The soft sounds of calling birds, riffles lapping against his kayak, and the explosive splashes of startled fish just inches away …
Wally Seibel heard those and many other sounds Monday evening, sounds that have so endeared floating the Arkansas River to him.
Repeatedly, though, he also heard the scraping sounds of sand and gravel that literally ground his kayak to a halt.
“We knew it was going to be like this,” Seibel, of the Arkansas River Coalition, said of the low water in many parts of the river. “But we didn’t even figure we could put this off until Wednesday and still have enough water for any kind of a float. We had to act quick to take advantage of recent rains.”
Two years of drought have played havoc with the group of local floaters who host a variety of free gatherings on the river.
Most years they have several all-day floats and some camping trips on the river. When conditions are right, they often have two midweek evening floats per month. Some are open to the public and others for specific groups.
While disappointed they can’t enjoy floats themselves, coalition members are more frustrated that continual low-water conditions hamper the group’s main goal of getting more people to appreciate the Arkansas River.
“We’re not really a paddle group,” Seibel said as he coasted the river by the Hydraulic Street Bridge. “We’re about the river. (These floats) are a way to get people out and let them experience and enjoy the river. It’s the best way we can show them how important the river is.”
Though best known for the river floats and free kayak trials for hundreds of people at the Wichita River Festival, the Arkansas River Coalition also has lobbied against pollution and overdevelopment along the river, while long trying to improve public recreational access.
E-mails for Monday’s float went out to interested parties last weekend when Seibel and other members noticed a rise in the river from last week’s rains.
About 20 people showed up for the 5:30 p.m. gathering at Garvey Park. Many were beginners who borrowed kayaks, and others needed equipment from the group.
The temperature was still about 100 degrees when kayaks and a lone canoe were toted about 200 yards from the parking lot to the edge of the thin river.
“We usually find the deepest water around the outside bends,” member Vince Marshall advised the group just before they launched. “But there are going to be (very shallow) places where we have to get out.”
Marshall, Seibel and other members tugged, pushed and encouraged floaters across a shallow flat of a few inches of water toward the river’s main channel. So it probably went in up to a dozen places along the four-mile float.
“At least we’re getting a lot of practice getting in and out of the kayaks,” joked Mike Arnold, who has been on several Arkansas River Coalition floats.
The heat and humidity added to the difficulty. Because the river’s channel often changes, even the club’s experts were often left high and almost dry.
But there were also long stretches of peaceful floating.
“If it wasn’t for the traffic noise, you’d think you were in a wilderness,” Seibel said as he drifted through the cool shadows of overhanging elm, cottonwood and box elder trees.
And there were four or five stretches of riffles that bounced and pushed the kayaks at a better speed. Seibel rated one series of riffles as “about a class one-half rapids … but we’ll take it.”
Arnold joked, “Finally, like they show in the tourism brochure.”
After a long stretch of dragging, people got to float the last 200 or so yards before their take-out spot near the 47th Street Bridge at sunset.
Most were drenched, but more from sweat than the river. Some predicted sore muscles to come.
Still, most enjoyed the river.
“That was quite a workout, kind of like those fitness boot camps with all that walking and dragging,” said Brad Tull, who brought his new kayak to his first coalition float in the seat of his convertible. “Once you get moving, though, it’s really awesome. I will be back, but hopefully with some more water.”