Laura Calwell says she first fell in love with rivers growing up in Wichita, where her high school sat near the banks of the Little Arkansas River.
"That's really where I learned to canoe," she said. "We would have this water festival, so right after school we'd have canoe races between the different classes. And then in the evening, different clubs would make floats, and put them on the canoes with a spotlight on them, and everybody would come and sit on the banks."
Calwell left Wichita after high school to attend college at Kansas State University. But she never lost her passion for the power and mystique that great rivers hold.
In fact, she said her passion was rekindled in the early 1990s when her husband gave her a kayak as a gift, and they began kayaking on the Kansas River near their home in Kansas City, Kan.
Today, she heads the Lawrence-based group, Friends of the Kaw, and serves as the group's official "riverkeeper."
"I'm a non-governmental advocate for the Kansas River," Calwell said. "We're members of the Waterkeeper Alliance, which is an international water protection organization. There are also baykeepers, lakekeepers, coastkeepers - it kind of depends on what water body you're taking care of."
Friends of the Kaw began in 1993, mainly as a grassroots organization that opposed a proposed in-river sand dredge on the river near Lawrence, upstream from the Bowersock Dam.
"We worked hard on that," she said. "There was a hearing in Perry with the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers, and I bet we had about 200 people come out on a horrible night, with tornado warnings and lightning striking everywhere, to protest putting that dredge in."
As the "riverkeeper," Calwell spends much of her time responding to reports of illegal dumping and other kinds of pollution on the river, and notifying state and federal authorities about it.
As recently as this past week, Calwell said she found medical waste dumped along the river in east Topeka. She also answers calls about trash and other debris that people throw off the banks.
"Sometimes people will dump at access ramps," she said. "They'll just pull up and dump a bunch of (stuff). I've had people call me about seeing an oil slick on the river."
The group still lobbies to get existing sand dredges out of the river, and it supports proposals to move sand dredges out of the river and into dry land sand pits, even though she concedes that's "pretty contentious here in Lawrence right now."
Douglas County commissioners recently granted tentative approval for Penny Concrete to relocate its in-river dredge near Eudora onto dry land on the south side of the river. Neighboring property owners and the city of Eudora opposed that idea, saying it could threaten underground water supplies and the river-bottom environment around the site.
"I'm not going to say a pit mine is the end-all and be-all environmentally," Calwell said. "There are problems with pit mines also. And probably location of the pit mine is the most important thing."
One of the group's other main goals has been to increase public access to the river for boating, fishing and recreation.
Although those efforts initially met with opposition from farmers and ranchers who feared it would lead to trespassing and vandalism on their land, Calwell said Friends of the Kaw has worked closely with local communities and property owners to win their support.
"Really, we've kind of gotten over that," she said. "We went ahead and we've been working hard for the past 10 years to build access onto the river. And right now, we have one almost every 10 miles, from Junction City to Kansas City."
On a river where water flows only about 3 miles an hour, a 10-mile stretch is enough for "a leisurely day-float," Calwell said.
Last year, Calwell said, the Kaw was designated as a National Water Trail by the U.S. Department of Interior, which will help attract federal money for public access and tourism promotion.
Meanwhile, Friends of the Kaw sponsors several canoe trips each year along various stretches of the river - some of which, she quickly says, are more pleasant to visit than others.
"My least favorite part is through Topeka," she said. "It's simply a rock-lined ditch. My second least favorite is east of Lawrence, because that area has been very impacted by the dredging that's happened at Mud Creek."
And her favorites?
"The wilderness areas - I love the stretch between Eudora and Cedar Creek. It's also really beautiful between Topeka and Lawrence. And it's gorgeous above Topeka."