As the "Spirit of the Kaw" churned along the Kansas River, a blue-winged teal created a stir by fluttering its wings half in the water.
Feeling danger from the boat's presence, the bird was signaling to her ducklings to head for cover, while also pretending to be injured to lure any would-be predator away from her babies.
The glimpse into nature and the instinct of a bird to protect its offspring and continue the species was within sight of Interstate 70 and minutes from the congestion of downtown Lawrence.
"That was a gift," said Tom Farris, as he watched the bird fly off and steered the houseboat along the shallow river.
A brief ride on the Kansas River, known as the Kaw, gives a hint of the lessons it can teach, but also reflects people's use and abuse of the waterway.
The river has come into focus again as state officials have waded into politically churned waters.
The Kansas Water Authority has ordered a review of degradation, or lowering, of the riverbed, reigniting the debate between recreational users of the river and sand-dredging operations, which pull sand from the river to be used in concrete.
Laura Calwell, who is the Kansas Riverkeeper for the Lawrence-based Friends of the Kaw, said the 170-mile river that winds through northeast Kansas has a split personality.
In some stretches, it presents lush banks teeming with wildlife, including eagles. The river offers sandbars where canoeists can stop and listen to the sound of the water, view nature and enjoy the absence of daily noise.
In other stretches, the river looks like a junk heap with concrete boulders and rusted cars littering the shore and poking out of the water.
The bottom line, though, Calwell said, is that the Kaw's slow current, in most spots, makes it "recreation-friendly and the state of Kansas has ignored it."
And, she said, more and more people want to canoe, boat and fish on the river, which is open to the public.
These demands for recreational opportunities have increased as the population grows. The Kaw runs through 10 counties with more than 1 million people, or about 40 percent of the state's population.
The river, formed 600,000 years ago by a melting glacier, starts at the confluence of the Republican and Smoky Hill rivers at Junction City and flows to Kansas City, Kan., where it joins the Missouri River.
For more than 100 years, the Kaw has been a major source of aggregate for construction from Topeka to the Kansas City metro area. Most of the sand used - more than 1 million tons per year - has been removed from the riverbed through hydraulic dredging.
An initial report by the Kansas Water Office states that the riverbed has dropped in some areas, costing public water suppliers and power companies millions of dollars because the level of the stream has dipped below water intake pipes.
This degradation is caused by several factors: natural flooding, the effect of water released from dams that scour the bed, problems with the Missouri River and sand dredging.
Calwell said the state couldn't legislate against natural flooding, no one is going to take down the dams, and Kansas has no jurisdiction over the Missouri River. That leaves sand dredging with a big target on it.
Friends of the Kaw will sponsor a dedication and float trip June 25 from the new Lecompton access point to Riverfront Park in North Lawrence. Cost is $25 per person and includes a shuttle. Participants will meet at Riverfront Park at 11:45 a.m. for transportation to Lecompton. More information and registration is available at www.KansasRiver.com.
The Kansas Water Authority will consider the next step in the study of degradation on the Kansas River at its August meeting, which will take place in Garden City.
"I believe sand dredgers will be off the river in 10 years," she said.
But David Penny, president of Masters Dredging Co. of Lawrence, said sand dredging posed no harm to the river and most degradation occurred naturally or from the scouring effects of water released from reservoirs.
"Ironically, the Kansas River is probably in better shape than in the days of Lewis and Clark," he said, because, back then, millions of buffalo left their waste in the watershed to run into the river.
Matt Cain, of Eudora, who describes himself as a fourth-generation river rat, uses an air boat to go up and down the river for fishing. He said he believed environmentalists were hostile to any uses of the river but their own and, if they succeeded at getting sand dredgers banned, they would set their sights on trying to remove other users.
Canoeists, he said, "have this dream of putting outfitters on the river between Lecompton and Lawrence. It's not going to happen. The Kansas River just is not a scenic waterway."
Aside from dredging operations, Calwell said Friends of the Kaw had no agenda to remove other users from the river. She said the group would like the sand dredgers to move onto land and excavate their material from pits.
She said if the dredgers moved, she would be at the forefront of fighting to help them get the necessary permits.
But Penny said no thanks; pit-mining is limited and more expensive.
Regardless of the political battle, Farris, at the wheel of his houseboat and pointing out blue herons in flight, said the key was getting more people on the Kaw.
"Whatever we can do to get people on the river," he said. "Once they get on, they like what they see and want to protect it."