Don Wilkison (and Trex)
Don Wilkison
Don after a long day cleaning up the rivers.

Don Wilkison is Vice-President of the Blue River Watershed Association (, a recreational paddler, and a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. To mark the passage of time, he'd planned a leisurely 10-day float trip from KC to St. Louis to watch the autumnal color change along the bluffs of the Mighty MO. After a testy challenge from an Army Corps engineer, life's leisure gave way to a more focused purpose – raising awareness and money for the not-for-profit BRWA. Trex (rhymes with tricks and short for T-Rex), an intrepid and spirited Rare West Tibetan Mountain Dog with previous Big River experience, will serve as scout, watchdog, and relief paddler. Despite training less than 1 month for the race, Don believes he can make it to top of the Gateway Arch before his 50th birthday.

Born on M.L. King Day, 2003, Trex is a 3-yr old Rare West Tibetan Mountain Dog. Like the more common Eastern Tibetan Mountain Dog, they are a tribe of Chow. The breed is distinguished by its wheaten color, gentle tail curl, and lack of black tongue. Working dogs with incredible stamina, strength, and spunk they are said to have originated among Yangtze River clans where they served as guards on fishing boats until political turmoil in China forced many to flee into the mountainous regions of Tibet. The remaining population of Rare West Tibetan Mountain Dogs is believed to be less than 500 worldwide.

Race director John "Chappe" Navarre (B.A. Philosophy, M. Div.) has been an inner-city minister, critical-care chaplain to children, and a stone mason. Currently he helps those displaced by "KaRita" find housing, jobs, and purpose (yes, they still need help!). John is well versed in competitive sports having been a collegiate water-poloist, as well as director of numerous soccer campaigns throughout the city. His approach to racing has been described as a cross between Father Mulcahy and L. Montgomery Burns. John plans on using the latest mobile technology to follow the race while drawing inspiration from ancient texts and re-runs of obscure European sporting events on Spanish language television.

Sarah Starr (nee Wilkison), art-school dropout, designer, entrepreneur, and bon vivant is fond of the French, travel postcards, live music, flesh-eating dinosaurs, Chihuahuas, and putting it to "the Man".  

Pete Reptile was told by the ship captain that he didn't think he could stomach 100 hours of second-hand smoke, biting critiques, and lethargic paddling. This upbraiding led the bitter man to leave the summer heat and humidity of Missouri behind for two weeks of alternating riotous family fun and smoky solace in a Colorado mountain cabin. Pete has vowed to cleanse himself in time for next year's race.

Don's Race Journal

Team BRWA 175 Canoe 340 Recap

Sometime on the afternoon of the 4th day of the Canoe 340, while sitting in the 102 degree shade near mile marker 120, ice cubes jammed under my hat and into my shirt, nursing a mild case of heat exhaustion, 2nd degree sunburns on the top of both feet, a first degree belly burn, green pus oozing from an infected cuticle, and weird red dots creeping up my ankles and shins I called race organizer Scott Mansker on my cell.

"Ok, Scott, now I understand, you meant EXTREME Canoe RACING – not EXTREME Canoe TOURING!"

"Yes." came the calm reply, "yes, I did."

I guess he did.

So it took me 4 days to realize that I was outclassed, overloaded, and pretty damn far behind but I was in for the duration (or very near it), however foolish or surprising it might now seem. Yes, I can understand a few complex mathematical formulas but the details frequently escape me when I'm focused on the big picture.

340 miles across the state of Missouri in 4.2 days. Who wouldn't fall for that one?

Until I found out about the Big Canoe Race I was going to do this same trip (plus 60 more miles) in ten cool, September days. Kick back, watch the leaves change color. And now here's a chance to cut my time in half, save some vacation for real leisure class adventures – books, movies, shade trees, afternoon naps, maybe even some shopping. The race seemed liked a practical alternative to the bourgeoisie, and I'm all about being practical.

