Paddling the distance

Published Sept. 29, 2023
Many kayaks can be seen on the river with the Kansas City skyline in the background.

Paddlers gather on the Missouri River at the starting line at Kaw Point Park, Kansas City, Kansas, on August 1, 2023. Photo by Jessica Schaeffer.

Several kayaks with people in them can be seen on the river.

Michael McCollum, Brandon Harmon, Joe Poplinger and Alicia Guggenmos are in boat 3141 while they wait at the starting line on the Missouri River at Kaw Point Park, Kansas City, Kansas on August 1, 2023. Photo by Jessica Schaeffer.

Four people wearing lifejackets smile from a kayak with the river and sky in the background.

Selfie from the boat crew as they paddle down the Missouri River for the MR340 race on August 2, 2023. Front to back: Joe Poplinger, Brandon Harmon, Alicia Guggenmos and Michael McCollum.

Seven people stand with their arms around each other in front of a kayak with geen grass and trees in the background.

The ground and boat crew before the start of MR340 on August 1, 2023, at Kaw Point Park, Kansas City, Kansas. From left to right: Jim Poplinger, Jonathan Petry, Michael McCollum, Alicia Guggenmos, Brandon Harmon, Joe Poplinger and Jet Semrick.

Each year, hundreds of adventurous paddlers brave 340 miles of the Lower Missouri River within a matter of 3 1/2 days as part of the annual Missouri American Water MR340 race hosted by Missouri River Relief.

As the world’s longest non-stop river race, MR340 is a test of endurance. It is also an opportunity for people around the nation and world to learn more about the Missouri River and how the Kansas City District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages the lower Missouri River Basin. Within the training all paddlers must do before the race, a warning is given to keep an eye out for the structures along the Missouri River including dikes, chutes and revetments. These structures are placed and maintained by the Kansas City District, so the Missouri River is able to self-maintain a navigation channel.

These are not the only structures or obstacles visible for paddlers if they know what they are looking for. Each year a few of the paddlers in the MR340 race are employees from the Kansas City District who voluntarily participate. This year, Michael McCollum, architect, and Brandon Harmon, geologist, were part of a four-person canoe team paddling down the Missouri River. As part of the ground support, their coworker, Jonathan Petry, climate and energy mitigation analyst, came to their aid.  

During the race, McCollum was able to spot a river chute, a secondary river channel providing habitat among other purposes, he had cost estimated for the district.

“It was nice to see something that I had helped estimate actually on the river and in use,” said McCollum.

Paddling 340 miles down a river may not be on everyone’s bucket list, but McCollum has a simple explanation as to why he, Harmon and the rest of their team entered the race.

“We wanted to see if we could do it,” said McCollum.

They were certainly showing they could do it and were at least 30 minutes ahead of the cut-off boat, affectionately known by paddlers as the Reaper. It earned its name because any paddler who does not stay ahead of it is given the signal their race is complete. This time, more boats than usual were given the signal from the Reaper saying their race was done. It seemed the river conditions were not in the favor of the paddlers this year.

“We were paddling through three-foot swells and passing solo paddlers who had an hour head start to us. Even those who had paddled this race before said this year was harder than others,” said McCollum.

The weather at the start of the race at Kaw Point Park in Kansas City, Kansas, had been sunny and calm, but 100 miles downriver, a storm was brewing.

“When we made it past the Waverly checkpoint, we could see the storm coming. The clouds were blacking out the full moon and we could see the lightning ahead of us,” McCollum said.

Each year, the race is planned around the full moon to allow for optimal sight for paddlers at night. Now with the storm, their natural light source was gone. This was not the only disadvantage the storm brought. Along with worsening weather conditions, the conditions on the Missouri River were becoming worse and difficult for paddlers to navigate.

“We were lucky to not see as much debris as I’m sure the front runners did. We heard stories of large tree trunks and branches floating past paddlers as the river levels rose and loosened debris that was on what used to be shoreline and tributaries,” McCollum said.

The race ended just one day after it had started because of the conditions. Winners were chosen based on their proximity to the original finish line in St. Charles, Missouri. This was the first time the race had ended early in its 18 years.

The team got the news the race was ending early after they had paddled 172 miles of the Missouri River, a little over half the race. They took their exit at Franklin Island Access in Boonville, Missouri.

While the early end to the race, which the team had spent months training for, was disappointing, they were still in high spirits and attended the Friday Night Finish Line Party and Special Ceremony held in St. Charles, Missouri.

When asked about the team’s plans for next year, McCollum was firm in his answer, “We hope more will join the race, but we will race again.”