Just back from our most exciting and challenging training trip to-date in St. Louis. We planned this trip for months and had significantly more support than for any of our previous training trips. The founder and coordinator of the MR340 race, a 340 mile canoe/kayak race on the Missouri River, Scott Mansker, volunteered to provide a support boat and crew for this training trip. Scott and Dewayne Knott brought their awesome support boat called Falcon over from the Kansas City area to meet us. Moose Dougherty headed up our shore support team with assistance from Mindy Schroeder-Kragness and Heidi Sandstad. All five support team members met us paddlers in St. Louis.
Friday morning we got to the Alton marina about 20 miles upstream from downtown St. Louis and, for the first time, put our “sleeping box” in the canoe and covered the whole canoe with a custom canoe cover made by Dan Cooke of Cooke Custom Sewing. We would be testing the sleep box and canoe cover for the first time. The set-up is designed to allow two people to rest comfortably and stay dry in the center of the canoe. Right at 11:10am on Friday, as planned, we launched. Temperatures were in the high 80’s and the sun was hot in a clear sky as we paddled through the last lock on the river, past the Missouri/Mississippi confluence, and over the “Chain of Rocks”. The Chain of Rocks is a stretch of the river that can be filled with rapids and be un-navigable by boats, so an 8-mile canal with its own lock was built to route boat traffic around the chain. Paddlers, however, can stay on the river and either run the rapid or portage around it; we were lucky to have water levels high enough to run it without difficulty. Just below the chain of rocks we met the support boat Falcon for the first time, with Scott Mansker, Dewayne and Mindy aboard. Two hours in we used the support boat to help us switch paddling teams for the first time. We paddled through the 20 mile long stretch of river known as the St. Louis harbor, notorious for being full of barges, tugs and tricky waves and currents. We paddled past the beautiful Gateway Arch in downtown St. Louis. Support boat Falcon kept in touch with the barge captains, communicating about where to position our canoe on the river when barges passed by.
We switched paddling teams every two hours until about 9pm when we switched to two five hour shifts for the overnight hours. The night on the Mississippi is a strange and wondrous place:
Oliver and I laid down to try and sleep. Then three huge barges left massive six-foot waves in their wake which crashed over the gunwales (the sides) of the canoe. The canoe cover kept most the water out, fortunately, but we had asked the designer to leave parts of the cover open so we could experiment with ventilation, some water came into the sleeping area. Now we have lots of ideas for how to fix that.
A few hours later Casey emitted a short, high-pitched yelp from the stern as a Silver carp jumped out of the water and hit her in the back. Casey was surprised, but took it in stride. According to Wikipedia, “Silver carp have become notorious for being easily frightened by boatsand personal watercraft, which causes them to leap high into the air. The fish can jump up to 2.5–3 m (8–10 feet) into the air, and numerous boaters have been severely injured by collisions with the fish. According to the EPA, "reported injuries include cuts from fins, black eyes, broken bones, back injuries, and concussions." Silver carp can grow to 45 kg (100 lb) in mass.” Yowser!
As we paddled the Perseid meteor shower filled the sky; Oliver counted some thirty shootings stars. Oliver and I took over paddling around 1am. The moon illuminated the water until it set around 3am and left us with a sky full of dazzling stars and the Milky Way. The other two both slept pretty well; we encountered fewer barges and smaller waves during that 5 hour shift.
The rest of the trip was fantastic and we were very excited that we were able to maintain the pace that we had hoped to maintain. Thanks to our support crew for tracking our times and Ben Richter for setting up a spreadsheet for data comparison, we knew we were averaging just over 7mph including all our breaks. That’s one mph faster than World Record pace! Now it is back to the drawing board to find better solutions for our cover, speed up our transitions and make getting the right food, water and supplies easier to do around the clock.
Scott Mansker and Dewayne Knott: your expertise with the support boat Falcon, your “can-do” attitude and your senses of humor...and your ability to basically never sleep, were all invaluable. Your ability to communicate effectively with our shore crew, with us and with all the barge captains was amazing. You worked hard helping us safely navigate barges and wing dams, and provided us a place to take short breaks to rotate paddlers, change clothes and get resupplied. It was so nice to meet you and we can’t wait for more!
Dan Cooke of Cooke Custom Sewing made our 3-piece custom canoe cover. Dan is a master craftsman. Thank you Dan! We can’t recommend his canoe covers, portage packs, shelters, tarps and other expedition canoe gear highly enough. When huge waves came over our bow, the front piece of the canoe cover protected the bow paddler and kept water from entering the boat. Both the bow and stern parts of the canoe cover had “cockpit” holes with fabric that could be cinched up around the paddler to keep the water out. Dan built custom ribs to arc the middle section of the cover to an apex of 8 inches above the gunwales to make the sleeping area spacious and dry and that worked great and will be even better once we figure out how we want to seal the cover (we had asked Dan to not seal it yet so we can figure out how we want to seal it and ventilate it, and now we have some ideas about how we want to do that). Dan did many extra special things to make the cover work for us (customizing it to work with our rudder, and figuring out the ribs, and making it work with our navigation lights, and many more things) and we so appreciate his patience and expertise.
Huge thank you to Scott Richardson (designer) and Dan Schultze (General Manager) at Packnet Ltd for their enthusiastic and creative assistance in designing and building the sleep box. They designed a box that would accommodate two sleepers and protect them from any water that gets in the canoe. It was awesome! It was comfortable and big enough and felt just great. Once we figure out how we want to seal off our canoe cover it will stay dry and be a wonderful home for us for the world record attempt.
Thanks also to Ryan Slebos, a master craftsman of custom boats and rudders, for making our rudder which has performed beautifully and taken all kinds of abuse with nary a scratch. Ryan thanks for all your helpful advice, too.
Finally, our shore support crew was extraordinary. The shore crew worked hard to prepare food and get it to the support boat every 8-12 hours. Moose, Mindy and Heidi: thank you so much! Thank you for all the time you put in food packing and shopping and doing pre-trip preparations and then driving and camping in difficult conditions (scary bathrooms and massive cobwebs), and getting very little sleep.
When we started planning this nine months ago we never could have imagined all the help we would get, nor how complex the project would become. Any success we have will sit firmly on the shoulders of the generous and gifted people who have decided to go on this adventure with us. Now we have nine months to go and we’ve come a long way and learned so much. To everyone reading this: thanks for following along!