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Hannes Zacharias ,64, who's close to completing a kayaking trip from Colorado to the Gulf, stands along the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge on Wednesday.

Hannes Zacharias was 22 and a college student when he kayaked alone down the Mississippi River to New Orleans in 1976. 

When the Dodge City, Kansas, native completes his second solo kayak trip down the Mississippi this year on Sept. 1, he'll be 64, and four months into retirement.

Zacharias had promised himself, after his first venture, that he would make the trip again.

So on May 26, he put his kayak into the Arkansas River at the Tennessee Pass in Colorado. By Wednesday, he had made it to Baton Rouge.

"The river is more beautiful than I remember it being in 1976. There are more sandbars" with more greenery, Zacharias said.  

Something else remained the same: "Everyone I've run into has been very, very helpful. People along the river are very nice."

But he's seen a difference, too. Those he's met along the way are more afraid for him. Not of the water, but of other people.

"They think I'm in more danger now," Zacharias said.

For the first trip 42 years ago, during the summer between his junior and senior years of college, he traveled on the Arkansas, White and Mississippi rivers from Dodge City to New Orleans.

It was the country's bicentennial year, and Zacharias carried the key of Dodge City to the mayor of New Orleans, then Moon Landrieu.

A July 29, 1976, article in The State-Times newspaper, then Baton Rouge's afternoon paper, tells of young Zacharias' adventures, which included a wake-up blast from a scarily close tugboat, and kids in Tulsa who stole his kayak. (He got it back.)

On Wednesday, Zacharias said he was largely inspired to make that first 1,200-mile trip by his father, Carl Zacharias, who had migrated to the U.S. from Germany.

Carl Zacharias had dreamed of one day making his own trip down the Arkansas River to the Mississippi, then to the Gulf and around Florida, then along the intracoastal waterway all the way to New York City, but had never been able to.

Though Hannes Zacharias retired in January, he'll be starting a new career next year, teaching public administration at the University of Kansas.  

But this adventure comes first.

For his second trip, Zacharias plans to traveled farther than the first excursion, ending the more than 2,000-mile voyage on Sept. 1 at the Gulf of Mexico. 

Over the last three months, Zacharias paddled his kayak about 25 to 30 miles a day, stopping in the evenings to camp on sandbars or stay in a hotel if there's a town nearby.

He had to put aside his kayak for about 65 miles of the roughly 120-mile portion of the Arkansas River that's now a dry river bed, due to modern irrigation methods, from Garden City, Kansas to Great Bend, Kansas. 

He walked, drove a four-wheeler, rode on horseback or took the reins of a Conestoga wagon, thanks to the help of people along the way.

"I wanted to have that perspective. I've seen it, I've walked it," he said.

Zacharias said he understands the importance of irrigation to agriculture, but would like to see changes made so no portion of the Arkansas River is without water.

"How do you call the 45th longest river in the world a river if it doesn't exist for a good portion of it?" he said.

Zacharias said he hopes his trip "inspires people of my generation they can still have adventures." 

Each year, he and his friends paddle canoes and kayaks about 800 miles on the Missouri River. After he retired in January as county manager for Johnson County, Kansas, he hired a personal trainer to help him get into shape for this big trip.  

There were still times along the route when Zacharias simply got too tired to paddle and needed a break; friends would take him and his kayak down to another point along the river.

"I'm not compelled to try to paddle every mile," he said.

When he pulled off recently at Natchez, Mississippi, he was experiencing heat exhaustion and rented a U-Haul to bring himself and the kayak to Baton Rouge.

"I did not anticipate the humidity," he said. "I was out there in the sun, with no shade." 

On Thursday, Zacharias plans to drive to New Orleans, where he will put in to the Mississippi River again and paddle the last 100 miles of the route to Venice in Plaquemines Parish, near where the river meets the Gulf.

His wife, Marcia, two of their three children, and friends, a group he expects to number about 18, will meet him in Venice.

Describing his journey down the Mississippi over these past months, Zacharias said, "I don't understand why people are afraid of the Mississippi. There are no rapids, no snags."

There are barges to watch out for, he said, and "any piece of water is dangerous."

But, he said, the landscape and the wildlife along the river are beautiful.

Follow Ellyn Couvillion on Twitter, @EllynCouvillion.