I’ve never been big on fireworks. It didn’t help that, as a little girl, I watched a neighbor’s spent bottle rocket land in my older sister’s lap, burn a hole through her shorts and onto her leg. Like all the cats and dogs I’ve ever had and, for that matter, all the other animals I know of, I’d always dreaded Independence Day.
That all changed one clear, hot morning of a Fourth holiday when Lisa Grossman and I took two borrowed kayaks to the Kansas River, more commonly known as the Kaw. We put in at Mud Creek on the northeast edge of the Lawrence city limits. All we needed was a $10 deposit for a gate key from Lawrence Parks & Recreation. Away from the heat and noise of the city, Lisa and I slipped into a cool green corridor filled with bird song, the hum of insects and the dip of our paddles. Shadows of turkey vultures and an eagle passed over us. A green heron peeked at us behind cattails. Two beavers broke our reverie, rolling out of their lodge behind us and smacking the water to warn of intruders. Exploring a sand bar, we found purple mussel shells, spiny softshell turtle nests, and raccoon and opossum tracks. That day Lisa, who now owns her own kayak, also found a deep blue Ponds cold cream jar, the first of many finds she wouldn’t be able to leave behind.
The Kaw, like all rivers, is something of an archaeological conveyor belt, washing up the detritus of centuries of riverside dwellers. Among 19th and 20th century bottles, jars and even wagon wheels, it holds bones — some even fossilized — and American Indian artifacts.
Much of the year, the Kaw offers one of the cheapest natural playgrounds around. It’s free and open to the public from high water mark to high water mark on each shore. In addition to the Mud Creek Access Ramp, there are two other Lawrence access points: the Eighth Street access ramp on the east side of the levee and the Riverfront Park access ramp on the east bank of the Kaw west of the bridge on North Second Street. From the Eighth Street ramp, you can paddle 10 miles to Eudora or a more strenuous 20 to De Soto. (To plan your trip, visit KansasRiver.org, the Friends of the Kaw website, for water level and safety information.) For those who would like to paddle with a guide, Friends of the Kaw will organize floats for groups of 16-24 people. Keep checking the website for fall open trips as well.
For the true river rat, organizers at RiverMiles.com hold two river races on the Kaw. During October’s Kawloween, participants race from Lawrence to Edwardsville. The Gritty Fitty, launching this year June 18 from the Eighth Street ramp, ups the ante. Participants cover a grueling 50 miles from Lawrence to Kaw Point, the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers in Kansas City.