Hi everyone. Thanks for visiting Wild Playgrounds. We’ve moved ourselves over to a new blog – TheOutdoorVoice.wordpress.com which has everything this one had plus more. You can continue to follow our escapades and we’ll be opening up many discussions on getting outside, conservation, and ecology.
Some may think that I-70 is the best route from Junction City to Kansas City. They’re wrong. Over the last four weekends we discovered another way which involves sore shoulders, stiff backs, blistered hands, rain-soaked nights, lots of sweat, and painful sunburns. And you actually have to drive twice as much distance, so it’s pretty inefficient. But trust me on this.
Saturday, after running the Speedy-PD 5/10K race to support the Parkinson’s Program of Manhattan which Kerry works for, we drove to De Soto, Kansas. There are very few reasons that the casual traveler would visit this small, off-the-beaten-path town. But for us, it was the key to completing a project over a month in the making. Six of us launched our kayaks from the De Soto boat ramp, intent on paddling the final 31 miles of the Kaw River.
We had intended to finish the trip last weekend. Paddling 91 miles in a weekend sounded pretty reasonable at the time. It was not at all reasonable. Not even a little bit. We gladly stopped after 60 miles and left the last 31 for this weekend.
The last stretch of the paddle was noticeably dirtier than the sections before. Our kayaks were surrounded by puffy clouds of floating filth (some kind of bacteria?). As we approached Kansas City, the garbage was everywhere. It was interesting to see the transition from wilderness to urban sprawl and industrial wasteland. In De Soto the river still looks relatively natural. The closer we got to the city, the noisier it got as well. Trains passed on both sides. Planes were landing above our heads. We passed under many bustling bridges. It’s amazing that wildlife is able to live in this section at all.
Once we loaded up the kayaks, we swung over to Overland Park to check out a free Indian festival, including some delicious food! It felt like we had gotten off the river in another country. After that we headed back home.
If you live in Kansas, I highly recommend that you take a weekend at some point and paddle a section of this river. You’ll see a part of the state that’s very different from what you’re used to. If you like it, go ahead and paddle the entire thing! I recommend taking more time than we did. Take more breaks and enjoy your time on the Kaw.
The Friends of the Kaw maintains a very useful website: http://kansasriver.org/ It includes a detailed map of river access points, historical information, and a tool to report pollution (especially if you live near KC!). The FOTK also organizes paddle trips and funds boat ramps and other facilities at access points.
Finally, let people know how much fun river paddling can be. Kansas is one of the few states in which most rivers are considered private property and paddling is not allowed. We need this culture to change. Rivers should belong to everyone.
As always, thanks to Picky Bars for sponsoring this adventure. Also a big thanks to Darrin and his magic truck for getting dozens of boats and people where they need to be over the last month. Stay tuned for Kerry’s talk about this trip and more at REI Overland Park!
Most people call off a paddle when you have 100% chance of thunderstorms, but not us. Frank, Ben, Darrin, and I decided to not trust the Friday night forecast and go for a few miles before dark. As we paddled, we could hear the light rumble of thunder following us eastward and after only 13 miles, we set up camp in hopes to weather out the storm and get back out on the river. It was still calm, dry, and relatively quiet, but the dark clouds were definitely heading our way. We set up our tents, starting making dinner but without warning a giant wind wall came at us like a freight train. Darrin’s tent went tumbling down the island, Ben’s tent collapsed almost immediately, and strangely enough, Frank and I’s tent managed to stay standing. We yelled to each other to make sure everyone was all right and then hunkered down for what turned out to be an all night storm.
The morning came and only our tent remained standing. The four of us were wet, covered in sand, and Ben’s stuff was strewn across the island. It was a good lesson in trusting forecasts. We packed up our stuff and got back on the river. We had 22 miles to make up in order to get to Lawrence and meet up with our friends that were joining us in the afternoon. After a bad night of sleep, we still managed to make it to Lawrence by 11 am.
Two more friends met up with us for the next segment, from Lawrence to De Soto. After a long car shuttle, we didn’t get on to the river until about 2:00. The new arrivals were not intending to camp. Frank, Ben, Darrin and I still had another night on the Kaw River sand bars. It was sunny, but relatively cool out. Once we got around the Lawrence Dam, it was a relaxing and easy paddle to our campsite. We stopped about 8 miles short of De Soto and camped on a rather nice sand bar. The day-trippers continued on.
The camping conditions were perfect on Saturday night. We had clear skies to view the stars, cooler temps, no rain and nearly no wind. Frank built a giant fire and we chatted until we were too tired and went to bed. It was an easy night’s rest, especially after the epic storm from the night before.
With only 8 miles left on the river before De Soto, we decided to sleep in a little before slowly taking down camp. The sun was already high and the temps were rising, so we got on the river before it got too hot. The paddling was easy, but the navigation around sand bars was difficult, getting our boat stuck a few times along the way. At around 11:00 am we made it to the boat ramp and decided to leave the rest of the river until next week. So, next week we continue on, De Soto to Kansas City!
This weekend we led a pretty awesome fleet of kayaks and canoes down the Kaw River. It stretched about a quarter mile from head to tail and included 20 people and 16 boats. We took over the river in a pretty obnoxious way in order to spread the word that Kansas wilderness does exist!
This trip was a continuation of Kerry and I’s multi-weekend long, Picky Bar-funded quest to paddle every mile of the Kaw River and to get members of the community outside and on the river. Fairmont Park in Manhattan is where we left off last weekend and so that’s where we found ourselves at the beginning of this one. The section between Manhattan and St. George is particularly beginner-friendly and popular, so we advertised it heavily and used some of our grant money to rent kayaks for novice paddlers.
The complex task of running shuttle for a paddle trip is something that has certainly baffled people for thousands of years and will continue to for many to come. The goal is to get all people and kayaks to the start to the paddle, and then get them all home at the end. It gets confusing when you have many people that each want to paddle different distances, some of which have borrowed kayaks and others have rentals. But by 8, we were successfully making our way to St. George.
