KEARNEY — Drive the streets of Kearney in spring, summer or fall and you’ll see kayaks and canoes in the back of pickups or strapped on top of SUVs.
Zach Nelson is one of the paddlers who hauls around his colorful watercraft. He said it’s exciting to see the fleet growing as more people discover kayaking and canoeing.
Nelson said he’s also excited to look forward a couple of years, when almost $600,000 worth of canal dredging and other work will be finished on the community’s main paddling venue, the Kearney Water Trail.
Included in the $600,000 project will be a pair of man-made rapids near Kearney Cinema 8 and the hotel district.
Kearney’s paddling movement got its start almost 10 years ago when part of a 130-year-old irrigation canal and adjoining creek was opened up to canoeists and kayakers. Most of them get their first paddling experience floating down the Kearney Water Trail on a two-mile stretch of Kearney Canal and Turkey Creek.
The trail skirts the east edge of Yanney Heritage Park then angles east toward Kearney’s hotel district, where most of the $600,000 in dredging, beautification and other improvements are planned.
“The whole trail is a scenic stretch. It’s cool to see those little minks in the water and an occasional beaver or blue heron,” said Nelson, president of the Kearney Whitewater Association. With more than 100 members, KWA has been instrumental in turning Kearney Canal and Turkey Creek into a popular recreational attraction.
As partners with Kearney Park and Recreation, KWA members worked hard in the early years to remove trash and debris that had accumulated through the years on the banks and in the canal. The cleanup has improved the paddling experience, and members volunteer frequently to monitor the water trail for debris.
It takes 45-60 minutes to float from the put-in at Yanney Park to the takeout at Central Avenue in south Kearney, Nelson said.
For the past two years, keeping the trail open has been a lot of work.
It also has involved a lot of waiting.
The March and July floods of 2019 deposited trash and tree limbs into the canal and creek. This year, paddlers shelved their restoration work because of the coronavirus.
It’s been a long, difficult haul, Nelson said, but KWA members aren’t discouraged because the reward will be worth the wait.
If all goes as planned, in spring 2022, the paddling season will open with the long-awaited improvements, including two man-made rapids, some observation spots to watch paddlers from the shore, and tree removal and other beautification work.
One of the rapids, or “drop structures,” will be on the west side of Second Avenue, Kearney’s main north-south artery. The second drop will be on the east side of Second Avenue.
“I’m excited for everybody. It’s definitely going to be something special when it’s done,” Nelson said about the enhancements.
S2O Design and Engineering of Lyons, Colorado, has been working with Kearney municipal officials since the project was launched in 2017. Scott Shipley, the 2010 U.S. national canoe slalom champion, owns S2O and has called Kearney Canal and Turkey Creek a prime location for whitewater development.
Earlier this month, the Kearney City Council gave Shipley the contract to prepare the final design and documents so the project can be put out to bid. Shipley has until February to complete the work.
Kearney Park and Recreation Director Scott Hayden said that although floods and the coronavirus put a damper on water trail work the past two years, much was accomplished behind the scenes. Kearney gained approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Also, property owners along the project area were told about the plans, and fundraising continued. KWA has raised $180,000 and the city has committed $400,000, so fundraising is just $13,000 short of its $593,000 goal.
Hayden said paddlers are excited about the whitewater challenges, but he’s pleased about the beautification parts of the project.
There will be places for spectators to watch kayakers navigate the rapids.
Motorists on Second Avenue and spectators on the bank also will be entertained, Nelson said.
“They’ll get to see some spectacular fails when kayakers dump out into the water,” Nelson said.
Hayden said the rapids will be safe for less experienced paddlers, but also will be fun for those with advanced skills.
The water is about waist deep near Second Avenue, and dredging will boost safety for paddlers, Nelson said.
The Kearney Water Trail isn’t the first time residents have used the Kearney Canal and its features for recreation.
In the 1880s, the canal fed a small lake that’s above today’s University of Nebraska at Kearney. Water from the lake turned the turbine in the hydroelectric plant by the lake, which was used for boating and ice skating. Ice harvested from what then was called Lakeview Reservoir kept iceboxes chilled.
Hayden said there still is a mountain of planning and preparations to finish before construction can begin in winter 2021-22.
If all goes as planned, it will be spring 2022 when paddlers can test their skills through the rapids.
Nelson said for KWA, the wait will be worth it, especially for future generations.
“It’s another thing that Kearney can have that will be a lasting legacy. Kids will be able to enjoy someone’s vision from years before,” Nelson said.