A Graveyard, a Muddy River and a Funeral: Canoeing the Neosho, Kansas

DSC_0760 (1)(State #30/50) There’s no sugarcoating it — the Neosho River isn’t attractive; the fine folk of Kansas were quick to tell me as much. “You’re going to canoe there?” A man at a gas pump asked as he stroked his chin, thinking of better options. “Of course there’s the Spring River down near the Oklahoma border, that’s prettier… The Neosho is just muddy. Good for noodling though!” I nodded my head as if considering, but I had already made my choice. Though I felt the voices of 100 canoe/kayak enthusiast from Kansas telling me to go elsewhere, I crossed the plains and headed for the muddy river.

DSC_0730Coming out of the Ozarks, the nature of the roads transitioned with the scenery. Winding and snaking turned into east running west and north running south with very little in between. There was little need to deviate from the cardinal directions now that I was in the great empty, the flat vastness, the Great Plains of Bloody Kansas.

Near the town of Saint Paul, I turned off the highway into a cemetery. Green mowed grass surrounded 100-year old grave stones, 200-year-old oaks and tall cedars under an open sky. Investigating Flat Rock Creek, I determined I needed to keep going to the main river to put in the canoe. The clock showed seven-forty and the shadows of the tombstones and trees lengthened along the manicured grounds; it was time to go.DSC_0653

DSC_0659Missing the turn… twice… I finally motored down the gravel road towards the river as gray dust filled my rearview mirror. Near the concrete bridge, I found a steep, rutted path, which led down to a wide rusty-red gravel bar. I carried Rider down atop my shoulders and sat her down on a collection of perfect skipping stones by the river. There was no time to change as the evening waned, so I gathered only the necessities and hit the muddy river. The current was steady and moving at a 4-mile-per hour pace. I didn’t want to be struggling back upstream in the dark, so I turned my bow against it and paddled up.

The orange sun fell behind a stand of willows on a raised embankment as I canoed against the churning, upwelling current. My efforts were rewarded with a glimpse of the sun falling between clouds and over a cow pasture before sneaking below the western horizon.DSC_0678

DSC_0685 (1)Continuing upstream, I got a damn good look at the soil profile of Kansas, as the cutbank displayed naked eroded land below tall green grass and blooming Black Eyed Susans (who the hell came up with that name? A botanist/wife beater?). Logs from the last flood lay upside down with their root ends in the pasture and their branches dipping into the rushing, boiling Neosho.

The smell of cow manure hung in the warm evening air. A tractor roared and clanked on the land above, kicking up dust. The farmer, toiling until last light, remained hidden from view. I rounded a final bend and stopped along a depositional bank. Grabbing my camera, I walked up to a field. Cows grazed hundreds of yards beyond an electric fence. Tall yellow grass grew up between large oaks, elms, sycamore and willow thickets. The sunset was past its prime and the cool colors of dusk crept in on the dim yellow glow of the west.DSC_0689

I returned to my boat and a darkening river. Paddling with the flow, I opened a warm beer and kept to the center. The light softened, airbrushing the landscape. The harshness of the eroding banks, the muddy river and rock and debris strewn banks lessened. Still not attractive, no, but less ugly. Fireflies flicked to life in great numbers along the riverside as the willows all merged into one green Mario-tree backdrop. A cool summer evening breeze replaced the hot afternoon air, while a train sounded on a track to the distant south. Birds and crickets added volume to the soundscapes of flowing water and swaying trees. No, not pretty, but peaceful.DSC_0688 (1)

DSC_0695I awoke to the early morning traffic of trucks driving over the bridge, wondering if they were looking down at my tent and wondering what the hell I was doing. I got waves and looks, but no one was curious enough to approach.

