In 1976, Hannes Zacharias paddled a canoe down the Arkansas River from his home in Fort Dodge, KS, to the Gulf of Mexico. In 2018, Zacharias took the adventure once again. In his replay, he started at the mouth of the river in the mountains of Colorado, making the 2,060 mile trip to Venice, LA, largely by kayak.
The plot pf Zacharias’ story focused on the significant changes that he observed in the river itself as much as his tales about the people and the places he encountered.
The mouth of the Arkansas River is in central Colorado. It is the sixth-longest river in the United States, the second-longest tributary in the Mississippi–Missouri system, and the 45th longest river in the world. Fed by snow melt in the Rocky Mountains, water in the “Ark,” as Zacharias calls it, flows through Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas before joining the Mississippi River.
In the upper miles of the Ark, recreational uses such as rafting, canoeing, kayaking and fishing are available only in compromise with ranchers who are reluctant to give access to the river.
Once the river hits the plains, reservoirs intended to control flooding and supply irrigation systems divert the water. As a result, the water that remains in the river is of poor quality. And often, the river bed is completely dry. Zacharias estimates that he was unable to travel on water for about 250 miles of his trip down the river channel.
By the time the river goes through Oklahoma, it fills with water again to supply hydroelectric power plants. Below Tulsa, a series of locks and dams begins, facilitating commercial barge traffic.
Once the Arkansas River joins the Mississippi, the water travels another 600 miles before entering the Gulf of Mexico. When Zacharias finally reached the mouth of the Mississippi, he poured water that he had collected at the mouth of the river in Colorado into the Gulf waters.