Adventures in Urban Kayaking
“Did you know they found a body in that river?”
I went on an adventure that started as a joke.
There’s a local artist, Dave Eames, who makes all types of things that bring me joy in Lee’s Summit, MO, an eastern suburb of the Kansas City metropolitan area. In his shop (and around the city) you’ll see metalwork with healthy helpings of whimsy, and a series of faux advertisements that, in my mind, both celebrate and poke fun at Lee’s Summit. These are all in-jokes but these sorts of observations could be true of nearly anywhere.
My favorite was a faux whitewater canoeing advertisement for Knobtown (Pictured top left).
We need to talk about Knobtown.
All you need to know about Knobtown is that it is the best. Knobtown is a mystery. Also, Knobtown is not a town. Knobtown is an intersection between two cities that hosts a variety of seedy/sketchy businesses but, oddly, no gas station, which would be entirely appropriate since a significant portion of Kansas Citians pass through Knobtown in their daily commutes.
Another weird thing about Knobtown is that it is a perfect meeting point between several areas in the eastern metro area but no local would meet there.
“Hey, let’s meet up and drive to the stadium together”
“Ok, where do you want to meet?”
“LOL, seriously where?”
This is unfortunate because Knobtown sits at the southern end of a beautiful stretch of scenery in Kansas City. If you were to take a right at Knobtown onto Noland Road, you would enjoy ten minutes of winding drives not unlike those featured in car commercials. You would spin through Little Blue Valley, pass a fog-cloaked town that time forgot, spot a church sign with pithy positive sayings, squeeze past a notoriously haunted road, and ultimately emerge in an increasingly blighted section of Independence, MO.
Being in on the joke, I chatted with Dave about our shared affinity for this tiny hamlet in Jackson County. I also laughed at the prospect of kayaking the Little Blue River, a stubborn but modest stream that runs beneath the overpass in, you guessed it, Knobtown.
Later on, I thought about that conversation and found myself intrigued by the idea of putting a boat in a city river just for the hell of it. Why not? The river was there and I was willing.
I decided that I would kayak the Little Blue River to Knobtown.
Enter research/obsession mode.
The Little Blue River originates at the Longview Lake dam in southern Jackson County, MO and flows into the Missouri River some 45 miles northeast. The longest float I have completed previously was ~8 miles in a canoe so I knew that 45 miles was out of the question for a day trip given my current level ability.
I drove to the entry point several times to get a sense of the task. I scoured the web to see if anyone had tried it before and found a guy who kayak’d the whole thing in two days. His report was six years old and he rated the difficulty as “moderate”. He mentioned observing the gage at the U.S. Geological Survey as he considered 5–6 feet to be ideal. My takeaway: someone has done it before, he survived, it wasn’t easy, and it required forethought.
From origin to end, I mapped the trip at 5.7 miles which was about 1.5–2 miles longer than the distance from A to B as the crow flies.
When I had a spare weekend hour, I drove to various bridges over the Little Blue to get a since of river width/depth but also to consider a contingency take out. I walked behind train tracks in Little Blue Valley with a machete to find a takeout spot near the tracks. It was too overgrown and, ultimately, impractical for carrying a kayak. Other options were more accessible but went through folks’ backyards.
People thought I was crazy but also were politely encouraging. It was clear that people doubted that I would do it which, I found, only entrenched the commitment. But there many highlighted the problems I would face: the river is relatively unknown, I am not an experienced kayaksman, getting in was easier than getting out…
Also, I needed a kayak.
Lack of kayak put the project on hiatus. I reasoned that it was an opportunity to begin some cardio conditioning.
I continued to ponder the quest and consider some conditions/rules.
- I wanted to attempt the trip after a significant rain event. The idea of pulling a kayak along a dried river bed did not sound adventurous.
- Private land was off-limits. I was willing to say “whoops” if found on city property pulling a kayak, but not private property.
- I did not want to spend any money. In previous adventures or plans, I would drop money on gear in excitement and foolishness. This time would be different — I would need sponsors.
- Although fall foliage would have made for a pleasant vista, I wanted to go before October for several reasons (water depth/temperature, ambient temperature, putting off too long, etc)
I told friends, family, coworkers, servers at my favorite tavern, partly in a effort to keep the goal in front of my mind and also to get a sense of a way forward. My brother-in-law joked that you could make a drinking game based upon my frequent mention of “kayak”.
After work, I sometimes would mentally map the trip and picture scenarios. The themes that popped up the most often were snake bites, accidental drownings, and Deliverance-esque situations. My mom told me that a decomposed body was found in the river. What’s an adventure without a little danger?
Then, on a random weekday, opportunity knocked. I was talking with a coworker about my plan when she offered to lend me two kayaks. She texted me that Saturday and offered to bring them over but I had the stomach flu and could barely move. She did not live near the city and I do not have a truck so I worried that my chance had passed.
Labor Day weekend, she offered to bring her kayaks again. By that point my plan was set and all my conditions were met except for one problem— I had traded the stomach flu for a mild cold. I had a decision to make because the weather was perfect, it had recently rained, I had a kayak, and my stepdad offered to drop off and pick up. I did not have full strength or stamina but was not sure I would have a better window.
