ST. CHARLES — A green light materialized on the dark waters of the Missouri River on Thursday night, the first sign the Columbia canoe team was nearing the MR340 finish line.
As the canoe approached, the outlines of six paddles emerged, dipping in and out of the water. Team members began to chant their name: "Can't Stop, Won't Stop! Can't Stop, Won't Stop!"
Standing at the river's edge, Sam Garrett, sister of paddler Will Garrett, couldn't help but smile at the team's antics.
"That's my brother," she said, grinning.
"Can't Stop, Won't Stop" has six members: Will Garrett of Ashland and Patrick Hanks, Zachary Mihalevich, Andrew Gunn, Blaine Chandler and Zach Cravens, all of Columbia.
The team pulled into the Lewis & Clark Boat House and Museum at 9:44 p.m., finishing after 61 hours, 44 minutes. "Can't Stop, Won't Stop" placed 93rd out of 373 boats and first in the voyageur division, which is for boats that have five to 10 paddlers. Members had completed two of their goals: placing in the top 100 and beating a dragon boat that passed them at Cooper's Landing near Columbia.
"I can't believe we got that done," Garrett said, stepping out of the canoe and finding his footing on solid ground.
Taking a moment to steady themselves on land after having spent a majority of the past three days on water, the paddlers were presented a cooler of "celebratory beers" — Coronas, with limes — as their loved ones gathered around.
"They've all grown together," Emily Hanks, the wife of Patrick Hanks, said. "Patrick and I have been together for seven years, so I have been good friends with all these guys. I am so proud of all of them."
Supporters have not only seen the progress "Can't Stop, Won't Stop" made on the river but also what the race has done for the team members personally.
Sam Garrett thought her brother was crazy at first for wanting to do such an endurance-focused event — she had been the long-distance runner of the family. But she wasn't surprised to see her brother and his long-time friends at the finish line.
"My brother does not like to quit,” Sam Garrett said. “Where I was like, 'This was going to be exhausting,' I knew he wouldn't quit.”
The last time most of the “Can't Stop, Won't Stop” supporters saw the team was back at Cooper's Landing, over 25 hours before the St. Charles landing. There, the team expected to cross the finishing line at midnight on Thursday, or later. But after finding MR340 ProPaddler — an app that maps out the river — the team was able to increase its speed by two or three miles per hour.
Being so near the end also provided motivation.
"Seeing the finish line kind of lit a fire under all of us," Gunn said.
The last three days had been a combination of sleep deprivation, aching muscles, singing on the river, blister-preventing baby powder, Smucker's Uncrustables and other "toddler food," as Emily Wilsdorf, the girlfriend of Mihalevich, put it.
"Stuff you can eat while you paddle, you know — paddle, bite, paddle, bite," Gunn said.
From the start, David Hanks, the father of Patrick Hanks, had followed the group to provide ground support, which was "crucial" to the team's finish, Cravens said.
"He was prepared to do whatever he could to help," Cravens said. "He was always there to help us. He is just as much as part of the team."
During the last five miles of the race, "Can't Stop, Won't Stop" found itself approaching a barge, which are known to cause trouble for paddlers. However, the team evaded being swept under with some slick maneuvering by Chandler.
"Blaine did a great job," Gunn said. "He skillfully avoided the barge. He was a cool cucumber around that barge."
The team members took on certain roles during the journey. Chandler became the rudder in the back, while Hanks navigated, and Gunn set the pace up front. Everyone else became motors.
"We put our heads down and just shut up and paddled," Garrett said.
After all that paddling, there was a general consensus among the group. It was time to rest.
"I'm excited for a bed, real food and relaxing," Hanks said.
But that would have to wait. Before the paddlers could scurry off to find the nearest Taco Bell, they had to retrieve the medals they won for being the first-place finishers in their division. Their loved ones took pictures as "Can't Stop, Won't Stop" donned newly awarded hardware. Many of the family members present had seen the team grow up as friends.
"I've always tagged along as the little sister with them," Sam Garrett said. "I think it's kind of cool that they are still having these experiences. I know from my experiences, when you grow up some friendships just fall apart, but this is something that brings you literally and figuratively closer together."
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.