Dispatch 2 [2016]

05/11/16 AT 15:49:24

Welcome to May. 

It's paddling season.  Or at least get off your butt season.  Hopefully, you've got some fitness goals you're working on to get ready for the 340.  Lots of early season racing going on if you check the Alpine Shop Race Calendar here:

If you've got your pre-340 fitness plan underway, good for you!  You've probably already seen the positive effects of building your core strength through paddling, push ups, pull ups, weights, etc. 

But it's tough to beat miles in the boat for toughening your hands and butt and brain for what's ahead.  Try to schedule some races or extended training runs between now and the race.  You don't have to go do 100 miles.  But some good 40-50 mile runs will help you figure out what kind of boat rigging you'll want, what kind of food/fuel works, what kind of seat padding/clothing is agreeable, etc.

A great resource for this planning is book written by some paddlers a few years back.  It's available on Amazon in either electronic or paperback form.

It's called MR340 First Time Paddler.  This book is fun to read and will shorten your learning curve if this is your first 340.  All proceeds go to support Missouri River Relief.

While you're waiting for your book to arrive...or download... let's talk about the folks you'll be sharing the river with come July.

Barges, Dredges and Motor Boats.

The Missouri River is a working river.  There is commerce and recreation happening on the river 24 hours/day.  And while there is plenty of room for everyone, it's important to understand how it all works...or is supposed to work.

Barge traffic on the Missouri is sparse but when you see a barge heading your way, it won't seem sparse at all.  A barge can seem like it takes up the entire river.  But once you've passed one, you'll understand there is plenty of river where he CANNOT go and almost no place you CANNOT go so that gives you lots of options.

First, let's define what is commonly referred to as a "barge."  This is actually a towboat or "tow" pushing 1-4 barges in our neck of the woods.  It's easier to just say barge but it could also be referred to as a tow.

These typically travel day and night but during the week of the race they usually lay over after dark for you.  But you cannot rely on this being the case and must be prepared and wary that a barge you spot ahead at night may be active. 

Obviously, you would want no part of a collision with these massive things.  But even without a collision, a barge can be a disruption due to their sometimes enormous wakes they leave behind.

All that said, while a barge can seem intimidating the first time you transit one, after you understand how it all works a successful transit can be a nice respite from the monotony of paddling hours on end.  A typical transit, from the time you spot the barge to the time the wake subsides behind you might take up to an hour.  And that might be the most exciting, butt puckering hour you experience the entire day.  So savor it.

First we must introduce the idea of the navigation channel.  There is a maintained and fairly well marked navigation channel on the Missouri River.  This is a deep and fast path designed for barges and other motorized boats to safely travel the sometimes shallow and shifting Missouri.  This channel is marked with signage on shore.  You'll see hundreds of these during the race.  The have symbols and colors on both sides and also a mile marker showing exactly where you are along the course. 

To be a smart paddler you obviously want to stay in the fastest water so that cumulatively, you're racking up maximum mph while following our advice to stay in the boat.  To do this you would place yourself in the navigation channel (which is a huge portion of the width of the river) and do your best to follow the gradual arcs of this channel as you make your way through bend after bend. 

Markers will be green on your right and red on your left as you move downstream.  Markers will be either solid red, solid green, checked red and white or checked green and white.  Confused?  Don't be.  It's really pretty slick system and will be second nature by the afternoon of day 1.

The markers are always on the channel side of the river.  You can see one at the very tip of Kaw Point where we start the race.  That means the channel (fastest, deepest water) is on the Kaw Point side of the river at that spot.  But there are hundreds of times where the channel switches to the other side.  These signs will tell you when that is happening. 

As you pass a sign, glance at the back side.  That's where the crucial data is.  If the back side is solid, it means stay on this side.  If the back side is checkered, it means you are at a crossing.  You can look at the angle the checkered sign is pointed and almost perfectly imagine a line crossing the river and pointing at another checkered sign (opposite color) downstream.  This won't be anywhere near a 90 degree turn but instead a more gradual crossing that might be up to a mile!  This doesn't mean you crank hard to the other side, it just means you start slowly meandering that way, pointing roughly in the direction of the downstream marker if you can see it. 

If you can't see it, don't worry, you will soon enough.  Just trust the crossing sign and start heading over. 

This helps some people.  Think of the river as a 5 lane highway.  You'll only use lanes 1 and 5 when landing or launching.  You'll spend most of your time in lanes 2, 3 and 4.  So if you're in lane 4 and you see a green crossing sign on your right, you'll start angling toward the downstream (red) checkered sign on your left (and up to mile away!) and you'll end up in lane 2 by the time you get there. 

Lanes 1 and 5 will often be impassable due to wing dikes (rock structures built into the river to channel flow and maintain the navigation channel)  These structures are usually on the non-channel side.  You'll see these by the ripples they create on the surface of the water.  Wing dikes are handy as slack water areas.  Because they are slack water, you don't want to paddle there routinely because the water is slow!  So you will use the navigation aids on shore to avoid these. 

Now, what does this have to do with barge traffic?  Because the barges are huge and draft up to 9 feet of water (meaning some may need 9 feet of depth just to move) they HAVE to stay in this navigation channel.  You, on the other hand, do NOT.  You can paddle in 1 foot of water if you have to.  So, if you see a barge coming upstream towards you or downstream behind you, you need to exit the navigation channel. 