The last decision to make was where to take out. I gave myself two options: 1) beneath the overpass in Knobtown, which would be steep but there was a parking lot at the top of the hill for the truck or 2) a soccer field nearby which was city property but often had weekend games and was less steep. I would have to make the decision in realtime because there is not formal takeout space along the route.
Seeing I had two kayaks, I also invited my loving wife who agreed to join.
The morning of, I drank several cups of water and packed the following:
- 2 1-liter bottles of water (his: Camelbak / hers: Nalgene)
- 1 half empty package of Fisherman’s Friend cough losenges
- 1 sandwich size Ziplock bag that held
- 1 iPhone 6 (GPS tracking, emergency call, photos)
- 1 gallon sized Ziplock bag that held
- 1 can mosquito repellent
- 1 bottle sunscreen
We drove to Longview Lake and loaded our kayaks into the water. A fisherman asked if we intended to kayak the Little Blue, I answered in the affirmative, to which he responded “That’s pretty badass.”
- 1 stroked ego
I planned for the trip to take 3 hours.
We started down river. These kayaks were wider and sturdier than ones I have used previously but still have that characteristic wobbliness. Maneuvering a kayak is relatively easy but does take some getting used to. We encountered current and some rapids relatively quickly.
Most of the river was quiet and serene. The flow was lazy and, aside from the periodic accumulations of illegal dumping, seemed undisturbed. You forgot you were in Kansas City until you went under an interstate overpass.
Since people do not recreationally use the Little Blue River, it is not well maintained. We encountered several natural obstructions as felled trees created a log jam and blocked passage. These are known strainers and they can range from inconvenient to dangerous. My wife capsized trying to navigate an early strainer. A kayak filled with water is heavy. Trying to pull it against a current onto a steep, mud/clay bank is exhausting.
This may be the hardest part to picture for people who have floated one of Missouri’s many southern rivers. Those rivers are wider, better maintained, have smooth stone riverbeds, and have banks that are easy to slide your canoe against.
The Little Blue lacks these luxuries. We both wore water shoes and, when your legs would plunge shin deep into the mud, the shoes would peel off.
The trip alternated between a leisurely paddle through straightaways and heaving maneuvering through snake-like turns in mild rapids. We passed two tunnels, a waterfall, and the Cedar Creek confluence. One overpass had three passages that were nearly 95% blocked by strainers with just enough space to pass a kayak.
Adventure. Here’s a clip.
The difficulty escalated with each strainer on the river that required maneuvering. Some locations took 5 minutes to clear floating logs and trash. Others took 45 minutes to empty a capsized kayak and pass it through a strainer, which is remarkably difficult to do when sliding on mud, battling a cold, and several hours into the process.
My favorite obstacle was a fallen tree trunk that spanned the river but had clearance just a few inches above the kayak. We had to lay flat and guide ourselves under it in a short bout of claustrophobia. I felt the trunk scrape my forehead, but we made it. This photo from another river gives a sense of the scenario — but our tree had a lower clearance and was more difficult to navigate.
Temperatures were in the mid 70s and the route was mostly shaded, so much of the sweat came from exertion. I started to have muscle cramps and knew I was getting dehydrated. After attemping to move our kayaks past another strainer, exhaustion was setting in.
We were beginning our fifth hour and I noticed that the river straightaways were getting longer which, I recalled from the map, meant we were nearing the end. Soon, I could hear highway cars and knew we were getting close to Knobtown.
It was about that time that I noticed that my bag had busted and my phone was sitting in murky river water. The screen was shorting. Damn.
I spotted the overpass that would serve as our first takeout option. The hill was steeper and more overgrown that I hoped. There were rapids heading into that spot, so maneuvering would be trickier. Just beyond, another strainer made passage impossible given our energy levels.
We pulled out kayaks to the bank and struggled to climb up the hill that was slick from mud and recent high water. Just beyond, wild thorn bushes grew chest high. The machete cleared some, but exhaustion and dehydration made the effort more tiring that productive. At that point, with shoes stuck in the mud I pushed through the bushes to emerge in a strip club parking lot in hopes of finding our ride nearby.
I kissed my wife. We did it.
To sum up, urban river kayaking can be more difficult if the waterway is not maintained or as accessible. At points you are sifting through loads of trash. I regret not taking a waterproof phone case or a larger water container. Also, better water shoes with sole traction are a must for climbing and standing on slippery tree trunks while pulling a kayak.
Costs and Summary
Damage to kayaks — $65
iPhone replacement — $80
Gas to return kayaks — $30
Total — $175
For me, the broader takeaway is a stoked sense of adventure and personal grit. I saw an unorthodox plan through to fruition. I talked about it and I did it. I upped my XP in kayaking, problem solving, and spatial awareness. I also saw a part of my locale that I take for granted and, seeing the excess illegal dumping and pollution, others appear to take it for granted as well.
“It’s a dangerous business…going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
Location: Little Blue River
Start: Longview Lake (river origin)
Distance: 5.7 miles