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.
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.
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.