Julie Alsberge takes on the St. Francis River

Julie Alsberge takes on the St. Francis River. Alsberge might be alone in her kayak, but whitewater paddling is a group activity.

Few states are more closely associated with their rivers than Missouri — think Lewis and Clark exploring the Missouri River or Huckleberry Finn floating down the Mississippi River. Those of us living in the flatlands of Columbia, however, don’t have immediate access to the type of water best suited for rough-and-tumble adventures. This doesn’t stop Julie Alsberge, 60, from participating in Missouri’s whitewater community.

When the water level is not too low or too high, anywhere from a handful to dozens of kayakers and other paddlers from across the state descend on the St. Francis River, a tributary of the Mississippi located in the Ozarks of southeastern Missouri. Those making the trip from Columbia drive about three hours to spend their day (or weekend) tackling forest-lined rapids such as Rickety-Rack, Cat’s Paw and Big Drop.

“It’s an adult playground on water,” Alsberge says. “When it’s lower, it is like an obstacle course and dodging rocks and finding channels, reading the river and finding your way through.”

Whether you are a rookie or a captain of the rapid seas, becoming one with nature is easier than you think.

You might sit in your own kayak, but whitewater paddling is a group activity. Even the most advanced kayakers fall into the water from time to time. Paddling in groups ensures there will be plenty of helpful hands ready to pull you back into your boat if you do take an unexpected swim.

Ignore the fear of slowing down the more experienced paddlers. The group usually breaks off into subgroups before each rapid and re-congregates after in the calm pockets of the river.

Many of the experienced paddlers take pride in helping newcomers. They’ll give you pointers — even when you’re still distracted by the simple process of paddling in a straight line. Some will help you plan your routes through tougher rapids. And others will even float alongside and steer you with your paddle if you get stuck between two rocks.

“You always need to have other people out there watching your back, too,” Alsberge says. “People move and come and go. You just want always to have plenty of people there, enjoying the sport, passing it on.”

At the end of the day, if you feel uncomfortable because of a rapid that looks too difficult, no one will judge if you pull your kayak out of the water and walk it around to the next part of the river.

If you’re unsure if taking on the rapids is an event for the whole family, don’t be. The Missouri whitewater community is comprised of paddlers of all ages — all the way up into their 80s. Anyone can paddle, even if they have bad knees and require help into the kayak, as long as they maintain the upper-body and core strength necessary to use a paddle.

In the end, you have to be comfortable in fast waters and open to receiving instruction from those more experienced. But if you’re young at heart and the idea of learning to glide through nature appeals to you, consider getting more in touch with Missouri’s wild waters. 

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