Newly built passage lets fish, kayakers move freely along Arkansas River

For years, Wichitan Steve Denton felt disappointment that his favored pastime was so far away.

“It’s always been eight hours, either to Colorado or Arkansas,” Denton said of the closest places for whitewater kayaking.

Meanwhile, for decades, many species of fish had an innate desire to migrate up the Arkansas River but were stymied by a dam in downtown Wichita.

Now those frustrations for local kayakers and fish are over. Wichita’s new Fish and Boat Passage project lets people like Denton enjoy a bouncing, splashing ride down the Arkansas, while a few yards away fish easily proceed upstream.

About 300 feet long and 50 feet wide, the concrete passage features about a dozen descending steps that turn the placid Arkansas into rapids, with other concrete structures on the sides to create eddies.

About a yard wide, and on both sides of the boat passage, the fish passages provide a series of submerged steps that allow fish to swim upstream, well out of the river’s strongest current.

Federal regulations required the creation of some sort of fish passage when the city asked permission to construct the new Lincoln Street dam.

“It turned out to be a really good project,” said Gary Janzen, a Wichita city engineer who worked on the passages. “When I’ve gone down, there have been quite a few (kayakers) and a lot of fishermen. People have seen fish in the fish ladders, so it’s allowing some species to go north.”

Jessica Mounts, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism fisheries biologist, said such fish passages are fairly common for trout and salmon on both coasts, but Wichita’s may be the only one like it in the Midwest.

While the city provided the engineering, Wildlife and Parks provided most of the funding. Mounts said about $150,000 came from the department, and it received a Coast Guard grant for another $150,000.

Mounts said she’s optimistic fish are making it up the system, and the department is undertaking a study to see which species are moving upstream. Once past Lincoln Street, fish can proceed about five miles before they are stopped by the dam at 21st Street.

Janzen and Mounts don’t need a study to tell whether the boat passage portion of the project is popular with local floaters.

Denton said he’s probably been to the passage about 30 times since it opened earlier this spring. On a recent evening he was one of five kayakers and a canoer.

“We’d come down here every day if our bodies could do it,” Denton said after piloting his kayak down the passage. Many of the paddlers are members of the Kansas Canoe and Kayak Association.

Riding in a canoe, Fred Graus carefully kept his bow pointed downstream and ran what some classify as Class II rapids.

Denton and others took much longer, backing their kayaks into side eddies and pushing themselves back and forth into or across the current.

“It’s a great place to practice for going on the big rivers,” he said. “On those big rivers you have to stop and catch eddies so you can look downstream and plan your route. You can’t just go straight down.”

With several decades of kayaking experience, Jim Johnson was complimentary of the boat passage, and how well the city and state worked together to get it created. The facility, he said, puts Wichita on par with cities like Dallas, Tulsa and Oklahoma City that have made – or have plans on making – whitewater areas.

Johnson said the design of the Wichita passage makes it easy for river floaters not comfortable with the rapids to portage around the edge of the swift water. The water depth is also shallow enough most people should be able to stand in the eddies if a canoe or kayak overturns.

It only takes floaters a few minutes to portage boats back upstream, using a walkway beside the passage or a sidewalk above it.

Johnson, who said he was involved in Wichita River Festival activities for many years, thought the boat passage could be a good place for festival events and for beginners to get introduced to whitewater kayaking. He hopes races can someday be held at the passage.

Some types of competition are already developing at the passage.

As Johnson and Denton kayaked the passage, two fishermen cast lines into the waters at the base of the rapids. They had their hooks out of the water before the boats arrived, but Denton was concerned other anglers might not be as considerate. His worries should be over.

Mounts said “No Fishing” signs were recently placed along the fish passage. Angling is still allowed in nearby areas.

“That’s good,” Denton said of such a regulation. “There are hundreds of miles of rivers to fish in Kansas, but we only have about 100 yards of (rapids).”

And with word getting out about the rapids in downtown Wichita, Denton and Johnson know less experienced people with less specialized floating crafts will try the rapids. It’s only a matter of time before a flotilla of inner tubes starts plying the swift water.

The kayakers said they don’t mind sharing, but they hope the rest of the public comes equally prepared.

“We always wear a helmet because concrete hurts, and there’s a lot of concrete here,” Denton said. “I sure prefer to see life jackets on everyone that comes here. We sure never go in without them.”

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