Lessons Learned about Cold Water Paddling on the Missouri River

Note from Missouri River Relief staff – As spring kicks in, we have some beautiful days on the Missouri River. It’s important to remember, even though the air temperature might be in the 70’s, that the water temperature is often much colder. This story is a reminder of how this can play out on a spring paddle on the Missouri River.

by Paddler Linda Bennett, March 2023 (edits by MRR staff)

In the spring of 2022, my partner and I were training for the MR340 under the guidance of two former MR340 participants and learned that we were not as prepared as we should have been. As a result, my partner and I capsized in the river and experienced a life-threatening situation. This post provides information and resources for spring paddling on the MO River so you can learn from our experience and prepare for the unexpected.

My friend Cinda Eichler wrote a report on this incident last year. It also has tons of great info and you should read it too!

Before you decide to embark on a spring kayaking adventure or training on the MO River, always check out sources such as your local weather forecast (here’s the link for the Jeff City National Weather Service forecast – you can search any location and bookmark it – or use your favorite app). Also review the Missouri River stage forecast AND the water temperature. USGS publishes real-time water temps for the Missouri River at the Hermann and St. Joseph gages.  Study the conditions before you get on the water and how the conditions might change during the day.

Dress for the Water Temperature

Assume that you will capsize and dress for immersion into the water, not just the weather. That is, select your clothing based on the water temperature. For example, if the water temperature is below 60 degrees, a drysuit is recommended. A wetsuit is recommended for water temperatures of 60-70. While wearing a drysuit or wetsuit may not be your choice, make an informed decision on what to wear. These pieces of lifesaving equipment are very expensive, so keep an eye out for deals. It's an investment in your safety. 

On the day we kayaked, the air temperature was 70 degrees and the water temperature was 46 degrees. When we capsized, we were immersed in the river for 20 minutes. No one in our group was wearing attire for the extremely cold-water temperature of 46 degrees. At that temperature, exhaustion and unconsciousness can occur in 30-60 minutes. We were lucky.


Hypothermia is deadly. Moderate hypothermia is an internal body temperature of 82-90 degrees Fahrenheit. Lower than 82 degrees is considered “severe” and is very difficult to recover from. The EMS team said my body temperature was around 82 when I arrived at the ambulance and 85 at the hospital. I appreciate everyone that assisted in warming up my body and having access to the Bair Hugger Normothermia System.

It should also be said that it doesn’t have to be extremely cold out for you to suffer from hypothermia. In fact, during almost every MR340 there are participants that suffer from hypothermia. Exhaustion and dehydration combined with being wet at night can kick hypothermia into gear.

Lessons Learned

We were grateful that we were wearing our PFD vests. Pack a drybag with other gear such as an emergency mylar blanket, whistle, cell phone, extra clothing (bring it with you!), rain gear, first aid kit, a fire starting kit, duct tape, and throw rope are a few of the items to secure to your PFD or kayak. PFDs and other safety gear do save lives!

Being physically prepared to kayak the MO River in any weather can make all the difference when you capsize. Hydration, nutrition, body mass, fitness level, exertion, fatigue, and other physical factors contribute to an individual's success in an emergency. Know your body and take precautions.

In our case, we encountered very large barge wakes and strong cross winds. My physical fitness is at the top 10% for my age and gender which contributed to my ability to get to the sandbar. Yet, exertion while swimming in cold water increased the risk of hypothermia. I have a low body mass index (BMI) which makes me more susceptible to hypothermia. I was dehydrated at the hospital, so my nutrition and hydration levels were exhausted. My physical fitness, hydration, nutrition, and skills were factors in the outcome.

Also – you really need to practice self-rescue before you are forced to do it. Practice getting back in your boat midstream. Unlike on a smaller river, you’re not going to be able to stand on the riverbed of the Missouri River if you capsize. In cold water, it makes everything more difficult including self-rescue AND swimming to shore.

Prior to kayaking the river, paddlers should prepare for the hazards you will encounter such as rock dikes, sandbars, silver carp, barges, and other natural or manmade issues that are present on the river. Regardless of the season, hazards should be taken seriously. In our case, we capsized in the wake of a barge and our primary defense was problem-solving during the event. We can’t go back to that moment in time, but we can prepare for future “what if” situations.

Maintaining communication prior to kayaking, during the paddle, and in an emergency matter so plan for each. From the moment we realized we were going into the river, we began discussing what to do and worked together to make decisions. In the middle of the event, I was unable to make decisions, but I was able to contribute to getting us and the kayak to the sandbar. While in the water, we were not able to hear the other kayakers on the shore, but they were communicating with emergency services. Again, check out Cinda's post for more details on how they responded. At the end of the day, we were healthy and safe.

