Rural Missouri Magazine

Paddlin' Passion
World's longest nonstop river race
attracts paddlers to Missouri

by Jason Jenkins

The 2007 Missouri River 340 began at Kaw Point, the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers in Kansas City. Seventy-six canoes and kayaks were entered in the race’s second running.

Somewhere in the darkness, Chuck McHenry’s dream literally ran aground. Only 18 hours before, he and nearly 100 others had climbed into their canoes and kayaks in Kansas City with aspirations of being the first to reach St. Charles in the Missouri River 340, an ultra-marathon paddling race.

Now at 2 a.m., Chuck was in third place as he paddled south of Glasgow and into a stretch of the river known as Lisbon Bottoms. Here, the floods of 1993 and 1995 had scoured a side channel that was to be avoided by the racers. With no moonlight and an ever-thickening blanket of fog reducing his visibility, the 56-year-old dentist scanned the pitch-black night and spotted a marker. He paddled toward it and into the channel that flowed beside it.

But soon the gentle grind of sand against the bottom of his kayak unmistakably signaled that Chuck had paddled off course.

“It was the bad chute,” recalls the Black River Electric Cooperative member from Ironton. “I got totally lost. It was just like being in a swamp.”

Paddling 340 miles in less than 100 hours can wreak havoc on the body. Even with gloves taped in place, blisters can occur.

Chuck’s kayak had taken on water, but when he got out and attempted to empty it, he slipped in the mud. The craft slammed across his chest, dislocating two ribs.

Injured and lost in a backwater maze, Chuck fought his way back to the main channel. Time and time again, he bottomed out as water gave way to sand and mud.

“I even did a little hiking through the brush trying to figure out where I was,” he says. “I probably lost four hours. That was the end of the race for me. By the time I got out, the race was gone.”

While Chuck’s tale is more dramatic than most, the authentic adventure a paddler can have on the Big Muddy is why the Missouri River 340, held this year from July 24-28, has become one of the top ultra-marathon races in North America.

Dubbed the world’s longest nonstop river race, the 340-mile race is designed to test paddlers’ equipment and willpower, says race organizer Scott Mansker of Olathe, Kan.
“It appeals to a wide range of folks,” he says. “You’ve got the people who travel the country and enter these races to win it. Then you’ve got the people who have never done anything like this before, and their goal is simply to finish and learn a lot about themselves.”

A self-described “river rat” and avid Missouri River kayaker, Scott had followed ultra-marathon paddling events across North America — from the 120-mile AuSable River Canoe Marathon in Michigan to the 260-mile Texas Water Safari to the 460-mile Yukon River Quest in Canada — and recognized the potential for a Midwest event.

The Missouri River 340 began in the shadow of the Kansas City skyline. The race ended less than 100 hours later across the state in St. Louis. The event is the longest non-stop paddling race in the world.

“Those races were the Big Three,” he says. “I thought the Missouri River would be the perfect venue, so I took what I liked from all those races and put it into the 340. Now, we’re one of the Big Four. We’re right up there in just our second year. It’s on everybody’s radar.”

The race format is simple: Paddle from Kaw Point in Kansas City to the Lewis and Clark Nature Center in St. Charles in fewer than 100 hours. Along the way, racers must stop at eight checkpoints in Lexington, Waverly, Miami, Glasgow, Cooper’s Landing, Jefferson City, Hermann and Washington.

“The Missouri is a great river for a race like this,” Scott says. “There are no locks, no portages, no rapids. It is conducive to paddling at night, and it’s also mapped out well.”
Only paddle power is allowed in the Missouri River 340. No rowing, sailing or other propulsion is allowed. There are no design restrictions on a racer’s canoe or kayak, and many of the serious paddlers race custom-made boats that can cost upward of $5,000.

Racers must compromise between speed and stability.

Paddlers may stop anywhere along the course and receive supplies from their ground crew, but no assistance can be accepted while on the water. A ground crew’s responsibilities depend on the philosophy of the racer.

A kaleidoscope of kayaks wait at the river's edge in Kansas City.

On one end of the spectrum are the competitive racers, whose stops can be as choreographed as a NASCAR pit crew. On the other end are the more recreational racers, who will stop, get out of their boats and take breaks.

In its inaugural run last year, the race attracted 15 teams, 10 of which paddled all the way to St. Charles. This year, Scott stopped taking entries after registering 76 boats.
“We could have easily had 100 boats. I was telling people ‘no’ every day since June 1,” he says. “We had someone from every corner of the U.S. in this race, including some of the biggest names in ultra-marathon paddling. Everyone who finished in 2006 was back this year.”

