Whitewater racing returns to the St. Francis River

Scott Swafford paddles hard to turn his canoe into an upstream gate on the St. Francis River in the 55th annual Missouri Whitewater Championships.

I didn’t get a chance to see Mason Gagnon run the St. Francis River in the Missouri Whitewater Championships, but I did make it to Millstream Gardens in time to see my college fraternity brother Scott Swafford navigate the slalom gates in his open canoe.

The races appear to be quite a workout for the paddlers, and Scott told me his earlier run in a two-man canoe, took a lot out of him before his solo race that I was able to watch. What follows is the preview story I wrote for Leader Publications about Mason and the 55th annual championships.

Sixteen-year-old Mason Gagnon of Hillsboro in his kayak on the Ocoee River in Tennessee.

Since 2019 when he earned a medal as a novice in the Missouri Whitewater Championships, Mason Gagnon, 16, of Hillsboro, has been anxious to get back to the St. Francis River to compete in the expert division.

“There are two different races, downriver and slalom,” Mason explained. “In the downriver you go as fast as you can paddle. The course can be pretty long, from 3 to 4 miles. You get one shot at your best time.”

The downriver race on Friday evening goes from Millstream Gardens to the Highway D bridge at the Silver Mines Recreation Area, about three miles downstream. A Paddler’s Guide to Missouri from the state Department of Conservation describes that stretch of the St. Francis River.

A canoeist aims his boat downstream for a plunge through Tiemann Shut-ins at the location called Big Drop.

“A mile of continuous rapids with sharp drops. The steepest drop on the river is four to six feet depending on the water stage, but the chute has a difficult S-curve approach. Rocky rapids continue to Silver Mine Dam. A breech blown in the left side of the dam is runable, but in high water produces a wave at the bottom which would swamp an open canoe. A ‘rock garden’ run from here to the bridge.”

Slalom races are held Saturday and Sunday. The press release from the Missouri Whitewater Association described the set-up as “20 or so downstream and upstream gates that course designers never fail to place in the most diabolical parts of the river. Touching a gate with boat, paddle or person brings a five-second time penalty; missing one 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 tenths of a second.”

Spectators scatter across granite boulders along the Tiemann Shut-ins section of the St. Francis River at Millstream Gardens Conservation Area.

The slalom course is in an area of Millstream Gardens known as Tiemann Shut-ins, which provides a natural amphitheater for spectators. Steep banks of pink, pre-Cambrian granite squeeze the river to form challenging rapids and give the audience unique scenery and perches to watch the races.

Attendance is free for the event and spectators are welcome to bring their own food and drink. Concessions are available in the park including burgers, bratwurst, burritos and beverages.

The association recommends dressing for the weather and especially recommends shoes that are appropriate for slick rocks that are everywhere near the river.

Millstream Gardens is south of Highway 72 in Madison County, about 11 miles west of Fredericktown and 11 miles east of Ironton.

Content originally published by Leader Publications on March 17, 2022.

Published by John J. Winkelman

A freelance outdoor writer for more than 30 years

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