I appreciate the opportunity to share my experience with spring kayaking, capsizing and hypothermia. A year of careful reflection went into writing this post and I hope you find our story and the resources helpful while spring kayaking on the MO River.

Resources -

Posted 1/25/23

Thanks to a generous donation from the Rausch family, we are raffling a Necky Kyook kayak and Malone Microsport trailer with all proceeds supporting Missouri River Relief. Tickets are $20 each – buy 5 and get 1 free. The online raffle closes at midnight on Feb 20th. Get all the details and purchase your tickets on our raffle page. Good luck!

Kayak and trailer raffle

Posted 1/24/23

2023 MR340 Hotel Block Info: Kansas City - Hilton Garden Inn – If reserving over the phone, ask for Room Block Name “MR340”. If online, use this link.

St Charles - Ameristar Casino Resort Spa – If reserving over the phone, ask for Room Block “Missouri River 340 Kayak Race 2023”. If online, use Group Code MILH23C here.

Posted 12/16/22

We’ve made some updates to the Required and Recommended Gear lists. We moved extra paddle from required to recommended for soloists, moved rain gear/extra set of dry clothes from recommended to required, and added small waterproof flashlight or chem light attached to PFD to required. Some of these were details mentioned similarly in our 2022 Safety Video, so this is just a tidying up on the actual lists. But please be sure to review all Gear information well ahead of the race!

Posted 12/16/22

Rule #32 pertaining to Ground Crews has been updated. Here is the updated full rule: A Support Crew may assist with procurement of supplies, set up of tents and preparation of meals. They can perform work on the boat to include repairs, cleaning, and resupply while the boat is in water of approximately waist depth or less. Ground Crew may not, in any way, assist with propulsion of the boat. Support interaction with the competitor boat can only occur when the boat is in contact with the shore or in waist-deep water. No support of any kind provided from any type of boat is allowed. This includes verbal interaction, emotional support or cheering via boat. An official MR340 Safety Boat may provide aid to any Racer at discretion of the Safety Boat. There is no penalty if such is needed from a safety boat or fellow paddler to make it safely to the next checkpoint. No “muling” is allowed where a boat is working to assist on an ongoing basis. Swimming or paddling out to assist a boat is not allowed. Throw bags may be used, but a missed throw must be mitigated by the boat via maneuvering NOT by a support team member swimming out. (See Rule #9 concerning littering.) PFD should be worn by all support teams when in moving water.


One month from right now we'll be wrapping up the Monday night mandatory sign in at Kaw Point Park!  That will be Monday, July 19 from noon to 8pm.  Drop in anytime.  Your process should take about a half hour from waiver signing to tshirt pickup.  But there will be other fun things to distract you like SPONSOR TENTS and MERCH TABLES to support Missouri River Relief.  Oh, and the Missouri River will be there with special guest the Kansas River.  As well as lots of cool canoes and kayaks and SUPS all laid out for the race. 

Race staff and volunteers will guide you through and answer questions.  And before you leave, you'll be asked to perform your first Check In of the race.  And volunteers will be there to make sure you did it right and you don't have any questions. 

And you can, if you'd like, leave your boat there for the next day.  Make sure it's off the trail and out of the way and there is no gear, paddles, etc. 

When you leave Kaw Point, you'll feel like you're ready!  And you can, hopefully, get some rest the night before the race.

Here are the latest places we know will have food/beverages for sale by non profits.  Please support them when you can! 

Lexington - Boy Scouts
Waverly - Boy Scouts at both ramps
Miami - Friends of Miami!
Glasgow - Fresh On The Go!
Franklin Island - Trevor Tilton Mortgage (complimentary)
Cooper's Landing - Cooper's Crew
Jeff City - Boy Scout Troop
Hermann - Boy Scout Troop
Klondike - Nature Conservancy
Finish Line - Lewis and Clark Boathouse

Speaking of the finish line!  This year will have a very festive vibe with Terrain Magazine putting on an awards concert Friday night. 

All participants will receive medals (and trophies if top 3) when they finish.  But Friday night the top 3 for each division will be recognized between songs on a stage at the finish line.  So if you're able to stick around as a top 3 finisher, we'd love to have you up on stage with your hardware!  The band will start at about 630 pm Friday night and the first awards break will be at 715.  There will be 4 awards breaks to get all the divisions covered and then the Governor's Cup presentation.  Final boats should land at the finish line around 9pm. 