The group paddle went well for the most part. We had one capsized boat, but our experienced crew pulled off an efficient rescue and got the party back on the water. We weren’t fast, but after about 5 hours we reached our destination.
The majority of the group left from St. George while six of us ran a shuttle to the next town of Wamego. The next ten miles of river went much faster and we were in Wamego two hours later.
From there, Kerry and I pushed on by ourselves, intent on covering as many miles as we could. We stopped at the Belvue boat ramp for some much-needed dinner (rice and curry!) then got right back on the river. The heat was wiping us out – even as the sun was going down, temperatures remained in the 90s. Kayaking at night isn’t always a great idea, and having forgotten your flashlights makes it even less brilliant. But the moon seemed bright enough. After an hour of narrowly dodging trees and other river hazards, we decided to camp on a sand island. We had covered 40 miles in one day, a record for both of us.
One of the biggest draws of the Kaw river for me is the island camping. It’s free, it’s primitive, and it’s away from any sign of civilization. It’s the only time in Kansas that I’ve felt I’m truly in the wilderness. The heat and insects didn’t make for a particularly pleasant night of sleep. To cut down on volume and weight, we brought bivy sacks instead of a tent. That basically amounted to being wrapped up in a plastic bag full of our own sweat, barely able to breathe with swarms of mosquitoes buzzing in our ears. We agreed to take the tent next time.
By morning it had finally cooled of. We were on the river by 6:30, in time to watch the sunrise as we glided through a layer of fog. Our goal was Kaw River State Park, just before the river enters Topeka. It was a moderate 20 miles that we were able to cover by noon. Our friend Darrin was able to pick us up there and take us back to our car.
Our original plan was to finish the river next weekend, and we could still potentially do that. However after this weekend’s intense mileage, we are considering splitting the remaining miles into two weekends so that we can potentially enjoy the experience a little more. Next weekend: Kaw River State Park – ?
This weekend was the first leg of our 170-mile journey down the Kaw River. It was looking pretty grim when we woke up at 6 on Sunday morning for the official start of our multi-weekend, Picky Bars-sponsored, epic voyage. The skies were unleashing a flood, bolts of lightning lit the city and the streets were flash-flooding. We could either suck it up, load our kayak, and get on the river, or we could cower under our blankets in fear. Looking at the forecast for the rest of the morning, we decided on the later. There were several other paddlers signed up to join us and only one of them was likely to show up in the middle of a thunderstorm. Since one of the main objectives of our Kaw River paddle was to get people outside and share the wonders of Kansas wilderness, it seemed pretty pointless to scare them all away before it even began. So I quickly posted an update that we would reconvene at 12 and resume with our plan.
Despite the morning thunderstorms and extreme heat lately, Kansas gave us unusually perfect weather for an afternoon paddle and almost everyone showed up. We had a total of 22 miles to cover along the river. Five people joined in on the adventure. With cool temperatures, overcast skies, and lots of company, our paddle was fast and easy.
After about 4 hours on the river, we made it back to the Fairmont boat ramp in Manhattan. I was pretty amazed by how easy the day had been, despite having 22 miles of river to tackle.
Next week begins the overnight sections! Things are about to get tougher, but I think we got it! Another thanks to Picky Bars for helping out our adventure with the #Lifepoints Adventure Grant.
No one thinks of wilderness when they think of Kansas. It is the wheat state, strewn with cattle and large industrial farms. If you do a Google search for preserved land in Kansas, you will find virtually none. Kansas seems like a desolate place for outdoors enthusiasts and certainly not a place to find wilderness. But if you dig a little deeper and are willing to search a little harder, you will find the rivers. The Kaw River, the Arkansas River, and the Missouri River are the only open access waterways in the state, and they are also some of the best wilderness in the state. These rivers are some of the few remaining places where you can get a sense of what the original settlers and the Native Americans saw when coming to the prairie. Still, when I tell people I live in Kansas, they assume I can only get a dose of wild after a 7-hour drive to the Rocky Mountains. Our goal: To convince people that this is simply not true, that there is wild hidden in their backyards, snaking its way between cattle ranches and fields of wheat.
The Kansas River
A few months ago, I came across a grant to fund an adventure, the Picky Bars #Lifepoints Adventure Grant. Frank and I thought hard about how to apply. Do we write up something to fund a backpacking trip through the Rockies or the Ozarks? Surely, that would be picturesque and maybe even win us that grant. But we decided otherwise. Our goal has always been to get people EVERYWHERE outside. That includes Kansas. So, we applied with an idea to get as many people as we could on the Kaw River. Needless to say, we figured we’d never hear from Picky Bars again.
Well… we did hear from them. Apparently Picky Bars agreed, getting people outside and into the wilderness, in even the least likely of places, is important.
Here we are, planning another adventure! Each weekend in August, we will be paddling sections of the Kaw River from its origin in Junction City to where it meets the Missouri River in Kansas City. We are having both experienced paddlers and novices join us throughout the trip and we’ve designated sections that are especially good for getting kids out and on the river. And did I mention that we get a free kayak?
Our planned route
Thanks, Picky Bars, for helping us make this vision a reality! We’ll be posting updates about our adventure here on our blog.
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Some of our previous efforts to get people on rivers
The age of railroads transformed the United States before mostly crumbling at the feet of interstate highways and commercial aviation. From it’s ruins, we now have a network of over 22,000 miles of bicycle trails thanks to efforts by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. The longest such trail in the country is the 270-mile Katy Trail of Missouri. This weekend, using the Katy as our base, we explored another chunk of the planet.
In order to meet a friend, we drove to the eastern end of the trail. Klondike Park has campsites that are convenient, cheap, and well maintained. We biked the section east of there on Friday and the section west of there on Saturday. Running short car shuttles each morning allowed us to bike one-way and yet not have to carry camping gear on our bikes. In total, we covered 28 miles from Weldon Springs to Marthasville. We also covered the short walking trails at Klondike. The temperatures were mostly in the 90’s, leaving us soaked in sweat all weekend long. But the sites and activities were worth it.
