Conservation Pioneers, a Never-Ending Love Story

Bob and Barb Kipfer – medical professionals, parents, conservationists, heart-warming people – two lives well-lived through sharing.

By Larry Whiteley

From time to time in life, you meet people with hearts as big as the outdoors they love. It is hard for those who know these two unforgettable people, Bob and Barb Kipfer, to think of one without thinking of the other. They are husband and wife, but they are more than that. They are friends, they are a team, they are life partners in a life well-lived.

The first chapter in their book of life begins at Kansas University Medical Center. Bob was a medical student in his first year of patient care in the hospital wards. Barb had just arrived as a newly graduated nurse on her first job. During his daily classwork around the hospital, Bob took particular notice of Barb. One-day, Bob saw her going into a room where nurses went to dump bedpans. He followed her in, closed the door, and asked her out on a date. He thought he might get dumped-on too, but she said yes. They were married on September 4, 1965, and another chapter in their life had begun.

Two years later, Bob received his draft notice, then served with the infantry in Viet Nam as a battalion field surgeon. That meant he traveled into battle with the troops and worked in field hospitals in the battle zone. Barb continued nursing back in Kansas and caring for their newborn son, Mark, hoping Bob would make it back home. I am sure there were times when Bob wondered the same thing. Like most Viet Nam veterans, he doesn’t talk much about that time in his life. Needless to say, he did make it home to his family after his tour of duty ended. They settled down to somewhat normal life during four years of his residency at the Mayo clinic. Their family also grew with the birth of their daughter, Amy. Life was busy, life was good.

Bob, on right, during his tour in Vietnam on the field surgical team.

In 1973 Bob and Barb and the kids moved to Springfield, MO to start a new chapter in their lives. Bob practiced Gastroenterology and Internal Medicine at a local hospital. Barb began to teach at a school of nursing. They bought a home and moved into an urban neighborhood where they still live today. Their lives were busy, but they managed to find time to go fishing, canoeing, kayaking, and sailing on weekends. They played tennis. They traveled. They made lots of friends at work, in their neighborhood, and through social activities. One of those friends owned land with a cabin in the Ozark hills of southern Missouri, where Bob and Barb visited often, and they soon started looking for land of their own. That search led them to land with a clear-flowing creek running through a beautiful valley with forested hills and lots of wildlife. They fell in love with this special place, and another chapter was to be written.

Bob and Barb continued to work at their medical jobs during the week and stayed at their home in town. Unless they were traveling to places all over the world, visiting their kids and grandkids in other states, or going to social events, they were at their valley cabin on weekends.

Ten years after buying the property, Bob decided it was time for another chapter to be written. He had been working in medical administration, in addition to his medical practice, but having more fun on their property, he retired. He gave up tennis for a chainsaw and a tractor down in the valley. Barb waited two more years before retiring just to make sure Bob was house broke.

Retirement started another chapter to their story. During their time spent in the valley, they started working with the Missouri Department of Conservation to clear trees to bring back glades that were once there. They also worked with the department to plant trees for bank stabilization to protect the stream and their land. They even planted over 2,000 tree seedlings themselves for the same purpose. This all sparked their interest in conservation and fed their desire to conserve and protect this special place.

Barb provides an educational ecology tour for kids.

Their transformation from medical professionals to dedicated conservationists and conservation educators is an amazing chapter in their book of life. It’s about how their love for conservation grew and changed not just their lives but changed and touched the lives of so many others—more than they will ever know.

They became involved with the Springfield Plateau of Missouri Master Naturalists. Bob writes an informative blog for the group, Barb represents them on the Grow Native board. She leads educational tours of their urban yard in Springfield, where she has planted over 100 native plant species. She even made a video tour of what has been accomplished so far to be used for virtual education. Barb spends a lot of her time in the valley trying to rid their land of any kinds of invasive species or plants not native to the area. They have restored warm-season native grass fields and work at endangered species protection. They collect native butterflies, raise moths, volunteer at special events at the Butterfly House, and host mothing events at their property. A somewhat unique event.

They implemented a forest stewardship plan for their property, and it is now a certified Tree Farm. They were named State Tree Farmers of the Year in 2015 for all their work with timber stand improvements and even hosted a Missouri Tree Farm Conference.

Their land in the valley has grown to 400 acres and includes another cabin with their land additions. The valley and the house are used by college students for stream ecology studies. The Audubon Society has access to bird counts and education.  They have hosted Missouri Department of Conservation tours, a black bear study, Boy Scout activities, wildlife studies of plant and animal species, wild mushrooms studies, and field trips for groups studying plant and wildlife identification. Their land is open to other conservation-minded groups for retreats and ecology field trips, woodland management, and stream education.

Bob conducts a hands-on session sharing secrets of life in the outdoors for kids to learn more about conservation.

They were named the 2017 Conservationists of the Year by the Conservation Federation of Missouri. I would bet if you asked them what they have enjoyed doing most of all the things they have done, it would be their work with the public schools’ WOLF program. They teach fifth-graders in weekly classroom sessions and host kids in their valley for educational classes several times a year. Bob and Barb have profoundly impacted conservation in the lives of all the kids and people they have taught. The kids love them and will never forget Bob and Barb. This world could use more people like the Kipfer’s. Their impact on conservation has been immense.

One of these days, I hope in the far distant future, Bob and Barb will no longer be able to manage their land. When that time comes, they have donated it to Missouri State University under a protected agreement to sustain the valley’s natural ecology and use it to educate students who will be our future conservationists and conservation educators.

