KANSAS RIVER — The tiny community of Belvue, population about 240, swelled by about 100 people this week. And most arrived via the Kansas River.
The fleet of kayaks and canoes were afloat for Gov. Sam Brownback’s Governor’s Paddle on the Kaw. The float hosted members of the state Legislature, community leaders from towns along the river, the media and assorted state outdoors-based employees. Putting in at Wamego, the flotilla covered about 10 miles of river and stopped for a sandbar lunch on its eastward float and paddle to Belvue.
“One of our biggest (tourism) problems are the people of Kansas,” Brownback. “They don’t know the state well enough to promote it.
“We have to get ourselves out on the rivers and trails, so we can better know how to promote what we have.”
The trip Thursday from Wamego to Belvue also showed how some small towns – working with state agencies – make access to the Kansas River possible.
Roger Wolfe, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism river access coordinator, said things have changed a lot in the past 20 years. Back then, even though the Kansas River was public property, getting across private lands to access the river was nearly impossible for scores of miles at a time.
The Kansas River begins where the Smoky Hill and Republican rivers meet at Junction City, and ends at its confluence with the Missouri River at Kansas City.
“We now have 19 access points on the 173 miles of the river,” Wolfe said. “We only lack about two more access points for our goal of having access about every 10 to 12 miles. That’s about how much you need for a comfortable day of floating.”
At least 12 of those access sites are the combined works of a town or county, Wildlife and Parks, and the Friends of the Kaw, a river conservation group.
Wolfe said the key to the program’s success has been getting the local towns involved. One reason is that it has made limited state dollars go further.
The common process has been to give enough money to get a project started, and then let the city or county match that amount, or maybe contribute more, to take a project through completion.
“About $65,000 (in money and engineering services) was our commitment to Belvue,” Wolfe said. “If we had to go in and build it, it would be at least $150,000. It’s a great investment.”
Also great is that the sponsoring communities don’t have to match the state grant with cash.
Leroy Brunkow, Belvue’s mayor, said much of the town’s contribution to the access area came from volunteer labor and donated materials that included fuel from a local fuel business, hauling by an area trucking firm and the use of heavy equipment from area quarries and a utility company. The mayor said Friends of the Kaw were instrumental in helping the tiny town line-up many of the donations.
As at other access points built with community-state partnerships, Belvue will be responsible for much of the access area’s upkeep. Wolfe said that helps insure the future of good access to the Kansas River.
“When you have the mayor and all those local people that have donated time and materials, they have an investment to keep things looking nice and clean,” Wolfe said. “That sense of ownership is important.”
Brunkow said he sees a good amount of public pride for the access area in Belvue and has yet to hear any negative comments from locals.
“It brings attention to town and might draw some more people to our businesses,” he said. “It also gives some more recreation close to town.”
Charmin Harris, a member of Brownback’s Kansas River Development Council and an avid paddler, has been involved in Kansas tourism for more than 10 years. She left the river after Thursday’s float saying she’s glad to see how much river access has grown in the past decade, but said there’s still a lot of potential untapped.
Someday she would like to see things like bed and breakfasts that will pick-up and deliver guests to access points, and easier ways to get back and forth to other local businesses.
Possibly the biggest problem, according to Wolfe, is helping members of the public locate canoes and kayaks and, if needed, a ferry service to get back after a float is finished. Currently there is a small rental and shuttle service in Manhattan, and Tuttle Creek State Park rents kayaks, canoes and trailers during the spring and summer.
“We’ve made a lot of strides in 10 years; we’ll get there,” Wolfe said.
Brownback, a proponent of several kinds of outdoors tourism, said he hopes the state can offer more support for the river in coming years. He also said his first significant float down the Kansas on Thursday won’t be his last.
“It’s a great river to go down, the scenery has been fabulous,” Brownback said. “We get a bad rap that Kansas has nothing to see, but this is really fabulous.”