Cities we passed through: Defiance, Augusta, and Dutzow.
Interesting stops: The Judgement Tree, Augusta Winery, Stone Ledge Antiques, Blumenthoff Winery, and Montelle Winery.
Strung right along the trail are an assortment of small towns,wineries, cafes, bed and breakfasts, and antique shops. At each town, there are convenient parking lots, informative maps, bathrooms, and tools for making bike repairs. The state has really done an excelent job of keeping the trail in great condition and attracting people to it. Use the website http://www.bikekatytrail.com/ to plan a trip.
We celebrated 4th of July this year by returning to the Buffalo River gorge for an action-packed weekend of rock climbing, hiking, caving, swimming, and camping. A group of five of us drove down from Manhattan and met two from Bentonville, AR at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, where we camped for the weekend.
On Saturday, we split up with one group going on a hike at the Steel Creek recreation area while another hit up some of the climbing routes at Horseshoe Canyon. We trained two beginner climbers and the four of us each went up five different routes ranging from 5.5 to 5.9 in the North Forty and the Southeast areas.
After dinner that night, we took a drive to Steel Creek to swim and cool off for a while. From there we went to the Lost Valley to hike the short and scenic trail and to delve into some caves. There are over 3,000 caves in the Ozarks. Many are on private property, and many are closed to people to prevent the spread of a fungal disease of bats called white-nose syndrome. But at Lost Valley there are at least two caves that we’ve found that are open. The first, I’m not sure of it’s name, took us about 500 feet into a narrow winding channel with 6-8 inches of cold water running through it. We got pretty soaked and the cave never really opened up into anything interesting, but it was a good warm-up. At the end of the trail is Eden Falls, which flows out of Eden Cave. This is a much shorter, more manageable cave with a reward at the end: a 50-ft underground waterfall. We got back to our campsite after dark, pretty tired.
Sunday morning, the whole group went on a hike starting from the Centerpoint parking lot off of AR 43. We turned right at Goat Trail, leading to some spectacular cliffs overlooking the gorge. It rained pretty hard on us, but the view was a worthwhile reward.
Back at camp, after eating a late lunch, we hiked around the ranch a bit, joined by the ranch’s working dog peanut. We also did some bouldering and finally a few more climbing routes before it got dark. When we got back to the campsite, we discovered that the site had been ransacked by horses which had eaten much of our food.
On Monday morning, we woke up to another rain storm. There was a lull just long enough for us to pack up and get out of the ranch. We attempted to hike the Triple Falls Trail, on Camp Orr Road, but soon realized the road to Kyle’s Landing was meant for tougher vehicles than ours. We turned back and just barely made it up the steep hill back onto AR 74. As we continued, we turned around a corner and found an overturned SUV with a man stumbling around the wreckage. The guy had apparently fallen asleep at the wheel and driven off the road. He seemed really confused and was trying to locate his valuables. We called an ambulance for him, helped him get his stuff together, and hung out until him and his girlfriend (who had left the scene and returned) were safely on their way to a hospital.
After that excitement, we went to the Compton Trail head to hike straight downhill on the Compton trail to Hemmed in Hollow. HIH turned out to be a pretty epic 209 foot tall waterfall in a hollowed out canyon. We took some time to be in awe, then turned back for a very steep hike back up to the car and drove back home.
We packed in a significant amount of activity in the three day weekend. The weather was pretty awful. Rain showers came and went throughout the whole weekend and it was extremely hot and humid. The smells in the car on the way home were a great mixture of mildew, dirt, and sweat. The Buffalo River gorge has huge potential for hiking, climbing, and caving so we will definitely be returning.
Another weekend, another sweet Kansas spot that everyone should go check out. We took a group to explore one of the rockier state parks. Looking at a map, you might think that Wilson Lake is just another Kansas reservoir… you’d be wrong. It’s full of epic orange sandstone cliffs, canyons, pillars, and outcroppings where you can waste away the day. It’s kind of like a tiny version of Pictured Rocks in Michigan. We set up camp at the Sandstone Campground and began to hike the Switchgrass trail leaving from the camp area. The trails are heavily used by mountain bikers but open to hikers too. They twist and wind around in the grass and give you some great views of the park. A terrifying thunder storm soon sent us fleeing to the campsite for the rest of the night. We weathered the worst part of the storm by having a tick-pulling party in the car until we had a brief window of calm where we went outside and cooked dinner. Once the rain picked up again, we fled to our tents and had mixed success sleeping throughout the night.
In the morning we drove to the parking lot by the bridge and covered more of the Switchgrass trail, this time making it to the lake shore cliffs and rocks that make this place interesting. After covering a few miles there, we drove to the north end of the lake and hiked the Rocktown trail which has been called the best hiking trail in Kansas. While the hiking is good, I would recommend bringing a mountain bike, kayak, or both to fully appreciate this place. I had a chance to do some biking before the group woke up. Unfortunately we never got around to kayaking mostly due to the weather. The rocks are pretty fun for scrambling and bouldering, but its not really set up for on-rope rock climbing.
Occasionally I do this thing where I look at a map, identify a region I’ve never been to, and a zany road trip commences. The region this weekend was southwest Kansas.
Our first stop Friday afternoon was the home of Carry A. Nation, famous for supporting the temperance movement and smashing saloons to pieces with a hatchet, in the town of Medicine Lodge. Carrie Nation’s militant opposition to alcohol paved the way for prohibition. Her methods were extreme, but she got her point across in a world where usually only men could be heard. Her house included old furnishings and historical items on display. It is right next to an old stockade and local history museum that are included with admission. Before leaving town we stopped at Barber State Fishing Lake and hiked around the lake. It was about 100 degrees F.
From there, we followed the Gyp Hills Scenic Drive. This region, just west of Medicine Lodge, has a rugged landscape of red canyons, cliffs, and interesting rock formations. For the most part, it’s entirely on private property and can only be enjoyed from a distance as you drive by. We got out and briefly snuck onto some rocks to play around and fortunately were not shot. Generally, I would encourage speaking to landowners to try to get permission to explore the hills. We drove from there to Greensburg and camped at Kiowa County State Fishing Lake.
