Float Trip In Kansas City Reveals 'Spirit' Of Missouri River

Sep 11, 2015

The first Hannibal Bridge, right, across the Missouri River helped establish Kansas City as a major city and rail hub.
Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR

This story was rebroadcast as part of our best-of 2015 series. It was originally reported in September 2015.

The Missouri River shaped Kansas City.

It ferried traders and explorers. It helped establish Kansas City's reputation as a transportation hub.

Slaves escaped across the river, where some settled in the town of Old Quindaro in the Kansas Territory, soon to be Free Kansas.  

But as important as the river is, we don’t get out on it much. And for me, growing up in a place that focused more on the prairie than the river, I’ve always been fascinated by the Mighty Mo.

So I decided to take a little tour. 

I spent  an afternoon on the river with Randy White, of River Run Rentals.  We put in at Riverside and paddled — well, Randy paddled — to Riverfront Park, just beyond Berkley Riverfront Park. 

Things you can only appreciate from the water

You really can’t see your hand if you put it in the water.  At all. It’s true to its nickname – The Big Muddy.  

Scholars say the word “Missouri” has often been misconstrued to mean “muddy water” but it really means “town of the large canoes,” according to the Smithsonian Museum. 

The river has a reputation for having a fast current, and it does.  The Army Corps of Engineers  puts the current on average between three and five miles an hour. That makes sense based on our trip. We traveled about 10 miles in two-and-a-half hours.

There are eddies and places the water actually seems to go the opposite direction. It’s because of tree trunks and debris that get caught on the river bottom. 

Outfitter Randy White started canoeing the Missouri as an outdoor adventure outlet.
Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR

Floating the Missouri isn't dramatic like floating the Colorado or the Snake rivers, but it's got its own beauty. It's got the native Willows and Cottonwood Trees.  

We saw a couple of fawns. White says he often sees beaver, and the bird watching is good – hawks, blue heron, and something that looked like some kind of fly catcher. As winter approaches, eagles nest around Kaw Point.

Business and commerce

The handful of casinos in the area were supposed to be  “Riverboat Casinos,” and I thought I might see signs of them from the river. Not so much. They’re really casinos with moats around them now. (But they’ve been good for the Northland economy.)

We heard the factory and freight trains as we passed the massive Fairfax Plant in Kansas – and saw the many business jets coming and going from the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport in Missouri.  It was once our primary airport — now, of course, the main airport is miles to the north.

The airport hugs the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers at Kaw Point.  You can actually face the point head on — see where the land juts out into the water. It's such a different perspective than seeing it from land. Back from the bank is an iron cut-out of Lewis and Clark, who more than 200 years ago camped there to restock and repair equipment. 

You get a unique view of the city scape from the river
Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR

As you paddle around the tip of Kaw Point , the panorama of downtown Kansas City unfolds like a post card. Rising from the bluffs above the river bottoms …The Town Pavilion, One Kansas City Place, The Power and Light Building … City Hall. The skyline is so much more dramatic from the water. 

The payoff

The best part of the float, for me anyway, was this last bit. Out of what White calls the “wind tunnel,” where you have the south winds behind you, the water gets calm. The sun was setting, casting the magnificent array of bridges against a glowing pink sky.

The variety and majesty of our metro bridges stand out when you're on the water.
Credit Laura Ziegler / KCUR

In the air — a sound of cicadas , train whistles, some traffic as you float under the bridge. The glassy water reflects the massive concrete supports like a mirror in the setting sun.

American author and storyteller William Least Heat-Moon has traversed the country on our rivers. He had this to say about the Mighty Mo.

"I have not been on any river that has more of a distinctive personality than does the Missouri River. It's a river that immediately presents to the traveler, 'I am a grandfather spirit. I have a source; I have a life.'"

I found I had to be patient on this Missouri River float through Kansas City. The river revealed itself slowly, quietly.

But that personality of which Heat-Moon spoke did manifest by the end of my float. And it gave me a sense of how important the river is to our past, and who we’ve become as a community.

This look at the Missouri River is part of KCUR's months-long examination of how geographic borders affect our daily lives in Kansas City. KCUR will go Beyond Our Borders and spark a community conversation through social outreach and innovative journalism.

We will share the history of these lines, how the borders affect the current Kansas City experience and what’s being done to bridge or dissolve them.