A Night on the Kaw

by David Hann

May 14, 1997

Preparation for our night on the Kaw, or Kansas River, began in the early spring of 1997. I had decided to redesign and rebuild the interior of the Mucket, my twelve-foot polypropylene folding boat before taking it out again. I had named my boat the Mucket after a Kansas clam, or freshwater mussel, which according to University of Kansas scientists who studied it, travels in a slow and erratic manner. This had been largely my experience in trying to sail the Mucket.

The year before, I found that a $20 garage-sale trolling motor pushed the Mucket around local lakes with ease. No messing with sails. No paddling. The only problem left was to make the boat more comfortable. The horizontal seats, or thwarts, that kept the folding boat unfolded provided a place to sit, but the lack of a back rest caused Rose and I to feel a real need to stretch by journey’s end.

“Thwart,” is defined by the Oxford American Dictionary as “thwart n. an oarsman’s bench across a boat.” Rose and I didn’t want to be oarsmen, nor did we want to spend hours hunched on the “oarsman’s bench.” We only wanted to be spectators. That’s how it started.

I needed to open up the interior of the Mucket and make a more comfortable seating arrangement. The thwarts had to go, but how to maintain structural integrity while opening up space in the boat? I drew plans, drawing on my long-ago acquired rudimentary skills from my high school drafting classes.

Eventually, I came up with a design that looked like \_________/ when viewed from bow to stern. The horizontal line represents a 10-inch-wide plywood board that varies in length from four feet at the widest part of the boat to a little over two feet at the bow. The angled lines are run up the boat’s sides and are about one foot long. I decided to retain the stern thwart so that I could tend to the battery and have a better vantage point to steer the trolling motor and sit when rowing or paddling.

By the time I could take the boat out using my new design it was late August. I thought a river trip would be pleasant since the weather was warm, and Rose agreed. We set off in the late afternoon. I charged up the trolling motor battery, but not enough, I discovered later. I set a yellow chaise lounge chair in the boat’s midsection and shoved one of its folding feet under the middle board. This anchored the chair so that Rose could set the headrest facing to the front or rear of the boat and recline while enjoying the scenery.

Rose made up some chicken salad sandwiches, packed a bottle of porter beer for me, threw in some candy, and added a couple of water bottles. As I drove over the North Lawrence bridge I decided to put the boat in below the dam. I wasn’t sure how conditions were for putting in upstream because this was the first time I had driven my boat while towing it on a trailer. I knew the downstream boat ramp had a good-sized parking lot to back around in so I chose that one.

I pulled up and parked before trying to back the trailer down the steep asphalt slope. Rose and I looked it over. Didn’t look too bad. We walked back to the car and before I could get in, a nice-looking blond woman walked up and asked me if I would like some tomatoes. She introduced herself as Judy and the man with her as her husband Dan. “Dan and I have too many tomatoes. Would you like some?” She handed over to me a grocery sack full of nice red ripe tomatoes. I thanked Judy and Dan. “What kind of boat is that?” he asked. I explained to him that it was a folding boat that I had modified to be more comfortable by redesigning the interior. Dan looked at the yellow chaise lounge. “One of you will be real comfortable,” he said. We talked about the boat a little more and the couple walked away. Rose and I got into the car and I proceeded to back down.

Well, it was a hassle backing the Mucket down the winding slope to the boat ramp. I wrestled with it for awhile without success before Dan walked up to me as I stood by the car again, trying to figure out how to do this.

“I can back it down for you,” said Dan. And I accepted his offer. Dan backed the trailer down with ease. I assured him that I could pull the trailer back up. Judy and Dan waved goodbye.

I pushed the boat from the muddy shore and paddled a little, to get us out deep enough so that I could run the trolling motor. In a few minutes we were gliding down the Kaw, the motor humming softly, propeller blades producing a gentle ripple on the surface.

Rose reclined in the yellow chair and gazed down the Kaw. I sat on the thwart and steered us down the river. A few minutes passed and Rose passed out the sandwiches, and opened the porter for me. By then, the time was 6:30 or so, a nice quiet, lazy Sunday evening.

I folded myself down, back against the stern, the trolling motor tiller controlled by my right hand. My legs rested on the stern thwart. Rose lay back and looked down river. I still had half of the porter so I sipped on that. One boat passed us going upriver to the boat ramp. By the time they reached the boat ramp and were pulling their boat out, Rose and I had cruised far enough that we could barely see them. That was the last boat we saw on the river. The evening was quiet and the day was warm. I think we both sighed at the same time.