Saturday morning we went into Greensburg, known for it’s big well and monster tornado. We went to the Big Well museum, where you can walk down into the largest hand-dug well in the world. The well was dug in the 1800s and provided water to the city and the passing locomotives. The museum also covers the story of the EF5 tornado which decimated Greensburg in 2007, leaving only three buildings standing. The town has since been rebuilt using energy efficient green technologies, living up to its name. Next we drove out to the Fromme-Birney Round Barn, a small but free and unattended museum on a nearby farm. It’s a big round barn – not much more to say about that.
From there we went to Dodge City and visited the Boot Hill Museum which was chock full of artifacts, recreated scenery, and period-costumed actors from the old west. Some of it was pretty hokey, but there was a lot to learn there as well. For example, famous lawman Wyatt Earp began his career here in Dodge before becoming famous for his role in the gunfight at the OK Corral. We just barely made it in time to watch the shootout in the street and drank a Sarsaparilla soda in the saloon. There is a considerably large Mexican population in Dodge with an abundance of Mexican restaurants that reminded us of our recent trip south of the border. We tried one but left with unsettled stomachs.
From Dodge, we went to Garden City, then Ulysess, and finally on to Cimmarron National Grassland. Cimmarron is not easy to navigate unless you have a good map, but we eventually found our way to the campground and settled in for the night. Cimmarron is the largest piece of protected land in Kansas and from the sounds we heard all night, serves as an important habitat for a lot of wildlife including birds, frogs, and coyotes.
We woke up at 5:30AM to go biking around the grassland before the brutal mid-day heat arrived. We had intended to follow the Santa Fe National Historic Trail, supposedly still clearly visible from the ruts carved by Conestoga wagons over a hundred years ago. I spent about 40 minutes biking around, dodging cacti and looking for said trail and found absolutely nothing. It seems that the abundant growth of grasses and other vegetation and lack of trail maintenance has prevailed. I eventually gave up and we instead biked on the dirt roads crisscrossing the preserve. We saw dozens of jack rabbits zipping across the prairie and walked on the dried bed of the Cimmarron River.
Leaving Cimmarron , we stopped in Liberal to look at Dorothy’s house (it was closed) and eat a pancake from the pancake house on Pancake Blvd. We went to Meade State Park, hiked its only trail and checked out the Meade Lake. Our final stop on the way home was Fort Larned National Historic Park where the buildings of the military fort still remain and are kept in their historic state along with a museum and hiking trail.
It was a pretty productive weekend with a good mix of natural areas, historical sites, and tourist traps. The most useful resource for this kind of trip is the book The 8 Wonders of Kansas by Marci Penner. This book is full of interesting destinations all over the state (there are actually 216 of them despite the title). It doesn’t have everything, but it’s a good starting place. Another strategy is to talk to as many local people as you can and ask them what there is to see. Western Kansas has a bad reputation for not having anything to see or do, but we were easily entertained for a weekend.
Total mileage driven: about 1,000
With the water levels much higher, we were able to push much farther up the creek than when we paddled Munker in the fall. Unfortunately my GPS died mid-paddle, so I have no map but I do have pretty pictures…
We went on a short evening paddle and collected some trash on Carnaham Creek, accessed from Carnaham Park on the east side of Tuttle Creek. This area is normally high and dry, but was boatable due to flooding (the map looks like we never even left the shore). Eventually the creek becomes shallow and rocky. Be aware that at some not well marked point you cross over into private property. Wildlife spotted: beaver, snake, jumping fish. Miles paddled: 2.5
Kansas has an abundance of unpaved roads and a scarcity of cars driving on them. That may not sound too useful to the average outdoor recreationalist, unless you know about gravel biking. Gravel biking is literally just biking on dirt roads, that’s all (where I grew up we just called this biking). But there’s something about getting off the pavement, slowing down your pace, and enjoying the rural, country scenery that can eat up a day pretty fast.
This Saturday was the Dirty Kanza, a 200-mile gravel bike ride. The DK has gained notoriety world-wide as an extreme endurance challenge. Riders generally take between 12 and 20 hours to complete this grueling circuit across rural Kansas countryside and small towns. The race begins and ends in Emporia. I had a couple friends that were going to be there so I decided to stop by. I heard that the race organizers were looking for volunteers to help set up the starting line and I love having a reason to wake up absurdly early, so I signed up for the 4AM shift. Setting up was kind of disorganized but it didn’t take long. Shortly after I watched the riders take off on their voyage.
Personally, I’ve never been into racing. I would rather make frequent stops to look at weird insects, take unscheduled exploratory detours, and not pay money to do it. Therefore, after the riders cleared out, I set off to find some gravel roads of my own. From Google maps I identified Flint Hills National Wildlife Refuge nearby. I briefly worked at a National Wildlife Refuge long ago and remembered lots of gravel roads with nobody on them. FHNWR was not very different. In fact many of the roads were closed to vehicles due to flooding, making it even more quiet than the average wildlife refuge. The terrain was mostly wetlands. It’s on the flood plain of the Neosho River and has been managed to be ideal grounds for migrating waterfowl. I’m thinking this place would be spectacular in the fall. Some of the roads were easy to ride. Others were so muddy that they clogged up my wheels and stopped me in my tracks. The summer heat has arrived and it got into the 90’s with sections of no cover. So it wasn’t too long before I ran out of water, putting an end to my own little Dirty Konza.
I headed back to Emporia to hang out with friends while the riders started to come in. They looked pretty whipped. This year, over 1000 riders showed up to bike either 200, 100, or 50 miles. The normally quiet town of Emporia was dense with crowds awaiting the riders and enjoying the festival. I heard that the party is pretty lively until at least midnight. The Dirty Konza is a pretty unique event and it seems to be growing in popularity each year. I recommend checking it out or even racing in it if you dare.