Perhaps others in this extreme race also had on board a 5-day supply of food and water, a water-proof brief case containing among other things: a complete set of Army Corps Navigation Charts from the mouth of the MO to KC, 4 half-sheets of 80 lb watercolor paper (neatly folded), colored drawing pencils, 2 rite-in-the-rain notebooks, a weather radio, 2 cell phones with chargers, digital camera, race plans and calculator (for revising said plans), news releases and pledge forms, one Mr. T-in-your-Pocket talking keychain (, and a copy of Sam Shepard's play, "Curse of the Starving Class". I like to read. (:-)>

Within easy reach were a pair of 50-power binoculars for wilderness star-gazing, a Brunton compass, a GPS (for logging the route!), car-camping kit containing a folding shovel and folding saw, D-cell Maglite, Leatherman and first-aid kit, length of hickory hoe handle capped with Capt'n America toy found during river cleanup (for handling unruly jumpin' Asian Carp and/or rednecks), wind and rain parkas, 1 small cooler with that day's supply of cool beverages and ice, one Playmate cooler- as yet unopened - and still containing several bottles of frozen Missouri River water doctored with small amounts of performance-enhancing electrolyte-balancing substances and what I referred to as my version of Floyd Landis' 'Jack', a 2 oz. stainless steel flask of Sake embedded within the remnants what was once a large block of ice. Never know when you'll need a nightcap.

Stowed away in two, as yet unopened, dry sacks in the front of the canoe were a backpacking tent, a camping stool, a cable and lock for securing the canoe (in case 'I had to run into town!'), 3 changes of clothes, a pair of rubber knee boots, extra pair of tennis shoes, a portable water purifying device, an extra pfd (for rescuing stranded competitors), food for days 4 and 5, back-packing stove and cookware, expresso maker, and extra dog food (trout and sweet potato flavor – perfect for the working river dog).

The dog. Did I mention I brought the dog? Trex, a 48-lb Rare West Tibetan Mountain Dog, who sat in the front of the boat. Plus a collapsible 5.5 gallon plastic container full of Missouri River Water (voted #1 in the nation; to trim the boat and counterbalance the dog.

Extreme Canoe Touring requires lots of gear.

Maybe other racers were as prepared but how was I to know since I hadn't seen any of them since the start of the race.

The two weeks before the race were incredibly hectic as I crammed a full-days work around, count 'em 2 practice runs, a boat overhaul, attempts to sign up $5000 in pledges for the not-for-profit Blue River Watershed Association (, sleep-deprivation training, and organizing my race krewe and developing a race strategy to get me to St. Charles come August 6th.

By race day, with 4 hours sleep the previous night, everything came together. My boat was first in the water and I had about 30 minutes to mingle and snap some photos. I met the two-old-guys-in-a-canoe, Dawn 'Recovering-from-major-shoulder-injury' Keller, - fresh from N. Carolina - whose calm smile belied her Amazonian strength and determination; and Bryan Hopkins and family. Said hello to Travis who'd I'd met the week before. He had the wrong paddles but a jocular strong arm at his side. They'd be tough to beat. We all wished each other well. I was in the water struggling to get Trex under control, when someone said, "you must be the guy with the dog."

"Don," I said, "what's your name?"


"West Hansen?," I asked.


"Let me get my camera, I'll never see you again!" I took his pic. The horn sounded. West blasted off. I never saw him again.

Hey, it's a long race I thought. Let's take her easy. I motored out toward the Mighty MO. Other racers could take the short cut and get splashed by wastewater effluent but I knew to give it wide berth. Upon entering the MO, I could sense those without big river paddling experience were a little cautious. Christina and Edie of the blue boat known as "The Return" gently rammed my boat as they tried to understand the currents. Whoa! Back off there, I'm a scientist. Trex yawned. Settle down everybody. We paddled forth. Thought I'd surely see them again since I wanted to pick their brains for fossil hunting locations on the Kaw and ask 'return from ....?" Now it was time for some serious race strategy. Hey, I've watched plenty of goofy sports on tv, I know about strategy, spreadsheets, and the Tour de France. This was going to be easy. Bust a groove for 25 miles to the River Refuge at Alligator Cove – private campground, no one else (except Hopkins) knows about it, I'll stop for lunch there. Rest up for an hour, then back in the boat. Torrid pace all the way to Fort Osage and be off the river and out of the heat by 1400 hours, 1430 at the latest. Wait till 1830 and some cooler temps, and then back on the water. All those young 'uns will see the overweight old guy with the dog maintaining contact and they'll freak; they'll paddle through the heat of the day and they'll burn out, if not on day 1, then surely by the afternoon of day 2. I may not be in shape, but back off. I'm a scientist and I've got a spreadsheet and a plan.

