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As much history as many think the Mississippi River holds, it plays second fiddle to the Missouri River. Its historical zenith came with the expedition of the Corps of Discovery led by William Clark and Merriwether Lewis. Yes, they headed up the Ol’ Miss to get to St. Louis, but it was their exploration of the Missouri River that captured the imagination of a nation. Paddling the Missouri River is a chance to touch base with one of the greatest feats of human will, the Herculean effort of the Corps of Discovery.
Of the many points along the lower Missouri that commemorate the expedition, one of the best is Kaw Point at the confluence of the Kansas (Kaw) River and the Missouri River at Kansas City. This was one of the many campsites of the expedition with the crew landing there on June 26, 1804. The official park is located in Kansas City, Kan. within sight of the skyline of downtown Kansas City, Mo. One of the features is a well-maintained concrete boat ramp that is the start of this 30-mile run. Take a few moments to visit the amphitheater and homage to the American Indian tribes of the region. The park also features an ADA fishing pier over the Kansas River.
Putting in, the first thing one notices is a water treatment plant discharge on river right. This fact, along with much misinformation about the Muddy Mo, leads many to believe the river is not a healthy place to paddle. This is not quite accurate. The river is brown because it carries an enormous amount of silt (a.k.a. soil). It is not nasty, as its reputation would have one believe.
Paddlers will soon forget this debate as they are faced with an impressive view of the Kansas City, Mo. skyline. Not many paddle runs start with sights of great architecture seen from a wide river flowing about 4-5 miles per hour. The downtown Kansas City airport is on river left, which is largely used by commuter, business and private aircraft. The approach from the south will bring planes close overhead if you are fortunate enough to be on the river at that time. At 1.3 miles into the run is the first in a series of bridges crossing the river. The arched bridge of Broadway Blvd. is followed immediately by Missouri’s oldest bridge, the Hannibal Bride, a railroad bridge first opened in 1869 and refurbished in 1917. At 1.9 miles is the old ASB Bridge, a double-decked movable bridge, which was completed in 1912. They are followed closely by the more modern concrete Heart of America Bridge carrying Highway 9. From that point begins the River Front Park of Kansas City on the right bank. The park culminates approximately 2.8 miles into this urban section of the run at a beautifully lit (at night) suspension bridge named The Paseo Bridge, which carries Interstates 35 and 29 as well as Highway 71.
By now, the river is heading generally northeast to the Chouteau access ramp at 4.4 miles on river right. On river left is one of the famous “boats” or riverboat casinos for which Kansas City is known. The concrete Chouteau Trafficway Bridge stands at 5.2 miles.
For the next several miles, the right bank is densely treed by a belt of woods, shielding the river from the city and giving it a rural feel, while still in the middle of 1.5 million people. Before reaching the Interstate 435 bridge (7.1 miles), the Missouri makes a graceful curve to the southeast past the Hawthorn Power Plant followed by the mouth of the Blue River until mile 9.2 when it begins to snake back northeast just after the large power plant on river right. The large stack is hard to miss. The next mile will reveal two small tributaries on river right and the large white storage tanks of the British Petroleum facility near Sugar Creek, Mo. It was at this point that the Corps of Discovery camped on an island on June 25, 1804. From here, the bottomlands turn agricultural and a peaceful cruise is capped off by the midway point (14.9 miles) at La Benite Park just on the right down-river side of the double span steel truss bridges carrying the north and south-bound lanes of Highway 291.
Pull up to the concrete ramp at the park and take a moment to stretch the legs, enjoy a picnic lunch at the park’s pavilion and use the facilities in preparation for the second leg of this run. La Benite Park features a playground and a wooded riverside walking trail with historical display boards with information about the river and the expedition of the early 19th Century. It is located just a few minutes south of Liberty, Mo. The park has regular day use visitors as well as a large number of anglers launching from the boat ramp.
Putting back in, the river becomes noticeably rural in look and feel. Although this is a dredged and channeled river with many wing and L dykes, it still is a natural body of water. Down river from the park, the Missouri turns generally north until turning back east again at Missouri City, Mo. on the left bank. Just before the easterly turn, paddlers will see a smaller power plant on the left bank. About five miles from La Benite park is another campsite of the Lewis and Clark team who landed there on June 24, 1804.
The chances of spotting Great Blue Herons, turkey vultures and hawks are very high, as it is with almost any body of water in Missouri. The occasional Bald Eagle has also been seen on this stretch. Another three miles and the access ramp of Cooley Lake Conservation Area appears on river left as the river heads back to a southeastern flow. Cooley Lake Conservation Area is another well-maintained concrete river access facility with nearly 200 acres of wildlife.
After 28 miles, the river will take a right-hand turn at which point you should be able to spot the giant white stack of the Sibley power plant. Upon completion of this gradual bend, the Ft. Osage access ramp will be at river right at just shy of 30 miles. The Corps of Discovery camped near here on June 23, 1804. You’ll take out here, but your trip is not over. Walk up and stroll around the historical fort that over looks the mighty Missouri. This old army fort is well maintained and is a great chance for a quick history lesson to enhance a great paddling experience. Under the direction of William Clark, 80 volunteer dragoons from St. Charles, Mo. and the regular garrison under the command of Captain Eli Clemson, erected Ft. Osage in 1808. The fort was largely abandoned by 1827 as the frontier was pushed farther west.
Having cast aside the myth that the river is a health hazard, there is the issue of the power of this river. As with any moving body of water, the force it generates is far greater than it appears. The Missouri River is no different. All bodies of water must be shown respect. However, it is my position that the Missouri River has a reputation far worse than it deserves (this coming from a guy whose brother drowned in the Missouri River). When paddlers exercise standard safety practices, such as paddling clear of stationary objects in the water and giving barges a wide berth, the Missouri River is a joy for all members of the family and an underestimated paddling resource flowing through one of the Midwest’s greatest cities.
Ft. Osage access can be reached by going east on U.S. Highway 24 from downtown Kansas City to Buckner, Mo. (about 22 miles). Turn north on Sibley St. (traffic light) and go about two miles when signs will direct you to Ft. Osage.
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