Johnson County leader had life-changing kayak adventure at 22. At 64, he wants repeat

Hannes Zacharias was stunned when he was abruptly ousted as county manager of Johnson County government late last year.

But he didn't plunge immediately into a search for a new position.

Instead, he started seriously planning for an adventure that he’d dreamed about for decades.

Zacharias leaves May 23 on a 2,060-mile river trip from the Arkansas River’s headwaters near Leadville, Colo., to the Gulf of Mexico. If all goes according to plan, he’ll reach his destination Sept. 1.

It's a chance to recreate and expand on another solo kayak trip he took when he was just 22, in 1976. During the summer, he spent six weeks navigating the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers from his Dodge City, Kan., hometown to New Orleans.

That 1,200-mile Bicentennial voyage turned into a journey of self-discovery and appreciation for America. It tested his endurance and gave him an up-close-and-personal introduction to the river and the wildlife and the people who live along its banks.

For years after that, he had an even more ambitious quest.

“I wanted to follow a drop of water all the way from the Continental Divide (in Colorado) to the Gulf of Mexico,” he said.

Zacharias, who turns 64 at the end of this month, decided the time was finally right to stop thinking about it.

“I want to see the places I did before, to recapture those memories and see how things have changed,” he said.

People can follow along for daily updates on his Facebook Page, entitled Hannes’s Ark River Adventure.

Part of his mission this time, he says, is to focus greater public attention on the Arkansas River, the sixth largest in the U.S. and 45th largest in the world. (He points out that it’s pronounced Ar-kan’-sas in the state of Kansas, but Ar’-kan-saw everywhere else).

He hopes to document its changes over the past 42 years, including how it has dried up in much of western Kansas because of ditch irrigation, greatly affecting the ecosystem and social fabric of life in those communities.

Another mission will be to illustrate the river’s beauty when it is flowing and highlight how most Americans have lost any connection to the waters that for most of human history were the super highways across the United States.

His message to people about the river is: “They should cherish it, understand it.”

Zacharias came by his fascination of canoeing and kayaking from his father, Carl, who had emigrated from Germany and was an orthopedic surgeon in Dodge City for many years. Carl Zacharias loved rivers as many Europeans do, and instilled in Hannes the desire to do the 1976 trip.

That summer was life-changing.

“I talked to the river a lot,” he recalled. “It was a Mark Twain experience for me to go and say, ’How do I survive on my own?’”

He endured loneliness, thunderstorms, near collisions with other boats, broken paddles, and even the theft of his kayak from the riverbank while he was visiting a friend on July 2, 1976 in Tulsa.

“Dodge Citizen is Up a Creek,” proclaimed the headline in the Wichita Eagle after Zacharias appealed to the public to try to get his kayak back. The Associated Press picked up the story, which went national, and he did recover his craft, which had been taken by some curious kids.

He was able to resume his journey through Oklahoma and Arkansas, where he was hired to work on a barge towboat at Fort Smith for 10 days and went through the 19 locks and dams on the way to the Mississippi River. From there he kayaked to New Orleans, where he got an honorary "key to the city."

Over the past 25 years, Zacharias has retained his affinity for rivers, taking annual canoe trips with friends, including recent Missouri River trips from South Dakota to Kansas City and St. Louis.

But this is his most ambitious venture since 1976. He’s using a commercial rafting company to help him get through the formidable stretch of rapids from the Arkansas headwaters area to Cañon City. When the river runs dry in western Kansas he’ll hike or use an ATV in the dry stream bed.

Wherever there’s sufficient water, especially from Wichita to the Gulf Coast, he’ll paddle his single-seat Old Town Castine kayak.

“It’s analogous to wearing a glove. It fits just to size and is very comfortable,” Zacharias said as he settled into the seat on his front lawn in Lenexa while talking about his plans.

He has room in the kayak for about 125 pounds of supplies, including a tent, minuscule cook stove, water, dehydrated foods and other camping equipment. He can resupply about every six days. He expects to cover around 25 miles per day paddling the Arkansas and maybe 35 miles per day on the Mississippi.

Where the river is vanishing, he wants to ask people he encounters, “What’s its future? Where it’s gone, does it matter?”

Rex Buchanan, director emeritus of the Kansas Geological Society, admires Zacharias’ energy and sense of mission. He first got to know Zacharias in the 1990s, when Zacharias was city manager of Hays, Kan., and dealing with a lot of water resource challenges.

Buchanan has spoken with Zacharias at length about western Kansas’ water issues and thinks this trip can make a difference for one of Kansas’ most significant rivers.

“I think what he’s doing is important partly to draw attention to a river that deserves attention,” Buchanan said. “It’s basically dry, but you hear no conversation about that fact. I think that’s sad. If he can draw attention to that, and help raise people’s consciousness it’s all to the good.”

Buchanan says he may join Zacharias for part of his trip, but just a small section.

“I don’t know anybody else that would undertake anything quite like it, including me,” Buchanan said.

As Buchanan says, Zacharias will bring back an eyewitness view and perspective that most people only know from a bridge or a highway.

When he completes the journey, Zacharias plans to speak to community groups about what he’s learned, and he may write a book. As for his next career move, he’s just accepted a position as a professor at the University of Kansas School of Public Affairs and Administration, beginning in 2019.

But before then, he’s got a wonderful summer in store, to relive a transformative chapter from his youth.

“I want to tell people,” he said, “that indeed even at my age, we can still have adventures.”