Reported by MR340 veteran paddler Cinda Eichler
Editor's Note - News of several paddlers requiring rescue near Jefferson City sparked concern in the Missouri River paddling community. The Jefferson City News-Tribune reported the incident, but as with most news articles included very little context to understand what caused the situation and how those involved dealt with it. We were all relieved that everyone recovered.
Cinda Eichler, a 5-time MR340 veteran, offered to share her perspective of what happened and wrote up this great report with her take on what they did right and lessons learned. An important factor to consider is that the water temperature that day was about 46-degrees although the air temp got up to 70. It only takes a few minutes for immersion in 46-degree water to lead to hyp0thermia, but the impact on your ability to respond and your mental clarity can happen almost immediately.
For more info on cold water paddling, see this post from Paddle KC and this info from National Center for Cold Water Safety. The only USGS gaging stations on the Missouri River in the state of Missouri that measure temperature are at Hermann and St. Joseph.
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts Cinda, and good job everyone on creating a positive outcome from a difficult situation.
Late morning of March 16, 2022, four of us set out in two Stellar ST21 tandem kayaks for a paddle from the Providence Access on Persche Creek (Columbia) to the Noren Access on the Missouri River (Jefferson City), a distance of 27.6 miles. The air temperature that day rose into the 70's, but the water temperature was in the upper 40's. Winds were forecasted to be 10-15 mph (though later in the day we were hit with cross-winds that were gusting 15-20 mph). Water levels were low, but the current was moving at about 3.5 mph in most places. We were all four wearing our PFD's. The first 25 miles of our trek was enjoyable and without incident.
Annette and I were in the lead kayak. I have lots of Missouri River experience (5x MR340 finisher) as well as other kayaking expedition experience. Annette was my partner in the last MR340 and has been on the Missouri River plenty of times. Martha and Linda were following in the second kayak. They have registered for their first MR340 race this year and were taking their brand new ST21 out on its maiden voyage on the river that day. Martha had worked in the past as a paddling guide in the Puget Sound, but had been on the Missouri River only once before. Linda had more recently taken up recreational kayaking and had never been on the Missouri River. Previously, all four of us had practiced paddling together through some good-sized waves on a super windy day at Long Branch Lake. On March 16 on the Missouri River, Annette and I paddled ahead of Martha and Linda, but kept them within sight 100% of the time. As newcomers to the river, Martha and Linda found it helpful to follow our path through the channel.
As we were getting closer to Jefferson City, we encountered an anchored sand dredge and passed by that without incident. A short time later, we met a barge moving upstream at around the 147 mile-mark towards the sand dredge. Our kayak was quite a ways ahead of theirs, but we shouted back to alert that a barge was coming and to direct their movement to the outside of the channel.
At approximately 2:50 pm, Martha and Linda capsized in the barge wake somewhere around the 146.5 milemarker. The lower water level seemed to create a more powerful wake. Cross-winds that were gusting at the same time also contributed to the capsize. When we saw that they had capsized and were struggling with the wake and wind, Annette and I made the decision to not paddle upstream against the barge wake to try to assist, but instead, chose to paddle as fast as we could to reach a nearby sandbar at the 146 mile-mark where we immediately called 911 at 2:55 pm.
We knew that we were close to emergency assistance from Jefferson City, which was only 2 miles downstream. As instructed by the dispatcher, Annette and I remained on the telephone on the sandbar keeping our eyes on Martha and Linda and reporting their position to rescuers. Martha and Linda continued to swim with their boat.
As they passed by our sandbar in the current, we yelled out to them that rescuers were on their way and encouraged them to continue to swim with the boat towards shore. Martha and Linda were able to reach a sandbar located around the 145.5 mile-mark at about 3:10 pm. Water Patrol arrived a short time thereafter.
Water Patrol transported Martha, Linda, and their boat to the Noren Access at mile-mark 144 where ambulances were waiting. After later analyzing our electronic data, we determined that Martha and Linda had been in the water for approximately 20 minutes (but it sure seemed like much longer).
Interestingly, only one of the two capsized paddlers seemed to suffer serious consequences from hypothermia. Martha (who is built like me) carries a little bit of extra body fat. Linda (who works as a certified personal trainer) is extremely fit and thin with no excess body fat whatsoever. After emerging from the cold water, Martha was clear-headed and able to assist Linda onshore. In contrast, Linda was very confused and unable to stand or walk without assistance. Martha was briefly treated and released at Noren Access. Linda was warmed in the ambulance at the ramp and was then transported to a local hospital to undergo further warming procedures and tests. Linda's internal temperature upon arrival at the hospital was 85 degrees. Several hours later, Linda was released from the hospital after they had succeeded in raising her temperature to 99 degrees. She has fully recovered. Since this incident, Linda has been exploring dry suit and wet suit options for her spring training.
Besides wearing our PFD's, I think that the most important thing that we did to ensure our safety that day was to kayak in pairs so that we could keep an eye on each other during our excursion. That fact alone may have been a life-saver.
I also believe that Annette and I made the right decision to immediately request emergency assistance instead of trying to paddle upstream against the barge wake to try to assist our friends. Had we tried to paddle upstream under those circumstances, I fear that we would have also capsized -- which would have compounded the situation by putting more kayakers in the cold water and which would have decreased the likelihood of anyone being able to call for emergency assistance while being tossed in the waves. I think it was good that we acted promptly in calling 911 instead of delaying to assess matters or make unsuccessful rescue attempts. (Though I recommend and have taken a self-rescue course, I don't believe that was a viable option for us under the existing conditions.)
I also believe that Martha and Linda did an excellent job using their boat as a flotation device and continuing to swim towards shore, just as instructed at some safety seminars. The two of them did make one attempt to reenter their boat after coming out of the barge wake, but fatigue and frigidity worked against them at that point. They both remained calm and persistent during the entire ordeal, which was so important in being able to have a good outcome that day. All of us remaining calm was key.
Recap - what we did right
I think that our major mistake that day was not getting off the river when we first saw the barge coming towards us. With the low river levels and abundance of exposed sandbars, I'm fairly certain that we could have found a place to quickly pull off. As the most experienced paddler in the group that day, it was definitely my fault that I did not lead our group in that direction. Unfortunately, that thought did not even occur to me at the time as I am accustomed to paddling right through barge wakes. I have paddled through barge wakes many times without incident and without ever capsizing - a statistic that is probably based as much on luck as on skill. I had become complacent. The fact is: a barge wake, even for experienced paddlers, will always increase the risk of capsize.
When the water temperature is in the 40's and winds are gusty, the reward gained from staying on the water to paddle through a barge wake is definitely outweighed by the risk involved. If we had gone to shore when we first saw the moving barge and had waited to re-launch after the wake had subsided, this incident would not have happened. I will probably be paddling through barge wakes this summer, but I'm changing that practice during early spring when water temperatures are so cold.
Another mistake that was made by our group was that we had an extra set of clothing packed - packed inside our transport vehicle instead of inside our kayak hatches. We had packed Mylar blankets and raincoats in our kayaks, which were all good items for warming onshore, but a spare pair of dry clothing would have also certainly been useful. Packing an extra set of clothes adds very little weight to the boat. Even though Martha and Linda's kayak was brand new, some water still got inside the hatches once they capsized, so using a dry-bag is essential for packing a change of clothing inside the hatch. This is something I will be adding to my packing list for spring-time paddles. And as previously mentioned, dry suits and wet suits are also good considerations for spring-time paddles.
I hope our experience and thoughts help others make good decisions for paddling on the Missouri River.
Recap - Lessons Learned