About 20 miles into the race, Scott motored alongside, "hey, you're doing pretty good, currently in 9th place, moving at about 6 mph. "Perfect," I though stroking my goatee, "my plan is working perfectly." Scott went ahead around a bend, I bailed out-of-sight into Alligator Cove. This is great. No one will know the whereabouts of Mr. X for the afternoon, they'll think I'm up ahead, and they'll keep working it, working it through the heat, and eventually they'll burn up. Then the tortoise will arrive. Slow and steady wins the race.

Lunch of home-made wild Alaskan Salmon gravalax on french bread with roasted red pepper hummus on the deck at Alligator Cove with John Breyfogle, River Refuge ( proprietor and former heavy-duty kayaker. Nice breeze, nice view of the river. We watched one kayaker go past. Yellow hat. Yellow shirt. Yellow kayak. I called him Mellow Yellow. He's just mad about Saffron, Saffron's mad about him. They call him Mellow Yellow. I called him Mellow Yellow.

"Hmmmm." said John, "doesn't look like his forward stroke is very powerful."
'Yeah, doesn't look too smooth."

Well, unbeknown to us, you aren't very smooth or powerful when your paddles are upside down and you bought your kayak and ticket to hell on ebay two weeks ago. "He's just mad about Saffron, Saffron's mad about him. They call him Mellow Yellow. Quite right. They call him Mellow Yellow. That's right. They call him Mellow Yellow who finished the race."

After lunch and some Elvis TCB, I jumped back in the boat and headed off for the shade trees at Fort Osage. By this time it was 1300 hours, the heat index was well above 100 and I only had about 1 hours in the boat before my next break. No sweat. Arrived at Fort Osage just as the two-old-guys-in-a-canoe were calling it a race. Hey, I said, give it a few hours, you'll feel better. Come to find out, grandpa had to work on Saturday so they were just testing the waters. Did they think it would be that easy? Out in time for work on Saturday? Watch out West Hansen! Even I'm not that nutty. This paddling experience was quite a bit different from their leisure paddles along the boundary waters. Paddle. Fish. Paddle. Fish. Canoe 340 was real work. They decided to get off the river before heat exhaustion turned into heat stroke. And it was here that I met the first of my guardian angels. Without a ground support crew, I had vowed to rely on the kindness of strangers and people that I knew who lived and worked along the river to help me out. I had food and water for the whole trip and peeps back in KC who would rescue me if need be, but they had day jobs. I was kinda on my own out here bit it turns out, not really. No one is alone in the world. Anyway, the two old guys support crew had to drive into Blue Springs to get the truck for their canoe and they volunteered to bring me anything I needed. Ice? Gatorade? Ok, why not? Don't refuse any help even from those who have a terrorist hunting stamp (No Daily Limit) on the back of their truck. At least they didn't have truck balls hanging from the hitch. Everyone has some redeeming qualities and they were offering help so take it you yutz. They seemed nice enough – probably best not to talk politics with 'em - but hey we can swap fish stories and icy beverages. So they came back with the kool aids and I napped, kooled, and hydrated beneath the sycamores with a river breeze. Turns out I wasn't so far from heat exhaustion myself. This would become a daily ritual, sitting beneath shade trees between 1500 and 1800 hours each day, icing down the body, gulping gallons of electrolyte drinks, and catching a cat nap to recover my balance. It worked. Only once did I have the tingling of a cramp but never anything serious. Scientists understand things like electrolytes and their importance in body chemistry.

Trex barked to wake me when a stranger approached, "hey, I'm going close and lock that gate in case you want to leave."

"No problem, I came from up river and now I'm going down river." Back in the boat at 1830 hours. Hot, but breezy and beautiful, as I passed the power plant tower. On time and on schedule. Plan working to perfection. Paddle. Paddle. Paddle. Around dusk, I leaned back to stretch my arms and saw in the distance the squall line. Towering, fully-developed cumulonimbus clouds, lighting dancing around their mushrooming tops, the line was organized and marching in my direction. Yikes! The frontal system is approaching. I knew it was coming (scientist, remember? checked the weather first thing in the morning), was planning on it, but holy smokes I got to get off this river before this thing hits. It looked serious. Hammer time. Paddle. Paddle. Paddle. No time for breaks. Paddle straight and hard for 1 hours, reach the boat ramp at Lexington just in time to lash the front and rear of the canoe, grab the small cooler with dinner, my pack, and Trex, and head for the shelter – which turned out to be a concrete restroom. About the time we got settled into the women's side (always the cleanest!) this huge gust front came through (National Weather Service estimated 65 mph). Wow! Relief. Safe and sound. Lucky me. Called Christi and checked in. "Yeah, it was bad here for a while but now it's cleared off. And cooled off too, must be in the 70's."

