In handcrafted canoe, Missouri man and grandson will take river’s challenge

Ken Wodrich of Concordia, Mo., handcrafted a wooden canoe over the winter and plans to race with his grandson, Keton Schroeder, in the Missouri River 340. Last week they practiced on a city lake south of Concordia.
Ken Wodrich of Concordia, Mo., handcrafted a wooden canoe over the winter and plans to race with his grandson, Keton Schroeder, in the Missouri River 340. Last week they practiced on a city lake south of Concordia. The Kansas City Star

Nobody in Ken Wodrich’s family was terribly surprised when he decided to take part in a canoe race.

He’s 71, a retired livestock feed seller, lives on a farm. He’s not a canoeist. And the race — the Missouri American Water MR340 — goes all the way across the state in a Missouri River running fat and sassy right now from spring rain. Probably take three days, at least. Some navigating in the dark, maybe dodging a barge or two. Lot of heat, bugs and sweat.

Yeah, so?

That’s how Wodrich is. An adventurous sort. Up early, curious. Spry in step and mind and, apparently, paddle.

The family didn’t even think much about it when, after buying a canoe, Wodrich decided he would build one instead — out of trees from timber on his place. But when he got to the point of weaving cane for the two seats, daughter Julie Schroeder had to say something.

“Dad, just buy the seats,” she told him.

He looked at her, looked at his work, then back at her.

“Why?” he asked.

Schroeder laughed telling that last week at her father’s farm northeast of Concordia in Lafayette County.

“He is all in on this thing — like everything he does,” said Schroeder, of Lee’s Summit. “That’s how my dad rolls.”

And this time, Wodrich is rolling with his grandson, Keton Schroeder, 20, who’s wrapping up a final year at the University of Missouri-Kansas City before heading to medical school.

“He told me he wanted the seat in the back so I couldn’t tell if he was really rowing or not,” Keton said.

Team name: “We Got a Leak.”

Approaching the Wodrich farm on a gravel road, you can’t see the house because of a cornfield. That’s why directions include, “We’re the only rock mailbox on the road.”

Up the driveway, past the house, there it sits on a green lawn, about halfway to a pond: a 16-foot canoe that looks like a piece of furniture. Strips of white ash, dark walnut and cherry all bent, glued and polished, seemingly worthy of a den, but bound for the muddy, murky water of the Missouri.

“Well,” Wodrich said, “I had some wood sitting around.”

Scott Mansker, race official for the Missouri American Water MR340, which runs July 8-11, said they see homemade canoes every year — mostly from a kit.

“They took the raw wood from their farm and turned it into a canoe,” he said. “We don’t see that. It’s pretty rare to have that kind of legacy.”

The Missouri 340 is called an endurance race. A third of the 400 or so entries won’t finish the route, which starts in Kansas City and ends in St. Charles. Crews must hit nine checkpoints and finish within 88 hours.

Wodrich has been working out on a treadmill and elliptical machine. Linda, his wife of 50 years, made him get a physical, and he’s in pretty good shape. He knows, though, that a participant in an earlier year died of a heart attack during the race. How old was that man?

“Older than 71, I hope,” Wodrich said.

At first, Wodrich asked his son if he would do the race with him. The son asked him if he was nuts.

“So then I asked Keton,” Wodrich said.

News to Keton.

“So, I was second string?” he asked.

These two are tight. They’ve taken trips together and camped in Canada. Two years ago, Keton went along when Wodrich decided he wanted to jump out of an airplane. They’ve made knives in a homemade forge.

“Yeah, I guess he’s a little different from a lot of grandpas,” Keton said.

Wodrich asked if a story in The Star could include Keton’s phone number in case a girl would want to call him. Keton looked at his grandfather a moment before saying: “What a guy.”

Wodrich had cut the trees used for the canoe about five years earlier for his woodworking. He’d stuck to small tables and a few shelf units made from sycamore roots cut from a creek bank. He needed help with a canoe, so he had Linda find him a book on the Internet.

She came up with “Building a Strip Canoe.” He went to work with the saws, planer and router in his shop behind the house, and three months later it was done.

“From morning till night, he just had to keep at it,” Linda said.

Not real difficult, Wodrich said, just time-consuming. Each of the 64 or so strips of wood had to have a “bead and cove” for a tight fit.

Keton helped, some.

“Not as much as he would have liked,” Keton said.

Now, it’s about the race.

The two have practiced once in the Missouri River. In four hours, they went from Lexington to Waverly.

With the river running high now, they practiced Thursday at the city lake south of Concordia. From shore, daughter Julie kept telling them they needed to tip over so they could practice climbing back in.

Wodrich took it for a while.

“You’re captain only to a point!” he finally yelled from the boat.

On Thursday, the Missouri River was going 3.8 mph. Wodrich thinks they can do 6 mph, easily finishing within the 88 hours. They plan to paddle all day and into the night, going at least 100 miles before putting in and grabbing a couple of hours of sleep in a car.

Linda Wodrich and Julie Schroeder will lead the support crew, providing food and water. Julie told her father, though, that, no, she won’t lower beer from a bridge.

According to the race website, the biggest hazard to paddlers will be motorboats, mostly fisherman, and “the occasional towboat pushing barges.”

That has Linda and Julie concerned. The barges part.

“As long as we stay awake it shouldn’t be a problem,” Wodrich told them.

Not exactly soothing words. Keton looked off to the side and smiled. He’ll get this canoe someday, Grandpa said.

“If he’s brave enough to go with me, he can have it.”

To reach Donald Bradley, call 816-234-4182 or send email to dbradley@kcstar.com.

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