On Sunday, I biked from my house to Pillsbury Crossing Wildlife Area. This is a neat little spot where Deep Creek crosses Pillsbury Crossing Road. It’s generally less than a foot deep, allowing you to drive or walk over it with ease. There’s a waterfall and it’s not a bad spot to picnic or just cool off on a hot day. It’s also a great place to wash off your bike after a day of riding in the mud.
My total biking mileage for the weekend: 46
Like it or not, most Kansas state parks are defined not by natural features, but by massive, man-made reservoirs. They are generally built for flood control and water supply, but recreation serves a secondary purpose. Just north of Manhattan is the second largest of these, Tuttle Creek Lake. It stretches 15 miles long, covers 12,500 acres, and was formed from the damming of the Big Blue River. With my usual travel partner trekking her way through Europe, I planned a solo voyage across Tuttle (long-ways) to see what was out there.
I launched my kayak Saturday morning around 5AM from Tuttle Creek Cove, a couple miles north of the dam. About 20 minutes into my three-day trip, a thunderstorm came ripping through. I got off the water and set up a quick shelter using my boat and tarp and waited, wondering if my voyage across Tuttle was going to end right there. Luckily it didn’t last long and amazingly that was the only bad weather of the entire trip. I got back on the water as the sun was coming up and continued.
I spent the next two days slowly paddling up the lake, exploring coves, inlets, and any other nooks and crannies I could find. Instead of describing it play by play, I’ll let my map and pictures show what I did.
- It’s been raining around here a lot. The water levels are way above what they normally are. There are huge amounts of drift wood everywhere on the lake that was washed in from flash flooding on rivers to the north. I spent a lot of time plowing through big rafts of debris. The water level continued to rise throughout the entire trip – at one point I fell asleep on the shore and woke up with my feet in the water. I was relieved to see that my car wasn’t submerged when I got back, although some parking spots were no longer dry so be careful where you park!
- It was hot out and there is absolutely no shade on the lake. To avoid the beating sun, I would wake up and start paddling before the sun came out. Around 11, I would look for some shade on the shore and I would walk around or read a book until 1 or 2. Then I’d paddle until late evening. Along with the heat came swarms of insects.
- For camping, I just found secluded coves or hid in the woods. To stay discreet, I left the tent at home and just had a ground pad and sleeping bag with a tarp in case it rained. There are several distinct parks along the lake shore with designated campsites that cost money. But there is also a small buffer of land around the entire shore owned by the Army Corp of Engineers. I’m not sure if it’s legal to camp on it, but there at least shouldn’t be any angry shotgun-bearing land owners.
I enjoyed the trip and would recommend it to anyone that has a strong interest in exploring the waterways of Kansas. Be prepared for heat, bugs, open water that takes a long time to cross, choppy waters, strong winds, and unexpected thunderstorms.
On Monday morning, I arrived at Fancy Creek State park where a group of 9 Prairie Fire paddlers met me. This group paddle was somewhat self-serving as I organized it primarily to get a ride back to my car after crossing the lake. But it turned out to be a cool group and included some new faces that will hopefully be back for more trips. We drove up to the Swede Creek Marsh boat ramp on the Big Blue river to launch. The river was flooded as well, allowing us to plow right over the normally twisting, turning waterway and take a pretty straight-line route back to Fancy Creek (about 6.5 miles).
My total mileage for the weekend: about 35 miles.
Spending a weekend digging garbage out of a hole, squeezing through tight spaces, getting covered in mud, and pushing yourself through tiny passages inch by inch may not sound extremely fun. And to be perfectly honest, most of the people that I’ve introduced to the world of spelunking have probably never returned to a cave. But there exists a small group of unusual people that find pleasure in being underground. They don’t mind getting dirty, in fact the dirt fascinates them. They are the National Speleological Society, with regional chapters spread across the world. NSS members guard their caves and local hot-spots closely, sharing information only to those that they trust to protect their treasures. It sometimes gives off the vibe of a secret society. But once you join a local chapter and show up to a couple events, you are likely to find out that cavers are an awesome and welcoming breed. Caves often contain rock formations and fossils that take millions of years to form as well as unique lifeforms found nowhere else on earth. The NSS is often the first and only line of defense for these against hoards of developers, keg parties, and various other badies that don’t care about protecting caves for future generations. If you show some genuine interest and respect for the caves, they will accept you and your caving adventures will begin.
Last weekend Kerry and I met up with the Kansas Speleological Society to do some poking and prodding of the earth. After arriving, we spent Saturday investigating some sinkholes on a ranch. This consisted of digging out decades of trash (mostly cosmetic products from the 70’s) and hoping one would open up enough to explore. No major discoveries were made, but some were promising enough and it was decided that work on them should continue another time. From there, we went to a nearby cave, but flooding and lack of wet suits kept us from going too deep into that one. That night we went to Cowley County State Fishing Lake for the quarterly meeting where we planned future events and camped at the lake that night.
Sunday morning, a group of four of us crossed the Oklahoma border to explore Belle Star Cave. The cave is named after a Cherokee outlaw who once used the cave as a refuge from the authorities. The opening was impressively large and covered in graffiti. But the passage very quickly shrunk to a tiny crawl space. There was about six inches of running water below us. Moving through the cave was a very slow process. We reached a short step that took us a level above the water onto a Swiss-cheese-like rock slab with the running water visible below us through holes in the floor… neat! We had hoped, as all cavers do, that it was going to eventually open up into a spectacular room. But instead it simply got smaller and smaller until none of us could go on, so we turned back.
So we didn’t really get to do a whole lot of caving, but luckily I enjoy wandering around in the woods just as much. If you’re interested in caving, I highly recommend finding your local NSS Chapter and contacting them. If you live in Kansas, feel free to contact me and I’ll put you in touch. The caverns are awaiting your arrival!
On the way home, Kerry and I stopped at Wheat State Winery, a peaceful property outside of Winfield with free tastings. We found out that they hold bluegrass concerts throughout the summer and allow you to wander the roads and trails of the winery.
