YANKTON, S.D. | The longest kayak race in South Dakota kicks off Saturday in Yankton.

More than 120 kayak enthusiasts from places as far-flung as Ohio, Mississippi and Colorado will paddle 72 miles down the Missouri River, ending in South Sioux City.

The South Dakota Kayak Challenge starts at 7 a.m. Saturday morning and ends 30 hours later, at 1 p.m. Sunday in South Sioux City's Scenic Park. 

Top-finishing racers will be presented awards Sunday evening. 

Jarett Bies, an organizer and co-founder of the race in 2010, said officials at one time considered making the race a 24-hour affair, but decided 30 hours would be more accommodating for participants. 

"We built it that way specifically so that if we had those people that weren't very fast, you know maybe in the shorter, wider boats, that if they got to a point on Saturday night when it was starting to get dark and they still wanted to finish but they didn't want to paddle after dark, they could stop, hunker down on a sandbar, or stop at the last checkpoint, and they could make a simple campsite there," Bies said. 

Most participants do finish at some point on Saturday, Bies said, but some do take the opportunity and wait until Sunday to finish the race.

Last year, Dave Hutchinson, of Montana, set the course speed record, reaching the end in eight hours and 19 minutes. 

Renee Benoche, of Jefferson, S.D., has raced in and completed the South Dakota Kayak Challenge every year. She set her personal best time of 10 hours and 59 minutes in 2016, coming in fifth in the women's solo division. 

Benoche, who has been kayaking for 11 years, has managed finished the 72-mile course in one day each year, except in 2010 when she took two days. Like every year, Benoche said Saturday's race will be a challenge. 

"This year, the river is up, and everybody thinks we're going to be really fast, but there's a lot of different sections that have sandbars, that you really have to know how to read the river to get through," Benoche said. "I did a race down in Kansas City that wasn't channelized, and this is a lot more challenging, because you have to be able to read the river and know where you're going." 

The weather and river conditions for Saturday are looking favorable, Bies said, so racers might expect another good year. 

"Conditions - I don't want to jinx anything - but conditions are looking really good," he said. "We might see that record get beaten, or see some individual records set." 

River safety

Some who complete the race Saturday have to continue paddling after nightfall to do so. Kayaking or canoeing after dark is allowed but not necessarily recommended because of the inherent danger of unseen river hazards. 

"Most experienced paddlers would not be out on the river after dark, just because there's logs and debris and snags," Bies said. 

Organizers of the race have four check-points along the route, and Bies said he asks participants to let him know if they stop for lunch or to take a break, so that everyone is accounted for. 

Local law enforcement agencies assist with safety, including the Dakota County Sheriff, South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, the Army Corps of Engineers and Yankton County Search and Rescue, who will have an airplane watching over the race. 

"If we do have a situation where someone gets, you know, injured or too tired, we'll have a boat get to them and extract them and get them to medical attention as needed," Bies said. "Knock on wood that we will not have to use those resources, but priority is safety."

All skill levels

The race is tailored to suit a wide array of participants, from hard-core kayakers to more leisurely paddlers.  

"We've always billed it as a competition, but we started it from the beginning to try to make it a 'big-tent' event, so that it wasn't just for competitors but people who maybe just wanted to have the adventure of paddling that far on the river," Bies said. "So that's why when we started we didn't have any cut-offs for time." 

While more-committed kayak people will drive great distances to take part in races like this, people in other states are sometimes skeptical about the idea of having a kayak race in South Dakota. 

"You get a lot of people, especially up in Minnesota, Wisconsin... and they would be like, 'How can you have a kayak race in South Dakota, do you even have enough water to host such a thing?'" Bies said. "Or they were asking, 'Doesn't the oil fracking get in the way of paddling?'" 

Thus, Bies, who is an organizer for all four of South Dakota's kayak races, acts as an ambassador for the state's kayaking community. 

"So we had to explain, you know, that we've got the longest river in North America that runs right through our state," Bies said. "So it's been nice to kind of put the state on the map, and remind people that there's a lot of beauty right here." 

There will be a safety briefing and meal for participants Friday night in Yankton.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Jarett Bies' name. 

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