Some may think that I-70 is the best route from Junction City to Kansas City. They’re wrong. Over the last four weekends we discovered another way which involves sore shoulders, stiff backs, blistered hands, rain-soaked nights, lots of sweat, and painful sunburns. And you actually have to drive twice as much distance, so it’s pretty inefficient. But trust me on this.
Saturday, after running the Speedy-PD 5/10K race to support the Parkinson’s Program of Manhattan which Kerry works for, we drove to De Soto, Kansas. There are very few reasons that the casual traveler would visit this small, off-the-beaten-path town. But for us, it was the key to completing a project over a month in the making. Six of us launched our kayaks from the De Soto boat ramp, intent on paddling the final 31 miles of the Kaw River.
We had intended to finish the trip last weekend. Paddling 91 miles in a weekend sounded pretty reasonable at the time. It was not at all reasonable. Not even a little bit. We gladly stopped after 60 miles and left the last 31 for this weekend.
The last stretch of the paddle was noticeably dirtier than the sections before. Our kayaks were surrounded by puffy clouds of floating filth (some kind of bacteria?). As we approached Kansas City, the garbage was everywhere. It was interesting to see the transition from wilderness to urban sprawl and industrial wasteland. In De Soto the river still looks relatively natural. The closer we got to the city, the noisier it got as well. Trains passed on both sides. Planes were landing above our heads. We passed under many bustling bridges. It’s amazing that wildlife is able to live in this section at all.
We had to portage around a dam at Edwardsville which had absolutely no infrastructure to help out paddlers. Downstream of the dam, we hit a stretch of unavoidable rapids. We were almost through when one of our kayaks tipped, dumping the paddler in. We mounted a quick rescue and bailed out the boat. Then we found a nearby island (one of the last that we saw on the trip) to pull off and camp.
The next morning we awoke and got back on the river. We got a bit of excitement from a bunch of carp that jumped around, into the side of, and even over our boats. At around noon we paddled up to Kaw Point, the conclusion to our 172-mile trip. Kaw point is where the Kaw River meets up with the Missouri River and officially ends. It was here that explorers Lewis and Clark camped for three days before continuing their legendary voyage out west.
Once we loaded up the kayaks, we swung over to Overland Park to check out a free Indian festival, including some delicious food! It felt like we had gotten off the river in another country. After that we headed back home.
If you live in Kansas, I highly recommend that you take a weekend at some point and paddle a section of this river. You’ll see a part of the state that’s very different from what you’re used to. If you like it, go ahead and paddle the entire thing! I recommend taking more time than we did. Take more breaks and enjoy your time on the Kaw.
The Friends of the Kaw maintains a very useful website: http://kansasriver.org/ It includes a detailed map of river access points, historical information, and a tool to report pollution (especially if you live near KC!). The FOTK also organizes paddle trips and funds boat ramps and other facilities at access points.
Finally, let people know how much fun river paddling can be. Kansas is one of the few states in which most rivers are considered private property and paddling is not allowed. We need this culture to change. Rivers should belong to everyone.
As always, thanks to Picky Bars for sponsoring this adventure. Also a big thanks to Darrin and his magic truck for getting dozens of boats and people where they need to be over the last month. Stay tuned for Kerry’s talk about this trip and more at REI Overland Park!