DE SOTO, Kan. (AP) — A bald eagle swoops over the Kansas River. Its fledglings have already hatched, but its large nest is hard to miss, nestled in a tree along the water.
Until recently, few visitors were able to paddle the river — also known as the Kaw — to see the eagles and herons that fish here and perch in the cottonwoods, sycamores and willows along its banks.
But an environmental advocacy group called Friends of the Kaw has been working with communities over the past decade to add boat-launch areas and take groups out on the river to see the wildlife that calls it home.
In part because of this work, the river was designated in July as the newest addition to the National Water Trails system. The designation encourages state, local and federal governments to work together to increase water recreation, promote tourism and help local economies.
"The Kansas River I think is fairly unique," said Laura Calwell, a spokeswoman for Friends of the Kaw. "It's a big, wide, prairie-based river and because of all the sandbars, it's like having an ocean beach in the middle of Kansas. And many of the rivers that I've paddled on in the United States, while they are beautiful, they don't have any sandbars. I'm like, 'Oh, I miss my sandbars on the Kansas River.'"
Up on those driftwood-strewn sandbars, paddlers look for frogs and the tracks of raccoons and deer that drink from the waters. The sandbars are public property, so paddlers are free to picnic and camp there, often with nobody else around.
"Right now as it stands on the Kansas River, if you are on a float trip you are probably not going to see another group," Calwell. "You might, but probably not. You really have the whole river and the sandbars to yourself."
The river is appropriate for novice canoers and kayakers when the water level is low, as it is now with this year's drought. Many sections are no more than knee-deep, which may surprise newcomers because the river is as wide as two football fields in some spots. But it's so shallow paddlers occasionally have to push their boats over sandbars.
And because the state is so flat, the river doesn't move fast, with water dropping only about 2 feet in elevation per mile (about a half-meter per 1.6 kilometers). That makes it safe and easy for family outings, though Calwell recommends passengers be at least 5 years old and paddlers at least 14, accompanied by an adult.
The river gets the most recreational use from spring through mid-October, though canoers and kayakers continue to paddle on warm days in late October and November.
The Kansas River is named after the Kanza or Kaw Indians who once lived along its banks. The waterway begins where the Smoky Hill and Republican rivers join at Junction City near the Fort Riley Army base. It then flows about 170 miles (273 kilometers) eastward taking paddlers through the scenic Flint Hills, two college towns and the state's capital before it dumps into the Missouri River at Kaw Point in Kansas City, Kan.
It was at the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers that the Lewis and Clark expedition camped more than 200 years ago as they journeyed westward to explore the Louisiana Purchase. But prior to a decade ago, the Kansas River had only three public boat-launch areas, with another four or five on tributaries, Calwell said.
With 11 public access areas added since then, the Friends of the Kaw is coming close to its goal of a public boat launch every 10 miles (17 kilometers). Eventually the group hopes to add more at five-mile (8.5 kilometer) intervals. Five-mile stretches are popular among novice paddlers because they take about two hours to complete, not including breaks, compared to three to four hours for 10-mile stretches.
Calwell's group is one of at least two that takes people out on the river, and several businesses rent canoes or kayaks for between $20 and $70 a day.
Ryan O'Neill, a 21-year-old junior in animal science at Kansas State University, began renting out his seven kayaks just this year after hearing from people wanting to explore the river.
"The scenery, there is something about it," O'Neill, who calls his business Mudkat Kayaking, mused. "Especially in the Flint Hills part. It's rolling hills, and as far as the river itself, it's really sandy and nice. It's not necessarily moving fast, so you can get out of your boat and look around and get into the water."
When planning a trip, keep in mind that some stretches of the river are more pristine than others. While debris like old tires and sand and gravel dredging operations mar some areas, other spans of the river are unsullied.
Calwell recommends monitoring wind speeds and the flow of water before departing, and watching out for dams. One low-water dam near a water treatment plant in Topeka has been particularly treacherous, killing a kayaker in July 2011 and two canoers in August 2007. Topeka already has added warning signs and a paved pathway where paddlers can portage their vessels to get around it. In mid-August, $50,000 was approved to study ways to make the dam safer, city spokesman David Bevens said. River enthusiasts eventually would like to see the dam transformed into a whitewater run.
"We recognize that the river is becoming more popular as a recreation outlet, and we are working with the public to make it as safe as possible around our water intake area and low-water dam," Bevens said.
Another project in the downstream town of Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas, has paddlers excited. As part of a hydroelectric plant that's under construction, Bowersock Mills & Power Co. plans to add a portage area by spring 2014 where people can pull out their canoes or kayaks and carry them around a downtown-area dam. The area already is popular among kayakers who like to play in the waves below the power house of the company's existing hydroelectric plant.
"The Kansas River is the great recreational resource for our corner of the state," said Bowersock owner/operator Sarah Hill Nelson, who herself has kayaked, canoed and camped on the river. "And I think it has been ignored or underemphasized for a long time."
If You Go:
FRIENDS OF THE KAW: http://www.kansasriver.org/. The nonprofit group organizes group float trips and provides tips for people planning their own Kansas River excursions. Contact the group's Laura Calwell, known as the Kansas River Keeper, for help at 785-312-7200 or email her at riverkeeper(at)kansasriver.org.
FLOTATION DEVICES: State regulations require one flotation device onboard per person, and children 12 and under must wear theirs.
UP A CREEK CANOE & KAYAK RENTAL: Lawrence, Kan., http://www.upacreek.biz or 785-318-6489. Offers canoe and kayak rentals and organizes private rentals and organized float trips.
— A-1 Rentals in Kansas City, Mo., 816-373-0234; Anderson Rentals in Lawrence, Kan., 785-843-2044; Mudkat Kayaking in Manhattan, Kan., 620-430-6754 or http://www.facebook.com/mudkatkayaking and the Jellystone Park in Lawrence, Kan., 785-842-3877 or http://www.kansascityjellystone.com/ .
— Tuttle Creek State Park in Manhattan, Kan., rents canoes and kayaks, 785-539-7941.
— University of Kansas rents canoes and kayaks to students, http://recreation.ku.edu/programs/outdoor_pursuits/equipment_rental.shtml , and Fort Riley Outdoor Recreation Center — http://rileymwr.com/odr/ — rents canoes and kayaks to those with current military identification, 785-239-2363.