River Access Tips


We recommend that beginner paddlers enjoy the river when the water flow is below 5000 cubic feet per second (cfs). 

Interested in what’s going on in nature when hiking or paddling along the Kaw? Click here to go to the weekly www.kawvalleyalmanac.com update!”

There are several dams, weirs and hazards on the Kaw

Check the locations on our River Access map, they are marked with red triangles. If you click on the marker you can get more information about the structure, and if you zoom in on the map you can get more detail (you can use satellite view to see an aerial photo of the area).  Paddling close to and/or portaging any dam or hazard is an activity for experienced paddlers who have scouted the hazard and have the skills and boating experience necessary to safely negotiate these parts of the river.
  • River Mile 87 The Topeka Water Department Dam (pictured above) – You must portage on the left bank of the river. There are two access ramps on the left (north) bank.  One is above the dam, the other is just below the dam.  There is a concrete portage trail running along the river between the two ramps.  Paddling through the low water notch is extremely dangerous and several deaths have occurred at this location.  An effort to make this area more recreationally friendly is in progress – see Fix the Topeka Dam.
  • River Mile 85.3 and River Mile 84.5 There are railroad bridges at these locations and each location has an old railroad bridge dropped into the river near the existing railroad bridge.  At low water you will see railroad ties sticking our of the water.  At each location, boaters should pass under the bridges on the right (south) bank for the best chance to avoid the dropped bridge.
  • River Mile 75  Low head dam next to the Tecumseh Power Plant is1.5 miles down river of the Seward Avenue Access in east Topeka.  Approach the dam slowly.  In high water you will float over the dam but in lower water you need to go over the dam on river left or in the middle of the river near a gravel bar.
  • River Mile 51 Bowersock Dam in Lawrence – You must take out of the river at Riverfront Park about one mile upstream from the dam and portage via vehicle to the 8th Street Access ramp about 2 miles to the southeast in north Lawrence below the dam.  Bowersock Mills and Power Company is currently building a new power plan on the north side of the river and portage around the dam is not possible.  Hopefully a portage path will be available after construction of the new power plant is complete.  For novice paddlers portage via vehicle from Riverfront Park is recommended at all times.
  • River Mile 15 The WaterOne Dam just east of I-435 – You must portage on the left bank of the river. The new portage path makes this portage doable for all levels of paddlers.

Wear a life jacket on the river

Aunt & NieceWhile on the river personal flotation devices (PFDs or life jackets) must be worn because dangerous situations can develop quickly. Read our personal safety page for help with picking the perfect PFD.Children playing on sandbars or on the edge of the river should always wear a life jacket and be near an adult, even if you are just walking near the river and not boating. Banks and sandbars in some areas can be undercut, especially at high water, and this can cause safety concerns. You can use our Kids 4 the Kaw safety page to help children learn how to put on a PFD and why its important that they wear one.
We recommend that you float with others, and if you float with a group it is safest if you stay together. If you are a novice boater you should go on a Friends of the Kaw float trip or go with an outfitter to learn paddling skills and safety, as well as how to navigate the Kansas River.

Be aware that it will take some muscle power to paddle down the Kaw and you should be in good health and physically in shape before heading out on the river.

Stay away from trees and other objects in the river

Trees and other objects can be dangerous in flowing water. Stay away from them; water currents can pull you against stationary objects in the river with greater force than you might expect. Along the banks fishermen leave hooks on fishing lines tied to trees and stumps; stay away from these hanging fishing lines or you may end up caught on a fishhook.

Be careful not to tip your canoe or kayak

The most common way to tip a canoe or kayak is when you are getting in and out- use extra caution and take a look at our canoe safety page. Children should be especially careful, and you can use our Kids 4 the Kaw safety page to help them learn to get in and out of a canoe without taking a spill.

