Staff Blog: Jason and Alex Tackle 39 Miles of the Kansas River

"Would you be up to do an overnight paddle?"  This was the question Alex asked me a little more than a week out from our trip.  Without hesitation my response was "Hell yes!" 

The initial plan was to do a single overnight from Tecumseh after closing up the shop on Saturday.  This quickly manifested into "If we are going to do one night... might as well do two."  Extending the trip to 39 miles wasn't a big deal.  We both have wanted to do larger portions of the river and this was the chance to be able to experience all but one of the river hazards that lie within the Kaw.d

With the plan locked in and our shifts at the shop covered on the busiest day of the week, thanks guys, we were packed and ready to go.  Somewhat.  We fled in a hurry as to not further inconvenience the person who was kind enough to drive us to Topeka with all our gear piled into his classic BMW.

April 8 7:02 PM – Kaw State Park Access

Boards ready and gear loaded we started off on our "epic" paddle for the night.  Sixty yards later we were at our destination.  Logistics is often the hardest part of doing multi-day trips.  For us,  we needed the trees on that island because both Alex and I decided to hammock camp - always my preferred method if possible.

We already knew the night was going to be cold.  And as soon as the sun went down the temperatures quickly began to drop.  The wind began to increase.  Through the entire night the wind continued at a steady pace, building more strength as the morning grew closer.  32 degrees.  Not bad.  We both have dealt with much worse, but to pull ourselves out of a warm, dry quilt nestled inside our hammocks and step into the piercing wind was not something either of us felt like doing.  But we had to.  Geared up in our base layers and Chacos we hit the river to push for our next island twenty six miles down river near Lecompton.

Breezy.  This was the term AccuWeather used to describe the conditions of the day.  Thanks!  I'm not sure if I would have used "breezy" for 15-22 mph winds but what do I know. 

Making our way down river was slow.  The water quickly numbed our feet as it splashed over the top of the boards.  I began to long for my neoprene kickers I used on every trip whitewater kayaking.  Two and a half miles done and we were at our first obstacle.  Topeka Coffer Dam.  The low water levels  made accessing the portage a little trickier.  It forced us off our boards and into the ankle-to-calf deep water repeatedly.  The dam itself was an easy maneuver.

Back on our boards below the dam, we realized today was not going to be one of our typical paddles.  The wind we were battling was coming directly into us from the east/southeast.  Only a few sections of the river provided a bit of relief as it crawled its way north.  Paddling through Topeka was not bad.  It was not amazing.  It was just... paddling.  Alex and I both are glad to have experienced the hazards of the dam and the dropped railroad bridges but I'm not itching to do the section again anytime soon.  Especially when there are so many other places on the Kaw to experience.

Making our way closer to Seward Access at Tecumseh proved to be the most challenging.  We were finally making our way out of Topeka but were met with the worst wind of the entire trip.  It was like entering a wind tunnel as the river curved itself back into the east.  The current was no longer with us.  Our most widely used phrase was, "You have got to be kidding me!" along with other explicits that I will leave up to you to imagine.  The gusts of wind forced us to kneel on the boards to get as low as possible and paddle with as much strength as we could conjure.  We were going nowhere.  There was a moment I looked at the shoreline to check how we were doing but with every stroke I stayed in the exact same place.  If we ever stopped paddling, we quickly lost our progress.  Alex was also tracking our distance and speed with his Fenix 3, he yelled at me with the most miserable look on his face "IT SAYS 0.0 mph!"  We both laughed.  It felt as if this would be our life from then on.  Paddling for eternity up this one section of river.

Finally, we made it to a point where the river began to shift northeast again.  Relief!  We relaxed and were able to once again stand up on our paddle boards.  With the sound of wind still in my ears, I heard another familiar sound.  The distinct sound of swift moving water.  This puzzled me for a brief moment but then I knew where we were.  With all of the chaos, we did not realize we had made it to the Tecumseh Power Plant and the last hazard on our trip.  Alex was slightly in front of me when we both spotted the break of water fifteen foot in front of us.  We had reached the low head dam.  Without seeing the access point, both of us quickly shot the nose of our boards toward the north shore and paddled to the side.

