Kevin Olson

Kevin Olson of Byrnes Mill navigates the slalom gates during the 2018 Missouri Whitewater Championships. The 52nd annual races are scheduled for March 22-24.

When the Missouri Whitewater Association hosts its 52nd annual Missouri Whitewater Championships at Millstream Gardens Conservation Area beginning March 22, Kevin Olson of Byrnes Mill plans to be there for his 38th year of racing.

Olson, 60, has traveled all over the continent to paddle his kayaks or canoes, but it’s the pink granite-lined shut-ins of the upper St. Francis River that he knows like home.

“It’s a beautiful area. Most people enjoy the outdoors there as much as the racing. I worked with the design of the course and have been on the race committee,” Olson said. “I used to race in Arkansas and Wisconsin and even in South Bend, Ind., on one of the first artificial whitewater courses.”

He was planning a trip to the Salt River in Arizona as a warm-up trip for the Missouri races, but he emphasized that the event at Millstream Gardens is not just for those with lots of experience.

“We have categories for everyone, by age group, different types and styles of boats, even stand-up paddleboards,” he said. “Everyone runs the same course.”

The weekend event features three styles of races beginning at 5 p.m. Friday, March 22, with a downriver race challenging paddlers in canoes and kayaks to cover 2.5 miles of rapids and pools as fast as they can. The finish line is downstream at the Silver Mines Recreation Area, where racers and spectators will celebrate with live music and food.

On March 23 and 24, the slalom course requires boaters to navigate through 21 gates going both downstream and upstream, Olson said. The Missouri championships are one of only a few events in the country that feature kayaks, decked canoes and open canoes, paddled either solo or by tandem teams. The slalom races begin at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday and 10 a.m. on Sunday.

At 8:30 a.m. Sunday, a “boatercross” race will feature dozens of paddlers pushing through rapids and rocks all at the same time, free to ram into and flip each other as they struggle upstream and downstream, through and around natural and manmade obstacles, to reach a short-course finish line.

The races are free for spectators. Visitors may bring their own food and drink, or plenty of concessions are available on-site including burgers, brats and burritos. Organizers advise that in addition to clothing appropriate for the elements, it is important to wear shoes that will help cross rocks, which can be slippery near the river.

Millstream Gardens is in Madison County off of Hwy. 72 about 11 miles from Fredericktown and 11 miles from Ironton. Olson said the trip is about 90 minutes from his home in Jefferson County.

From a parking lot, visitors will hike trails to spots along the river to view the races.

The Missouri Whitewater Association also offers a spring whitewater clinic for kayakers and canoeists with basic paddling skills on April 27 and 28 on the St. Francis River. The fee is $75 for members. Non-members can register for the clinic and join the group for a combined cost of $90.

For information about the clinic, the races or the association, visit missouriwhitewater.org.

John J. Winkelman is community relations manager at Mercy Hospital Jefferson. If you have news for the Leader’s Outdoor News page, e-mail ogmjohnw@aol.com and you can follow John on Twitter at @johnjwink99.

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