A 2,000 mile float trip down the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers taught former Johnson County Manager Hannes Zacharias a few lessons.
People are nice, generous and kind, no matter where you go. The drought really has dried up many parts of the Arkansas as it cuts through the Midwest from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi. And dehydration is definitely a thing.
After being unexpectedly ousted from his position late last year, Zacharias decided it was time to fulfill a promise he made to himself more than 40 years ago: that he would one day kayak the entire length of the Arkansas River, and down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.
The 64-year-old had taken a similar but partial trip in 1976 from his hometown of Dodge City, Kan., to New Orleans. This summer, the journey took a little more than three months, beginning May 26 at the Tennessee Pass near Leadville, Colo., and ending Sept. 3, where the Mississippi feeds into the Gulf of Mexico.
Friends and family joined him periodically, but for the most part, he was on his own, relying on the good graces of strangers who camped with him, floated alongside him, towed his kayak on land and water, and offered him supplies.
“There were so many experiences like that; I met great people along the way, learned so much about the river itself, and the history and the environs and the communities that surround the river,” Zacharias said. “It was a challenge and a great experience.”
Traveling the entire length of the river — even in parts where irrigation and drought have dried up the riverbed — gave Zacharias a complete picture, firsthand, of the river’s geography and, more importantly, the people who live, work and play alongside it.
Two snapshots in time
People often asked him what was different about his two journeys on the same river, more than 40 years apart? The river is still beautiful, and the people are still nice, Zacharias said. But today, there is less water to enjoy. And, of course, everyone has a smartphone and is constantly connected.
But the most common question strangers asked him was if he was carrying a gun.
“It surprised the heck out of me,” he said, citing their concerns for his personal safety. “People are much more fearful of one another, currently, than they were back in 1976, and I think it is unwarranted, given the statistics, but that’s how it feels. That is a sad commentary of our current situation as a country.
“The positive side of that is that everybody I ran into was wonderful, irrespective of their economic background, their color, their religion — and I met all stripes of people along the way. They were all 100 percent wonderful to be with and very nice. It restored my faith in humanity, to a degree.”
After white-water rafting through the Royal Gorge, Zacharias kayaked through eastern Colorado, where he began witnessing the effects of irrigation as it periodically diverted 100 percent of the waterflow into nearby fields. At those times, Zacharias traveled by foot, horseback, all-terrain vehicle or other means.
The long trip was occasionally harrowing and dangerous. One time, he narrowly avoided toppling over an unmarked low-water dam. He often took his 14-foot kayak past barges the size of football fields, even in locks and dams. Once, he was locked with a 10-foot alligator.
“It’s one thing to have the alligator out in the wild where they can escape, but when they’re in the lock with you and they have no place to go and you don’t either, that’s pretty interesting,” he said. “He kept his distance, we kept ours, but we did a lot of eye-catching to see what’s going on here.”
Nevertheless, Zacharias felt safe most of his journey and helped others where he could, like when he towed a stranded pontoon boat carrying six people on the Mississippi.
Toward journey’s end, heat exhaustion and dehydration kicked in. Recognizing his limits, he took a U-Haul at Natchez, Miss., and drove to New Orleans where he put in the final stretch.
A lesson in self-reliance, staying active
Besides fulfilling a personal commitment, Zacharias wanted to encourage others his age that people can be prudent but also stay active and still go on adventures. And it was great learning to be self-reliant, worrying about each day as it came, particularly in the transition after leaving Johnson County government.
“The 90 days really allowed me to recalibrate my next moves and where I want to go,” he said. “It really was helpful for me to clear out my conscience, do some self-reflection and get ready for the next chapters of my life.”
Zacharias had worked 17 years for Johnson County, seven of those as county manager. He will begin teaching in January 2019 as a professor of practice at the University of Kansas.
“I’m really looking forward to working with more students and being able to encourage them to take on the heavy work of being a public servant in today’s environment, which I think is very difficult at the federal, state or local level,” he said. “I want to be able to inspire them, to give them the tools to be successful because that, I think, is a cornerstone of community building.”