A few minutes later, I saw what looked like a snag in mid-river. Water made a characteristic v-shape around a snag. I watched it some more, then noticed that the snag was not a snag, but something that was swimming upriver, and making pretty good time, too.

“Hey, Rose,” I said. “That may be a muskrat swimming over there, maybe a beaver.”

Rose saw the v-shape ripple and agreed that we should investigate. The ripple was moving very fast but the trolling motor propelled the Mucket upriver fast enough to easily catch it. Closer approach enabled us to see that the ripple did not appear to have been caused by a muskrat. As far as I know, muskrats swim with the head above the surface. This must be a water snake, and a good-sized one. I wanted to try dipping the snake up with my paddle, so I could get a better look. Rose vetoed that idea. Whatever it was, the boat didn’t faze it.

I turned down river and we continued to loll away the late afternoon. Several times, I piloted the boat upriver and caught up with the mysterious creature. Never did we see the head, and Rose always vetoed my suggestion to lift it out of the water with my paddle. Each time, I turned down the river and Rose and I just relaxed. Finally, around 8:00, we decided to go back. We had moved a good distance down river, almost to Eudora, seven miles by road and probably more than that via the twisting Kaw River.

The little trolling motor moved us along okay for a few minutes, then I saw that we were slowing down. Then we marked our progress upriver by watching as we slowly passed the trees. Finally, I knew that the game was up. We had begun to drift backwards. Rose and I both began to paddle, but Rose accidentally hit a button on the paddle handle and detached the paddle blade, which dropped into the water. I was lucky to retrieve the drifting piece. Rose decided that she should not paddle, not only because we had almost lost the paddle, but also because she was not strong enough to propel us forward.

I tried to paddle and let the trolling motor run to help me, but I could not control the direction of the motor while paddling. Also, the motor was not running hard enough to help and had become just one more thing the boat had to drag through the water. I lashed up the motor so it would not drag and set the paddles into the oar locks. Now I could row instead of paddle. I faced forward so I could keep an eye out for snags. The river might have been running at 2 or 3 miles per hour. That meant that I had to row at 3 or 4 miles an hour to maintain a less-than-walking pace of one mile an hour. If I stopped, we would drift backwards.

A few minutes of rowing convinced me that there might be a better way. “Let’s put into the bank and pull the boat upriver,” I said. “We can sure walk faster than I am rowing.” Rose agreed and we worked out a method where I would pull, using the painter, the rope that was attached to the bow, and Rose would push the boat around the snags with a paddle. We did that for awhile, then changed roles and worked our way upriver for a few minutes, but finally reached a large pile of fallen trees and snagged brush that we could not maneuver around.

“Let’s beach the boat and walk back to the car,” suggested Rose. I agreed. By then it was dark and there would be little chance that anyone would stumble upon my boat. I had worn my “talking watch,” which vocalized the time at the push of a button. “Bong,” said the watch, followed by a woman’s soft voice. “It is nine-thirty p.m.” We walked upriver on the sloping bank, our faces catching spider webs, our feet slipping on the mud, tripping on vines and fallen limbs.

Walking caused us to work up a sweat. Rose’s sun block ran into her eyes. I have had sun block run into my eyes and knew that it really burned. Rose could barely see, it was dark, no moonlight, the bank was slippery, and we finally came to another impassable cluster of trees and snags. I scrambled up the bank to see if there was a path. I could see nothing. The night was pitch black. There was no way to see where we could go. If we tried to walk through the woods we risked injury by falling or stepping into a hole, or we could get lost, or all of the above.

“We’ll have to spend the night in the boat,” said Rose. I said nothing in reply as we walked back, but I thought of our situation and what options remained. We could spend the night in the boat, but we would still have to get back upriver somehow in the morning. We could drift down to Eudora, but I knew that the boat ramp was a fair distance from the town, and had no idea where I could find a phone to call friends for help. I also didn’t want to abandon my boat. The last option was to row back in the dark.

I chose the last option. I figured that if I waited until morning I would still have a lot of work to do, and the food I had eaten not long ago would have been dissipated. However, I knew that if I rowed now, I would be able to draw upon energy in the food I had just eaten. Also, the night was cooler than the morning would be. And, I knew that if we stayed in the boat all night, not moving from our spot, the mosquitoes would find us. We would get very little sleep, if any, and would probably be completely worn out by sunrise, in addition to being hungry, and tormented by mosquitoes.