The boathouse will have food for sale as well as their famous Vodka Lemonades and Margaritas.  Schlafly will be pouring the beer!

So plan to stick around and celebrate!

But first things first!  Let's get you to that finish line.

Many of you are sweating the first cutoff time.  Kaw Point to Waverly is 74 miles  and will require an average speed of 5.69mph for solos (7am start) and 6.17mph for tandems who will start at 8am. 

First, I'll remind all the MR340 history buffs out there that for the first 5 years or so of the race, this is the exact amount of time we allowed solos.  We used to start everyone at 8am and the cutoff was 9am.  It was only after the race grew past 300 boats that we started doing the 7am start which gave solos a bit more time.  So now, we're just taking that hour back. 

It's really tandem boats that have lost an hour.  But tandems are faster, generally, and can carry more stuff and so can make the 74 miles with no stops if that's their strategy and maintain the needed speed. 

Last year only one boat was eliminated by this cutoff time.  It was a 4 person boat.  No solos were eliminated. 

That said the water was fairly high and the temperatures were fairly low.  It was nearly ideal conditions for paddling 74 miles.  So this year we may have a few more eliminations.  But this is certainly a manageable pace if you plan and execute.  Some advice follows!

1. Have a clean start at Kaw Point. 
This doesn't necessarily mean a super fast adrenaline spewing start.  This means a cleeeaaannn start with no tipping over or other silly catastrophes.  Choose a line that doesn't have you clanging around the pack at the confluence and gets you off the Kaw and onto the fast Missouri nice and smooth. 

2. Boat Trimmed and Efficient
Make sure your two or more person boat is trimmed for speed.  Make sure you're traveling as light as possible for your planned stops before Waverly (if any).  Make sure you're not dragging drink tubes or ropes or whatever.  You'll also want to account for possible headwind.  So minimize wind drag.  Probably not a good idea to have a huge college flag waving in the wind at the back of the boat.  Or a giant umbrella hat.

3. Ride the fast water
If you're using one of the MarbleWare apps like ProPaddler or RaceOwl with the river mapping, the fast water line is drawn for you on your screen!  But it's pretty easy to figure out.  Avoid slow water behind wing dikes or on the inside of bends.  And if you're hugging the shore too close the water is slower there.  Stay in the fast water as much as possible.

4. Draft other other boats.
The only drafting rule on the MR340 is you can't draft motorized vessels or vessels not competing in the race.  But you can draft each other!  And there will be such a pack of boats in that first 74 miles that you'd have a hard time not drafting.  Drafting is riding the stern wake, or even the wake coming off the bow of another boat.  Have you watched geese migrating?  Same idea.  The one in front is doing the hardest job.  The ones in back are having the easiest time.  What you'll generally see form as we get out of the bridges just downstream of the start, is a conga line of boats form up.  There will be passing as groups break off to find a faster slot further up the line, but for the most part it becomes a series of lines or pods of racers staying bow to stern or creating V formations like geese and staying as fast and efficient as possible.  This is just the solo boats!  Soon the big, heavy tandems and larger boats will start and begin to catch the solo pack.  Then you'll see solos hopping behind these boats and looking for a little more efficient ride. 

Drafting doesn't always mean you're trying to go faster.  It may mean you're trying to go the same speed you always paddle but doing a little less work.  This will add up over those 74 miles.  So maybe the 74 miles will only "feel" like 64 miles.  Which means you'll have a little kick at the end if you need it. 

5. One Efficient Stop (or less)
If you're a fast racer in a skinny boat, you're likely going to need to stop for supplies somewhere between Kaw Point and Waverly.  If you're in a big aluminum canoe with your buddy, you may be able to efficiently carry what you need to make zero stops point to point.  It all depends on your boat and your strategy.  You probably don't want to overload your efficient hull with a ton of weight.  Makes more sense to stop somewhere and meet your ground crew for fresh stuff.  But if your boat is already heavy and not exactly sleek, maybe it makes more sense to carry the liquids and food you need to make skip stops and just milk that average speed.  I can't tell you where you fall on the spectrum.  That's where training and practice come in.  But if you have a ground crew, you can direct them to be at various ramps "in case" and maybe you don't need them.  You can also dump water overboard if you figure out halfway to Waverly that you brought way too much.  But if you do stop, be efficient.  You're going zero mph.  That kills your average speed pretty quickly.  So get a fast exchange from ground crew.  Being your first stop you should have it planned out ahead of time.  We will need these jugs and this bag of food.  We will hand you our empty jugs and trash....then we're gone!  Back in the current.  Eating in the current.  Peeing while out in the current.  Doing everything you can in a boat that is moving downstream. 

