A Kansas City pontoon boat has become the “best porch” for artists on the Missouri River | KCUR 89.3
Every day, thousands of Kansas City commuters cross the Missouri River, but few have ever taken a boat ride on its waters. Local sculptor and artist Roger MacBride wants to change that.
“It’s my river.” said MacBride. “I share it with others but it’s my river, and if you haven’t been to the Missouri River, I highly recommend you come here – we’ll get everyone out of it. We just want you to fall in love with it and take an active part in its management.”
MacBride’s passion for this river comes from a very instinctive place.
“It’s where we have our coffee, it’s where we wash our grandchildren – it’s the water of life,” he says. “We should all be much more aware of that.”
MacBride owns The Kansas City Lady with her friend Wes Grimm, a prominent tattoo artist in the city. From the first warm days of spring until late October, the two sail into Missouri from Riverfront Park. Over the summer months of last year, they took on more than 600 passengers: friends, artists, musicians and just about anyone who hangs out ashore.
MacBride says it’s all part of his plan.
“The more people go to this river, they start to be part of it, they start to take care of it,” says MacBride.
Taking a spin on The Kansas City Lady is a fairly informal process. If there’s room for a few more people when MacBride prepares to take off from the Riverfront Park boat ramp, he’ll recruit just about anyone he sees to spend a few hours floating on. Missouri.
Sometimes the cruise turns into informal concerts. MacBride knows many Kansas City musicians from his outdoor concert series in the historic northeast district. Called the Raj Ma Hall, MacBride opened its garden when local musicians faced months of lost gigs during the pandemic. Social distancing gigs have proven to be a safe way for musicians to perform and for their fans to enjoy music.
Betse Ellis plays the oldtime fiddle tune ‘Black River’ while on a pontoon boat ride on the Missouri River
On a recent blustery Saturday afternoon, Clarke Wyatt and Betse Ellis hopped aboard the Kansas City Lady for an upriver excursion that took them past the River Market and under car-filled bridges.
“We have to be more mindful of the river,” Wyatt says. “It’s the cornerstone of the city and people don’t care about it. We turned our backs on him. You can barely see it from anywhere in town, even if you walk through it every day.
Ellis says the leisurely pace of pontoon boat trips is soothing. She says it’s nice to take your time and appreciate things moving in slow motion.
“As a means of transportation, it’s so much easier than being on the highway and being on the roads, especially these days.” said Ellis. “So many of the moves we make are based on speed, aren’t they? How soon can we get there? And it’s not about speed.
As a Betse and Clarke duo, with Ellis on fiddle and Wyatt on banjo, the two play old tunes and sing traditional Ozark songs. After hiding during the pandemic, they began performing at concerts and teaching more regularly at music camps. Ellis says that after a long hiatus, it feels good to reconnect with the live audience.
“It’s invigorating to say the least to start making music again with people other than the other person in your household,” says Ellis.
Last month they opened with a string band for The Rainmakers. Ellis says it was exciting to be back on his favorite outdoor stage at Knuckleheads.
“It’s a bit of a change of style to have an old-school string band to open a revered rock ‘n’ roll band,” Ellis says. “But for a band that’s not known like the Rainmakers, there were people coming in and dancing and really having fun.”
As the journey begins, Ellis pulls out her fiddle and sings “Boatin’ Down the River,” an old Missouri tune, she says. Meanwhile, Wyatt takes the wheel and pilots the boat. Every once in a while, MacBride leans in to give her some friendly advice.
“See the ripples? MacBride asks Wyatt. “You can read it in the water. Just a little shimmer lets you know it’s shallower here.
As a former member of the Navy Hospital, safety is the most important thing to MacBride.
“It really is a very safe river as long as you’re not a moron,” MacBride says. “You have to be responsible and respectful. No, you cannot dominate the river. It’s not going to happen.”
During their touring concert circuit, Wyatt and Ellis traveled along the Missouri River to many different states and regions. Many of the towns it bypasses are filled with river traffic and people sailing in all kinds of watercraft. Wyatt says he’s surprised there aren’t more pleasure boats around here.
Ellis says their encounters with other boaters in Kansas City are pretty rare, but when Ellis sees a casual fisherman or kayaker, she enjoys connecting with them.
“One of my favorite things is seeing other people on the river and riding the big wave,” Ellis says. “You are far away, you are not going to talk to each other, but you recognize yourself in this setting which is unlike anything else you can experience.”
For MacBride, spending time with friends on the river is the best part of her day.
“Almost every day, every other day minimum, we’ll be out here at sunset. It’s the best Zen,” MacBride says. “You can go to happy hour (and) spend $50, or we can spend $25 and go out on the boat. It’s the best porch, hands down.