It’s one of the most exciting spring sports rituals in all of Missouri. Every year, whitewater kayakers and canoeists from all over the state and nation gather at the St. Francis River in southeast Missouri to test their skills — against the current and against each other.

It’s one of the most exciting spring sports rituals in all of Missouri. Every year, whitewater kayakers and canoeists from all over the state and nation gather at the St. Francis River in southeast Missouri to test their skills — against the current and against each other.

It’ll happen again in 2019 when the Missouri Whitewater Association hosts the 52nd Annual Missouri Whitewater Championships at Millstream Gardens Conservation Area on the weekend of Friday, March 22 to Sunday, March 24. The races typically attract 70 or more paddlers, many among the best in the country and others just wading into the sport. Boaters ages 12 to 70-plus are likely to compete. Novices face novices. Experts race experts. Some aspire to be Olympic athletes.

Spectators won’t find a better venue. The bulk of the races, which are free to attend, happen in the St. Francis River’s Tiemann Shut-ins. They’re part of Millstream Gardens, where steep banks of pink, pre-Cambrian granite not only squeeze the river to form challenging rapids but also give the audience unique scenery and perches from which to watch racers navigate the water.

The event features three styles of races:

The downriver race, scheduled for 5 p.m. Friday, March 22, challenges paddlers in canoes and kayaks, and even a few on stand-up paddle boards, to navigate 2.5 miles of rapids and pools as fast as they can. It’s Point A to Point B, with waves, boulders and willows to dodge along the way. A party at the Silver Mines Recreation Area finish line, complete with live music, food and beverages, caps off opening night.

Slalom races, Saturday, March 23 and Sunday, March 24, require boaters to thread their crafts through 20 or so downstream and upstream gates that course designers never fail to place in the most diabolical parts of the river. Just touching a gate with boat, paddle or person prompts a five-second time penalty. Missing one altogether costs 50 seconds. Avoiding penalties is crucial because a fast run with no penalties usually falls in the range of 3.5 minutes, and winners can be decided by mere tenths of a second. It’s worth noting that 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.

Then there’s Boatercross, which we could also call Maelstrom or Chaos. Dozens of paddlers on Sunday morning push through rapids and rocks 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. Whining prohibited.

River levels each year dictate the nature of the event. That’s part of what whitewater is all about. At low levels, there are more rocks than water, forcing paddlers to make precise and technical moves to sneak through narrow chutes. Higher levels can swell the river to Class IV status, requiring difficult strokes through intimidating waves. At any stage, a competitor’s ability to read and use the current and eddies to make good time and stay upright is paramount.

The St. Francis River is Missouri’s premier whitewater stream, and the Missouri Whitewater Championships offer an excellent spring-equinox chance for a family to visit and get to know it. The races are free. You can bring your own food and drink, or you can rely on plenty of bargain concessions available on-site: burgers, brats, burritos, beverages. Just remember to dress for the elements and to wear shoes/sandals that will help you get across the rocks, which can be slippery if you get near the river.

Logistics

Where is Millstream Gardens? Millstream Gardens Conservation Area is south of Highway 72 in Madison County, about 11 miles west of Fredericktown and 11 miles east of Ironton. Take PR Road 9534 (turning left off Highway 72 coming from Fredericktown or right coming from Ironton), then follow the race signs to get where you’re going.

Where do spectators park? Turn left off the access road to find the spectators’ parking lot. (Signs will show you the way.) A trail leads from the lot to a deck overlooking Cat’s Paw rapid. It’s a sight to behold. Pause a bit, then continue down the trail to your right to go upriver toward Big Drop rapid, where the slalom races are held.

Schedule:

Downriver races are 5 p.m. Friday, March 22 (with a racers’ meeting at 4:30 p.m.). They begin at Millstream Gardens Fisherman’s Put-in and end at the low-water bridge upstream from Route D in the Silver Mines Recreation Area.

The Friday night party will be held in Silver Mines’ riverside campground on the south side of the river off Route D.

Slalom races begin at 9:30 a.m. Saturday and at 10 a.m. Sunday and continue through mid-afternoon on both days.

Boatercross racers launch at 8:30 a.m. Sunday.

The racers’ banquet starts at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Arcadia Academy, 211 S. College St., in Arcadia. Friday downriver and Saturday slalom winners will be announced there.

A closing ceremony at the Millstream Gardens pavilion will happen around 3 p.m. Sunday. This is where Sunday slalom and Boatercross winners will receive their medals.

Setup weekend: Volunteers will be at Millstream Gardens on Saturday, March 16, to begin setup work on the slalom course. The rest of the course will be set up on Thursday, March 21, and Friday, March 22.

Want to learn how to paddle whitewater?

The Missouri Whitewater Association also will conduct a spring whitewater clinic for kayakers and canoeists with basic paddling skills April 27-28 at the St. Francis River. The fee is $75 for MWA members. Non-members can register for the clinic and join MWA for a combined cost of $90. Online registration begins in February.