On a recent evening, Marcia Rozell paddled her kayak across a small pristine lake as a pair of young bald eagles, only recently fledged from a nest above the shore, tested their wings above the River Pond area of Tuttle Creek State Park.
The next morning, a few minutes south of the park, Rozell let the current push her kayak down the Kansas River, a wide waterway with sandbars big enough for camping and cooking meals on driftwood fires. When the winds are quiet enough, she has more than 100 miles of shoreline at nearby Tuttle Creek Reservoir to explore with her craft. There are quiet coves, steep rock outcroppings and long stretches of tallgrass prairie spectacularly dotted with wild flowers.
That Tuttle Creek State Park offers paddlers quick access to three styles of water, and the canoes and kayaks with which to enjoy them, shouldn’t be a surprise, said Todd Lovin, state park manager.
“I think the thing that makes us so special is that we offer access to so many different kinds of areas,” he said. “And we offer a lot of different options for about anything people want to do.”
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Four parks in one
Lovin said the diversity starts within the park’s four areas. There’s the heavily wooded River Pond area below the dam and the more open prairies of the Randolph and Fancy Creek areas 20 miles to the north, where Tuttle Creek Reservoir looks more like a river. The spillway area sits near the reservoir’s widest point for those who want to camp by and play on the bigger water. More than 700 campsites are spread among those areas, ranging from air-conditioned cabins and sites with full utilities to primitive campsites.
The River Pond area, Lovin said, is the state park’s largest and best attended. It is sheltered with the lake’s dam on one side and towering cottonwoods on the other. The campground’s namesake body of water is about 100 acres of usual peacefulness. Powerboats can’t legally go fast enough to leave wakes. The beach is sandy and wide, and angling access is easy from along the shoreline or several fishing docks from which channel catfish, white bass and saugeye are commonly caught.
And the fishing opportunities in the entire area can be as diverse as the camping. The main reservoir often holds some of Kansas’ best populations of saugeye, crappie, white bass and catfish. Those who prefer angling in moving water have the outlet area where the Big Blue River rushes from the bottom of Tuttle Creek’s dam. A half-mile downstream, anglers can cast lines into swift water below an eight-foot waterfall where a grain mill once spun at the legendary Rocky Ford fishing area.
There are 25-plus miles of assorted trails for hikers, horseback riders and mountain bikers. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates nearby areas for off-road vehicles and motorcycles, too. The River Pond area has an archery and crossbow range. The Fancy Creek area holds rifle and handgun ranges with distances from 10 to 100 meters. It’s open the first and third full weekends, and the fourth Thursday, of every month.
Paddle craft options, rentals
But if the state park is gaining a reputation for anything, it is being the unofficial Paddle Sport Capital of Kansas. It is one of the few facilities where the public may rent canoes and kayaks. Rates run $5 an hour for kayaks and canoes or $20 for a 24-hour rental. The price includes paddles and life jackets.
The launch point on River Pond is only a few yards from the rental area. Those who want to travel farther may rent a trailer for $20 a day. Most hauls end at a Kansas River launch minutes from the park. It is one of only three rivers classified as “navigable” in Kansas, meaning it is public property and can be floated or fished.
Rozell, who is the Manhattan Convention and Visitors Bureau tourism sales manager, said public access to the 150 miles of river east of Manhattan has increased greatly in recent years, with ramps about every 10 to 12 miles.
In 2012, the U.S. Department of the Interior designated the Kansas River a National Water Trail because of its floating qualities. Only 15 U.S. streams have that designation. This summer, floating on the Kansas River has been easy.
“There’s been a lot of rain, and a lot of good water flow, especially for this time of the year,” Rozell said. “It’s still a challenge, though, because the sandbars are always changing.”
Tim Calmes recently opened Double T’s Snack Shack and Canoe Rentals in St. George, the first town downstream from Manhattan. As well as renting kayaks at $25 per day and canoes at $30 per day, all gear included, his business hauls and picks up boats and paddlers on four-hour floats above or below St. George.
Word-of-mouth advertising and a simple Facebook page have been keeping him busy.
“Our first 30 days tripled the business we thought we’d do,” he said. “We’re already talking about having to get more boats. There are a lot of people out there that want this kind of service.”