Some stops between Kaw Point and Waverly:
La Benite
Cooley Lake
Ft. Osage

Research these and see what makes sense.  Cooley Lake is the only one on the north side of the river.  The rest are on the south side and fairly easy for your ground crew to leapfrog ahead of you if you need something. 

Another good idea is to make sure your ground crew has a distinctive colored shirt or flag on this first day so that you can spot them at these ramps in a crowd. 

Know your mileage for these ramps so you can do the math on speed.  For example, La Benite is about 15 miles into your 74-mile leg.  So about 20% of the way to Waverly.  You've hopefully used less than 20% of your allotted time.  You should be able to do a quick calculation and see if you're over the mph minimum.  If not you better turn it up.  Because the Reaper is already ahead of you.

The Reaper will creeping along at exactly the pace that the 8am tandem start would have to run in order to just barely make it to Waverly on time.  So for solos, the Reaper won't even have left Kaw Point for an entire HOUR after you've been gone.  You should never see the Reaper if you're a solo!  You get a one-hour head start on her.

The slowest tandems will be seeing the Reaper behind them pretty early on but as they get in a groove and stay efficient they will gain ground on the Reaper.  But she can catch and pass you at a ramp if you linger. 

If the Reaper is ahead of you, you are not out.  Not until she beats you to Waverly.  So catch her and pass her back. 

6. Paddle in Sync 
This only applies to tandem or larger boats, but the most efficient stroke is one where you and your partner are synched up.  The bow sets the pace and the others match up.  Either position can call the switches.  And you can ask the bow to slow down or speed up.  But hopefully you've practiced enough to know the stroke rate that works.  Some teams will use music that has certain beats per minute.  (you can google songs that fit your speed) and they'll play those songs or sing those songs!  But you will know, or quickly learn, your boat's most efficient speed.  It doesn't do any good to try to go faster than this quiet glide.  The quiet glide is what you want.  Without a big noisy bow wake... just a fast, quiet speed that you can do all day and night. 

7. Minimize paddle on the lap syndrome.
This goes for solos and tandems.  And we see it a whole lot at the back of the race.  4 strokes then the paddle is down and your messing with your gps.  3 more strokes and your fiddling with your music.  4 strokes and you're cleaning your sunglasses. 

Look, I get it!  It's hard!  But you can't set the paddle down on the way to Waverly!  Keep her moving!  If you beat the Reaper to Waverly, you WIN!  You'll probably never see the Reaper again!  So dig in and get that 74 miles behind you.  Find that mental grit that gets you there.  Imagine there's a long rope from Kaw Point to Waverly and each stroke is you reaching out and grabbing that rope and pulling Waverly closer to you.  You stop pulling that rope, it's not going to happen. 

8. Talk to yourself.

Stay positive.  Say things like, "I got this."  "This is easy!"  "I feel great"  "I can do this all day"  Say these things out loud!  Play some music that motivates you.  Stay with a group that is smiling and laughing and paddling.  Veterans of the race will tell you... it's 90% a mental game out there.  Maybe more.  If you're spending all of the first day saying how much it sucks and maybe I should quit.... well....?

Last year due to COVID we did the safety training online.  It worked great!  You can watch it at your leisure.  The video will be ready at the two-week mark and will come to you via email.  We like to wait until the two-week mark because then we have a pretty good idea about things like river levels and bridge construction, etc.  So look for it in a couple of weeks!

You are REQUIRED to watch this!  And we will be validating this based on your email account.  Chris Luedke, the man behind the 340Paddler Youtube channel will be producing and narrating the video.  Coming soon!

The online fundraising continues!  Click here to see all the great fundraising for River Relief that has happened so far:  It might take a second to load the paddlers and the amounts raised! 

You can keep fundraising!  There are tiers of prizes.  Everyone has a personal fundraising page sent to you via email when you signed up.  If you're eligible for prizes like the sweatshirt, hats etc, we'll have those bagged for you at the registration table at Kaw Point.  If you've earned a bigger prize like a Llama Rack, they will have a sponsor tent at Kaw Point and can finalize arrangements there for pickup! 

Click here to review the official roster:
Use CTRL-F to find your name or just hunt for it.  Does everything look right?  Has your partner signed up yet?  Is your boat number valid?  It's time to get this stuff figured out! 

We will be in touch a few more times via email in the next 4 weeks.  If you have any questions, we are happy to help.  Thanks and we will see you soon at Kaw Point Park!

The MR340 Team

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