Slow raft to the Mississippi

Nobody can rightfully accuse Jordan Miller of taking the easiest way through life, at least not when it comes to travel.

Earlier this month he left his Colorado home to go see friends and family in Arkansas. But rather than taking the easy two days in an air-conditioned car he’ll be spending two or three months pulling hard on oars or paddles while enduring stifling heat, rain and clouds of hungry bugs. He’ll be spending most of those nights camping on sandbars and cooking with campfires on 600 miles of the Arkansas River. The 27-year-old certainly has a sense of adventure.

Last year Miller was heading from his home in Arkansas to visit family in Montrose, Colo., when he noticed the road kept crossing the Arkansas River.

“I figured it had to be the same Arkansas River we had back home,” Miller said, “so I thought it’d be more fun to float the river the next time I went home than to drive.”

Miller and two Colorado friends are currently rafting the Arkansas River from Great Bend, where they launched on June 9, to where the river meets the Mississippi River. Miller, Montrose-based friends Donny Knowles and Susana Sierra, are riding in an 18-foot bright yellow raft they bought online for $300. They’ve been on a tight budget.

“I had to wait for one last paycheck to get the oars,” Miller said, “and that was the Friday before we left.”

Basically, none had any rafting experience.

Rafting rookies

“Well, I did go on a white water trip one time many years ago. Other than that we’re just kind of learning as we go,” Knowles said with a laugh as they rested on a sand bar near Hutchinson on Tuesday afternoon. “But when I heard what he was doing, I was like, ‘Hey, I’m in, sounds like fun.'"

Miller said he’d spent a lot of time on the water in other craft, often canoes, growing up in Arkansas.

Since Knowles and Sierra are carpenters, they had some good insight on how to construct an internal frame of plywood and PVC pipe for the raft.

“We also made an awning to cover the boat, to keep us in some shade, but we haven’t been able to use it much,” Miller said. “We’ve had too many trees hanging over the river the first few days.” Between Great Bend and Hutchinson the trio floated through many areas where trees about shrouded the river. In a few places the trees were so low to the surface the trio had to push and pull the sizable raft to keep it moving downstream. Brush had to be cleared with an axe, too.

It could have been much worse.

Miller’s original hope was to float the Arkansas from Colorado all the way home. Then he learned about 100 miles of the river was dry in western Kansas. Some online research helped Knowles contact Vince Marshall of the Wichita-based Arkansas River Coalition. He’s the one who suggested they putin at Great Bend. Their timing, Marshall said, was fantastic.

“I had no idea their boat was that big,” said Marshall, an avid kayaker. “Most years you probably couldn’t get something that big down the river out there. I’m surprised they made some pretty good time in that stretch.”

Miller said they’d had some “train-wrecks,” and had taken a few days off to rest and walk into a nearby town for supplies.

Sierra said biting flies the first few days have been her least favorite part of the trip. Nearly all skin not covered in tattoos or clothing is sunburned. She said her biggest fear was hitting something sharp, like a chunk of concrete with metal support rods exposed, that could rip a big hole in their air-filled raft.

“Really, I’ve just enjoyed being out on the river where it’s peaceful,” she said. “We’ve seen so much wildlife, too. We’ve seen a weasel, bobcat, a badger digging on the shore, ducks, lots of deer.”

“We’ve seen a lot of buzzards, too. I’m not so sure that’s a good sign, though,” she added with a laugh. She’s a bit concerned about cottonmouths and alligators toward the end of their float.

They’ve seen very few people on or along the river, but Miller’s impressed with most he’s met along the trip. Two fishermen gave him all the bug spray they had. A rural homeowner had no ice, but gave the floaters three frozen jugs of water to keep them from having to walk into town for ice. He was especially complimentary of Marshall and others of the Arkansas River Coalition.

Between Great Bend and Wichita, Marshall checked on the group several times and brought them some supplies and a detailed map. Friday he brought a big trailer to ferry the raft and gear around two dams along the river. Other coalition members will help the floaters between Wichita and the Oklahoma border.

No rush

While the river gets wider and deeper the further they float, Miller said they’ll also have the challenges of getting around about 20 dams.

“I’ve got friends scattered all through Arkansas, so I should be able to make a call and get a pickup about anywhere we need one,” he said, adding that they’d probably have to deflate, then re-inflate, the raft several times.

None of the floaters are on a time schedule, so it’s not big deal if they lose a half-day here or a full-day there, figuring things out.

“I’ve been a carpenter, building houses for 25 years so I’m ready for a break,” Sierra said.

“I’m a retired carpenter,” said Knowles. “But here I am, 46 years old and spending two months floating the Arkansas River.”

Miller said his job at a brewery/restaurant is waiting whenever he returns to Montrose, though he’s not exactly sure how he’ll make that trip.

“That’s in the works,” he said of finding a way back to Colorado. “We really haven’t thought that far out yet. We’ll come up with something. First we want to get to the Mississippi.”

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