Boat race pits local men against the elements down the Missouri River
By car, a traveler from Kansas City, Kan., can get to St. Charles, Mo., just outside of St. Louis in less than four hours. By plane, an hour will get the job done.
Jim Stevens, Ed Cowel and Jared Jellison cheered when they made the journey in 77 hours and 51 minutes.
That’s the official time the threesome logged in the American Waterways Missouri 340 race. They pushed their canoe into the water from a dock in Kansas City at 8 a.m. on July 31, and arrived at their destination four days later.
Stevens has been canoeing for more than 30 years, mostly as a recreational hobby. He also volunteers at Living Waters Canoe Ministry, a group that organizes family-friendly canoe events.
Today, the Edgerton man is more than a canoe enthusiast. He’s a competitor, too.
Last summer, he was a spectator at the start of the annual boat race down the Missouri River.
“I went and watched the start of it, and that really had my interest up,” Stevens said.
He organized a team for this year’s event. His canoe mates included his brother-in-law Cowel of Gardner and Jellison of Lori, Mo.
On July 31, 352 boats entered the water. The competition included three-man canoes, solo paddle-type boats, and even boats that held large teams of 10 or more.
“We started out as one big bunch,” Stevens explained of the race’s start.
But the Missouri River is huge, and the different teams and individuals paddled at different rates.
“After the first 50 miles, people really started to spread out,” Stevens recalled. “There were times when you couldn’t see another boat.”
Temperatures during the four-day race spiked into the 100s. That didn’t slow his team down too much, but it meant doing the hard paddling at night and resting, briefly, when the temperatures reached daily peaks.
Stevens estimates his team stopped about four times.
“And we only slept for an hour-and-a-half to two hours each time,” he explained.
The pit stops allowed the threesome to catch up with their ground crew. Made up of family members, the ground crew replenished water, brought the men fresh food, and had tents set up so the canoers could rest.
“They were just as busy as we were on this thing,” Stevens explained. “If they knew we were going to stop to sleep, they’d have tents already set up. We’d get back up, get back in the canoe and go on.”
Donnalee Stevens, Jim’s wife, helped organize ground crew efforts.
“It was really like a pit crew for a race team,” Donnalee remembered.
The crew consisted of wives of the racers and Donnalee and Jim’s 13-year-old son Matthew. They drove to nine different scheduled checkpoints and three additional stops. They found ice and food for the canoers at convenience stores and then waited at the shore for the white boat to appear.
“Matthew — he had so much joy,” Donnalee said. He started canoeing with his father when he was 9-months old.
“Matthew would just be waiting for that boat to show up. It was like Christmas to see that boat coming,” she said.
The pit crew rushed to help get the boat out of the water, clean it, and replenish supplies.
Although there was literally water everywhere, dehydration was a concern as racers paddled down the Missouri. Stevens heard rumors that at least five people were hauled from the race course in ambulances due to dehydration. At one point, Cowel was in desperate need of water.
Donnalee said the ground crew takes some of the responsibility for that. Early on, the ground crew gave give the racers sodas or flavored drinks in addition to water.
“(Cowel) wasn’t drinking enough,” Donnalee said. “That was on us.”
At later stops, the racers had to earn flavored drinks by finishing their water, Donnalee explained.
Getting Cowel healthy again didn’t slow Stevens’ team.
“We were in fourth place for a long time,” Stevens said. “And then we came across some guys in the middle of the last night having trouble. We slowed down to help them out and make sure they got to the next checkpoint.”
The slowdown coupled with a brief rest at the next point may have cost Stevens a higher place finish.
“Quite a few teams blew past us while we slept,” Stevens said.
The final day was a short one. After paddling 105 miles the first day, 97 miles the second day and 106 miles the third day, the crew had just 29 miles in the final stretch.
They crossed the finish line at the Lewis and Clark Boathouse in St. Charles at 1:51 p.m. on Aug. 3. Their time of 77 hours and 51 minutes was enough to secure 12th place.
Stevens is proud of their time, but the 340 trek down the Missouri River can be accomplished in shorter order. One boat finished in just 36 hours.
Stevens and his team plan to race again next year with even better results.
A faster boat will help. For this year’s race, they borrowed an old aluminum canoe from Living Water Ministries for the race this year, but hope to get a lighter boat next year. Also, they’re hopeful the weather will cooperate.
“It was harder this year, just because of the simple fact that the water level is way down,” Stevens said. “The river is really low so the speed of the current wasn’t as high as what it would be with more water.”
Stevens is thrilled they simply finished the race.
“More important than what place we finished – we did what we set out to do and that was just complete the race,” Stevens said. “It was a long hot trip, but it was definitely worth it. I can honestly say it’s one of the bigger accomplishments I’ve had in my life.”