 "At high water levels a canoe or kayak will float over the dam but in normal to low water levels there is passage in the middle of the river near a rocky sand bar. You should always approach this area slowly to access the passage. Passage is not advisable for motorized boats."

I remember this tip about the Tecumseh dam.  But as we stood at water level, we could not make out where the passage could be.  I climbed up the bank to scout for the access... middle of the river did not appear to be the best description.  It seemed to be about as far right on the river as it could possibly be without actually going down the right channel that lead toward the power plant.  But it was there and it  definitely was a fun passage.  SUPs are not the easiest to take through the channel in low water levels; even with our 3 inch fins on, the rocks were giving us trouble maneuvering down the access.  The section below the low head dam had to be one of my favorites thus far on the Kansas River.  I wanted to stay longer in this area but we were pressed for time.  We were losing light and had to make up for all the lost miles earlier in the day.  Alex had also arranged a potential supply drop on the river...

With the hurry to pack the gear into the BMW, Alex had forgotten a crucial part of a multi-day trip: most of his food (although he did have like 10 CLIF BARS with him).  Accidentally leaving a food bag behind at the shop, Alex took Dan Kuhlman up on the offer of "If you guys need anything while you're out there, just let me know..." It wasn't crucial.  Alex wouldn't starve.  It was more of an if-it-happened-to-work-out situation that snowballed.  But being the kind of guy Dan is, he eventually jumped in one of his kayaks in an attempt to meet us on the river.  Dan was paddling upstream.

Still twelve miles from our goal, we knew we weren't going to make it before the sun went down.  But the only thing in our minds was "GO FASTER. GO. YOU HAVE TO MAKE IT TO DAN!"  It wasn't really the food that was important (for me, Alex might say differently) but the fact Dan took time out of his evening, right after his first gravel race.  He was still willing to try and help out: THAT'S IMPORTANT.

But we couldn't make it.  No matter how fast we wanted to go, there was a limit.  With the sun already down at the horizon, we were coming upon the only other island with trees we could camp on.  We had only made it twenty one miles, only five miles shy.  Dan was still out of reach.  If we had another hour, we could have done it.

April 9 7:38 PM – 5 Miles West of Lecompton

Disappointed, sore, and tired we drank a few beers as the sun sank lower into the sky, casting a radiance of color behind the tree line.  That night we set camp and crawled into our hammocks awaiting the approaching storm that we felt coming all day.  An hour later brought wind, rain, and bliss - sleeping through the night to the sound of rain against our tarps.

The next morning came sooner than we wanted.  This time there was no wind against us.  We needed to make up miles; only five more to Lecompton.  It didn't seem like much after what we did the day before.  Lecompton to Lawrence was a stretch Alex and I have done on numerous occasions so we knew once we made it there, it would be the homestretch.

Four miles into the paddle, we were able to spot a yellow dry bag hanging proudly in a tree.  This was the island Dan had made it to the evening before.  Although I could tell Alex probably wanted to dive into the bag right then, we waited until we got through the Lecompton access point.  Upon passing under the bridge, it already felt like we were done.  We hit the first large sandbar we came to and had a long, relaxing early lunch.  Dan had surprised Alex with not only his food but other assortments as well - kudos on the Chili Lime Beef Jerky.  He never stops amazing us.  Referred to in the shop as the Guru, Dan Kuhlman often inspires people without ever really knowing that he did anything at all.  There was a part during the trip that we thought of just taking out at Lecompton after that first day.  But upon arriving to that little yellow bag, we knew we wouldn’t stop.

"The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun."

                                         -Christopher McCandless

The rest of our day went by with little yellow flashes.  L8.  L6.  L4.  L2!  Two miles left!  Those last miles... they hurt.  But they were fulfilling.  As soon as we hit the docks, we were already talking about the next trip with more people. 

 

April 10 2:54 PM.  Done. 

 

This piece was written by Sunflower's own Jason Woolery. You can find him on Instagram @luckybearface.  To read Dan Kuhlman's account of this event check out his staff blog, "No Man Ever Steps in the Same River Twice".

April 21, 2016 by Andrew White
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