On Saturday morning, a group of seven Prairie Fire Meetup members got together to bike the Linear Trail around Manhattan. The Linear Trail is a multi-use gravel path that wraps around the east, south, and west sides of the city. We met at the parking lot on Pottawatomie Avenue and biked west. At the end of the trail, we rode over to Anneberg Park to bike the nature path. Then we cut across town to Arrow Coffee for refreshments before splitting up. We covered about 14 miles total through some of the more scenic parts of town.
Last Friday, we hiked the final trail on our list at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Besides some short connecting trails, Kerry and I have officially hiked all 40 miles in the preserve! The trail is a mostly straight shot across the Two-Section pasture. It climbs up onto a ridge and is mostly on highlands with sweeping views of prairie to the north and Strong City to the south. Once you cross the gate, entering the second “section”, expect to see some cattle, potentially directly on the trail. We just slowly approached the cows and made some noise until they ran away (but be careful because they can be dangerous). Access is not at the main parking lot but at one of two other areas close to Strong City.
Length: 3.1 miles each way.
Trail heads: 38.402392, -96.541636 (9th Street; not well marked, no parking) or 38.409215, -96.502372 (U Road; well marked with parking)
More information: https://www.nps.gov/tapr/planyourvisit/upload/hikingtraildescriptionguide.pdf
We took a break from nature this week and drove to Denver for Kerry to run her first full marathon (which she did great on and you can read about it on her blog). So I have no new wild playgrounds to report on, but I can plug one of my favorite nature authors. I had heard that Richard Louv was going to be giving a talk at the University of Denver prior to the race as part of a conference on human-animal connections. Officially, attendees were required to register for the conference and pay a $200 fee. We just put on our best college kid appearance and strolled into the lecture hall. Some choose to sneak into movies or concerts, we go for academic conferences.
Louv’s most famous book, Last Child in the Woods, focused on the lack of exposure to nature that the most recent generation of children have had. He calls this state nature deficit disorder. Louv spends most of the book going over stories from people across the country and current research demonstrating nature deficit disorder and its consequences. He links nature deficit disorder with many health problems on the rise in children such as obesity, depression, and ADD. It’s a good book with some pretty compelling arguments that will change the way you think about the role of nature in our lives. I would especially recommend it to anybody that has or is planning to have children. His second book, The Nature Principle, extends his argument to adults and explains the benefits that spending time in nature can have on all of us.
The content of the talk followed his books closely with the addition of some new stories particularly focusing on the impact that experiences with pets and wildlife can have (the theme if the conference). He’s a good speaker and kept the audience engaged. He’s also a great person. Since the success of his book, he has started the Children and Nature network, a charity that works to get more kids outdoors. He spoke of a school in Atlanta, having been directly inspired by his books , that made all of their teachers read Last Child and has completely transformed its program to get students outside as much as possible.
It’s important to realize that even if you don’t have kids or even like them, they are the future of our world. If they have no appreciation for nature, then you can say goodbye to funding for parks and laws that favor conservation. So read Louv’s books, listen to his talks, support his charity, and heed his words.
Our exploration of the Kansas “Kaw” River has finally begun. Being the main water artery of eastern Kansas, this river was responsible for the unplanned founding of the city of Manhattan when the steamship Hartford found itself aground here. The low water levels and sandbars had left us aground as well since moving to Kansas. But a series of recent thunderstorms left behind an epic deluge, making this the perfect time to navigate the river by kayak. For our first trip, our friend helped us shuttle our car to the boat ramp in Wamego. On the way home we stopped at Grandma Horner’s Foods to repay him with gifts of locally made pie filling and jam. This place is worth going to. They were super nice and loaded us with tons of really good free stuff.
When we got back to Manhattan, Kerry and I were left with the task of carrying our kayaks from our apartment to the river – about a mile-long walk. We hauled the boats across downtown, through the mall parking lot, and across a busy street and train tracks. This left us on the north side of the river, which is an awful boat launch. The banks were steep and slippery with mud. Eventually I got both boats in and ferried them across to the south side where I met Kerry at the boat ramp.
The first order of business was the Manhattan storm drain tunnels. Because of the the flooding, we were able to put on some headlamps and float right on in. The tunnels go for about a half mile before opening up to the channel that runs along the east side of Tuttle Creek Blvd. If water levels are right, this could actually be a convenient river access point depending on where you live. There are some smaller tunnels branching off of the main line, but we had lots of distance to cover so we made our way back to the river.
Most of the paddle was pretty peaceful and serene, interspersed with loud, obnoxious, terrifying moments. We had an encounter with two men that were firing hand guns into the river (I think to catch fish). That seemed pretty dangerous and illegal to us, so we hurried on our way. Shortly after, we turned a bend and ran into a flotilla of 4 canoes piled with about 20 loud, rowdy Kansas State University students that, upon seeing us, commenced throwing cans of beer at us (in a nice way). We dodged a couple close hits and got out of firing range as fast as we could. We reached the town of St. George, locked our boats to a post, and walked into town to Double T’s Snack Shack, a tiny pizza/kayak rental place. The wait there was very long, but luckily we were entertained by an endless playlist of 90’s music videos on TV.
After eating, we got back on the river and stopped at the first sizable island to camp. Camping on these islands, as far as I can tell, is legal and free. They’re pretty comfortable and have plenty of dead wood for making camp fires. I was pretty stoked about this campsite because it was really the first time that I’ve felt I was back-country camping in Kansas. In a state with essentially no backpacking trails and where a good portion of the rivers are considered private property, this is a rare find.
In the morning it was a very short paddle to our car in Wamego. The section after St. George was more scenic and had more wildlife that the part before it (which could have had something to do with the lack of shooters and college parties). Our average speed for the trip was around 4 miles per hour, with a maximum of 6. In total we covered 21 miles. We walked around Wamego a little and stopped at the Beecher’s Bible and Rifle Church on the way home.