And more than that, you'll need to calculate where you and barge will intersect so that you are avoiding his path when you meet.  So if you see him a half mile downstream, figure where he needs to be as you pass, then make sure you're not there. 

If you really want to get simple... and believe me, simple is good out there... just get out of the navigation channel when you see a barge.  And stay out until you've passed.  You can still keep paddling downstream.  You'll just have to yield that fast, deep water to him and you can make do with the shallow, slightly slower water. 

A common mistake is to move out of channel and keep paddling in the off channel water... but you've ignored the fact that it's a crossing and so your off-channel side is slowly becoming the channel side.  And so even though you may be on opposite sides of the river now, your side is slowly becoming the channel side and so he is steering right towards you. 

The captains of these boats just like for you to be consistent and not make sudden, radical, last second decisions.  It is very difficult for them to stop these boats or to make quick course changes. 

I don't want this to be source of anxiety as you prepare.  It's really not rocket science.  It's just barge science.  Which on the totem pole hierarchy of science difficulty, is well below rocket science.  No offense to all you barge scientists. 

So, once you've decided which side of the river to pass the barge, you'll next assess the size of the wake being produced.  If it's a heavy load being pushed upstream, the wake can be substantial and may be more than you want to deal with.  If it's a light load or a moderate load moving downstream, the wake might be easy and even fun.  It's a personal decision based on your paddling skill and boat.  But if the wake is crazy high, it might not be a bad idea to just pull behind a wing dam and wait for things to calm down. 

Getting behind a wing dam or pulling to shore on the non channel side is not necessarily time wasted.  You can do things while you wait that are valuable like stretch, apply sunscreen, fix rigging, etc.  But flipping your boat over in a barge wake is NOT fun and will end up costing you far more time (and lost gear if you haven't secured your boat)

For your reference on an average year we probably pass 3 barges.  That's one every 113 miles.  It's not a common thing and is usually anticlimactic.  For those who have paddled the Missouri or other commercial rivers, you understand the dynamic.  For those who have not, you will get it figured out after 20 miles of using the navigation aids. 


Dredges are usually parked midstream and are harvesting sand from the river bottom.  They stay in place, night and day, and we'll probably pass 4 dredges during the race.  Maybe 5.

Dredges in the daytime:

These can be busy hubs of activity.  There's the dredge itself, which looks a bit like a towboat with some sort of giant rusty chainsaw mounted on front.  Then there's the sand barge parked alongside that is slowly being filled with sand.  THEN there is the small towboat that is carrying an empty sand barge to replace the full one so he can take the full one to shore for further processing.  Whew!

Obviously, you want to miss the dredge itself.  Easy enough in the daylight.  Be aware that it usually has some cables that feed out the front and down into the water.  Miss these too while you're at it. 

But besides missing the dredge, you'll want to stay away from the towboat running back and forth every 40 minutes or so.  Again, this is just an awareness thing.  He'll be watching for you and expecting you to be consistent in your steering.  Plenty of rooms for all parties to do their thing. 

Dredges at night:

The good news is the dredges usually keep a 7am to 5pm kind of schedule.  So after 5pm they're pretty easy to pass.  But once it gets dark you'll want to be extra vigilant.  Because they just leave them parked in the river all night.  They are supposed to have a light on both ends but this can vary.  A light can burn out or it can be so dim it's confused with moonlight on the water or another canoe stern.  So keep your eyes open and pay attention with your ears as well.  You'll hear water rushing around the bow of a dredge a good distance before you could see it in the dark. 

This is the same as with a barge parked along shore at night.  They are sometimes not lit very well or even at all.  It would be dangerous to get pinned between the current and a parked dredge or barge.  The danger is the current could force you and your boat under the object.  This is a very unlikely scenario of paddling in good conditions (no fog) under a moon (not a rainstorm) during the 340.  Usually, you can see everything pretty well. 

You're required to carry a hand held, strong flashlight.  This will allow you to occasionally sweep the river ahead for obstacles if visibility is poor.  You do not need to keep it on for more than a few seconds.  Just sweep the river ahead.  Turn it off.  Paddle another quarter mile and repeat.  But with the moon up and no fog, you would rarely need it. 

Only a fool paddles in fog and we will address that in another dispatch. 

Other Motor Craft:

You will see many fishermen and other motorboats on the water.  Never assume they can see you and be ready to get their attention if you don't think they have spotted you.  There are fishermen who run lines at night and know the river in the dark.  But they may not know you're out there.  Make sure your nav lights are bright and functioning.  Make sure you have your flashlight handy to signal your presence if needed.  Do not paddle in fog as you will be invisible with low fog while they may be able to see just fine from their position 5 feet up... but you'll just be a log they thought they hit.

Well, there you have it.  A quick lesson on how not to get crushed, pinned, run over or chopped to shreds.  Common sense is always the best choice.  Paddling the Missouri is very safe and enjoyable.  Interstate 70 is far more dangerous.  You just have to remain alert and think ahead a few steps. 

We will leave it there for this dispatch.  Please check the roster and make sure your boat number and other information is correct.  And if you're still missing a partner please get them to sign up by May 15th so we can move forward with planning. 

More to come soon.


© 2024 Missouri River Relief. All Rights Reserved. Website design and development by Pixel Jam Digital.