Canoeing downstream, I passed another large cut out bank where farmers had dumped rocks and concrete blocks in efforts to stop their fields from washing away; it worked to a point, but did not add any ascetics to the river. I scared a reddish-tan doe, browsing where the woods grew up to the low dirt cliff. Floating middle river, I gazed up at the frame of an old car bridge. The floor planks were gone, vines wrapped the steel and one of the stone wall supports crumbed towards the waters — nature was winning this little battle. After nearly two miles the sun turned hot and I turned around, laboring upstream three times slower and six times harder than the downstream float.DSC_0725

DSC_0741After lugging Rider up to the car, I drove back to Saint Mary. There, I discovered a little museum with an open sign hung on the wall and a single car in the parking lot. I parked, walked in and found an old couple sitting at a folding table, reading and playing solitaire. They seemed surprised by my presence. The man, however, said he’d show me around and seemed pleased to do so. His name was Arnie and I followed him to one building filled with dozens of slain and stuffed African animals. Another hall was filled with trophies from the high school across the street. DSC_0744 (1)Black and white photocopies of newspaper clippings hung above tarnished trophies — a 1953 basketball statue and a 1962 baseball player holding 1/8th of a bat. I’m not sure what type of coming-to-life, Night at the Museum shenanigans a bunch of dead African savannah animals get into with gold figurines of white kids from the 50’s, but I’d pay to see it.

In another building, Arnie showed me a large room filled with old army uniforms, arrow heads, antique beds, dolls, a 1930’s car and a Mac 1, set amongst old typewriters. It truly was a hodgepodge of the last 200 years, with everything segmented in loose sections. I could have looked around for an hour, but the museum closed at one. Turning off the lights and locking the door behind me, Arnie told me more about the Catholics, whom founded the town. Growing up a Protestant, he was the closest thing Saint Paul had to a minority. Before I headed out, they insisted I check out the church across the street — the first catholic church built west of the Mississippi, which had recently been restored after a tornado lopped off the steeple. We shook hands and I left.

DSC_0754Removing my Rangers cap, I opened the side door to the church and found the men’s room to use the facilities and wash my grimy hands. Leaving the restroom, I rounded the corner to the main cathedral and halted in my tracks at the sight of an open casket at the altar. A piano played while a lone old woman in black turned and looked back at me. I froze for a second — dirty, unshaven and grasping a ball cap and a camera. I was dressed for a day at Disney World, not a wake. After a few slow steps of retreat, I fled to the parking lot and left town wondering how and why my Kansas canoe began in a graveyard and ended at a funeral.

River Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Noesho River, Kansas
  • Miles Canoed: 5
  • Dates Canoed: 6-28/29-17
  • Weather: Sunny and party cloudy to mostly cloudy in the morning
  • Elevation: 839 Feet Above Sea Level
  • Launch/Takeout Point & Campsite: Gravel bar below bridge on (37.49408, -095.16304)
  • Furtherest Point Reached upstream: (37.49769, -095.176105)
  • Furtherest Point Reached Downstream: (37.4855, -095.146923)
  • Songs Sung on River: Dust in the Wind by Kansas and Corpus Christy Bay by Robert Earl Keen
  • Delicious Nearby Restaurant: Nu Grill in Fort Scott (great simple burger and an overflow of onion rings)
  • Thanks to the Casey from Saint Paul for advice on Canoeing and Arnie at the Osage Mission Museum for giving me a proper tour filled with local history and personal history.DSC_0719
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: great blue heron, kingfisher, crow, mourning dove, barn swallows
  • Mammals: 2 Whitetail deer
  • Reptiles/Amphibians: turtles
  • Fish: Gar, catfish
  • Noted Species: Various Migratory bird species stop over at nearby Neosho WMA
  • Dominant Vegetation: Willows, Oaks, American Elm, Sycamore, Silver Maple and Eastern Red Cedar and Tall grass praise grass species
  • Ecoregion: Central Irregular Plains, (40b) Osage Cuestas
  • Current Threats: Difficult to find specific threats, but I’d venture to guess sedimentation from erosion and agricultural and farming runoff
  • Trash collected: Piece of a toilet, beer cans and plastic bottles
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Halfway Home! Currently at $2541 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign
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