The following Saturday night we returned to Pottawatomie State Fishing Lake #2 to camp for the night. This is the closest free campground to Manhattan. Several friends came to hang out at the fire, kayak around the lake, and eat with us. Three set up camp and stayed for the night.
On Sunday morning, we met three other paddlers at the boat ramp just outside the city of Ogden. The weather seemed pretty reasonable in the morning, so we went ahead and launched our boats, bound for Manhattan. About an hour into the paddle however, dark clouds began to descend upon us and things started to get terrifying. It started with rain, then came the lightening. As it kept getting closer and more frequent, we pulled off the river and waited for the storm to pass for a while. Soon it had settled and we took advantage of the temporary calm to finish the trip. In total on this day we covered 14 miles in about 4 hours. Ogden to Manhattan was pretty scenic and included the outlets of several well-known creeks including McDowell, Shane, and Wildcat Creeks.
I recommend the book Paddle Kansas if you want to get into paddling the Kaw River. It’s got lots of really useful information and maps. We’re hoping to do a much longer trip on a weekend downstream of Wamego to continue our explorations.
Continuing our exploration of the Ozarks (only about 6 hours from Manhattan), we visited the Buffalo River area for a weekend of rock climbing and hiking. The original plan to summit Long’s Peak was thwarted by a terrible snowstorm that left everything in Colorado buried. At the last minute we switched plans and never regretted it.
Thursday night we drove until very late, stopping at Nemo Landing on Pomme De Terre Lake for a few hours of sleep. This park boasts some really scenic camp sites along the lake.
Friday morning we drove the rest of the way to Horseshoe Canyon Ranch. This is a unique place that offers a sprawled out dispersed campground, tons of climbing routes, a zip-line, and a bunch of screaming goats wandering around aimlessly. It’s pretty hard to not like. Although it is a little unsettling to hear intermittent human-like screams in a rock climbing area. Camping costs $5 per person per night. Climbing is $5 per person per day as well. They have gear for sale and rent, but we had our own so we were good to go. We spent most of the day tackling some of the easier climbing routes (5.5 – 5.7) in the North Forty area.
This is one of the better rock climbing areas I’ve been to. If you’ve never climbed before, it looked like you can book a guide for the day through the ranch. Even better, make friends with a climber and have them teach you. Do not however attempt to climb without some formal instruction. There are lots of subtle things that you need to know about to be safe.
We camped at the ranch that night, our dinner entertainment was a little girl with an endless supply of cheesy jokes.
Saturday morning we spent time at some more climbing routes on the East Wall. After that, we went to the Steel Creek area of the Buffalo National Scenic River for a concert being held to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service (this is a big deal with many celebrations across the country – learn more about it here). The band was National Park Radio whose bluegrass sounds echoed nicely off the steep walls of the canyon. To save $5 per person (and because it’s fun), we hiked about a mile into the back-country east on the Buffalo River Trail and slept there for the night.
On Sunday, we went to the Lost Valley down the road to hike a really cool nature trail. There were waterfalls, caves, and waterfalls in caves. We didn’t have the equipment to go very deep into any of the caves, but an iPhone flashlight got us a little ways in. Our final stop on the way home was the city of Springfield where Kerry went on a run while Ben and I drove around the city and walked around downtown. It seemed okay.
As we were approaching Manhattan, we were informed by the radio that there was a tornado at Milford Lake heading straight for us. We sped into town in an attempt to beat the storm. We stopped for a while at the Konza Overlook on KS-177 where there was a large gathering of storm chasers hoping to get an epic picture of a twister ripping across the prairie. We got into town just in time for some intense hail, flash flooding in the streets, and strong winds but nothing too serious. Within a couple hours things were back to normal.
Another trip to the Ozarks is inevitable since there’s a seemingly endless supply of things to explore there.
Rock Climbing Horseshoe Canyon – great resource for climbing although the front desk at the store might loan you one for the day.
Buffalo National Scenic River
National Park River
Ever since we saw the photo gallery and talk ‘Save the Last Dance’ by Noppadol Paothong at the Flint Hills Discovery Center, we were pretty stoked to see some prairies chickens in person. Highly endangered species aren’t the easiest animals to come across in the wild, even when you do spend a significant amount of your time in the prairie. But luckily the Friends of the Konza Prairie hosts a limited number of viewings each spring to its members. As soon as my parents booked their trip to Kansas, I booked a viewing for the four of us to witness with our own eyes the mating dances and booming of the Greater Sage Grouse (otherwise known as the prairie chicken).
We woke up early to get to Konza at 5 AM. There, we met one of the volunteer docents and several other viewers. We followed them onto the prairie to a bird blind in the dark and waited as our docent gave us some bird fun facts. The prairie chicken of course is not actually a chicken, it’s a sage grouse. The greater sage grouse (the one we saw) has a range that extends across sections of Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota. While their numbers are improving, the bird is still endangered mostly due to loss of prairie habitat.
We heard them before we saw them. It was still dark when the males began moving around and booming. By the time the sun came up, through the small square opening in the blind, there were 8-10 birds (mostly males but at least two females) scattered along the firebreak and very easily visible. The closest was no more than 20 meters away. We hung out in the bird blind for about 2.5 hours, with camera shutters snapping continuously. This is worth the FOTKP membership fee and the money helps out Konza Prairie anyways. Contact them very early in the season because spots fill up.
In the afternoon we returned to Konza to meet up with Prairie Fire and hike the 6-mile loop. This trip had my largest showing thus far with 19 people – a true sign of the community’s love of Konza. When we arrived, one of the neighboring prairies on a high hill was burning their grass which made for a good pre-hike show. The prairie this time of year is an interesting patchwork of colors (including solid black, brown, and green speckled with white stones) due to the different burning treatments and early grass starting to grow on some sections. Konza is split into watersheds, each watershed having a particular frequency of burning and type of grazing on it. From the long-term data they are collecting, we can learn much about how conservationists, ranchers, and other landowners can best manage their grasslands.
