I’ve lived in Wichita for the past 23 years, and I’ve only been on the Arkansas River twice – both times, appropriately enough, during the city’s long-standing Riverfest event. My husband was born and raised here, and during those 46 years he’s only been on the river a couple of times, too, also during Riverfest.
Kudos to the organizers of the annual event for keeping the river in the fest (though there were a few years where it lost its water focus) because I’m betting our family isn’t that much different than other families that enjoy the outdoors but are not so enthusiastic that they own a kayak.
Outside of Riverfest, how can Wichitans and visitors who do not own a watercraft take advantage of the portion of Arkansas River that flows through our downtown? I set out to answer that for myself and to share my research with you.
The good news: this year a business will begin offering year-round watercraft rentals near the Douglas Avenue bridge. The bad news: until then, you’ll have to plan your time on the river to coincide with events, clinics and other organized floats. More good news: the city of Wichita, the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism and local river supporters are all working together to provide more opportunities for anyone who wants to engage with the river.
“We’re seeing a lot more interest in the river and more of a mindset of using the river like a park,” said Wally Seibel, a board member of the Arkansas River Coalition since the group’s inception in 1999.
Several things have helped to increase attention on the river: rising interest in paddlesports across the nation and the U.S. National Park Service naming the 192-mile stretch of the Arkansas River from Great Bend to the Oklahoma border one of its prestigious National Water Trails. There are just 21 National Water Trails, indicating ours is considered one of the best for recreation in the nation.
Here’s a rundown of what is offered now and what’s coming. Remember no motorized watercraft are allowed on the river.
Boats and Bikes rentals opening this year
In addition to 200-plus apartments along the west bank of the Arkansas River, River Vista developers are building a boathouse that includes a 240-foot public dock and 9,000 square feet of indoor space for heated storage, men and women’s locker rooms and retail space.
In addition to serving as the new home of the Wichita State University rowing program, the boathouse will include a rental operation run by the rowing team. Boats and Bikes will rent canoes, kayaks, paddleboats as well as wheeled rentals, from bicycles to skateboards, said Calvin Cupp, WSU rowing coach. He said the public will be able to rent year-round, as well as take lessons and book events at the boathouse.
Opening date depends on completion of the River Vista project, slated for late spring.
“We fully expect that sometime during the summer we should be operating,” Cupp said. “Once we can move in, it’ll take us a little time to gear up so that when we do open we are offering a quality experience. We want to provide diverse programming that people are excited about and that makes them want to come use the river.”
City of Wichita clinics
The city of Wichita summer guide (wichita.gov/ParkandRec) will come out in March and will include clinics on the river for experienced paddlers and first-timers. Last year, these classes included standup paddleboarding, canoeing and kayaking. The cost is generally $20-$25 for three hours; morning classes included a sunrise breakfast and evening classes offered a sunset dinner. Troy Houtman, Wichita’s director of Parks and Recreation, said to expect a similar schedule this year.
“In the past, we’ve had to turn people away because these classes are so popular,” he said. “We’re going to try to expand the schedule but we also think the opening of the River Vista dock will take away some of the demand from experienced paddlers. Our classes are flexible enough and there’s enough supervision that first-timers get an introduction to the river and paddling while those who don’t need instruction but don’t have the equipment get time on the river to explore.”
Houtman said his team also envisions more events at the river, from bands playing on a waterfront stage in Delano Park to community picnics to fitness classes on or near the river.
“We know that this is a great resource and we’re not using it to our fullest potential,” Houtman said. “Getting some of these new spaces completed near the River Vista project and having activities to bring people down there will remind everyone how beautiful it really is.”
Arkansas River Coalition floats
Seibel and other volunteer members of the Arkansas River Coalition organize floats on the river about once a month and they can loan out equipment for the floats. These trips are for all skill levels and children are welcome if accompanied by an adult.
A typical Saturday trip will cover eight to 10 river miles at a leisurely pace. The group starts about 9 a.m., takes a lunch break on a sandbar and finishes by 3 p.m. Often Seibel will organize an optional overnight camp to extend the day float. The coalition also organizes summertime weekday floats from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. on the Arkansas or Little Arkansas rivers.
A schedule and details on floats are available at arkrivercoalition.org. It’s best to reserve a spot if you’re borrowing equipment; they have 20 kayaks and a smaller number of canoes available. There is no charge to join a float, though they do accept donations ($15 suggested) when borrowing their equipment. For information or to RSVP, contact Seibel at email@example.com or 316-684-0730.
Wichita Rowing Association classes
The Wichita Rowing Association owns a number of sculling and sweep shells and other equipment for the use of its members and the community through organized classes and events. Their classes generally are offered from late spring through early fall. There is an introduction to rowing that costs $30 and covers the basics, including getting out on the river with a volunteer rower. They also have five-day Learn to Row classes that cost $140 per person. Minimum age is 14 and anyone under 18 must be accompanied by an adult. Find more information at wichitarowing.org.
Riverfest is June 1 to 9 this year and will continue to include events that feature the river and activities to get on the river. There will also be a National Water Trail dedication event in Wichita on Saturday, June 23 that organizers said will offer opportunities to get on the river.
Despite the current lack of daily opportunities to get on the river, Visit Wichita, the city’s convention and visitors bureau, encourages visitors to experience the river from its banks during special events and year-round as a running, walking or biking destination or to explore one of the many riverside attractions.
“Wichita is fortunate to have the Arkansas River flowing through the heart of the city,” said Susie Santo, president and CEO of Visit Wichita. “It’s a draw to the area and brings people together … where it meets with the Little Arkansas River is home to the Keeper of the Plains – the pride of our city and also a popular gathering place and the most photographed attraction in Wichita.”