By Andrew Atwal
More than 140 kayakers from across the country were in Yankton last weekend for a 72-mile journey down the Missouri River to Sioux City.
The South Dakota Kayak Challenge, in its fourth year, began Saturday morning at 7 a.m. at Riverside Park, and racers had until Sunday afternoon to finish the challenge.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for our team to show off the beauty of the Missouri River,” said Jarett Bies, co-founder of the challenge. “The area we hold the kayak race is one of the most scenic and beautiful stretches of the river. It’s a great opportunity for people to come and experience that beauty first-hand.”
The first South Dakota Kayak Challenge took place in 2010, and Bies said the event has been growing ever since.
“The South Dakota Department of Tourism took note of a kayaking event in Missouri and approached Steven Dahlmeier (the co-founder of the event) and to ask us if we could put together and comparable event in South Dakota,” Bies said. “We want to continue to make these events safe and open to everyone. We don’t have any time cut-offs for checkpoints like some races do. Anyone from a beginner to a hard-core paddler can come out and make the event their own.”
He added that he has been kayaking for about 15 years and said one of the things he loves about it is the tranquility and that you can get to places on the river you can’t reach with a boat.
“It’s also very intimate in that you’re only a few inches off the surface of the water,” Bies said. “You don’t get that with a boat or Jet Ski. It’s physically intense, but it’s also very rewarding and the opportunity to explore either a small stream or huge river is very appealing to me.”
Dahlmeier said his favorite place to paddle is the Yankton-Ponca stretch of the Missouri River and added that he enjoys it because the river is always changing each time he is out on it.
He said planning for this year’s event went well.
“Some of the racers have come from as far away as Rhode Island and Georgia,” Dahlmeier said Friday. “Water levels are a bit low this year, which will make for a new challenge looking out for sandbars and navigating the channel. But we know participants will be eager for the challenge.”
He added that some people in the race are doing it to challenge themselves, and not necessarily the other racers.
“If they do the challenge in their first year, they could look back next year and try to beat the time they had set,” Dahlmeier said.
Dahlmeier and Bies placed volunteers all along the river — including in Yankton, Myron Grove, Bolton and Sioux City — to monitor riders and safety.
The race began at 7 a.m. Saturday with a gunshot start. Riders were placed into one of two categories: the competitive class, for riders with more experience; and the adventure class for less experience paddlers.
“The competitive class is fun to watch. The kayakers in that group are serious and in it to race,” Dahlmeier said. “The adventure class has a number of people, some are more competitive and others are there just to paddle and enjoy the river.”
The average time it takes riders to complete the course is typically around 15-18 hours. Last year, the first place finisher took just about eight hours to complete the 72-mile course.
“This is a challenging course,” Dahlmeier said. “The upper stretches of it are part of the national park. Some of it is does not have a channel, is wild and changes depending on the flows out of Gavins Point. Each year the main channel may move to another part of the river, so kayakers need to use their best judgment to navigate where the channel is in the river.”
Kayaker Ben Busser, from Brookings, said Friday night he didn’t plan to get too competitive during the race, but was looking forward to it.
“This is something new for me to do,” he said. “I’ve been kayaking for about two years and came here with a group of four people. We haven’t kayaked at all this spring so this will be interesting.”
Dahlmeier said he appreciates the support from local communities, include the Yankton and Vermillion Chambers, city councils and parks departments in the area.
“It would be hard to move the race from Yankton because of the great support we have around here,” he said. “We plan on continuing this every year as long as we can. We don’t want it to grow too big that we can’t handle the race anymore. We need to be respectful of the resources we have and make sure the checkpoints don’t ever get too big.”
The results of the 2013 Kayak Challenge are as follows:
• Women’s Tandem/Competitive — Carol Heddinghaus, Rolla, Mo./Joan Twillman, St. Charles, Mo.: 11 hrs, 59 min.
• Men’s Tandem/Competitive — David Lackey, Ashland, Mo./Matt Green, Jefferson City, MO: 8 hrs, 51 min.
• Women’s Solo/Competitive — Nancy Smidt, Sturgis: 12 hrs., 24 min.
• Men’s Solo/Competitive — Calvin Hassel, Grand Island, Neb.: 8 hrs, 58 min.
• Women’s Solo/Adventure — Katherine Albers, Sioux Falls: 14 hr., 28 min.
• Men’s Solo/Adventure — Chad Cadwell, Dekalb, Ill.: 9 hrs., 51 min.
• Mixed Tandem/Adventure — David Deslauriers, Brookings/Erinn Ipsen, Brookings: 16 hrs., 10 min.
• Men’s Tandem/Adventure — Justin Herreman, Rapid City/Steve Jones, Rapid City: 11 hrs., 37 min.
• Women’s Tandem/Adventure — Jennifer Brown, Vermillion/Danielle Quist, Vermillion, 15 hrs., 45 min.
You can follow Andrew Atwal on Twitter at twitter.com/andrewatwal