Kayaking on the Otter Tail River

Kayaking is a fun and enjoyable sport, but it is even more fun when you are kayaking in a new place that you’ve never been to before. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was in Minnesota at a camp doing a lot of exciting activities (and getting bit by a lot of mosquitoes). I had fun rock climbing, sailing, canoeing and snorkeling. These were all amazing, don’t get me wrong, but the most exciting thing that I did in Minnesota was go on a kayaking trip on the Otter Tail River.

We drove from camp to the Otter Tail and put in our kayaks at a calm part of the river, around eleven miles upriver from the Otter Tail Power Company’s Hoot Lake Plant. After putting on our PFD’s, we began kayaking our way downriver.

As we paddled, we passed by riverside homes and miniature docks. There were lots of trees around the river to begin with, but we soon came to a stretch of river that had long grasses bordering the banks. Soon after we paddled by this stretch of grasses, we passed under a bridge. I noticed that a fallen tree lay in the river on the other side of the bridge to the right. I went on the right side of the support pillars under the bridge along with a friend of mine, thinking I would just go around the tree when I came to it. However, my friend didn’t seem to be thinking along the same lines. We came out from under the bridge and I told my friend to move to the left. Unfortunately, he didn’t move quick enough and he caused me to crash into the side of the tree. I desperately paddled backwards and got around the tree just as my friend was tipped from his kayak into the water as the current tried to push the kayak under the tree. Oh well. What’s a kayak trip if you don’t get wet, right? Anyway, we continued on our way.

We saw a lot more trees and beautiful scenery as we passed along the river and another friend of mine almost got stuck on a barely submerged boulder. (Flat bottomed kayaks can easily get stuck atop a barely submerged rock or in branches coming out of the water or off of trees.) I later got stuck on a small sandbar when I drifted to close to the bank. Let me tell you, I did not like the crunching, scraping noises my kayak made along that sandbar.

Then, after passing through beautiful miles of river, we reached the last third of our adventure. Our guide told us to be careful in this part because there would be some class II rapids along the way. We paddled on and soon reached some small rapids that we navigated easily. There was a short stretch of clear river, and then we got into some more rapids. These were pretty fun, or at least, I thought they were. I zoomed by big rocks as the roar of the river sounded in my ears. I dropped a foot or so a couple of times after going by a rock, but came out of the rapids wet and unscathed. (Quick tip here. One of our guides hit a rock weirdly and went through the rapids backwards. I would not recommend this.) Right after paddling out of the rapids, we passed through the center of the Broken Down Dam. (Apparently, this dam was accidentally built during the early 1900’s on an underwater spring. The spring soon eroded the foundation and the dam broke under the pressure.)

After going through the Broken Down Dam, our guide pulled us over to the side of the river. He told us we would be going through some class III rapids and over some low-head dams that were on the river by the Otter Tail Power Company’s Hoot Lake Plant, and if our kayak flipped we should hang on to our kayak and go through the rest of the rapids on our back. (Safety tip: The reason he told us to hold on to our kayaks was because with low-head dams, if you get caught in the backwash below the dam, it is very hard to get out. This backwash below the dam is recirculated around and around, and if caught in it, you’ll be pulled under and it will be hard to be rescued or make it out. By holding onto your kayak, you have a better chance of staying above water and getting away from the area right below the dam.) He said to ignore a the danger signs we would see as we got closer to the low-head dams. (Never thought I’d here a guide say that!) We paddled in single file and soon started seeing warning signs. One sign that I vividly remember had a picture of a broken canoe on it. I don’t know about you, but that sure doesn’t help raise my confidence. (At this point I should mention the highly recommended portage trail located on the left side of the river. This comes out onto the river right ahead of the rapids.) Finally we were able to hear the rapids, and then rounded a bend so we could actually see them. With nervousness and some excitement I got to the first dam. My kayak and I plunged over the dam into the frothing water three feet below, sending a big spray of water into my face. With barely enough time to prepare, I got to the second dam and plunged over that into the waiting waters below. The nose of my kayak sent up a huge plume of water that somehow all got into my kayak. With a final dig of my paddle into the water I cleared the third dam and landed on the river below with a thump. We regrouped below the dams and continued on our way. (Later our guides told us that they were surprised that no one’s kayak flipped. Apparently at least two people have flip on every one of their trips on the Otter Tail!)

You’ll notice that after you get past the dams, the water gets really warm. It feels like a jacuzzi. This is because the water is cycled through the hot power plant to cool the machines down. Also, when you get to where the warm water feeds into the river, if you put you hands in the water on either side of your kayak, one side will feel cold and the other will be hot. It’s pretty cool, no pun intended. As you get a bit farther down river, you’ll see a big rock on your left. This is a great platform for jumping off into the river. Just a couple hundred yards past this, there’s an opening onto a parking lot kind of area. This is where our kayaking came to an end.

Kayaking on the Otter Tail River was really fun for me and really opened my eyes to how much fun river kayaking can be. I have also never been on rapids in a kayak, so it was a fun learning experience. If you like kayaking, you should keep the Otter Tail River in mind for a future trip. On the other hand, if you have never been kayaking, I hope that you’ll try it someday and have as much fun as I did on the Otter Tail.

Great pictures of the Otter Tail River: http://mnwxchaser.blogspot.com/2012_05_01_archive.html


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