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Kearney Water Trail

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Michaela Lewis, Betty Warren and Lori Gartner round a bend on Turkey Creek, part of the Kearney Water Trail.

Story and Photos by Eric Fowler

At 2.3 miles, the Kearney Water Trail is undoubtedly one of the shortest in Nebraska. Despite that fact, it might also be one of the busiest.
On any given day from April through October, you’re apt to see kayakers paddling down the trail, which utilizes the Kearney Canal and Turkey Creek on the southwestern corner of this central Nebraska city of 38,000. Its location certainly plays into its popularity.

The trail opened in 2016, a joint effort between the city, the Nebraska Public Power District, and a group of paddling enthusiasts who formed the Kearney Whitewater Association and spearheaded the effort. Whitewater? In Nebraska? More on that later.

The idea for the water trail was first discussed among city staff and citizens about 20 years ago, but for various reasons never got off the ground. It was resurrected by Kearney resident Bruce Karnatz, who in 2010 was regularly riding his bike on the Kearney Hike-Bike Trail, which parallels the creek and canal. He had done some paddling, but didn’t even own a kayak at the time.

“I always thought this stream is about like the Dismal River,” Karnatz said. “It’s perfect for floating. It’s not too fast. It’s not too little. It’s dependable.”

Karnatz figured there were others in the community who thought the same, and he went online and found them. They met at a local watering hole in 2011, approached the city about opening the creek to recreational use and officially formed the Kearney Whitewater Association in 2012.

A few people were already using the creek, but there was plenty of work to be done before it could be opened to the general public. “The first couple of times I floated it I [capsized] because there were so many trees and log jams,” Karnatz said.

Bruce Karnatz of Kearney paddles a kayak down the Kearney Water Trail. Karnatz and other water enthusiasts founded the Kearney Whitewater Association and pushed for development of the trail. Photo by Eric Fowler.

Members of the group did some cleanup on their own. That same year, the city and the Central Platte Natural Resources District teamed up to do more, clearing downed and overhanging trees and old car bodies. Nebraska Public Power District, which operates the canal, granted permission to use the canal. Through memberships and fundraisers, KWA was able to split with the city the cost of constructing a put-in at Yanney Park and a take-out at Central Avenue. And in 2016, the trail opened to the public. It operates from April through October when NPPD is diverting water from the Platte River into the canal for irrigation and hydropower generation.

A leisurely float down the Kearney Water Trail begins with a straight shot south down the Kearney Canal from Yanney Park. In this half-mile stretch, the high banks of the canal are lined on the east by a crop field and on the west by the park and bike trail. At the canal’s confluence with Turkey Creek, the trail turns east and the stream starts to meander through the countryside, which isn’t really country at all. While there are industrial and housing developments north of the creek and numerous hotels on the south, you rarely see them through the trees, grass, phragmites and high banks that line it.

You might see wood ducks and turtles, or fish jumping. Your paddle will bump bottom on many occasions, but your kayak won’t often, especially if you stay on the outside of the bends. You can occasionally set your paddle down, but keep it handy, as you will need it to navigate the many turns. While you could float the creek in a tube, the brush and riprap on the banks are not kind to tubes, and it is not recommended.

When you re-emerge in civilization at Second Avenue, the creek narrows and pours through a short rapid. Less than two city blocks later you will reach the take-out point on the right bank above Central Avenue. In all, the trip should take less than an hour.

The Kearney Water Trail is a unique amenity in central Nebraska that attracts thousands of users each year. The typical season is April through October. The trail follows the Kearney Canal, which flows into Turkey Creek. A launch and parking area is located at Yanney Park. It ends at a landing on the west side of Central Avenue totaling a distance of 2.3 miles. Illustration by Tim Reigert.

Flooding on Turkey Creek in July 2019 toppled several trees along the trail, forcing its closure for the remainder of the year. Those trees have been removed, and the trail was set to reopen in April. That will please the thousands who utilize the trail, which sees use nearly every day in the summer, even for a quick float after work on a summer weekday, thanks in part to the ease of only having to shuttle vehicles 2 miles on city streets.

“That’s probably my favorite outdoor summer recreational activity, and has been for a number of years, be it on a kayak or paddleboard,” said Scott Steinbrook, a teacher and coach at Kearney High School who uses the trail at least twice weekly. “It’s a little slice of heaven out there on the water in the summer and fall.

