The meandering North Canadian River is a mainstay in Oklahoma’s landscape, serving as an early-day thoroughfare for Native peoples, explorers and traders.  Today, cars zoom over the river on Route 66 just west of Bethany, barely noticing the stunning landscape below. 

During a recent kayaking excursion along the portion of the river fed by Lake Overholser on the west side of Oklahoma City, I discovered a peaceful ribbon of water retired from its early career as a transportation route and gracefully embracing its recreational role. The river guided me into the tucks and turns of the 1,000-acre Stinchcomb Wildlife Refuge which offers a view of  Oklahoma City’s original natural landscape. I felt transported to a different world, even though I was 10 minutes from Wal-Mart.

You’re probably familiar with the eastern portion of the North Canadian (renamed the Oklahoma River) flowing alongside downtown Oklahoma City’s southern edge, and its rising acclaim as an urban recreation zone and Olympic training venue for rowing and kayaking.  Think of the North Canadian as the country cousin, a little slower paced but just as interesting, offering a tree line view to balance the skyline.

The recreational assets of this northwestern branch of the North Canadian are now easily enjoyed thanks to the Route 66 Boathouse, a project of the Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation which is also responsible for the recreational renaissance along the Oklahoma River.

The Route 66 Boathouse sits on the east shore of Lake Overholser, just south of the historic Route 66 bridge with the North Canadian River at its back door and the 1000-acre Stinchcomb Wildlife Refuge a short paddle to the north.

A landmark structure for decades, the building housing the lakeside boathouse has been many things, most recently a bait shop. It is still a community gathering place, but spruced up considerably for its newest role providing access to the water for both elite and recreational athletes.

Through OKC Riversport, the boathouse offers bike, kayak and paddleboard rentals for the public as well as lessons, coached programs and group kayak outings including guided and moonlight paddles and kayak fishing. A pontoon boat is available for chartered trips into the Stinchcomb Wildlife Refuge, and the facility is open for private parties and group outings as well.

My two nieces – 11 and 14 years old - were the paddle buddies for my inaugural  kayaking experience.  All of us definitely fall in the “recreational athlete” category and felt safe and comfortable making our way along the river and into the wildlife refuge. You would have to work hard to tip over one of these sturdy kayaks, and the only time we got wet was at our own doing. Life jackets are provided with all rentals.  In addition to kayaks, we tried out the paddleboards which let you glide across the water while standing.  It changes the entire perspective of the journey and allows you to get even closer to the tree-lined banks of the refuge.  We purchased the Saturday day passes at the boathouse to take advantage of all the activities offered for one inclusive price.  If you like, the boathouse staff will  drive you and your kayak deeper into the refuge to launch for a longer trip back to the boathouse.

Paddling under the historic Route 66 bridge and its modern replacement that carries vehicles across the North Canadian, we felt like we left the city behind in a matter of minutes, entering a verdant world of swaying river grasses, jumping fish, dense forest, sunning turtles and a wildlife menagerie, all from a waterside view.  It was definitely worth the trip.