Yes, I knew all these things, had planned on them in fact. After the front passed, I knew the wind would shift from south to north, it would cool off and I would rest for a couple of hours and be back on the water, refreshed and with the aid of the prevailing winds. So I cat-napped on my cooler, using my pack hung on the door as a pillow. I fed Trex the rest of the gravalax – he deserved a treat. Around midnight, woke up, went outside, the sky was clear, the winds calm. Yes. Perfection. Time to start reeling some folks in.

By this time the moon had set, so it was dark. Dark on the water. I quickly realized that my boat speed might suffer because of my inability to read the currents well. More than once mistook the notch in the wing dike for the main channel. Ran a few wing-dike rapids and once the front end of the boat briefly went under water but sure-footed Trex hung tough in the bow. Then about 2 hours into my trip to Waverly I began to see lightning up north. Now being the smarty-pants scientist I knew that sometimes thunderstorms would redevelop around frontal boundaries, but these are generally isolated in nature. Let's hope so I thought. Paddle. Paddle. Paddle. Thunderstorms getting closer. Lightning. Bummer. Then light rain. More of a bummer. More lightning. Bigger bummer dude. No sand bars anywhere. Then heavy rain. Then thunder. Total bummer. Then time to bail to what my friend likes to call the 'rif-riff'. Pull the boat on the rocks, grab the pack, grab the dog, scramble up the bank in t-shirt, shorts, and tevas over who knows what – can't see a thing, starting to get really cold, go to the top of the revetment thinking I can find some shelter and whoa! It's a wing dike parallel to the river. Water on both sides. I'm dinked. No place to go, except down. Reach into the pack. Hawaiian shirt, wind park, rain park, hats (x2) they all go on. I lay down in the rocks, curl up in the fetal position shivering, and it rains on me for a couple of hours. At one point I try to pry Trex out from beneath a log, to snuggle with him for warmth, but he's having none of that. Every man/dog for himself.

The rain slackened just before dawn and I got up, back in the boat, put that pfd on and paddled for warmth. Arrived at Waverly around 8am. My first 24 hours on the river, 75 miles and only 2 near-death experiences. I felt pretty good. Was greeted at the boat ramp by Christina's mom who gave me power bars (with peanut butter!) and Gatorade. "They only left about 15 minutes ago." Great, I thought, long race, soon I'll catch them. Little did I know that this was the closest I would ever be again to the blue boat, or to any of the other racers. After an hour or so, I got back in the boat and headed for Miami. By my calculations, if I spent one-half of my time paddling, I would arrive exactly at noon on Sunday in St. Charles. That was the plan. I didn't care if I beat a single racer, I just wanted to arrive at St. Charles within the 100 hour time limit and not have to spend 2 weeks recovering afterwards. Well 2 major problems I hadn't fully grasped would haunt me. My finish time was based upon an estimated paddling speed that was based on only 2 trial runs. I assumed that I could average 5-7 mph over the 50 hours that I'd be in the boat. I'd go fastest (~7 mph) at the beginning and then get slower thoughout the race as my fatigue grew, but always in the 5-7 mph range. I also made some faulty assumptions (scientists are supposed to know better) about wind speed, direction, and intensity and I forgot about fetch and how that affects wind speed. My plan was to have the wind work for ME. I'd wait for the front to pass - wind at my back. Section on day 3 that headed due south (and likely into a headwind) I would tackle at night when the winds were likely the calmest. By day four, when I would be headed in a northeasterly direction, the winds would have shifted back to a more seasonal pattern to be from the southwest. Wind at my back, or a cross wind, always. Piece of cake. Remember, I'm a scientist. The scientist also neglected to factor fatigue, night-time navigation and how this slows the boat, blunders, sandbars, and as Bryan Hopkins liked to refer to them, 'speed robbing eddies', and the vagaries of mother nature.

Mistakes. Lot's of stupid mistakes. I made 'em all. Sunburn. That's a mistake. 2nd degree sunburn. Worse mistake. Grounded on a sandbar. Mistake. Battling hypothermia. Mistake. Battling hypothermia again. Really stupid mistake. Trex making the experienced paddler faux paw (:-)> of two paws on the dock and two in the boat and watching the distance grow between the two until KERPLUNK, he's in the drink. Mistake. Trex standing on the talking keychain, refusing to budge, and me having to listen to Mr. T say over-and-over, "Don't give me back talk, sucker! Don't give me back talk, sucker!" Not a mistake, but still pretty damn annoying after the 25th time.

