Gov. Sam Brownback said Thursday that he hopes construction of new boat ramps along the Kansas River will draw more people to the waterway and increase its recreational use.
Brownback, trading his coat and tie for cargo shorts and a T-shirt, led more than 100 people in canoes and kayaks on a roughly eight-mile float trip.
The paddlers set out at midmorning from Wamego and finished about four hours later at Belvue, where a new boat ramp was dedicated. A colorful flotilla of red, yellow, green and blue craft navigated downstream, avoiding sandbars while enjoying the scenery on the prairie river.
Pausing on a sandbar, Brownback said Kansas residents who know the state will be the best salesmen for encouraging more people to use the Kansas River for recreation.
“What we’re trying to do is talk to Kansans about Kansas,” the governor said. “We don’t know our own state very well. We’ve got to get out and do it.”
The river, known locally as the Kaw, stretches 173 miles from Junction City to the Missouri border. Last year, the U.S. Department of the Interior designated it a National Water Trail, one of about a dozen around the country.
Brownback, who has participated in hunting excursions and has promoted the Flint Hills region, said Kansas has natural assets that can attract visitors to the state, promote a healthy lifestyle for residents and encourage economic development.
He stayed in the middle of the flotilla during the trip, chatting with participants. He was joined by high school students and river advocates, plus several members of his staff, Cabinet secretaries and his wife, first lady Mary Brownback.
Brian Leaders, a National Park Service official for river projects in the Midwest, said Kansas River enthusiasts had done a lot to promote the river and raise awareness. The Kansas River was the second in the nation to earn such designation behind the Chattahoochee in Georgia.
Leaders, who paddled in the stern with the governor, said most Americans don’t realize what going down a river is like, including the frequent sights of wildlife and quiet surroundings not found when going down highways.
“The crowd’s really enjoying it. You have a lot of newbies that you hope will talk about it,” Leaders said. “It’s addictive.”
Ann White, a horse trainer from Wamego, paddled in a pink kayak. She takes it out several times a year. She said having a boat ramp in Belvue would give her reason to make the short river trip again. She hopes more people join her, adding that she’s frequently the only one on the water when she’s paddled before.
“It’s nice to be away from people, but it’s also sad that people don’t know it’s here to use,” White said.
Laura Calwell, a Lawrence resident with Friends of the Kaw, an environmental group that works to protect the river, said more ramp development creates a need for entrepreneurs to step forward and develop canoe rental and livery businesses to meet what she expects to be a growing demand.
“Recreation is starting to pick up. This is a springboard,” Calwell said.