The Kansas River is shallow in most areas at normal flows. If you fall out of your boat try to stand up; if you find yourself in deep water hold on to your boat and float down river until you can stand up. If you cannot stay with your boat swim hard to shore; try to avoid swimming against the current if possible so that you avoid tiring yourself out unnecessarily. Keep your feet up near the surface and stay away from downed trees in the water. Keeping your feet up is important so that you can be sure that your feet and legs do not become trapped on an underwater snag. If someone offers you help, hang on to their boat and let them pull you to shore – DO NOT try to climb into their boat because you might flip them.
When recreating in raw water (any ocean, lake, river or stream) always sanitize your hands before eating to kill harmful bacteria.

What to bring on the river

  • Things that you should have with you on the river: Water, lunch, hand sanitizer, cell phone in waterproof bag, change of dry clothes, life jacket, extra paddle, first aid kit, sunscreen, hat, rain jacket.
  • Things you might want on the river: Camera & binoculars (in waterproof bag), animal and plant identification guides.
  • Things to leave behind: Radios, video games, jewelry and other things you don’t want to lose.

Put everything you can in plastic bags and tie them into your boat so that if you flip you won’t lose anything. Please do not litter, many of the sandbars you will find will be clean and beautiful, please leave them that way so that others can enjoy them.


Canoe Safety

canoe safetyThe canoe is one of the oldest means of water travel. These boats have remained virtually unchanged in design for thousands of years. But don’t let a canoe’s simplicity fool you. As easy as it may seem to leisurely paddle a canoe, a journey can quickly become dangerous if appropriate safety guidelines are overlooked.

You can minimize your risk of danger by being smart about where and when you canoe. Choose a lake or river that is appropriate for your skill level. Try to avoid high water (it makes a river run faster), high winds and storms. And don’t go out alone — there’s safety in numbers. It is recommended that you canoe with a minimum of two boats.

When you are paddling a section of a river for the first time you should find out about currents, obstructions Sandbar Schoollike dams or weirs and other information that could effect your safety.  It is also a good idea to let a family member or a friend know about your trip and when you plan to return home.

Before you even step into your canoe, make sure it is in good condition and that you take along the following items:

  • At least two paddles, plus an extra in case you drop or break one
  • Extra ropes or lines
  • A bail bucket
  • A whistle or air horn to signal distress
  • A first-aid kit
  • A dry change of clothes in cooler weather
  • Plenty of water and food
  • A light if you will be out in low-light conditions
  • A personal flotation device (life vest), with a whistle attached, for each passenger
  • Sun protection – hats, sunscreen, long sleeves and pants
  • Map – be sure you know where you are so you do not get lost!
  • A cell phone in a waterproof bag.

Even if you are experienced and careful, it is still possible that you may tip. To avoid having a canoe tipping turn into a disaster tie all equipment to your canoe – put your equipment into a waterproof bag to keep it dry and tie it to one of the center beams in the canoe so that you don’t lose everything.
To get into your canoe, have someone hold it steady. As you step in, bend your knees and grab the sides of the canoe for balance. Walk to your seat along the center of the boat. Remember to remain in your seat. The slightest shift of weight can make a canoe tip. It is important to keep your load balanced. Avoid sudden movements or rocking from side to side.

Once you are paddling wearing a PFD is an absolute must, particularly considering how unstable a canoe is and the risk of drowning and hypothermia. Keep your shoes on to avoid slipping or stepping on sharp objects near shore.

  • Keep an eye out for other boat traffic and keep appropriate distance
  • Heed all safety warnings
  • Try to keep your canoe at right angles to big waves
  • Look out for hazards such as low branches, fallen trees, rocks and debris
  • Be aware of the currents in the water – you don’t want to end up floating farther downstream than you planned
  • Always sit on the seats or in the center of the canoe – sitting on the side of a canoe will cause it to tip over
  • Do not canoe in bad weather or high water

Dog in PFDIf your canoe does tip over, don’t panic. Your canoe will float even if its full of water, and you can wait until you can get to shore to empty it. Stay with your canoe and paddle or push it toward the shore. When you get to shallow water, flip the canoe with the help of another person and carefully climb back in.

