While most people in Washington were heading to the fairgrounds on Aug. 1, something unusual was happening along the riverfront. A fleet of more than 100 canoes and kayaks converged along the boat ramp in riverfront park, and soon a tent city was set up at the east end of the park.
The Great River Rumble had arrived in Washington.
The Rumble is an annual weeklong canoe and kayak trip on a river within the upper Mississippi River basin. The trip was scheduled for the Missouri River last year, but was canceled because of flooding.
The opposite was the case this year, as the river fell to record low levels because of the drought and high temperatures. Low water and soaring heat didn’t stop the Rumblers, as some 150 paddlers and support crew took to the river.
The trip began in Jefferson City on July 28 and ended more than 150 miles later near the Lewis and Clark Visitor Center at Hartford, Ill., on Aug. 4. Most days, the temperatures topped 100 degrees, and most nights, freight trains roared past the campgrounds.
Throughout it all, good spirits reigned, friendships were forged, and paddling skills were honed.
For some of the Rumblers, Washington was a familiar stop. Les and Judy Kemp, who live near Clover Bottom, outside of New Haven, were the volunteer landing chairs for the Washington stop. They’re Rumble veterans, having participated in six Rumbles.
Their plans for Aug. 1, which was a 30-mile paddle from Hermann to Washington, included a lunch stop in New Haven, a shuttle to the YMCA for showers, live music at John G’s Bier Deck that evening, breakfast the next morning at Cowan’s, and sack lunches from Joe’s Bakery and Deli.
The Kemps worked with the city to get permission for the Rumblers to camp in riverfront park, which is usually off limits for camping. Mayor Sandy Lucy came out on the morning of Aug. 2 to wish the paddlers well on the next leg of the voyage.
This writer, a Rumbler newbie, is also from the area and a longtime fan of Washington and the other small river towns we visited along the way.
Overnight stops included Jefferson City, Bonnots Mill, Chamois, Hermann, Washington, Klondike Park near Augusta, St. Charles and then across the Mississippi River to Alton, Ill.
One paddler was on a trip down memory lane during the Rumble. Mark Vehlewald of Naperville, Ill., read about the Great River Rumble in the Missouri Conservationist and saw the list of stops. His mom was from New Haven, his dad was from Stony Hill (near Hermann) and he was born in Washington, so he thought the trip was meant to be.
“I grew up in Missouri, went to Mizzou, and like to trout fish in southern Missouri, but I had never been on the Missouri River,” said Mark, 62. He decided to go for it.
“I had never been in a kayak in my entire life,” said Mark. “I will never forget that first morning at Jefferson City, going down to the river and watching the current sweep by, and thinking, ‘You’re an idiot! Why didn’t you try this out first?’ I was afraid I’d dump in the river before I ever got away from the landing. The first 30 minutes were stressful; I had no idea what I was doing. I just started paddling.”
Thanks to lessons and tips from other Rumblers, Mark was soon paddling just fine, but he said he wouldn’t recommend his technique to others. “If I had it to do over again, I would definitely take a few kayak lessons before showing up for the trip!”
Dick Rakes, 69, my brother-in-law and a first-timer from Rogers, Ark., did exactly that. Five weeks before the Rumble, he bought a used kayak and began practicing. He took a skills training course with the St. Louis Canoe and Kayak Club at Council Bluff Lake near Potosi, and a training seminar on Beaver Lake in northwest Arkansas with Mike Herbert, a national kayaking champion and former Olympian.
“Being fit is definitely a big plus for any undertaking as strenuous as the Great River Rumble,” said Dick, a marathon runner. “I would suggest doing lots of online and print research on paddling as well as asking lots of questions of anyone with paddling experience.”
Dick became interested in the Rumble when I sent the brochure to my sister to encourage her to join me on the river; she didn’t, but he did.
Checking Out Downtown
The Rumblers were on their own for dinner in Washington, and they spread out to a variety of dining establishments in the downtown area. Some decided to capitalize on the short walk from the riverfront to downtown and take advantage of a comfortable bed in an air-conditioned room for one night.
