It is not required that you paddle at night to finish this race. However, you'd have to be making very good time during daylight hours in order to lay over during the 8 hours of darkness each day.
If the thought of paddling at night on the Missouri River makes you nervous, congratulations! You're sane. But with some preparation it can be a very rewarding and wonderful part of your race. For many, it's among the best moments they take away from the week.
Ideally, you'll get a chance in your training to try a night run. This is best done with a partner or multiple boats. If you organize such a trip, post it on the forum and you'll likely get lots of folks who join you.
If you live out of the region and can't do a practice run, don't worry. And keep reading.
When the race begins on Tuesday, July 23rd many paddlers will be on the Missouri for the very first time. Probably not an exaggeration to say that at least half will be brand new to the river. And that's ok. It's not what you would call a "technical" river. The first 5 miles are probably the most technical only in that there are things to steer around and boats crowded around you. But after that, it's pretty sedate. A lot like paddling on a lake. However, there are some things to be aware of on the river, day or night. Let's list these out and break them down.
These are jettys of rock that extend from shore to maybe a quarter of the way into the river... one side or the other... all the way to St. Charles. They are there to keep the water swift and deep. That's a good thing. Especially in a dry year. After about 10 miles you'll know about all you need to know about wing dikes. And that will serve you well when it gets dark. And there are other obstacles to note on your way to sunset.
There are navigation buoys in the water. Not everywhere but you'll probably pass 150 or so on your way to St. Charles. These are large steel cylinders, some red, some green, anchored to huge concrete blocks on the river bottom. These should be avoided as they sometimes float or dance erratically if debris is stuck to their cables beneath the surface. Give them some room.
We go under a bunch of bridges the first morning. After that, they are rare. But if you paddle at night, you'll likely go under at least one in the dark, especially near a checkpoint. You should stay in the middle of a span and avoid getting close to the piers. Driftwood can stack up against them just under the surface. Very hard to see at night. Stay in the middle of the channel span, lit by a green light or green reflector, and you'll have no trouble.
Barges and Dredges:
Dredges mine sand from the river and are usually anchored midstream. There are cables that stretch way out ahead of them and these can rise and sink quickly. You don't want to be near a dredge. But that's like saying you don't want to be near a killer tortoise. It ain't going to hunt you down...you'd have to get close to be in trouble. Plenty of room to avoid these.
Towboats push barges up and down the river. And also ferry sand and empties back and forth from dredges. Be aware of this and stay out of their way. Barges parked along shore are also dangerous. You don't want to get pinned against one by the current. But again, this falls under the killer tortoise category. We'll go into more detail about barges, moving and parked, in a subsequent dispatch.
So, that's a pretty good list of things you could encounter at night. But there is 100% certainty you'll encounter all of those things on day 1. You'll have about 13 hours of good daylight to get used to how to navigate around such obstacles. Then, when it gets dark, you'll have a pretty good handle on what's around you.
Pay attention to the noise that water makes as it goes around wing dikes and buoys, or any fixed obstacle for that matter. The river is generally pretty silent. Amazing to witness hundreds of thousands of gallons moving that fast without a sound. But it can get pretty noisy around a fixed object. And that will help you a bunch at night.
First thing to remember... it doesn't just suddenly get dark. It's a process and you'll have time to adjust. Another thing to remember, you likely won't be alone. With 300+ boats out there, you'll be with a group as darkness falls. Travelling with a group at night is highly recommended. For one thing, you always paddle faster with a group. Whether you're drafting or not, there's just an energy in a group and everyone keeps everyone else's spirits high. Time goes quicker as you talk through the night. But more importantly, you have multiple eyes and ears paying attention to the river and navigation.
As you start to get tired after a Day 1 that probably started for you at 4am, your alertness starts to flag. That's why a group is so important. You're talking and interacting so you stay alert, AND you've got other paddlers paying attention so that if you're in a slump you've got someone else to pick up your slack.
Remember, you're on the same river you've been on all day. The wing dike pattern is consistent. The noises are the same... and if anything, at night they seem louder. Your job is to make easy miles in the cooler temperatures under the full moon and the stars. Stay in the middle as there's rarely anything other than buoys out there. You should have a good, strong handheld light aboard that you can pick up and flip on easily if there's something ahead you want to light up. There are incredibly powerful, inexpensive LED flashlights now that are wonderful out there. When this race started in 2006, lights this powerful cost $100 easy. Now, you can pick up a very strong LED light for $25 at Wal-Mart or numerous other places. Some folks will mount one or two of these on the bow of their boat, turn them on at sunset and they will run all night. Also good, as I mentioned, to have one in your lap or nearby for quick sweeps of the river.
Another good reason for paddling with a group is that your eyes can play tricks on you out there. I remember one year... it had to be 2007 or 2008, I was making a night run downstream of Jeff City during the race. I was by myself in my safety boat and very tired as this was night 3 and I had very little sleep. Up ahead I saw what I thought was the front end of a barge lit up. I slowed and sort of hovered midstream. I couldn't get my eyes to see anything but what I thought was the raked bow of a barge with a solitary light on top. I kept creeping forward a little at a time, ready to bail out right or left once I could tell what I was seeing. After 20 difficult minutes of this, I got close enough to realize it was a light on shore. But the illusion, partially of the lights on the water and partially my sleep deprived mind, led me to think it might be a barge. Had I been with others, someone may have pointed out the shore light and the game it was playing with me. But I was alone.
Another thing to factor into your decision whether to paddle on or not is the water level. As of this post, all signs point to slightly below normal water levels. There are blessings in that forecast. At normal or below normal levels, you will have countless options for places to pull off the river safely and sleep. Miles of shoreline and hundreds of sandy beaches between KC and St. Charles. So, the decision to push on another mile or two or ten or fifteen is filled with options for rest, just around the bend. But in a high water year when you leave a checkpoint, you're more or less committing to the next one. Or a night spent on a steep, muddy bank in the bug filled treeline. Unpleasant.
Having lowish water also means more reaction time for avoiding any obstacles you may find in your path. You'll hear veteran racers complain about low water... but if you're new to the Missouri River, it's a blessing. Especially on your first night.
One thing to watch for while night paddling is fog. Fog on the river can come up quick and can be very disorienting and very dangerous. Some foolhardy paddlers will continue on, using their GPS map to try and stay in the middle of the river. But this is a poor decision as the GPS can sometimes be inaccurate and will NOT tell you if there's a barge or other man made obstacle in your way. If fog starts to build, get off the river. What's the worst thing that will happen if you beach your boat for a few hours? You'll just get some much needed sleep which will allow you to travel farther, faster during the fog free hours. Do yourself and your family a favor and stay off the water if fog develops.
Traveling on the river at night is one of my most favorite things. I've been doing it for 24 years now and look forward to it every single time. Like any endeavor, there are ways to minimize risk and make it a safe and fun experience. And there's an advantage to be gained by paddling during the cool hours of night and resting during the beastly hot hours in the afternoon.
So, as darkness falls on night 1, pledge your allegiance to a pod of paddlers as they race toward the dawn. Take it slow and keep your eyes and ears alert. Enjoy the moon and the company. Maybe I will see you out there!