Among the returnees was Katie Pfefferkorn of Chaffee. A senior studying chemical engineering at the University of Missouri, she finished the 2006 race in 98 hours and 36 minutes. This year, the 22-year-old’s pre-race goal was to be more competitive and finish under 80 hours.

“Last year I was flying by the seat of my pants, but to be competitive in an endurance race like this, you have to plan,” says Katie, who also has competed in marathons and triathlons. “You have to foresee a lot and be logical beforehand. You can’t just count on intuition when you’re out there, dehydrated and sleep-deprived.”

Katie made several changes while preparing for this year’s race. She pared down her equipment and rid herself of heavy items that slowed her down. But more importantly, she enlisted her mother, Mary Jo, as her ground crew.

A 340-mile float trip offers many challenges. Paddlers must navigate sand bars, wing dikes, bridge pilings, other boaters and barges. During this year’s event, one tandem team collided with a barge that was headed upriver. While neither paddler was injured, their kayak was destroyed.

Sunset on the Missouri is a magical time for racers. As day gives way to night, temperatures become more comfortable for paddling.

Racers must overcome heat, humidity, fog and storms. They must withstand mosquitoes, biting flies and other insects. Some may even have to dodge flying carp.

The trip takes a physical toll. Hands become blistered and refuse to take any shape other than that of the paddle you’ve gripped for hours. Skin burns, muscles cramp and joints ache.

But beyond physical stresses, racers must also deal with mental fatigue. For much of the race, paddlers can be alone on the river, left only to their thoughts. As sleep deprivation takes hold, so too can hallucinations.

“I don’t know if everybody does this, but I start seeing people,” Chuck says. “I’ll see a kayaker, but as you get closer, it turns out to be a stick or something.”

Through all of these trials, the racers also experience the Missouri River like few do. Spending extended time on the river, they see places that still feel as wild and untamed as when Lewis and Clark journeyed west.

“The landscapes are big and the scenery is so beautiful,” says Di McHenry, 51, Chuck’s wife who competed with Natalie Courson, 31, of St. Peters in the women’s tandem. “It’s the limestone bluffs, it’s the farmland. It’s so Midwest. I love that.”

Dotting the river’s natural beauty are the many river towns that have welcomed the Missouri River 340 into their communities.

“The community involvement has been great,” Scott says. “This year, the Boy Scout troop at Waverly prepared a cookout for the racers and crews the first evening, and other towns also had events. I really see this becoming a yearly paddling festival that communities can build some activities around at their boat ramps.”

In the end, the boat ramp that all the paddlers craved to see most was the one in St. Charles. Of the 76 boats that began this year, 61 completed the 340-mile course. Times ranged from 44 hours, 27 minutes for the first team to 97 hours, 6 minutes for the final paddlers.

Despite his injury, Chuck continued on and completed the race in 57 hours, 14 minutes, placing fourth in the men’s solo division. “I almost pulled out at Washington,” Chuck says. “I was so discouraged. I was beat down and tired of the pain. If not for my support, I probably wouldn’t have finished. One of my goals was to be the first Missourian across the line. I thought that was worth doing, so I stayed with it.”

Katie Pfefferkorn, a 22-year-old college student from Chaffee, has competed in the Missouri River 340 twice.

Feeding off the pace set by veteran racer Erin Magee of Martindale, Texas, Katie shocked many by cutting nearly 40 hours from her 2006 time, completing the race in 58 hours, 57 minutes and finishing second in the women’s solo division.

At one point in the middle of the race, however, Katie actually passed Erin, who had stopped at Miami to catch some sleep.

“I was really glad to see someone like Erin come out for this race, and I hope she enjoyed it,” Katie says. “It was inspiring to see her out there, but I couldn’t let her go back to Texas telling people that Missouri races were easy. I’m just thrilled that I was even moderately close to her, so call it a win in my book.”

Scott says that people already are inquiring about participating in next year’s race or volunteering to help at checkpoints.

“We need a good sponsor to really do everything we want to do, but I think 100 boats sounds reasonable for next year,” he says. “With cooperation from the agencies involved, this can really become a huge event for Missouri and a huge event for the Missouri River.”

Interested in paddling the Missouri River? Visit the Lewis and Clark Water Trail at For more information on the Missouri River 340, go to or contact Scott Mansker at (913) 244-4666.

Chuck McHenry of Ironton paddles past the state Capitol in Jefferson City. Despite injuring himself, the 56-year-old McHenry still was the first Missourian to finish the Missouri River 340.
Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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