The Old Dutch Tavern and Hotel was a popular choice, with five paddlers spending the night, and several others sampling the extensive beer menu and having dinner.
Chris Klein, a veteran of six Rumbles, and Liz Obear, his fiancée and a first-timer, decided to break up the week with a night at the Old Dutch.
“It was one of the nicest hotels we’ve ever stayed in, a boutique hotel, as good as New York City or anywhere,” said Liz. “The air conditioning felt great after the hot day on the river.
“I loved the Missouri River and all the little towns we went through,” said Liz. “We want to come back and spend more time here.”
Cyndi Duda and Brian Horner, Rumble veterans from Palatine, Ill., also opted for dinner and a night of comfort at the Old Dutch.
“It was so nice to get off the river and away from the trains,” said Cyndi.
The trains were a subject of much discussion all week because the campsites in Bonnots Mill, Chamois, Hermann and Washington were all right next to the railroad tracks. Lucky were the campers who brought ear plugs.
“I always enjoy stopping in Washington,” said Dick Rakes, who has visited here many times, “although it was definitely different arriving by kayak and sleeping in a tent instead of arriving by automobile and staying in a hotel.”
The nice facilities at Riverfront Park and the friendly welcome from local folks made Washington a popular stop with the Rumblers. The Rumble stopped in Washington in 2004, too.
A Paddle, Not a Float
The literature for the Great River Rumble stresses that the trip is a paddle, not a float, and truer words were never spoken. Even with the river’s current, paddling from 14 to 30 miles a day for seven days is a test of endurance. Add to that the extreme temperatures, and the trip was a stretch even for seasoned paddlers.
Amazingly, the only major injury was a broken wrist from a fall. Although there were usually a few capsizes per day, none were serious.
Although most people plan to do the Rumble in a canoe or kayak, others opt for the ground crew or the safety boats.
Safety is a top priority on the Rumble, so the paddlers travel as a group and must stay between the lead boat and the sweep boat. Life jackets must be worn and fastened. The paddlers are accompanied by power boats that carry extra water and offer aid as needed.
All gear is transported downstream by truck, so paddlers only carry what they need for the day. The gear, including tents, camp chairs and coolers, is unloaded at the next destination so paddlers can set up their campsites as they arrive.
People often take a turn on the road crew or on one of the power boats for a change of pace, a rest, or to give the support crew a chance to paddle for a day.
Robert and Linda Hellmann of Robertsville were first-timers, paddling a tandem canoe.
“We loved it, and are planning to do it again next year,” said Linda.
On the last day, they volunteered to help the road crew and discovered that they really enjoyed that aspect of the Rumble, too. Judy Kemp also volunteered to do road crew this year, while Les Kemp paddled.
Both Judy and Linda also starred at the softball game in Chamois. In this first-ever event, the Raging Rumblers played the Chamois Cardinals in a spirited game that ended with a severely lopsided score in favor of the Cardinals. But it was the game that counted, not the final score. Interacting with members of the community was a highlight.
“I loved the softball game,” said Linda, who has been playing softball for 40 years and only recently took up canoeing. While Linda was on the field, Judy was in the stands with a noisy cheerleading contingent. The consensus was that a community softball game should become a regular part of each year’s Rumble.
The game was a first for 16-year-old Colin Ginot from Montfloret, France, who was visiting for a month in the United States and spent his final week on the river, accompanied by his host family, Dave Van Dyne and Cecile Lagandre of Kansas City. At the farewell banquet in Alton, Colin was honored with a Golden Glove award as Most Valuable Player for catching four fly balls and scoring one run in his first-ever softball game.
“It was a great moment and I will always remember it,” he said.
At age 16, Colin tied with Michael Misiutu of Bowling Green, Ky., for the youngest paddler. Colin kayaked solo, while Michael paddled a tandem canoe with his father.
