So there’s our Big Muddy!
Twenty years ago, urban dwellers in Kansas City didn’t see much of the Missouri River except when stuck in traffic atop one of the downtown spans. Even then, motorists averted their eyes from the city’s tow lot on the south bank near the old Paseo Bridge.
How far we’ve come: On Aug. 8, more than 600 canoeists and kayakers will ride the river’s chocolate-brown currents past that very location — now Berkley Riverfront Park. Bike and hike paths are sure to be lined with spectators for the world’s longest nonstop race of boats without motors.
Race director Scott Mansker remembers planning the first Missouri River 340 (MR340) in 2006, from Kansas City to St. Charles, Mo. “We had 11 boats,” he said. “This year, we’re limiting it to 450.”
Making friends with the Missouri has taken forever.
The relationship started promising: Kansas City owed its existence to steamers the Missouri carried to a rock landing below today’s River Market. Yet over the decades, the river unleashed floods, and even at low levels the water often moved too fast for lazy-day floating.
From the confluence with the Kaw, gunk from the meatpacking industry flowed east.
“There’s all this funky history with the Missouri in Kansas City,” said Vicki Richmond of Healthy Rivers Partnership, a nonprofit that promotes respect for the river by bringing people closer to it. “After enough flooding, we wound up walling ourselves from a river that put us here in the first place.”
Nearby towns such as Parkville, Leavenworth and Lexington, Mo., have always celebrated their less cluttered river fronts during summer festivals.
But many Kansas Citians were disinclined to approach the water, mostly because junk, brush or industry surrounded it.
“You’re not going to drive across the Ford plant to see the river,” said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operations manager James Rudy.
A huge cleanup preceded Berkley Riverfront Park’s opening in 1999. It brought July Fourth parties to the Big Muddy’s banks. In 2010, the old Paseo span was replaced by the sleek Bond Bridge, with better access to Front Street.
More recently up the bluff, luxury living and lofts have given residents views of the Missouri through upper-floor windows.
Around where Main Street ends, pedestrians and cyclists venture on wooden planks of the Town of Kansas pier, a footbridge overlooking the bank where the city started. From there, they can take an elevator or steps down to the Riverfront Heritage Trail.
The trail takes bikers from Berkley Riverfront Park up through downtown then back down into the West Bottoms, just south of where the Missouri curls around the municipal airport.
Farther upstream, Parkville in 2014 opened the 144-acre Platte Landing Park. It features a boat ramp, wetlands restoration, volleyball courts, dog runs and miles of hiking trails.
Boaters may also enter the Missouri on public ramps at Leavenworth, the Platte River (Schimmel City and Humphrey accesses), obscure Riverfront Park — not Berkley — about 1.5 miles east of the Bond Bridge off River Front Road, or farther downstream at La Benite Riverfront Park near Sugar Creek.
“If you’re outboarding, have a full fuel tank,” said the Corps of Engineers’ Rudy. “If you run out of fuel on some rivers, you sit there. You run out on the Missouri? You’re going downstream.”
And it’s not a polite stream. Ask unsuspecting boaters knocked silly by Asian carp flying out like missiles.
Canoes and kayaks risk tipping over in swirling currents made worse by winds. Midwest Paddle Racing in April hosted a race from Kansas City to Lexington in which nine of 75 paddlers were pulled from the water into Richmond’s safety boat.
“It was a brutal day,” Richmond said. “Always — life jackets!”
As for the 340-mile race in August, all solo openings have been filled. Some wishing to team up may still register at RiverMiles.com.
A required safety meeting will be Aug. 7, the night before racing starts.
When that first 11-boat race took off in 2006, Mansker of RiverMiles LLC knew little about outfitting the vessels or even how many days the race ought to stretch. Since then, year-round planning of MR340 has required that Mansker cut his schoolteacher job to part time.
Kansas Citians have been neglecting the Big Muddy for generations, after all. It’ll take time to learn all its rhythms.
“We’re getting there,” he said.
Missouri River below downtown bluff
Address: Berkley Riverfront Park, 1298 E. Riverfront Road
Hours: Never closes
Directions: Go west of Kit Bond Bridge at the Front Street/Grand Boulevard exit