State 2 of 50 Minnesota: Otter Tail River

Blog entry written by Peter:    An easy and rustic paddle in western Minnesota that ended with some excitement – and heavy industry!
Date Paddled: August 2, 2016
Nearest City: Fergus Falls
Put-In:  County Route #1 (canoe access site)
Take-Out:  Mt. Faith Ave.   (canoe access site)
Duration: 5 hours
River Miles:  11.5
Shuttle:  easy 4.2 mile bike ride
Weather:  sunny, 80+ degrees
Difficulty: flat water, class I & (easy) class II; toughest rapid at power plant (class II+) can be easily portaged.
CFS:  We ran it at 780 cfs with no scraping; could probably be run at lower levels.

The Otter Tail River provides a canoe/kayak route of over 150 miles in rural western Minnesota, coursing through many lakes and reservoirs on its way to joining the Red River at the North Dakota border. Though not the most beautiful or wild part, this section of the Otter Tail offers a lot of bang for the buck, especially if you’re doing a bike shuttle, as we were.  It’s also convenient to I-94 and the small city of Fergus Falls, where we found a delightful campground (albeit lacking in showers) in the city park at Pebble Lake.

After dropping the kayaks at the put-in on county route #1,  I moved Vincent to the take-out on Mt. Faith Ave. on the outskirts of Fergus Falls and pedaled the easy 4 miles back to where Diana was waiting, and by mid-morning we were on the water!

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The first part of the river corridor meandered between tree-covered banks with the occasional home set back but still, unfortunately, fairly visible.  But as the paddle progressed, the meanderings took us to more remote territory, though the trappings of civilization were never far away.  At times  river’s meanders brought us to open corn fields, only to lead us back into the woods at the next turn.

The Otter Tail moved us along swiftly the entire way; nowhere did we encounter stillwater that forced us to paddle to make progress.  However, as the day progressed, the river became more interesting, with easy class I and class II rapids and the occasional tree or strainer to avoid.  While most of the rapids were mere riffles or small, easy drops, with the occasional wave train, there were a few that required focus and some maneuvering.

The day started out clear and warm, and by mid-afternoon the hot sun and warm water made for ideal swimming conditions.  Diana picked a spot with what seemed like moderate current for a cooling dip, but soon found that the current made it impossible to swim in one place, so I towed her kayak along while she drifted in the swirling waters.  Later, she also found a painted turtle which allowed itself to be captured, examined, and photographed.

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The first significant obstacle we encountered was the remnant of a dam that seemed to require scouting, so we got out of our boats to take a look.  The foot-high drop turned out to be easy to run. From downstream, the broken concrete structure resembled a wrecked locomotive or tugboat – a rather odd sight in this setting!

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The biggest obstacle came near the end of our paddle, when we came upon the large industrial site of a coal-fired power plant located alongside the Otter Tail.  It was here that we found the toughest rapid, a drop, in two stages, of several feet in a narrow channel constrained on the right by a retaining wall next to the power plant.  Careful scouting seemed in order, and we decided not to run this one as we had neglected to bring our spray skirts and it seemed likely that we’d get quite wet if we ran this class II+ drop with open cockpits.  So we hauled out and carried our boats up some steps, across the railroad tracks, and in 200 yards or so we found a put-in right below the rapids.

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From here it was an easy half-mile to the take-out, where it was my turn to cool off in the refreshing but still-swift water.

Though it certainly was not a “wilderness” paddle, nor even really very remote or wild-feeling at any point, the Otter Tail was an easy and generally peaceful paddle with nice, if not spectacular, scenery and some wildlife, which included many birds.  We saw the usual kingfishers and blue herons, as well as egrets, cedar waxwings, an osprey, and an immature bald eagle.  And while the banks were mostly blanketed in grasses, there were wildflowers such as fireweed and a yellow-dandelion-like flower on a long stem.   All-in-all it was a lovely and leisurely 5 hours on the water.

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