The weather was great for a hike and we covered the loop in about 2.5 hours. Unfortunately, on this same day, this story was published in the Collegian. To summarize it, many people accessing Konza from the hiking trail are not following the rules. It’s important to know that dogs are not allowed on this trail, you should not be going off trail, and you should not be harassing wildlife. If these incidents continue to occur, we may all lose access to the best hiking trail within a hundred miles of here! So please speak up when you see others on the trail that might have missed the signs.
My parents recently visited us here in Kansas. Knowing that they are as hyperactive as I am , I planned a weekend circuit to visit a bunch of random things in the state. Our two-day road trip covered a pretty good swath of south central Kansas, a region we hadn’t explored too thoroughly yet. Our route looked something like this:
The first stop: Eisenhower boyhood home, museum, and burial site in Abilene KS. We spent the morning learning the ins and outs of the 34th presidency. Fittingly, we reached Abilene using I-70, part of the very system of interstate highways that Eisenhower is responsible for.
Next, Lindsborg KS, a town known for its large Swedish population, assortment of Swedish stores and restaurants, and ornately painted wooden Dala horses (once carved by Swedish lumberjacks). We scarfed down some Swedish pancakes (kind of like crepes) and went to National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson’s gallery which was full of beautiful photos of Kansas and beyond.
From there we hit Coronado Heights, a small stone castle built atop a hill by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930’s and believed to once have been visited by Spanish Conquistador Coronado. There are some trails winding around the castle and a many great views of the country-side.
We next drove to the town of Marquette to grab some treats at City Sundries, an old-fashioned soda fountain. We played in the park and went antiquing while dad occupied himself at the Kansas Motorcycle Museum. From there we went to Dillon Nature Center in Hutchinson KS where we enjoyed the peaceful fishing pond, visitor center, and a prairie hiking trail just outside of town. For 50 cents you can buy a waffle cone of food pellets and have a gang of fish, turtles, and geese follow you around.
We stayed the night in Hutchinson and the next morning went to Stratica, the underground salt mine. It’s a little touristy, but it’s the only way you can descend 650 feet and learn all about the process that extracts good old sodium chloride from the earth right here in Kansas. There’s a self-guided museum, two guided rides to other parts of the mine, and even the opportunity to go off on your own and explore the less regulated sections.
We had heard that there was a particularly popular Mennonite relief quilt auction going on at the Kansas state fairgrounds so we figured we should go scope it out. It was mostly building after building of people selling ice cream and pies. Eventually we found the auction buildings where a fast-talking auctioneer rattled off numbers until their ornate, hand-made covers were sold (sometimes for thousands of dollars!).
Finally, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. We’ve been there numerous times, but since it was basically on the way home we decided to stop and hike a little and check out the native stone buildings of the old homestead.
If this looks way more fun than your weekend, then I challenge you to create your own Kansas weekend road-trip. It beats staying at home!
This weekend we visited the great plains state that invented Arbor Day. Indian Cave State Park is in the southeast corner of Nebraska, nestled along the Missouri River. We arrived Friday night in the dark and had to hike in about a mile and a half to our back-country campsite. When the trail immediately began a steep uphill climb, we were a little surprised. The entire hike was in fact straight uphill. Nebraska clearly has more topography than we realized. At the campsite we reunited with a friend we made on our recent trip to Mexico, along with his smuggled Mexican dog and posse of Lincolnites. His epic international bicycle tour had ended, and as planned we met back up with him in the plains. It was a cold night so we bundled up pretty quickly and slept.
We spent Saturday covering as much trail as possible. We witnessed the namesake cave, which was really more of a rock. The thousand year-old petroglyphs were not exactly spectacular after having been mostly covered by modern graffiti. But most of the hiking trails were unexpectedly scenic, following hilly terrain and ridge-lines overlooking the Missouri River. We covered parts of the Hardwood Trail and the Rock Bluff Trail. That night more folks from Lincoln joined us for a fun campfire dinner.
Sunday morning after packing up and hiking back to the car, we hiked the North Ridge Trail and went into Lincoln Bend Wetlands before leaving. It’s a pretty nice park to check out if you’re tired of the flat lands. Back-country campsites are a rare find in this region so it’s kind of nice to at least pretend that you’re on a real backpacking trip. The trails are not extremely well marked and don’t match up to the map, so a GPS is helpful. There was also an unusual amount of trash at the campsites. Try not to let it bother you (or even better, bring a trash bag and pick up some of it). But otherwise it’s worth a weekend.
Fancy Creek (part of Tuttle Creek State Park) is a park on the northwest shore of Tuttle Creek Lake with a 5-mile loop trail that winds through some rocky limestone terrain in a cedar forest. It’s primarily for mountain biking (hence the wild shape), but hikers are welcome as well. The park is dog friendly, but be mindful of speeding bikes. If you do bike it, you may want to take it easy if you aren’t experienced. This is considered one of the most challenging mountain bike trails in Kansas. Interestingly, Fancy Creek was once a collection of homesteads founded by a group that migrated from the town of Goshen, Indiana (one of our favorite towns during our Indiana years). This weekend we pulled together a group of 11 hikers and 4 rambunctious dogs to complete the loop at a brisk pace. It took us a little over 2 hours and luckily the weather was perfect.
For more information, check out the Fancy Creek website: http://ksoutdoors.com/State-Parks/Locations/Tuttle-Creek/Areas/Fancy-Creek
This weekend we traveled south for some camping and hiking out in the tallgrass. Four of us slept at Chase County State Fishing Lake. We explored the area, found a waterfall, and gathered merrily around the campfire late into the night. We also burned one of the most massive pieces of wood I’ve ever burned. We woke up Sunday morning to meet three more friends at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. There, we hiked about 7 miles on the Fox Creek Trail (on the east side of KS-177 accessed via a nifty tunnel). While the skies threatened to rain the entire time, we never had anything worse than a light mist and thick fog. There are still a handfull of trails at this preserve that I have not hiked, so I’ll definitely be returning. The great thing about Tallgrass is that the different sections are very distinct and it takes at least six visits to hit everything.