Stretch of Arkansas River named a National Water Trail

Arkansas River honored for recreation in 2016

A recent national award means about 190 miles of the Arkansas River, in Kansas, is a National Water Trail. (July 2, 2016)
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A recent national award means about 190 miles of the Arkansas River, in Kansas, is a National Water Trail. (July 2, 2016)

Save the few friends floating around her on Thursday, Jessica Mounts saw nobody along 11 miles of the Arkansas River.

A whitetail buck, with growing antlers covered in fuzzy velvet, appeared surprised when the small flotilla rounded a bend and found him exposed on an open sandbar. Bald eagles, vanilla-capped adults as well as drab juvenile birds, lazily laced up and down the river, not too terribly alarmed as one canoe and five kayaks floated along.

But in the future Mounts will probably find more people on the Arkansas, largely thanks to a national award that rates the Arkansas River, from Great Bend to the Oklahoma border, as one of the best recreational rivers in the nation.

A recent national award means about 190 miles of the Arkansas River, in Kansas, is a National Water Trail. (July 2, 2016)

The U.S. National Park Service recently named that 192-mile stretch of river a prestigious National Water Trail. It is one of only three rivers so designated in 2016, and one of only 21 to earn such a distinction since the program started in 2012.

Mounts, a Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism fisheries biologist, said the designation will draw public attention to the river and make it easier to obtain state and federal grants for river improvements. River supporters also can now work closely with the National Park Service. It has already helped in the creation of a interpretive online site to help those who wish to float or fish on the river.

The Kansas River, from Junction City to Kansas City, was the nation’s second waterway designated a National Water Trail during the first year of the program. Kansas is one of only two states to have two National Water Trail streams. That’s especially impressive since some states have dozens of streams and rivers open for public recreation. Kansas has only three rivers deemed “navigable” and open to public use – the Kansas, Arkansas and Missouri.

Mounts stressed that both rivers earned their prestigious distinctions. Trails are chosen, in part, on the recreational opportunities they provide, the availability of access points, community and landowner support and conservation efforts.

“It’s a really big deal because it demonstrates there’s been a long-term commitment, from a number of partners, to improve and provide quality recreation on the river,” said Mounts, who has worked to improve river access. “The designation came recently, but it’s because of all the work we’ve been doing over the last couple of decades.”

Group effort, success

Thursday’s float was like a victory cruise for three of the top groups to help open opportunities along the Arkansas — Wildlife and Parks, the Arkansas River Coalition and Kansas Wildscape Foundation.

Twenty years ago there were just a few crude launch areas along the river, and much opposition to creating a viable source of recreation as landowners and locals feared the public would abuse the river and trespass on surrounding private lands.

There are currently 22 public access areas along the river. Mounts’ group launched after dragging canoes and kayaks down a steep bank at Burly Bend, a launch site and gravel parking lot along the river just off Highway 55, east of Belle Plaine.

Wildlife and Parks worked with towns along the river, like Oxford, Derby and Wichita, to help get river access points near existing parks. The agency helped with funding, both from its own budget and in applying for state and federal grants.

To meet their goal of access points about every 10 to 12 miles, proponents had to involve numerous private landowners. As well as concerns about damage that might be done by floaters, some feared that people in ATVs and four-wheel-drive trucks would use the access areas to start roaring up and down the shallow river. Most current access sites are designed so they can’t be used by such vehicles.

Wildscape’s Charlie Black, executive director for the conservation group dedicated to increasing recreational opportunities for Kansans, said fears eventually eased. As he floated Thursday he told stories of meeting with landowners and working out deals so the landowner could profit by selling a small portion of land to Wildscape for an access area. Black said it helped when he could include local businesses to clear trees for parking lots and haul in gravel.

Getting more people on the river has helped dampen fears and create more interest in the river. The Arkansas River Coalition, a conservation group founded about 20 years ago for protecting and promoting the river, has been a key booster.

The coalition has hosted dozens of guided events, ranging from a few minutes of floating at Riverfest to all-day floats through remote areas. During warm months the group frequently hosts short evening floats through Wichita.

The group will furnish all equipment, if notified before a float. Participants must sign a liability waiver. Wally Seibel, an avid group member, said he has about 8,000 signed forms on file from past floats.

Potential for the future

Mounts and others hope access and acceptance improve like they have on the Kansas River, where there are 19 access points along the 174 miles of river.

Roger Wolfe, Wildlife and Parks river access coordinator, said long-time Kansas River floaters have estimated recreational use has gone up at least tenfold in the past 10 to 15 years.

Gradually local residents and businesses are becoming more accepting of those seeking recreation on the Kansas River. Wolfe mentioned a business in tiny St. George, Double T’s Snack Shack and Canoe Rentals, that provides watercraft and a shuttle service to pick up and/or drop off floaters on the river.

Wolfe hasn’t heard many complaints from landowners or area residents of floaters trespassing or damaging private property.

John Cooney, city clerk at Oxford, said several locals have talked of starting a similar business along the Arkansas River. He said most in the town of about 1,000 see positive things coming from the river, which flows past the city park with paved roads, picnic tables, restrooms and handicapped fishing areas.

“We’re just a bedroom community so we don’t have a lot of businesses, but the park is only four blocks away from our main street,” Cooney said. “We’d really appreciate (floaters) taking the time to walk on up into town.”

Except for two breaks on sandbars, on one of which Mounts and crew walked to the nearest shade trees to eat lunch, members of Thursday’s small flotilla spent all of their time floating. Black spent a little time fishing, which can be good in some sections of the Arkansas. Mounts often kicked back and let the river’s current take her kayak downstream as she visited with her teenage son, Aaron, and seasonal employee Jason Herbert.

Sometimes it took some looking to find passages deep enough for even the kayaks in the river, which was more than 150 yards wide in places. Often the best routes were near shore, where giant cottonwoods provided shade and limber willows drooped feathery branches into the water.

More work is planned to improve recreation on the Arkansas, said Mounts and Black. A section of about 30 miles of river between Hutchinson and Wichita needs more access points. Black is confident they will come.

Mounts, who is soon leaving Wildlife and Parks to become executive director of the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams, is confident that more floaters will come, too, and that will be better for all who appreciate the river. When issues come up to support or protect the river, those who’ve experienced what it has to offer will most likely become allies.

“There’s no doubt that being on the water, realizing it is a public resource, does create a feeling of ownership and pride,” Mounts said as the last of the kayaks were being loaded at Oxford. “There’s a lot to be proud of.”

Michael Pearce: 316-268-6382, @PearceOutdoors

Arkansas River

To find more information on recreational opportunities on the Arkansas River, go to www.travelks.com/arkrivertrail.

To inquire about floating the river with the Arkansas River Coalition, go to www.arkrivercoalition.org or call 316-680-9669.

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