“Once you are on the water, with the embankments going up, it feels like you’re not even in Kearney anymore. You might as well be somewhere in Colorado or Montana or somewhere a little more isolated.”

People launch kayaks at the Kearney Water Trail trailhead on the Kearney Canal at Yanney in Buffalo County. The Kearney Whitewater Association, a local grass roots organization, pushed for the development of the trail and partnered with the City of Kearney and the Nebraska Public Power District to open it in 2016. Fowler, October 3, 2018. Copyright NEBRASKAland Magazine, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

At the beginning of the school year, when Steinbrook shares his hobbies with students, he asks how many others have floated the trail. “I’d say over the years you probably see about half of the hands come up in the classroom and say they’ve at least gotten out there a time or two. It’s definitely one of Kearney’s most popular outdoor recreation spots.”

The popularity of the trail pleases Scott Hayden, director of Kearney’s Park & Recreation Department. “It’s kind of cool to drive around town and see all the kayaks on the roofs of vehicles in the middle of Nebraska,” he said. “It’s great to utilize that resource and clean it up a little bit and, at the same time, beautify our entrance to town.”  

Flooding on Turkey Creek

Flooding on Turkey Creek in 2019 also toppled many trees in the creek below Central Avenue, an unofficial section of water trail that is now nearly impossible to navigate.

Before the flood, many people would continue down this stretch. Those included customers of Kearney Water Sports, a local river outfitter operated by Jason Thee, a founding member of the Kearney Whitewater Association, who opened a private landing 1.3 miles below Central Avenue. Others would continue to Cherry Avenue near the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument, adding another 2 miles to the float. A few went even farther, continuing down Turkey Creek, under Interstate 80, into the North Channel of the Platte River and on to another access point developed by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission at Bassway Strip Wildlife Management Area at the Interstate 80 Minden Interchange, roughly 8 miles below Central Avenue.

Thee and other members of the Kearney Whitewater Association are working to clean up the creek below Central Avenue, which would allow him to reopen his business. But he is unsure when, or even if, that might happen. Work to repair flood damage to the Kearney Hike-Bike Trail near the Archway will limit access at Cherry Avenue, but should be complete by fall.  

Whitewater in Nebraska?

There are a few stretches of whitewater in Nebraska, most notably on the Niobrara River. There could soon be another in the most unlikely place: Turkey Creek in the city of Kearney.

Members of the Kearney Whitewater Association, the grass roots group that helped develop the Kearney Water Trail, came up with the idea, even adding whitewater to the group’s name when it formed to make sure people knew what their ultimate goal was. It also helped pay for a feasibility study and preliminary design work.

A rendering shows proposed whitewater features on Turkey Creek above and below Second Avenue in Kearney. Illustration by S20 Design and Engineering

The city committed $200,000 to the project, which according to preliminary designs by S2O Design and Engineering, a Lyons, Colorado, company that has helped build whitewater parks around the country, could cost $600,000. The association is committed to raising $550,000 for the remainder of the cost and unforeseen overruns. For the second time in as many years, however, fundraising efforts are on hold, stopped by flooding in 2019 and the Coronavirus outbreak this year.

Plans call for two Class II rapids on the trail, one above and one below Second Avenue, as well as locations for those who would rather portage around the rapids, and those who just want to watch from the bank. Located adjacent to a cluster of hotels and other businesses at the south entrance to the city, the project will also include work to beautify and landscape the area between Second and Central avenues.

Man-made whitewater parks are a growing trend in the U.S. There are more than 130, including three in Iowa, and several in Denver and other Colorado Front Range cities.

For more on the project, visit kearneywhitewater.org.

About eric fowler

Nebraskaland Regional Editor Eric Fowler was born in Hastings, graduated from Ogallala High School in 1988 and completed his Bachelor’s at Chadron State College in 1993. After six years as a writer and photographer with newspapers in Chadron and Scottsbluff, he joined the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission in 1998 as Publications Editor and has been a member of the NEBRASKAland staff since 2001. Fowler spends as much time as he can in Outdoor Nebraska. When he’s not photographing wildlife, landscapes or people enjoying the state’s outdoor resources for the magazine, he’s enjoying them himself while hunting, fishing, boating, kayaking, hiking or camping with family, including his wife and son, and friends.