We were told there was an 82-year-old man from Texas who might have been the oldest paddler, but weren’t able to confirm that; he paddled in the front of the pack, while we tended to be in the middle or rear.
The welcomes given by Chamois and Bonnots Mill were truly exceptional, with what seemed to be the entire town turning out to greet the paddlers. In Bonnots Mill, locals mingled with Rumblers at an outdoor concert by an area band. The historic St. Louis of France Church was open for tours, and an 8-year-old parishioner played the pipe organ while we visited.
In most towns, the group was welcomed by the mayor or a city official. In many cases, a church or community organization prepared and served dinner or breakfast. In Chamois, the local kids had a bake sale to raise funds for playground equipment.
Another bonus for this year’s Rumblers was the overlap of dates with the Missouri River 340, a canoe and kayak race from Kansas City to St. Charles. We cheered on racers as they landed in Hermann, Washington, Klondike and St. Charles.
Crossing the Mississippi
For some paddlers, the best part of the trip was simply managing to paddle each day and complete the tour. For others, the final day’s crossing of the Mississippi River was the high point.
As we left the Missouri and paddled into the Mississippi, a wind blowing about 20 miles per hour from the south buffeted our boats as we struggled to paddle through two- to three-foot choppy water with rollers and a few whitecaps. From the Missouri River one mile marker to the Corps of Engineers landing area near the north end of the Chain of Rocks canal, it took us about 35 minutes to cross the river. No one capsized.
For the crossing, the three safety boats of the Rumble team as well as a Corp of Engineers Ranger boat accompanied us, just in case. One kayak and one canoe did require a tow to complete the crossing.
The hair-raising part came a few minutes after everyone had docked their boats and were gathering their gear to head to their cars. A huge barge appeared out of nowhere and passed by as we gawked. We didn’t even want to think about what might have happened if the barge had come by earlier while we were still on the water.
“I loved the Mississippi crossing,” said Liz Cornell, 26, of St. Louis. “It was a fun way to end the trip.”
More About the Rumble
The Great River Rumble is organized by the non-profit group, Midwest River Expeditions, with sponsorship by Wenonah Canoes, Current Designs Kayaks and TieYak. The paddling and camping trip takes place on the upper Mississippi River or its tributaries each summer.
Rex Klein of Dubuque, Iowa, is president of the all-volunteer group. Next year’s route will be decided at the group’s annual meeting in November in Dubuque. For information, visit www.riverrumble.org.
There were 150 people registered for this year’s Rumble, but not everyone paddled every day, and some were in tandem boats. On the first day, 109 vessels hit the water. By the last day, the number was down to 76.
Paddlers came from Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, France and elsewhere.
“Describing the Rumble is not an easy thing,” said three-time veteran Cecile Lagandre. “I have resigned myself to equating it to a long prayer or meditation. My interactions with other Rumblers on the river or on land are part of the prayer. The Rumble turns out to be a string of little unexpected gifts from strangers who aren’t really strangers.”
Flip Putthoff, an outdoor writer from Northwest Arkansas and a longtime Rumbler, often gives talks about the Rumble, and always notes that the Rumble is a fabulous trip but it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
“You are outdoors for a solid week at the mercy of whatever nature throws your way — hot, cold, rain, storms.”
This year the trip began with a thunderstorm on the first night and ended with a thunderstorm on the final morning, with record-setting high temperatures in between. Nevertheless, most of the paddlers waxed poetic at the farewell banquet and were already making plans for next year.
“It’s a great group of people, that’s why we come back every year,” said Cece Wroblewski of Canton, Ill. Her husband, Ron, has survived 11 Rumbles and Cece eight.
“That first night camping in Bonnots Mill, I was sore, I was tired, and about halfway through the night I was wondering if I had it in me to finish the trip,” recalled Mark Vehlewald. “It had only been a 16-mile day and there was such a long way to go. But you just take it one day at a time.”
One stroke at a time, one mile at a time, one day at a time — and by the end of the week, you’ve covered 150 miles and made lifelong memories.
Are you ready to Rumble?