150 lbs of unneeded gear. HUGE mistake. Glycogen depletion. Another HUGE mistake. 25 miles of utter misery every day from glycogen-depleted muscles. My body screaming, me screaming "I've got to get off this river!" Well, bub, the only way off is to keep paddling and the longer you whine and lay down, the longer it's going to take. See those town lights. 10 miles away. You paddle steady, you're there in 1 hours. You no paddle, it's 3 hours, 4 hours in a headway. All the time you see those lights. Just around the next bend. No, the next. Maybe the next. Holy cow, 5 more miles to go. Next bend. No, next one. I can't take this anymore. Get me offfff!!!!!!!!!! this riverrrrrrr!!!!!!!!! Just when you ready to hang it up, there it is, mile away. Food, shower, rest. No wait. First sandbar. Or eddy. Or dog in the drink. Now you can rest. For an hour. Now go. Do this 3 times a day, some 80+ miles for 4 days and you got yourself a medal. Screw around, make too many mistakes and you got yourself a $100 t-shirt.

The original plan was 50 hours in the boat. If I had to spend 55 or 60 hours in the boat then that was okay, I could do that. Well, I think I spent something like 75 hours in the boat. Haven't done all the ciphering to figure out the particulars of each stretch, but for 3 days I averaged 75 miles a day. The 4th day nailed me. Only made 23 miles into a brutal headwind and the heat of the day. 22 miles the last day and then out. All total. 97 hours. 270 miles. Loser. I called Scott Sunday at 9 am from the ramp at Hermann, choking back tears, "well, guess I got to call it race here." Scott, exhausted and still sheperding racers to the finish seemed as dissappointed as I was.

"Well, you do now hold the mark for inter-species teams. Not too bad"

When I told this story to my daughter, she quoted Ghostbusters.

Dana Barrett: You know, you don't act like a scientist.
Dr. Peter Venkman: They're usually pretty stiff.
Dana Barrett: You're more like a game show host.

Or an extreme touring canoist.

So I didn't make, there's worst things in life than not reaching your goal, like not having one to begin with. Trex and I made it back to friends and family in one piece, plus we made some friends along the way. Next year baby, next year. Lose the gear, the belly, the dog, get a ground crew and a better boat and I should be able to make the 340, but I ain't a fool, regardless of how it may now look. Lot's can happen in a year, and lot's can happen in 100 hours. Get cocky and your done for. Do your best, what else is there? Ask for help. No one solos in this world. Regardless of what it beneath your name we all rely on each other to help us through the day, the night, the next bend. Right now I need your help, BRWA needs it, and most importantly the kids need it. Check out to learn about our mission and see how your tax-deductible contribution can help provide hands-on science education to over 5000 children a year in the Kansas City Metropolitan area. There were no administrative costs associated with this trip; all the proceeds benefit the organization directly so get to it. So get to it! Hey, if you don't join our watershed organization then there's one on a river near you. Find one and join it. Try these on for size (; Turn off your tv, get off your duff and into the world. What's the worst that could happen?

Big shout out to my peeps at the BRWA KC Krewe: Chappe and Chippe, Ginny, Kate, and Lisa, Sarah and Caroline. Couldn't have done it without your help. Trex, you're a dinosaur in a world of pampered breeds. Keep working it. Petey, you still suck and no, absolutely not, you cannot ride in my boat next year. Ask John. Thanks Sid and Harriet for the constant prayers. Thanks to my guardian angles, Sarah Gallagher in Booneville, Jim Low in Jeff City, the waitresses at the River Town and River Bend Cafes, Christina's mom, and all those who pledged for the cause of river education and stewardship. Travis, you're a sly fox, but I respect you for helping kids and finishing the race. Cody, Jason, and Shea - no excuses next year. If you can't beat me, then beat someone else but expect a whuppin' from the river. Tater, so many canoes, so little time; now off the couch! Thanks to Scott, Russ, Karen, and Cristi at RiverMiles for a great race and all that you do. Scott, your motivational skills are nonpareil. Russ, hope to spend some time at the front next year. Cristi, simple strategy next year – fewer mistakes, more paddling. Kudos to all who finished and those who tried. Remember a day on the river is always a good day, and when things get tough, just take it one river mile at a time.

"We'll see you on the water." Don and Trex

BRWA 175, Peace out.


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