A group fighting to protect the Kansas River hopes canoeists will see the light and tell lawmakers to keep sand dredgers off what's left of the river.
You wouldn't think 130 people in 65 canoes could slip through a slow-moving, sandy river as if they were a family of ducks on a pond.
But recreation mixed with reverence Saturday during an annual mass canoe trip down the Kansas River, and the collective response of all those canoers was about as raucous as a lone worshiper in a cathedral.
Even in a canoe with an eager, curious, inquisitive 8-year-old boy and his dad, the slurp of our oars slicing through the water was soft and soothing as we slipped past river banks lined with cottonwoods and filled with invisible cicadas rasping their end-of-summer sonatas all day long.
The 12-mile trip -- not counting the zigs and zags that stretched our journey by miles -- was a benefit for Friends of the Kaw, a group formed two years ago to fight proposals to dredge sand in the Kansas River north of Lawrence.
Another float was scheduled today.
The trip began on the Republican River, just north of Lecompton and about 3 1/2 miles above its confluence with the Kaw. It ended at Riverfront Park in Lawrence, about 1 1/2 miles north of the downtown Bowersock dam.
For most of the trip I canoed with Steve Stemmerman, a special education paraprofessional at Lawrence High School, and his son Daniel, a Cordley School second-grader who was fascinated by just about everything he saw.
"Dad, look at that," he said, and said again. "Dad, what's that?"
There was plenty to see, and plenty to ask questions about, including a refrigerator, a washing machine and numerous beer cans along the shores, a Coleman fuel can floating in a tangle of branches, and the rusted skeletons of half a dozen cars, including what looked like a '57 Chevy half buried in a bank of the Kaw.
"Those must have been those seat belt testing cars," Daniel opined.
Friends of the Kaw called it a river float because the Kaw, as the river is known locally, doesn't have much current, which means you have to work hard to get anywhere on it whether you're going up stream or down.
The current is largely controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates major dams along the river, including one at Perry Lake.
In a 2-year-old battle to stop sand dredging on the river north of Lawrence, the Corps has become as much a target of the rhetoric as the two companies that have asked the Corps for permits to dig sand out of the river, Victory Sand & Gravel Co., of Topeka and Kansas City, and Penny's Concrete, Lawrence.
"We're trying to take our river back from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers," said Sam Seagraves, a Lawrence postal worker who helped organize the river float. "This river belongs to all of us. We want to have our river back, and we want our river to be clean so our kids can eat fish out of it."
Earlier this year, Friends of the Kaw tried to convince the state Legislature to impose a moratorium on sand dredging in the river, but the proposal was sent back to a committee for more work. The Army Corps of Engineers is still evaluating the dredging permit applications.
Friends of the Kaw did succeed in lobbying for a hike in dredging fees.
"We still have an uphill battle," said said Eileen Larson, co-founder of the group and an organizer of this weekend's river floats. "It's our responsibility to take care of our river."
For anyone who wants to know what the big deal is about dredging, opponents of it point with disdain to the river below DeSoto, near Kansas City and the river's confluence with the Missouri. There, the Kaw has been dredged for years so that today it is a deep, still channel, with little left that resembles a once natural waterway.
"Your alternative is to have a deep cesspool to paddle on," Seagraves told the river floaters Saturday, some of whom couldn't help but notice how sandy and shallow the river is above Lawrence.
The Kaw is not, by any standard I know, the most splendid or scenic river on the planet. Its water, laced with herbicides used on nearby farms, is brown and dense, daring, rather than inviting, swimmers and fisherfolks. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment advises against eating bottom feeding fish below Lawrence because of contamination with chlordane, an insecticide once heavily used in cities and now banned -- but still accumulating in fish.
It's rather obvious why companies that sell sand would have their eyes on the Kaw, which stretches 170 miles from west of Manhattan to Kansas City.
But the wide sandbars and shallow, sandy waters that forced some canoers to drag their boats Saturday are precisely what makes it an important biological resource for waterfowl, shorebirds and bald eagles seen with increasing frequency along the river.
Waterfowl, such as great blue herons, hunt for bugs on the sandbars and in the knee-deep waters. A nesting pair of least terns, an endangered species, has been spotted on the Kaw west of Topeka.
Eagles hunt for fish -- and for smaller birds.
"When the sandbars are removed, you remove the foraging habitat," said Chris Mammoliti, an aquatic ecologist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, which is studying the Kaw for its recreational potential.
That potential has inspired Friends of the Kaw to expand its mission to promoting canoeing on the river and other recreational activities.
The undeveloped stretch of the Kaw above Lawrence is particularly well suited for such a role because it's the state's primary public river available for canoeing. All but three of the state's rivers are considered private property. The Arkansas River running through the southern portion of the state is navigable when there's water running through it, as there is this year. But the Arkansas often dries up.
The Missouri River is for canoeists with more experience -- and even then they've got to be prepared to dodge tugboats that use the river as a commercial shipping route.
"Kansas is intensely focused on property rights," Larson said. "Most of the rivers are private and off limits to the public."
The Kaw is different.
"It's something that I think most people in the community take for granted," said Teresa Rasmussen, a former park ranger for the Army Corps of Engineers at Clinton Lake and one of the Saturday canoeists.
"It's part of our heritage," said her husband, Stanley, an environmental lawyer for Black and Veatch, a Kansas City, Mo., engineering firm. "I'd like to see the state take some action to protect the corridor."
Eric Bass was part of a contingent of emergency room nurses from Topeka who floated down the Kaw Saturday. He's 27, he grew up in Topeka, and until Saturday, he had never been down any stretch of the Kaw.
"In Topeka, it just doesn't seem like they do much with the river," he said between sips of Diet Coke during a break on a sandbar. "It's perfect. I wish there were more things to do on the river. You go to a lot of other places, and they really use their rivers."
Jessica Peterson, a 20-year-old Kansas University biology major form Salina, joined her boyfriend and three other friends from KU on the trip.
"It's beautiful," she said. "I think until you get out here and experience it, you don't really know how beautiful it is. To me, Kansas is an agricultural state. It doesn't have a lot of places to be outdoors."
"Even with all the people out here it's still beautiful," said her boyfriend, Jason Daniels, an environmental science major at KU. "I hope events like this encourage our legislators to protect the river forever."
- Friends of the Kaw's Internet home page is: www.tfsku.net/~tjhittle/