Paddling the mighty Kaw River

Our exploration of the Kansas “Kaw” River has finally begun. Being the main water artery of eastern Kansas, this river was responsible for the unplanned founding of the city of Manhattan when the steamship Hartford found itself aground here. The low water levels and sandbars had left us aground as well since moving to Kansas. But a series of recent thunderstorms left behind an epic deluge, making this the perfect time to navigate the river by kayak. For our first trip, our friend helped us shuttle our car to the boat ramp in Wamego. On the way home we stopped at Grandma Horner’s Foods to repay him with gifts of locally made pie filling and jam. This place is worth going to. They were super nice and loaded us with tons of really good free stuff.

When we got back to Manhattan, Kerry and I were left with the task of carrying our kayaks from our apartment to the river – about a mile-long walk. We hauled the boats across downtown, through the mall parking lot, and across a busy street and train tracks. This left us on the north side of the river, which is an awful boat launch. The banks were steep and slippery with mud. Eventually I got both boats in and ferried them across to the south side where I met Kerry at the boat ramp.

The first order of business was the Manhattan storm drain tunnels. Because of the the flooding, we were able to put on some headlamps and float right on in. The tunnels go for about a half mile before opening up to the channel that runs along the east side of Tuttle Creek Blvd. If water levels are right, this could actually be a convenient river access point depending on where you live. There are some smaller tunnels branching off of the main line, but we had lots of distance to cover so we made our way back to the river.

Most of the paddle was pretty peaceful and serene, interspersed with loud, obnoxious, terrifying moments. We had an encounter with two men that were firing hand guns into the river (I think to catch fish). That seemed pretty dangerous and illegal to us, so we hurried on our way. Shortly after, we turned a bend and ran into a flotilla of 4 canoes piled with about 20 loud, rowdy Kansas State University students that, upon seeing us, commenced throwing cans of beer at us (in a nice way). We dodged a couple close hits and got out of firing range as fast as we could. We reached the town of St. George, locked our boats to a post, and walked into town to Double T’s Snack Shack, a tiny pizza/kayak rental place. The wait there was very long, but luckily we were entertained by an endless playlist of 90’s music videos on TV.

After eating, we got back on the river and stopped at the first sizable island to camp. Camping on these islands, as far as I can tell, is legal and free. They’re pretty comfortable and have plenty of dead wood for making camp fires. I was pretty stoked about this campsite because it was really the first time that I’ve felt I was back-country camping in Kansas. In a state with essentially no backpacking trails and where a good portion of the rivers are considered private property, this is a rare find.

In the morning it was a very short paddle to our car in Wamego. The section after St. George was more scenic and had more wildlife that the part before it (which could have had something to do with the lack of shooters and college parties). Our average speed for the trip was around 4 miles per hour, with a maximum of 6. In total we covered 21 miles. We walked around Wamego a little and stopped at the Beecher’s Bible and Rifle Church on the way home.

The following Saturday night we returned to Pottawatomie State Fishing Lake #2 to camp for the night. This is the closest free campground to Manhattan. Several friends came to hang out at the fire, kayak around the lake, and eat with us. Three set up camp and stayed for the night.

On Sunday morning, we met three other paddlers at the boat ramp just outside the city of Ogden. The weather seemed pretty reasonable in the morning, so we went ahead and launched our boats, bound for Manhattan. About an hour into the paddle however, dark clouds began to descend upon us and things started to get terrifying. It started with rain, then came the lightening. As it kept getting closer and more frequent, we pulled off the river and waited for the storm to pass for a while. Soon it had settled and we took advantage of the temporary calm to finish the trip. In total on this day we covered 14 miles in about 4 hours. Ogden to Manhattan was pretty scenic and included the outlets of several well-known creeks including McDowell, Shane, and Wildcat Creeks.

I recommend the book Paddle Kansas if you want to get into paddling the Kaw River. It’s got lots of really useful information and maps. We’re hoping to do a much longer trip on a weekend downstream of Wamego to continue our explorations.

Kaw Map

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