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Nepaholla Dreams (Part Four of Four Parts)

By Ron Parks
Analysis | January 20, 2011

COUNCIL GROVE, Kan. - I think a term useful for rediscovering the sacred in the Kansas landscape is liminality. The liminal is related to a sensory threshold that, like all boundaries, both separates and joins worlds. Liminal places in the Kansas landscape are present, interstices amidst the monoculture fields and development grids. These places can still be found because the land and water, up to a point, are resilient, as are our minds and bodies. From way back all of us, humans and more-than-humans, are wired up for liminal experiences.

Now I'm going to go a bit autobiographical on you. In 2009, I floated the Nepaholla River (aka Solomon River) in a canoe from the Waconda Lake Dam to the Nepaholla's mouth at the Smoky Hill River near the Solomon, a small town located between Salina and Abilene. The trip, actually a series of trips, starting in May and concluding in mid-November, covered 172.4 river miles. Here's what I want to share with you:

  • During the hundred hours or so I was on the water I saw a total of six people: four solitary fishermen, one wood-cutter, and one farmer checking his irrigation equipment.
  • In June, sections of the Nepaholla smelled like the shelves of herbicide products in Wal-Mart.
  • There are seven log jams -- I think I am the only person in the world who knows this -- between Waconda Lake and the Smoky Hill River, including three encountered on the last day. Getting the canoe and myself over and around these blockades required physical strength, dexterity and stamina, qualities your author is not abundantly endowed with. I'm reasonably certain that no surveillance devices recorded my frequent vile oaths uttered while surmounting these formidable obstacles. For that I am grateful. And I would like it officially recognized that I never tipped over into the Nepaholla.
  • On some of those days I was joined by a companion, Tom, a friend since childhood. He sat in the rear of the canoe and I sat in front. Tom is a story-teller, regaling me hour after hour. He also is hard of hearing. I am rigid of spine and cannot swivel. So it was that this pair of canoeing codgers, garrulous to the extreme, his chattered narratives punctuated by my bellowed acknowledgments, left in our wake a shattered Nepaholla tranquility.
  • A river-wise friend said this about the Nepaholla: "There's a uniqueness there, it's just a mind-flip. You don't know it until you've experienced it."
  • And that's it, finally. The Nepaholla, hyper-engineered by government technocrats, a sewer for agri-business, and all but ignored by its human neighbors, is a wonderful, transformative, liminal place. It renews and rejuvenates, in Steven Abram's words, "one's felt awareness of the world."

Let me end this by sprinkling a little Nepaholla holy water on you:

Tree-cordoned and serpentine in a rectilinear landscape, twisting low and subversive, a world unto itself, Nepaholla dreaming.

Male wood ducks, beyond Disney gaudiness, the females skillful injury fakers, the skittish bank-hugging chicks, hours of entertainment.

Cottonwoods towering high above the outer bends, below amidst the roots a network of holes, beaver dens.

Banks covered by thousands of mock cucumber domes, vibrant and massive, vines taper down to the river's edge, herds of mammoths come to drink.

The chocolate milk water full of churning sediment, bugs scrawl the surface, turtles bask on rocks, a sudden canoe-shuddering scrape, didn't see it coming.

Severed duck's head on a rock, black head, blue bill, yellow eyes, blood-stained feathers, a Nepaholla murder mystery.

"Always check the catfish's stomach," says Tom. "Purple stomachs mean ripe mulberries, your bait of the day."

A sharp bend, massive sandstone cliff on right bank, hemispheres pock its smooth, high, stolid walls. Below in the streambed, one after another, they fall out of the sky, hit with a thud and writhe, a bison jump.

Sun glints off of water-skimmed paddle, somewhere in the timber an owl, "whhoooaaah!!!" Millions of poison hemlock blooms infiltrate the air acrid. Wakanda Springs upstream, Big Red Rock downstream; right here-and now, canoe prow creases the water, Nepaholla dreaming.

Journey complete, he's muddy, tired, and hungry. Lady at Solomon bar says only place to eat is Bushes, today they're serving sausage submarine sandwiches with sauerkraut, advises going light on the sauerkraut.


Ron, you are guilty!!! Guilty of what, you ask. Guilty of enabling me to become a stoggy practical old gent that has never seen the need for me to gad about the world in reckless abandon. I don't like to get any further from my bed, at any time, but what I can get back home in time to retire on my own lumpy form fitting mattress.

I've been forced to get out of my comfort zone, a few times, but I don't like it. If we are going to be a part of society and contribute to developing a culture that will make the world a friendlier place for all of mankind, we sometimes have to step out of our comfort zone.

I've seen the world and enjoyed the account of man's journey from the beginning of recorded history right up to the present day. Incidentally, recorded history is beholden to the story telling of events, through verbal skills, before the written word was perfected.

The practical side of me has taught me not to depend only on one observer's interpretation or picture of the time or place they are revealing. I'm sure there are some who have traversed that same 175 miles of river and experienced an entirely different picture of nature.

Ron, keep on writing. We are fortunate, here at KFP, to have access to your ability to paint pictures through written narrative of your experiences and observations.

That's not the only thing you're likely guilty of. Unless you managed to obtain permission from every single adjacent landowner on the entire river stretch from the dam to the junction, you're also guilty of trespassing. The law is terrible and wrong, but since Meek v Hays was decided by the Kansas Supreme Court in 1990 it's been a crime to float anything but the Kaw, Ark & Missouri with specific permission of all adjacent land owners along your route. Hopefully the day is coming when this travesty of justice, this gross misinterpretation of the public trust doctrine, is overturned. Until then, know the law is not on your side.

You know what I see? Economic opportunity! If Kansas would make the law changes necessary and open up Kansas rivers and streams to canoe outfitters we might build a new industry and create new jobs. I've canoed many a river in Missouri, no reason this couldn't happen in Kansas.

I hope someone brings this up to some state legislators.

Ron--I really enjoyed this. It made for a good read to go on the trip with you. I agree with Brad. The property laws relating to rivers should be changed. How can rivers be owned by individuals?

Diane, Yeah, why is that? I've canoed rivers in Missouri where sometimes a section of the shore was posted "No Trespassing" and some farmers cows were in the river.

Kansas has some great open lands ripe for adventure tourism like mountain biking, canoeing, or hiking. This needs to be looked into.

Strangely, the individuals don't own the river, they don't even own the water in the river (that's why you need a water right to use it, it's owned by the state). What they do own, under current law, is the right of control of the land under the water up to the center of the river or stream. The common interpretation up until Meek vs Hays was that as long as you put in and took out from public property (bridges, parks, whatever) that as long as you didn't land on anyone's property you were fine. Since Meek vs Hays the right of control of all but the three "navigable" streams lies with adjacent landowner. Public access used to have an ally in KDWP Secretary (and former governor) Mike Hayden, but Brownback isn't retaining him. But the only thing that's going to change it is either a lawsuit to a higher authority to clarify the public trust doctrine as it related to interstate waters used in commerce at the time of statehood, or a change in access laws by the legislature. Support your local water justice organizations if you want to paddle the streams of this state. Otherwise you run the risk of fine anytime you put in.

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