I calculated that I could row us upriver if I rationed the work that lay before me. My plan was to row for twenty minutes, rest for twenty minutes, row for twenty, rest for twenty, on and on, until we made it back to the boat ramp where we had put in. Resting would only be possible if we tied up at snags. I gave Rose my watch and asked her to press the button. “Bong.” Then the soft voice, “It is ten p.m.”

I started rowing, keeping close to the bank so that we could tie up to a snag quickly and not lose the progress I had made. At twenty minutes or so past ten, we pulled up to a snag and Rose looped the painter around a limb. The looping and tying was difficult in the dark, trying to hold the boat against the slow but strong current while the night was tied. Finally we were tied up. We lay down in the chaise lounge, finding that we fit best if Rose lay with her head at the bow and I with my head towards the stern. I tried to relax. We looked up and could see the trees silhouetted against the sky. Even though we were miles from Lawrence, the city cast a glow. Our dark-accustomed eyes could easily see the silhouettes of trees and as the night progressed, I could see them even when I closed my eyes. After awhile I asked Rose to press the chime button.

“Bong. It is ten forty-five p.m.” I sat up on the thwart. Rose untied us and I began to row again. It took some effort to maneuver out of the snag. As I rowed, the oars ground through sand. This close to the shore we encountered shallow places. We could hear scraping of oar blades through sand. I pushed the oars forward, lifted them from the water, set them in, and pushed again. An oar would occasionally snag in a submerged limb and I had to twist the oar free, fearing that my efforts would break the thin blade of the oar. If that happened, we would be stuck for sure.

I rowed into the darkness. Far ahead we could see a large structure that was a high-tension electric cable tower. For awhile we kept that structure as a marker to try for. However, our progress was so slow that it seemed we were making no progress at all. It was too demoralizing to use such a far-away object as a goal. We soon turned to look at snags and trees on the bank to assure ourselves that we were indeed moving upriver at all.

“You better stop and rest for awhile,” said Rose, and she hit the watch button. “Bong. It is eleven fifteen p.m.”

“Okay,” I said, and we pulled closer to the river bank, tied up again after some struggle and settled down onto the chaise lounge.

Fortunately, we had plenty of water, and Rose had kept a little candy. We never ran out of water, and the night was neither too warm nor too cool. After awhile I asked Rose to hit the watch button, saw it was time to renew rowing, and sat up on the thwart. Rose untied us and I began to row into the night. We had to watch out for snags that could stop our forward progress or tangle the oars. We also kept a watch for any boats that might be out. I hoped that we could encounter a night fisherman, but we did not see anyone on the river all night.

Set the oars and push. Lift them out, swing the blades forward, and push. And do it again, and again. Rose would hit the watch button and suggest that I stop, but sometimes time remained on the rowing side of my schedule of rowing and resting. Once, we tied up to a large tree to rest, but the combined mass of our boat and the tree was enough to cause the Kaw to push us and the tree down river. We had to untie quickly and push off. We lost some headway then, and lost headway other times also, when a limb that we tied onto broke, or I had to maneuver around a snag.

Sometimes when I pulled in to tie up, or renewed our upriver struggle, I rowed through spider webs that folded over my face. In spite of the fact that Rose was having to endure an uncomfortable and long night on the Kaw she was a great sport. Sometimes we would sing the song of the Russian boatmen, in Russian, for Rose had majored in that language at one time.

“Aeee OOKnyem aeee OOKnyem,” we sang, “yesJOE rahzee yesJOE raz. Aeee OOKnyem.” Translated the song meant, “One more time, brothers, one more time.” We also made jokes from time to time about our good fortune on not being on the Amazon or some African river full of crocodiles. At some point in the night, Rose pushed a button on the watch that caused it to chime and give the time every hour on the hour.

“Bong. It is two a.m.” and every hour thereafter the watch reminded us how long we had been on the river. We couldn’t tell how far we had to go, only that we had been on the river since six o’clock in the evening and that I had been rowing intermittently since ten o’clock. My left palm had an almond-shaped blister. My right palm wore an almond-shaped blister also, twice as large. I guess the difference in size came from me having to work the right side harder, due to the closeness of shore and that oar’s consequent snagging on limbs and dragging through sand. A walnut-sized knot rose up on my right wrist, but my plan to row and then rest was working. Though I was tired I felt that I could keep rowing as long as I needed to. My body ached but I wasn’t winded. Rose was tired too, but kept going gamely, hanging onto snags while tying up, pushing us off from limbs, giving me water, and keeping time.

