By Michael Gordon
This past Memorial weekend, 156 people from 13 states gathered kayaks, canoes and a single SUP in Yankton South Dakota for the annual South Dakota Challenge, a one day, 72 mile race along the Missouri River to Sioux City. I was curious as to what, exactly, was the draw to paddling so far, and so fast, for an entire day, so I decided to check it out.
Before the event, talk naturally turns to the weather, which I was told was reliably unpredictable in the area. Everyone still seems to dread the 40 mile-per-hour winds that had repeatedly plagued racers of year’s past, except for one naïve first year racer, who actually tells me he hopes there will be wind. “I do good in the wind,” he tells me. “I’m hoping for wind.” I hope he’s wrong.
Early the next morning, the weather’s perfect. The time passes quickly, and before sunrise, the honor guards stand tall with flags raised high, ready to start the race. The moment of silence is broken with a single rifle shot, signaling all 156 racers to slide into the water. They don’t really know what to expect on this year’s course though. The Missouri River is significantly different than prior years. New channels in the river twist through a maze of sand bars and dead ends, carved by the floodwater that cancelled last year’s race. As the racers navigate down the channels, they constantly have to evaluate if the most direct routes actually have enough water to paddle through. “You’ve got to take risks to see any reward,” says racers Andrew Stephenson and Kevin Murphey, who would place first in the Adventure Tandem class, despite having to walk their kayak over a shortcut turned sandbar.
There are four checkpoints on the course. Steven Dahlmeier, a sleepless race organizer runs on the buzz from, “watching racers come through the checkpoints,” he tells me. I also feel the excitement of the racers as I cheer from shore with a broken thumb, balancing a camera with my good hand. Instead of racing, I join the volunteers, and countless friends and family who refuel and encourage their loved ones. A typical checkpoint stop involves teams swapping water bottles, stretching their legs, and ingesting electrolytes in various forms and flavors. One team brings a support canoe to create a floating resupply station to speed up the process. The winner of this year’s race didn’t stop at all.
As checkpoint three rolls past, racers start paddling at a rate agreeable with their bodies. This shows how persuasive the mind is in encouraging the body to continue. If you can maintain this all day, and pack as many calories into your mouth as possible, you might finish, I’m told.
The excitement picks up again as the Missouri joins with the Big Sioux River, which muddies river left with silt laden water. The racer’s can see the finish line, but their excitement and anxieties grow as boat traffic zips across the water. This is a real danger for low riding canoes and kayaks not prepared for the large wakes. Only 100 feet from the finish line, this fear is confirmed as I watch a motorboat runs full throttle in front of a low riding canoe, almost capsizing it. Besides this incident, volunteers are able relax, watching the horizon for oncoming crafts which appear no larger than dots. The racers continue to finish the course well into the night. With every arriving headlamp, cheers erupt from volunteers and patrons of the riverside bar, who support us until closing time. The just-arrived warriors are high spirited, as their bodies shudder to a stop after a full day of paddling.
Joe Zellner of Grand Marais Minnesota is the first person to cross the finish line with a time of 8 hours and 50 minutes. Joe admits that when he stood on dry land, he almost lost consciousness; his body calling it quits after smashing the course record by an hour. Although most of the participants do not race with the same fever as Joe, everyone takes home a sense of accomplishment and a drybag full of memories. Jarett Bies, the event organizer, reflects on the day: “We are grateful beyond words for the growth and success of the South Dakota Challenge,” he says. “It’s an event that holds strong to its roots in community, paddling, and the wonder of the Missouri River.” Watching the last headlamps cross the finish line deep into the night, I couldn’t agree more.