South Dakota’s kayak community may be small, but one Pierre paddler is ready to make his mark on distant waters.

Patrick Wellner, a bridge engineer, is preparing to compete in the Missouri American Water MR340, a 340-mile endurance kayak race across the state of Missouri between Kansas City and St. Charles, a suburb of St. Louis.

Competitors have 88 hours to finish the race, including signing in at nine timed checkpoints. Wellner said he hopes to finish in less than 70 hours.

Wellner is no stranger to competitive paddling on the Missouri River. In 2010 and 2012 he participated in the South Dakota Kayak Challenge, a 72-mile race between Yankton and Sioux City, Iowa, and plans to compete again this May.

The biggest challenge for such long, fast-paced races isn’t physical, but more mental, he said.

“You don’t have to push too hard; you just have to keep paddling,” Wellner said.

When March and April roll around, he plans to be training constantly on the river. In fact, up until a hectic schedule kept him away from the hobby in January, he had kayaked every month for three straight years.

In the last year he and his friends have tackled sections of the river, and have covered the length of the Missouri between the Oahe Dam and Chamberlain so far.

Wellner said his love for kayaking grew out of several trips he made in the Boy Scouts and with his parents. It’s something you can do with friends, but most people enjoy setting out on the river by themselves, he said.

“It’s a good way to get out there and lose yourself,” Wellner said

Jarett Bies, one of the organizers for the South Dakota Kayak Challenge who has known Wellner for nearly seven years, could only describe him as passionate for the sport.

“His enthusiasm is contagious; he loves to get outside,” Bies said, noting that Wellner is always willing to travel and share the sport, often bringing an extra kayak along just in case someone needs one.

Both Wellner and Bies agree the South Dakota kayak scene could be bigger. Wellner said the sport is starting to get some more attention, although there are only a handful of dedicated enthusiasts at the moment. He has even undertaken the task of holding a group session in the pool at the Oahe Family YMCA to work on fundamentals and hopefully draw in more people.

Bies said there are probably between 500 and 600 kayakers across the entire state. There were 150 racers in the South Dakota Kayak Challenge last year – a 100 percent increase from when it started three years ago. It’s growly steadily, but still a small niche when compared with areas such as the northwest or Great Lakes, he said.

But kayaking is something a person can do their whole life – unlike exercises such as running which can cause impact injuries. It’s also a relaxing and tranquil sport that gives a unique view of natural beauty, he said.

“Part of the allure of kayaking is you can go from a little pond to the Pacific Ocean and everything in between,” Bies said.

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