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The Changing Face of the Oklahoma River

Filed by KOSU News in Feature, Local News.
April 26, 2012

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Last Friday afternoon, the best kayakers in the country descended upon Oklahoma City. But many of them didn’t have to travel far, just a couple steps out of the Devon Boathouse. That’s new, as is much of the expanding Boathouse District. But how did the land locked state of Oklahoma come to host the Olympic Trials for what’s called flatwater sprint, for the second time in a row?

Cheering can be heard on the Oklahoma River on this Friday afternoon.

“To me, it’s put us on the map and when I have friends that come and visit, they’ll say things like “Oh this is nice for Oklahoma”. The things is it’s nice period,” said Traylor Rains.

He sat in the grass watching the Trials. But just a couple years ago, he wouldn’t have seen much. Maybe some lawnmowers mowing through the weeds. Now, he sees rowing. A select few people saw the potential for turning the dry bed into a river that would actually attract, not repel. But who would pay up?

“It’s relatively easy to do things when you have money with which to do them. The real challenge is taking an idea or a vision, particularly one that might be easily dismissed out of hand as too expensive or too ambitious or too bold.”

Pat Downes was one of those leading the charge. Now Development Director for the Oklahoma City Riverfront Authority, he put his imagination to the test to come up with what now exists…

“But there were others in the community that frankly laughed when you would talk about let’s do something about the river. Because it seemed like such a preposterous idea from where it was to that kind of, at that point, unimaginable for some people, transition.”

Steve Lackmeyer, business writer for the Oklahoman, watched all of this unfold. He saw Mayor Ron Norick meticulously assemble the projects for the first ever MAPS initiative, and could see he was part of a small minority who believed in it.

“Very few, the rest of them would be lying if they said they did. I think Mike Knopp envisioned it, Pat Downes probably, I’m sure he envisioned some of this, Ray Ackerman dreamed of something like this. But outside of that hardcore few, no.”

Mike Knopp, as one of those who had that vision, painted the first picture in the minds of Oklahomans that this could actually happen. Just after MAPS passed, a couple of days of rain put just enough water to float a canoe down the so-called river. Knopp took advantage, maneuvering between junk TVs, trash, and weeds to inspire.

“Well I remember some surprised looks of the people on the bank. I also remember the cheers of the folks seeing that happen.”

That’s when Steve Lackmeyer started to believe…

“As you watched them, and you looked toward the skyline, this was off of Eastern Avenue, where the Native American Cultural Center is being built, and you began to realize, well maybe something can be done.”

In the coming weeks, you’ll hear how it actually got done. We’ll detail the history of the Oklahoma River, and how it came to host the Olympic Trials. That full story will be on KOSU in just a couple weeks.

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