By Phil White

With water flowing fast and pushing flood levels all summer, Missouri American Water MR 340 organizer Scott Mansker was doubtful that this year’s 340-mile heartland odyssey from Kansas City to St. Louis could even happen. The planned start date in July was out, with the Army Corps of Engineers breaking levies to reduce the river level, though Mansker created the first 100-mile Kawnivore race down the Kansas River later that month to keep the race’s fanatical competitors paddling. But the MR 340 faithful still pushed Mansker to reschedule their beloved race for later in the year. August and most of September passed with the Missouri still raging, but in the final week of September, the waters subsided enough to make racing safe again.

On October 11, 105 boats lined up like a makeshift military flotilla along the now-calm river in Kansas City, Mo. It was unusual for returning competitors to start off in more temperate, 65-degree conditions; temperatures for the MR 340 typically soar into the 90s and often break triple digits. However, the weather soon turned.

“We had an incredible storm Wednesday night with hail and heavy rain that knocked many paddlers out of the race,” Mansker said.

Thankfully, the ever-fickle Midwest skies soon cleared.

“After the storm, we had incredible weather with a nice tailwind,” Mansker continued. “The moon rose exactly as the sun went down and made night-paddling easy. Most paddlers were prepared for the cold and the extra four hours of darkness.”

In the men’s solo, last year’s mixed tandem winner West Hansen (who, with David Kelly, completed the 2010 event in a course record) was the pre-race favorite, but dropped out early. Matt Dressler took the early lead, with Glenn Phaup, a third-year MR 340 entrant and resident of Ashland, Mo., in pursuit. Phaup caught Dressler at Jefferson City, but as the two were side by side, he realized that something was wrong. “Matt was really sick, and wasn’t paddling as he normally would,” Phaup said. “I got out the boat for about half an hour to make sure he was OK before I started racing again.”

Despite taking time out, Phaup was still in the lead. However, his ground crew soon let him know that he wasn’t home free, and that with 115 miles still to go, his friend Joe Zellner was closing fast. “I know Joe’s a faster paddler than me, but I stuck to my game plan of keeping a steady pace rather than trying to sprint ahead,” Phaup said.

His tactics proved wise as he crossed the line first in 43 hours, 6 minutes, with Zellner coming home in 44:10.

In the women’s tandem category, the Kawnivore winning pair of Di McHenry and Katie Pfefferkorn again set the pace, and retained their lead throughout the race, finishing in a course record 44:36.

“Di and I worked hard but the mood was lighthearted,” Pfefferkorn said. “Happiness came in the form of crackers that were still dry and crunchy!”

In the women’s solo, Traci-Lynn Martin won in 65:48, with Bunny Ryba second in 79:50. Michael VanDeever and Andrew Condie topped the podium in the men’s tandem with a time of 38:12 and in the mixed tandem, Brigitte and Mark Scott beat all comers in 55:49. And there was a new category this year: standup paddling. The lone SUP athlete, Shane Perrin of St. Louis, crossed the line in 66:39, good for 38th place overall.

If conditions allow, and the MR340 is held in July 2012 rather than later in the year, the number of boats will likely exceed the 400 that were originally entered before this year’s delays. Regardless of how many paddlers there are, the event will always be more than just a race for its participants.

“Doing the MR 340 is not only an immense adventure but is also a means of keeping in touch with a rich paddling community made up of growing families, stand-out athletes, excited newbies, returning veterans, and warmhearted volunteers standing in the rain in the middle of the night,” Pfefferkorn said.