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A Kansas City pontoon boat has turned into the 'best front porch' for artists on the Missouri River

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Onboard the pontoon boat The Kansas City Lady, Betse Ellis pulls out her violin and plays Missouri River tunes. Clarke Wyatt, at left, pilots the boat, and captain Roger MacBride enjoys the cool breeze after setting off on a blustery Saturday afternoon for Kaw Point.

Roger MacBride, the captain of The Kansas City Lady, wants more people to engage with the river he loves. The boat has become a friendly space for friends, artists, musicians and just about anyone hanging around onshore.

Each day thousands of Kansas City commuters drive over the Missouri River, but few have ever taken a boat ride on its waters. Local sculptor and artist Roger MacBride wants to change that.

“This my river.” MacBride says. “I share it with others but it's my river, and if you haven't been on the Missouri River I highly recommend you come out here — we'll take any and everybody out. We just want you to come fall in love with it and take an active part in its stewardship."

MacBride's passion for this river comes from a very instinctive place.

"It is where we get our coffee, it's where we wash our grandchildren — it is the water of life," he says. "We should all be a lot more mindful of it.”

MacBride owns the The Kansas City Lady with his friend Wes Grimm, a prominent tattoo artist in town. From the first warm spring days until late October, the two cruise up and down the Missouri from Riverfront Park. During the summer months last year, they took more than 600 passengers onboard: friends, artists, musicians and just about anyone hanging around onshore.

MacBride says it’s all part of his plan.

“The more people get on this river, they start being a part of it, they start taking care of it,” MacBride explains. 

Catching a ride on The Kansas City Lady is a pretty informal process. If there's room for a few more people when MacBride is preparing to launch from the Riverfront Park boat ramp, he’ll recruit just about anyone he sees to spend a couple hours floating on the Missouri.

Occasionally, the cruise turns into informal concerts. MacBride knows many Kansas City musicians through his outdoor concert series in the Historic Northeast neighborhood. Called the Raj Ma Hall, MacBride opened up his backyard when local musicians faced months of lost gigs during the pandemic. The socially distanced concerts proved to be a safe way for musicians to play and for their fans to enjoy music.

Betse Ellis plays the oldtime fiddle tune 'Black River' on a leisurely leisurely 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 upstream excursion that took them past the River Market and beneath bridges packed with cars.

“We need to be more mindful of the river,” Wyatt says. “It’s the lifeblood of the city and people don't engage with it. We've turned our back on it. You can barely see it from anywhere in town, even though you drive across it every day.”

Ellis says the leisurely pace of traveling by pontoon boat is soothing. She says it’s nice to take your time and enjoy things moving in slow motion.

“As a method of transportation it's so much more easygoing than being on the highway and being on the roads, especially these days.” Ellis says. “So much travel we do is based on speed, isn't it? How fast can we get there? And this is not about speed.”

As the duo Betse and Clarke, with Ellis on violin and Wyatt on banjo, the two play old-time tunes and sing traditional songs from the Ozarks. After hunkering down during the pandemic, they’ve started performing in concerts and teaching at music camps more regularly. Ellis says after a long pause, it feels good to get back in touch with live audiences.

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
With a skilled hand, Wyatt guides the pontoon boat towards construction on the Buck O'Neil Memorial Bridge.

“It’s invigorating, to say the least, to get back to making music with other people besides the other person in your household,” Ellis says.

Last month they opened with a string band for The Rainmakers. Ellis says it was thrilling to be back on her favorite outdoor stage at Knuckleheads.

“It's a little bit of a departure of styles to have an old-time string band to open up for revered rock 'n' roll band,” Ellis says. “But for a band that's not a household name like the Rainmakers, there were people coming up, dancing and really enjoying it.”

As the trip gets underway, Ellis pulls out her violin and strikes up “Boatin’ Down the River,” an old Missouri tune, she says. Meanwhile, Wyatt takes the wheel and pilots the boat. Every now and again MacBride leans over to give him some friendly advice.

“See the ripples? ” MacBride asks Wyatt. “You can read it in the water. Just little shimmer lets you know it's shallower here.”

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Wyatt takes the wheel and pilots the boat. Every now and again MacBride leans over to give him some friendly advice.

As a former Navy hospital corpsman, safety is the most important thing for MacBride.

“It is truly it is a very safe river to be on it as long as you're not being a knucklehead,” MacBride says. “You do have to be responsible and respectful. No, you can't dominate the river. That's not going to happen.”

On their touring concert circuit Wyatt and Ellis have traveled alongside the Missouri River in many different states and regions. Many of the cities it bypasses are filled with river traffic and people out on all sorts of crafts. Wyatt says he's surprised there aren't more recreational boats around here.

Ellis says their encounters with other boaters in Kansas City are quite rare, but, when Ellis does see an occasional fisherman or kayaker, she likes to connect with them.

“One of my favorite things is seeing other people on the river and doing the big wave,” Ellis says. “You're far away, you're not going to talk, but you're acknowledging each other in this setting that is just unlike anything else you can experience.”

For MacBride, sharing time with friends on the river is the best part of his day.

“Almost every day, every other day at a minimum, we'll come out here at sunset. It's the best Zen," MacBride says. "You can go to happy hour (and) spend 50 bucks, or we can spend 25 bucks and come out on the boat. This is the best front porch, hands down.”

Julie Denesha is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kansas City. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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