Paddling Into Adventure

By Missy Nieveen Phegley

When I was nearing my 40th birthday, lots of people asked how I wanted to celebrate this milestone. I really wanted to take a vacation by myself, but when I shared this with family and friends, their responses were, “You don’t want to do that,” “That doesn’t seem safe,” “That wouldn’t be any fun,” etc. Unfortunately, I listened to them, and I did not go on a solo trip.

All too often, as women, we feel we must choose the safe route — at work, in relationships and in adventures — but there is power in saying yes to those things that push us outside our comfort zones. Since my uneventful milestone birthday, I have tried to say yes to challenges more often. 

This past February, my friend Casey sent me a link to a paddling race on the Bourbeuse River. The race was 18 miles in mid-April and would be held rain or shine as long as river levels were safe. Ignoring all my fears, doubts and what-ifs, I registered for the race.

Prior to this, the farthest I had paddled my stand-up paddleboard was about five miles, and early spring Missouri weather isn’t exactly conducive to training for a paddling race. An even bigger unknown was weather during the race. I started watching the forecast a couple weeks out, and it looked promising … until the week of the race when a cold front and lots of rain blew in. The race officials pushed the race back a day in hopes the rain would let up and water levels would go down. 

As I drove nearly three hours to our campground the night before the race, I tried to distract myself with the scenic views in between downpours. I was scared, and I felt entirely unprepared, but I trusted my friend’s river expertise. I stopped at the access point where the race would start and took video of the churning brown water, a reflection of the nervous churning in my belly.

Casey and I met at the campground and watched the rain from the back of her car. I showed her the video of the river. While neither of us said it out loud, we were both OK with not racing if the conditions didn’t improve, but neither of us were quite ready to verbalize that sentiment. 

The rain stopped around 2 a.m., and we woke up to a breathtaking sunrise. Our campsite looked out over a lake, and as we were taking it all in, we spotted a bald eagle floating over the water. A feeling of calm flooded through me. Casey checked water levels, and the river was down two feet. We were good to go. 

We dropped our paddleboards at the put-in, left Casey’s car at the takeout, checked in and then headed back to the put-in. During the pre-race meeting, the energy of the competitors was palpable, made even more so by the warmth of the sunshine as weather conditions were completely opposite of the day before.

Casey and I were some of the first competitors on the water. Even though this was a race, we agreed we were going to enjoy the day and savor the experience. We made better time than I had expected because the river was up, and we were moving downstream. The Bourbeuse is known as Missouri’s most crooked river, so there were times when we went around a bend and were hit with a headwind so strong we had to paddle like crazy to move anywhere. However, those stretches never lasted long, and the scenery made our efforts worthwhile. The bluebells were in full bloom on both sides of the riverbank for nearly the entire 18 miles. We paddled past bluffs and farmland, trees arching over the narrower sections, and pastures with cows eyeing us as they guarded the riverbank. We congratulated ourselves for not being last when we noticed a kayak behind us, and then laughed when we realized they were the sweep boat that ensures people finish safely because they kept stopping when we stopped for photo ops. 

We finished in just over four hours, twice as fast as I had expected. We packed up and joined the rest of the competitors for the post-race meal and awards ceremony, and we left feeling satisfied and accomplished.

Now, as I reflect on this experience, I understand those four hours on the water represent much more to me than a simple race. The previous year had been extremely difficult, as my family and I had dealt with heartbreak and loss on top of all the stress and change caused by the pandemic. But this experience was empowering. I learned to trust myself and to be comfortable in situations I couldn’t always control, to work with the flow of the river (and life) instead of trying to fight it, and to fully embrace that the journey is as good, if not better, than the destination. 

I’m still learning and growing, but there is so much value in saying yes to spontaneous adventure, saying yes to things that scare you, saying yes to yourself. There is no guarantee the experience will go perfectly, but there is much to learn in those imperfect moments. And when things go right, it is pure magic.