When Bob and Barb are gone, their ashes will be added to the old cemetery in the valley they loved. Their passion for conservation will continue through these students, the Wolf School kids, and all the other lives impacted by these two people. It will not be the final chapter of their book of life, though. Their story will go on through all the lives they have touched. Those people will pass on their passion for conservation. The Bob and Barb story will continue.

That makes this a never-ending story.

Voyage of Boatylicious Discovery

  • Missouri River 340, this ain’t no mama’s boy kayak float trip.
  • You don’t have to go to Alaska or Mt.  Kilimanjaro for an authentic outdoor adventure.
  • What you learn about extreme sports will pale in comparison to what you learn about yourself.
  • This year, the event will run August 8-11, 2017.
Kansas City’s skyline is visible from Kaw Point at the mouth of the Kansas River, where the MR340 starts.

By Jim Low

Missourians who wonder if they have the physical and mental toughness necessary to be extreme athletes don’t have to go far to find out.  They can test their mettle against a force of nature…the Missouri River.

In 2006, Scott Mansker and Russ Payzant, self-avowed “river rats,” decided to organize a paddle race to raise awareness of the world-class, but then little-known, recreational opportunities on the Big Muddy.  What they came up with was a nonstop ultra-marathon race from Kansas City to St.  Charles.  The distance between those two points – 340 miles – provided a name for the event, the Missouri River 340 (insiders generally shorten the name to MR340 or simply, “The 340”).  That first year, the event drew 11 solo paddlers and five tandem teams.  They were given 100 hours – a little more than two days – to finish the course.

Today, paddlers are allowed only 88 hours to finish the course.  They paddle so hard that the friction of their shirts causes their nipples to bleed, a distraction that veterans avoid with duct tape pasties.  The skin of their palms sloughs off in enormous blisters…more duct tape.

Packed like sardines at the start, paddlers soon are strung out over the Big Muddy’s vastness.

They endure the heat and humidity of August.

They risk literally being blown off the river by tornadoes or microbursts.

But if you think these obstacles cool the ardor of potential participants, you don’t understand the mindset of ultramarathoners.  Within days of wrapping up the inaugural Missouri River 340, Mansker and Payzant’s electronic in-boxes were flooded with email from paddlers eager to sign up for the next year’s race.

Participation ballooned so rapidly that they were forced to limit entries.   By early June of this year, nearly 500 individuals and teams had signed up for the race.  They will come from all over the United States and as far away as Japan to compete in 11 divisions: Women’s and Men’s Solo; Women’s, Men’s and Mixed Tandem; Solo Pedal Drive; Tandem Pedal Drive; Team (3-4 paddlers); Voyageur (5 to 10 paddlers); Dragon Boat (11-plus paddlers); and SUP (Stand Up Paddler.)

Spectators turn up at checkpoints to keep tabs on their favorite paddlers.

Last year’s top time – an astonishing 38 hours, 22 minutes – was posted by a six-woman team calling themselves “Boatylicious.”  The next four entrants to reach St.  Charles were all solo paddlers, three men and one woman.  All made the grueling paddle in under 45 hours.  That’s an average of more than 7.5 mph, including time to eat, drink and nap.

Napping is a must.  Even if you do, you stand a good chance of experiencing visual and auditory hallucinations, especially at night.  The 340 is scheduled to take advantage of a full moon, but phantom voices and spectral presences are a common experience in the profound darkness and calm that prevails between sunset and moonrise.  These can get you in trouble if you pay more attention to them than you do to what’s actually there.

Things like wing dikes, buoys, bridge pilings and barges.  While paddling at night in the 2007 MR 340, a mixed tandem team – ages 66 and 70 – misjudged the distance of an approaching barge and were plowed under when they tried to cross the river in front of it.  While their $5,500 kayak was being chopped to bits, the couple desperately clawed their way along the bottom of the barge’s hull, trying to avoid their boat’s fate.  Astonishingly, both paddlers emerged with only scrapes and bruises and were rescued by the barge crew.

“The 340” becomes a permanent part of some participants.

Racers are not entirely on their own.  A fleet of safety boats patrols the pack, checking on paddlers’ health, handing out sport drinks, helping in emergencies and – inevitably – picking up contestants who are simply played out.

Bringing up the rear is a safety boat known as “The Reaper.” Their job is to collect paddlers who fail to reach each mandatory check-in point in the pre-determined time necessary to have even a remote chance of finishing the race.  Slow, but dogged, paddlers dread the appearance of “The Reaper” the way that schoolchildren dread the end of summer.  But without this measure, the pack would become too strung out for safe supervision.

There are no adversaries at the finish line.

All this combines to produce epic stories: the cancer survivor who began training for the race while still undergoing chemotherapy; the alcoholic who set out to prove something to others and instead found the inner strength to overcome her physical and mental demons; world-class athletes who push themselves far beyond normal limits of human endurance and ordinary people who perform extraordinary feats.

It’s no surprise then that thousands of spectators turn out to witness the spectacle.  The biggest crowds gather at both, the starting point at the mouth of the Kansas River, and the finish line at St.  Charles’ Frontier Park.  But people also throng to the mandatory check-in points scattered along the course.  Ground-support crews mingle with relatives of racers, news media and curiosity seekers.  Highway bridges with pedestrian walks are favorite vantage points for gawkers and photographers.

If you want to get in on the fun, either as a participant or a tourist, visit rivermiles.com/mr340/ for details of this year’s event.  You also can follow the progress of the race Aug. 8-11 through posts on the MR340 forum, rivermiles.com/forum/YaBB.pl.