“Bong. It is….” The matter-of-fact woman’s voice coming through the tiny watch speaker made us laugh.

Lightning flickered in the north, and we wondered if our night might grow more miserable with rain. The rain never came so we were lucky in that respect. In fact, the night was clear. We could see stars, although the glow of Lawrence faded them. We could hear fish jumping in the night and once, when we were tied up, a tremendous splash sounded very close to our boat. It sounded like the splash a cow might make if it fell in. I wondered if a tree had fallen in behind us. I had been in a flash flood on the Gasconade River, in Missouri, and seen trees ripped from river banks and rolled down the river. This rowing exercise wasn’t dangerous compared to the Gasconade, only hard work.

“Four a.m.,” the watch sounded. By now I was hauling myself onto the thwart to row, instead of springing to the seat as I had done hours before. The morning light was an hour or so off. I rowed. The river ahead split as trees loomed up on the left and on the right. Which fork to take? Would continuing to the right lead me into a cul-de-sac forcing me to retrace, that is, re-row to get back on course? Veering left could lead me out of my way, perhaps causing me to miss the boat ramp. “Well,” I told Rose. “We know that Lawrence is not on an island. We’ll go right.”

Row twenty minutes. Rest twenty minutes. Rose was afraid that I was rowing too long or not resting enough. I was afraid that if I stopped very long to rest I might get stiff, or have muscles cramp up on me. It was better to maintain a warmed-up state of endurable fatigue. All I had to do was keep going and we would eventually get there, and I would eventually rest, really rest. After all, I had already arranged for the next day to be a vacation day. Rose, on the other hand, had a meeting to go to in the morning that she could not miss, or at least, should not miss. I wondered if we would get back in time for Rose to make her meeting.

“Bong, it is five a.m.” Light lay on the river. The morning was very pretty and peaceful. As tired as we were, both Rose and I appreciated the beauty of the morning. I rowed and by 5:30, when the time came to rest, I thought I could see the boat ramp. The impulse to push on and make it to the boat ramp without taking another rest did not come. I was too tired, and I didn’t want to arrive at the getting-out place too exhausted to drive the boat into the shore. I didn’t want to miss the landing place, drift backward, and have to make up lost progress. This time I just slumped on the thwart. At least my blisters hadn’t broken. I had tried to preserve them. I knew that uncomfortable as they were, the blisters provided a pad of sorts, and that was far better than raw skin.

Sixish, according to the watch. Time to row. “Wait a little longer,” said Rose. “I don’t want you to have a heart attack just when we pull into the boat ramp.” I agreed. A few more minutes of rest wouldn’t hurt. The light allowed Rose to read the time. At 6:30 or so I began the last leg of our journey up the Kaw. A few minutes before seven o’clock we reached the boat ramp. A few minutes more and we were beached. I slid off the seat and stood in the mud, holding the boat steady while Rose got out too.

Rose held onto the painter, the rope tied to the bow, to keep the boat from drifting off while I went for the car. This probably wasn’t necessary, since I had pulled the boat up as far as I could, but neither one of us wanted to risk some unfortunate quirk of fate. I tried again to back the trailer down the slope, but again I could not do it.

I pulled the car back up, unhitched the trailer and took it down the slope by hand. Even if I hadn’t been pretty tired from the rowing ordeal, steering the trailer down the steep slope without losing control would have been difficult. Now I didn’t have much more effort to give, but I struggled with the heavy trailer and got it down in front of the boat. I dragged my feet up the slope to the car, which I backed down to the trailer. I hitched up the trailer again and Rose and I loaded the battery, trolling motor and other items into the car. The Mucket was lighter now, and I easily winched it onto the trailer. I made it fast with bungee cords and rope and we drove home.

While Rose showered, I fixed breakfast. Oats eaten, Rose went off to work and her meeting and I took a shower. I don’t know how she had the energy to go to work. Finally, about 9:30, I laid down. The adrenalin that had kept me going all night kept me awake for a little while but eventually I slept. Then, the watch went off. “Bong, it is ten a.m.” I grabbed my watch, resisted the temptation to throw it against the wall, and carried it to another room where I would not hear it. I was too exhausted to think of just turning off the chime.

I decided that, since I was awake, I should go to the store and get a movie that Rose and I could watch when she came home from work. Rose came home around noon after her meeting. We slept for awhile and later, in the early evening, we watched the movie I had rented. We laughed often during the movie, identifying with the characters and their struggle down a river in Africa. The movie we watched was The African Queen.