but never a bigger piece of water, never water this long or this big of volume,” Kelly said.

The portion of the river that runs through the Grand Canyon measures between 7,000 and 12,000 cubic feet per second. CFS is a measurement that is used to estimate the volume of rivers. A typical river generally ranges from anywhere between 100 and 800 CFS, but the water Kelly will be canoeing will never drop below 7,000.

Kelly has been canoeing his entire life. He started out flat water floating before learning the proper techniques of whitewater paddling and has now been whitewater boating for around 20 years. He is also the lead whitewater canoe instructor for the Missouri Whitewater Association, a public organization that teaches paddling skills and encourages its growth as a recreational and competitive sport. It is a job that he says he loves.

“I love to bring new people into the sport,” Kelly said. “It’s a great sport because it always occurs in beautiful places and it offers a technical and physical challenge that a person can do at his own level. A person can choose his own degree of difficulty and have a good time.”

Kelly has had a passion for the sport for as long as his daughter, Kate Kelly, can remember.

“Since I was very little we’ve gone on canoe and boating trips all over the country in Canada and the U.S.,” she said. “My father’s in love with it.”

Kelly also has a son, Hugh Kelly, 35, who he says is an excellent boater and frequent companion to him on his many boating trips.

Kate Kelly, now 31 years old, said that she is often nervous when she knows that her father is out canoeing , but that it is reassuring to think about all the years of experience he has in the sport. The experience that Chris Kelly has gained over the years often comes in handy when he is put in a difficult situation while on the water.

Kelly has suffered numerous injuries in the past while boating. In the late ‘90s while canoeing the Ocoee River in Ducktown, Tenn., Kelly suffered three broken ribs and a punctured lung when he was speared by a kayak. While a less experienced boater might have panicked, Kelly was able to collect himself in order to escape the treacherous predicament he was in.

“It hurt like hell,” Kelly said. “I was upside down and said to myself, ‘You have got to roll, and it will hurt, but you have to do it.’”

While the experience that Kelly has is valuable, he admits that his age has become another hurdle that he must face.

“[My age] is definitely a factor,” Kelly said. “My reflexes were never very good but however good they were they are not as good now as they were 10 years ago.”

Kelly has consistently exercised to remain in a physical condition that allows him to combat the rigors of canoeing. He also practices paddling and rolling in his canoe. But despite his preparation, Kelly leaves no doubt when asked if he is apprehensive about his trip.

“Yes with a capitol Y. I cry a lot.” Kelly joked.

Kelly said that the rewards of taking on a challenge of this magnitude make the stress more than worth it.

“Whenever you undertake a serious physical and mental challenge, one of the joys is meeting your apprehension and dealing with the technical challenge,” Kelly said. “It gives you great pleasure and satisfaction in any risk sport. You’re only focused on one thing when you’re boating and I’m not thinking of anything else. All you have to do is just deal with the wave, and in that sense it’s relaxing.”

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