SOUTH SIOUX CITY | When Jim Pechous and Braxton Carter paddled their kayak into the dock at Scenic Park Saturday afternoon, the sun was glistening off the Missouri River’s murky waters. For 72 miles, the pair had navigated the river’s twists, turns and high water to become the 2019 South Dakota Kayak Challenge champions.
For nine years, the South Dakota Kayak Challenge had never seen a contestant break the eight-hour mark. On Saturday, Pechous, of Lombard, Illinois, and Carter, of Charlotte, South Carolina, paddled their way to a record-setting time of seven hours and 14 minutes.
“Having done this six years now, I think it was more of the mental challenge of seeing if the conditions would allow us to break the standing record from last year,” Carter said. In 2018, he was a part of another duo that set the previous record at eight hours and eight minutes.
According to several contestants, the weather was perfect from the 7 a.m. launch at Yankton, South Dakota, to the after-party at Scenic Park – fair winds and temperatures in the low 70s.
“The temp being lower, we didn’t go through as much water,” said Carter, who suffered through upper-90 degree heat a year before. “This is the first year that we’ve done this where there hasn’t been a head wind.”
Carter and Pechous said the conditions were just right for a record-setting run down the river. Most importantly, said Carter, was the level of the river. Following weeks of rainfall, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Missouri River stood at nearly 16 ft. deep at Yankton.
“Given that down here, the water level is eight inches below flood stage, if it was much higher, they probably would have had to cancel or postpone the race,” Carter said.
“We knew we had good chance of beating the record due to the water being very high,” said Pechous. “There was a lot of water going down the river, so it helped with the time this year.”
Carter and Pechous both agreed that the increased depth of the water allowed them to move faster. However, Pechous said that led to complications with pockets of the river that swirled and moved them back up stream.
“I wouldn’t describe it as rapids out there, I’d describe it as little tiny whirlpools,” Pechous said. “You try not to get into the eddy that’s going back up stream.”
The South Dakota Kayak Challenge has been an annual event since 2010, and Jarett Bies, Challenge co-founder, said that the event was created to give contestants something to be proud of, no matter how long it takes them to paddle the 72 miles of the Missouri River.
Bies has run the event since its inception nearly a decade ago, but the South Dakota Kayak Challenge will come to an end next year. Still, Bies said the smiles he sees as kayakers come in to shore, legs wobbly and clothes drenched in water, is what it’s all about.
“On race day and race week, it’s that adrenaline rush,” Bies said, comparing the Challenge to the Super Bowl. “You’re concentrated on safety, but … it’s what fuels our fire. We don’t get paid, so the payment is seeing those smiles.”