Every spring, the Missouri Whitewater Association hosts a slalom event on the St. Francis River in Missouri. In kayak (or canoe) slalom, boaters race downriver through ‘gates’, which are really sets of two poles hung from wires strung above the water. Green striped gates should be paddled through heading downstream. Red striped gates have to be passed heading upstream. Racers are timed from start to finish. Missing a gate entirely incurs a 50-second penalty; each pole touched adds a 5-second penalty.
I don’t remember how Mandy heard about the MWA Whitewater Championships, but she wanted to try it. We’d never been to the St. Francis before. Bryan and I, always suckers for a good road trip, were agreeable.
Since none of us had any idea how kayak slalom worked, we thought it might be a good idea to go up the weekend before and volunteer to help hang the wires and the gates and look at the course and try to figure it out. We took the afternoon off work and drove up on Friday, with a stop in Conway to borrow a more appropriate boat from our friends Cowper and Debbie. After a good night spent in the nearby Silver Mine campground, Bryan and Mandy spent most of the day Saturday helping hang wires and orange string across the river.
Hayduke and I hiked up and down the trail next to the river. It’s a beautiful area. The ‘Shut Ins’ are really pretty pinkish granitic rocks shot through with black diabase intrusions from some long-ago volcanic activity. The superimposed drainages in the area, after cutting through the soft sedimentary rocks above, were constricted by the much harder granitic rock, forming the deep, closed-in ‘shut ins.’ The smooth, curvy boulders next to the river made a perfect seat for me, stretched out on the cool rock with the dog, watching the boaters in the water.
After the wires were strung across the river and a handful of practice gates were hung from them, one of the experienced local paddlers led an informal slalom clinic. As we’d hoped, this wasn’t anything more than a group of people talking about how to use the current to slice in and out of the slalom gates. It gave Mandy a chance to watch other paddlers run the gates, and a chance to do it herself in a group of people that would let her play in the water while being safe and asking questions.
At his first opportunity, Hayduke jumped right into the water and swam out to the paddlers. I called for him to come back, and he did, but not before trying the gates for himself. He had to stay on leash, then, until the Saturday-night volunteer party at the group campsite. The party consisted of a lot of people standing in the dark, next to a large blowlog and a keg of cheap beer, but we managed to have some excellent conversations with new friends. Sunday’s drive home in the pouring rain wasn’t the best part of the weekend, but we made it home safely.
Mandy spent the whole next week daydreaming about kayak slalom. She watched videos and fiddled with the borrowed Dancer, trying to get the hip pads and the foot braces to fit her better. She had me print “CRASH” in large yellow letters on the back of her helmet. We took the boat to the UALR pool for our regular Wednesday-night practice session and she spent an hour or so slicing through the water, practicing sharp turns and rolls. She was excited and nervous. Cowper predicted that she’d finish in the top 1% of paddlers who’d never seen a slalom race before. I think that made her feel a little better.
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Friday morning, we headed to Missouri again. To her credit, Mandy did not waste daylight. She did schoolwork in the car, and as soon as we got to the river, she was in her drysuit and in the water. She practiced running the gates with groups of people she’d never met, and didn’t get out of the water until dusk. Our group campsite collected the other Arkansas paddlers who’d come up to race or help with safety or just watch the races. Steve and Doug and Michelle were there, along with Clay and Amy, and we all went to the Mexican place in Fredericktown for supper. Jason pulled in after we’d all gone to bed. Finally, around two, we heard Cole and Chris pull in, which meant that Debbie had arrived safely as well, and that Cowper had made it in from New Orleans.
Crash and I were up again just after dawn for three early-morning practice runs. Between her races, she hopped around visiting friends on the rocks, wearing her blue drysuit and her race bib. I met her at the bottom of each run, to help carry the boat up the steep rocky trail and along the half-mile path back to the start. Each time, we’d stop to rest and check the scores printed and stapled to a board outside the scorekeepers’ tent. Mandy placed second in the novice womens’ class, and second in the womens’ junior class. At the end of the day, tired from seven runs through the slalom course, she won first place in her class in the four-mile downriver sprint.
It rained almost all night, and Mandy’s tent became a puddle. Poor Bryan’s cold had taken a turn for the worse. It was chilly and windy and still raining, and some of the Arkansas boaters packed up and headed home. We met Chris and Cole in the pavilion to get new bibs and drink Red Bull and get ready for Sunday’s classes. Two good runs later, I met Mandy at the bottom of the course and traded a granola bar for her bib so that she could paddle on downstream with Cowper and Chris while I turned in her stuff at the pavilion. The river was rising fast by the time they got to the Hwy D bridge takeout, where we were waiting in the cars, eating salami sandwiches and reorganizing wet gear. We dried the boaters off and tucked them into the cars and ate lunch together in Fredericktown before everyone headed home.
That was last weekend. All the gear’s cleaned up and dried out and put away. Bryan’s cold is better, finally, and I’ve caught up on lost sleep. Cowper and Chris are both angling for repeat trips to the St. Francis. Mandy wore her purple MWA t-shirt to school today, and her medals were in the mailbox when she got home: two second-place medals and a first. She’s awfully proud of them, and I’m proud of her. She and her medals clanked around the house all evening, and I didn’t say a word.