The Kaw is a safe river at low water levels for novices and families; however, it is important to stay away from Bowersock dam and the low water notches of the Topeka and I-435 coffer dams because of the “hydraulics” .  When water falls straight down, it creates a continuously circulating current that spins backward. Large hydraulics like the ones below low water notches of the dams are called keeper holes because they can keep a person tumbling deep underwater indefinitely. If you should be caught in a hole, tuck your knees to your chest.  The river will likely push you down and out of the hole.  It is also important to stay away from strainers – stumps or rocks that have caught debris.  If your boat is caught sideways to a strainer, LEAN INTO the strainer, usually the river will pull your boat around the strainer but if not you will need another boater to throw you a rope.  If you have fallen out of your boat and the river is pulling you toward a strainer, swim aggressively towards the strainer and crawl on top of the strainer.

River Safety Lesson Plan

Teachers, parents and educators can find lesson plans and materials provided in the Kids 4 the Kaw, the River Safety Lesson Plan developed for the Teens 4 the Kaw or High School. We encourage everyone who works with youth to help us make sure that everyone has a safe and fun time at the river.

Personal Safety on the River

Who should wear a Personnel Flotation Device? Everyone.

DSCN2249Cardinal Rules of PFDs

1. Wear your PFD.
2. Make sure your PFD fits.
3. Don’t sit on your PFD–take care of it, it could save your life.
4. Wear your PFD!

Testing your PFD

1. Put the PFD around your neck

2. Tie the neck straps in a bow

3. Buckle the waist belt

4. Pull the waist belt until it is snug (ideally, the PFD should be adjustable so that you can get a snug, but comfortable fit, over a range of clothing, from a T-shirt to a pile sweater to a parka or rain-coat).

5. Try some paddling motions to make sure the PFD doesn’t chafe or impair your range of motion.

6. Kneel or sit, and with your arms raised over your head, ask a friend to lift the top of PFD as high as it will go. If the neck tie of the PFD goes above your chin, or if your ears and neck slip though the head opening, it’s too loose. The PFD should not move freely or slip off.

7. Readjust the PFD as needed and repeat step 6
pfd fashion show

The United States Coast Guard approves different types of Personal Floatation Devices (PFDs) for different activities—check the label on your PFD to make sure it is approved for what you are planning to do with it. Also make sure the PFD is the right size for the person who will be using it (they are rated by weight), and if it is for a child make sure you use a PFD that is specially designed for children.

Type I: Off shore life jackets provide the most buoyancy. These are very thick and will keep you face-up when unconscious for long periods of time. They are used in lare lakes (like Lake Superior) and the ocean.

Type II: Near shore life jackets are used by boaters on lakes like Clinton and rivers like the Kaw where you can expect a fairly quick rescue. They will float you face up if you are unconcious. They are the one you typically see in use in Kansas.

Type III: Floatation Aids are vests or jackets that are designed for active sports like fishing or kayaking on inland waters like Clinton Lake or the Kaw. They are worn all the time and are designed to be comfortable and to move easily when you are paddling. They are not designed to float you face up if you are unconscious or in rough water.

Type IV: Throwable Floatation Devices can be a circular ring or a cushion and are not meant to be worn; they are thrown to people in the water to help them stay afloat during a rescue.

Type V: Special Use or Hybrid Devices. These are for specific activities and may do things like provide protection from hypothermia in cold water. The Type V PFD shown in the photo is inflatable, and will automatically inflate when it gets wet. Types I-III also come in inflatable models—inflatable vests should not be used for activities that could result in high speeds and the possibility of a high impact since they can be damaged and may not inflate fast enough to save an unconscious person. Inflatable PFDs should also not be worn by children.

River Safety Lesson Plan

Teachers, educators and parents can incorporate lessons on river safety using the lesson plans and materials provided in the Kids 4 the Kaw, the River Safety Lesson Plan developed for the Teens 4 the Kaw or High School. We encourage everyone who works with youth to help us make sure that we all have a safe and fun time at the river.