The Missouri Whitewater Championships are returning this weekend to the St. Francis River for the 56th year, bringing together some of the best whitewater kayakers, canoeists, and stand-up paddlers from all over the country.
This year's races are scheduled for March 17-19 at Millstream Gardens Conservation Area and will feature more than 70 paddlers, ranging in age from 16 to 80.
The races are free to attend, making it an excellent opportunity for families to get to know the river and witness some of the best whitewater paddlers in action.
"Spectators won't find a better venue," MWC media guy Scott Swafford said. "The bulk of the races, which are free to attend, happen in the St. Francis River's Tiemann Shut-ins at Millstream Gardens, where steep banks of pink, pre-Cambrian granite not only squeeze the river to form challenging rapids but also give the audience beautiful scenery and perfect perches from which to watch racers navigate the water."
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The Missouri Whitewater Championships consist of four types of races. The first race, the Freddie Carter Memorial Downriver Race, will take place at 4:30 p.m., Friday, March 17. Racers will navigate 2.5 miles of challenging rapids and pools, trying to complete the course as fast as they can. The race ends at the low-water bridge upstream from Route D in the Silver Mines Recreation Area, where a party will take place at 6 p.m. featuring live music.
First up Saturday morning will be the National Anthem Veterans Big Drop Run, at 9 a.m. followed by the slalom races which will run Saturday and Sunday.
The slalom races require paddlers to navigate downstream and upstream gates that course designers will place in the most challenging parts of the river.
New to the event this year is the dodgeball race, which will take place on Saturday afternoon. Spectators and judges will have the opportunity to join in on the fun by lobbing playground balls at expert kayakers navigating the river, trying to tag them out of the race. The boaters are allowed to swat the balls away with their paddles, but any other touch of a ball will put them out of the race.
On Sunday morning, the boatercross race will take place, with three to five boaters in each heat.
Swafford said, racers will push through rapids and rocks simultaneously, free to ram into and flip each other as they struggle upstream and downstream, through and around natural and man-made obstacles, to reach the short-course finish line.
"Whining prohibited," Swafford joked.
The river levels each year dictate the nature of the championships, and boaters know it can change by the day or even the hour.
"At low levels, there are more rocks than water, forcing paddlers to make precise and technical moves to sneak through narrow chutes," Swafford said. "Higher levels can swell the river to Class IV status, requiring difficult strokes through intimidating waves. At any stage, a competitor's ability to read and use the current and eddies to make good time and stay upright is paramount."
To attend the event, spectators can bring their own food and drink or rely on plenty of bargain concessions available on-site, including burgers, brats, burritos, and beverages.
Event organizers said, spectators should remember to dress for the elements and wear shoes/sandals that will help you get across the rocks, which can be slippery if you get near the river.
Millstream Gardens Conservation Area is located south of Highway 72 in Madison County, about 11 miles west of Fredericktown and 11 miles east of Ironton. To access the spectator parking lot, turn left off the access.