In the spring of 2004, I stood chest-deep in the Arkansas River in south Wichita, holding the biggest flathead catfish (Pylodictis olivaris) I had ever seen. I’d spent the day stumbling upstream, over rocks, in a pair of borrowed neoprene waders. A cold rain soaked every inch of my clothes. My bare hands were too cold to hold on to anything, much less a writhing, slippery fish. I opted to bear-hug the fish to my chest. I was freezing, and I was smitten. I’d fallen in love with a river.
Now, as our country fights its way through the current global health crisis, I’m noticing a palpable shift in the ways people spend their time, both together and apart.
Looking for ways to beat the inevitable boredom of living, working, sleeping, eating and spending time together in the same, limited spaces has us all stretching beyond indoor comfort as we face the unknown.
This rediscovery of the natural environment has had the added benefit of bringing a sense of inner peace in a time of uncertainty and lack of control. Numerous studies have shown that exposure to the outdoors — even through an open window — can improve mental health.
Families, couples and friends are looking more and more to the adventure-awaiting outdoors, where the risk of spreading COVID-19 to a loved one is said to be lower.
And when they do, they’re finding that they’re not alone.
With just 1.9 percent of its land considered “public,” Kansas ranks 49th out of 50 states when it comes to land accessible for recreation.
While our state parks and trails, public hunting areas, green spaces and neighborhood parks are augmented by partnerships with private landowners, it seems there’s little wilderness left to explore.
So how does one find wilderness to trigger those moments of clarity and connection to nature in a place dominated by private lands? Just look to the rivers.
Historically seen as utilitarian, our rivers were the primary sources of drinking water and some of the first “roads” traveled by Indigenous Americans and early white explorers.
But as the container of our most precious resource, our rivers are also the circulatory system of the Great Plains. They carry with them a glimpse into the ways we use our lands, while providing protection and forage to numerous wildlife traveling along the adjacent riparian corridors.
In Kansas, the Arkansas River is home to more than 50 species of fish, several of which are threatened or endangered due to loss of habitat, degraded water quality, and barriers to migration.
The Arkansas River begins in central Colorado, where white waters rage through the mountains and foothills. As the river winds into western Kansas, the dry sands of its bed tell the story of agriculture and irrigation: the river seems to slip underground.
At Great Bend, it makes a sharp turn to the south and begins to gather water and width as it travels through the open prairie, rich pastures and farmland, two major cities (Hutchinson and Wichita), then back out into the countryside, gaining flows from smaller tributaries, such as Grouse Creek and the Walnut River, along the way. In Oklahoma, the Ark becomes large enough for barge traffic and may be navigated for commerce.
Over time, water law and regulations have both protected and isolated this resource, leading it to become even more precious and frequently worth fighting over.
Our rivers are one of the few remaining ways we can tangibly grasp the exhilaration of adventure. They are our last wilderness corridors, providing insulation from the continuous loop of news and distractions of technology. The variable flows and winding braided channels of a sandy, Great Plains river change with every rainfall, the sandbars holding tiny remnants of our past. They are at once our history, our present, our future.
Our rivers connect us to each other, to ourselves and to our world, and they are now more accessible than ever.
With 22 existing public access points from Great Bend to the Oklahoma border, the Arkansas River Water Trail provides 192 continuous miles of public wilderness. A collaborative project is underway to build signage and public use and safety information on the trail’s existing access points.
The Kansas River is also a national water trail in Kansas, at 173 miles long. Information about the Kaw is available from the Friends of the Kaw at their website, including a map of the access points on the Kansas River.
Jessica Mounts is executive director for the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams. The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state.