This blog is designed to highlight the paddling opportunities within South Dakota, mainly within a 50-mile radius of Sioux Falls. While Sioux Falls is far from the adventure of coastal regions, there is a certain satisfaction in utilizing the available waterways to observe weather, water conditions, and the landscape along the shoreline. In addition, there is a wealth of animal life on the waters of small South Dakota lakes, rivers, and creeks, including geese, ducks, pelicans, great blue heron, egrets, hawks, owls, perching birds, deer, raccoons, and beaver. Eagles, fox, and coyote are also sometimes spotted.

The sites described are places where I have kayaked over the past few years, mostly in South Dakota but sometimes including locations in Iowa and Minnesota. One of the best sources of information on the accessibility of small lakes is the South Dakota Atlas and Gazetteer, the large map book of South Dakota. Lakes with a public access are generally identified by a boat symbol marking the location of a launching site on public land.

You will notice the menu of paddling locations on the right side of the blog. Each of the postings is linked to one of the areas, and my intention is to provide a continuing review of the places where I paddle. Perhaps these narratives will help readers select waterways of interest to them. Please feel free to offer a comment regarding any of my postings; I would welcome the dialog.

I also maintain a companion blog that describes hiking opportunities within the Sioux Falls area. You can access that blog at:

Monday, October 29, 2007

Lake Alvin - A Late Fall Cruise on Familiar Waters, Oct. 2007

After my cruise on Split Rock Creek last Friday, I just left the kayak on the rack atop my car in hopes of going out again within a few days. Today was a magnificent Indian summer day with clear skies, light winds, and a temperature in the 70s, a day not to be wasted with inside work. On days like this, I congratulate myself on being retired and free to take advantage of such a gift.


I decided to return to familiar waters. Lake Alvin is often the first and last paddle for me in the season. It is only about 10 miles from my eastside Sioux Falls home, and I can go from driveway to unloading the kayak in 15 minutes.


We had a killing frost this weekend, and I wanted to see the effect this descent into deep fall had on the vegetation along the lake. Most of the leaves are down from the deciduous trees, the grasses are all brown, the algae has largely disappeared from the lake surface, and there were very few birds to be heard or seen.


The lake was full. I was able to easily go up into the channel leading to the spillway and to kayak around the several bays that lead off the main body of the lake.


With a light wind, I was inspired to take my golf umbrella out with me and do a little umbrella sailing today. I sailed from the put-in on the north side of the western end of the lake nearly up to the northeastern end. My speed was about half of what I might have done paddling, but I just wanted to cruise along the shoreline with the umbrella slanting out into the wind. After 20 minutes or so of sailing, I got the paddle going and cruised the perimeter of the lake. After all, I thought, I did come out for some upper body exercise, and holding the umbrella out was just a novelty.



The lake was deserted, as usual on a weekday late morning. There were no boats on the water, and there was no one fishing. When I returned to the put-in, however, there was a pick-up there with three guys standing around drinking beer and enjoying the wonderful day.


Once again, I was reminded that Lake Alvin is really a nice body of water for kayaking. I am drawn to explore other lakes, creeks, and rivers and sometimes don’t appreciate the attractiveness of this area: maybe it is just too close to home. I was a little reluctant to go out to some of my other haunts during pheasant hunting season. I don’t want to see a bunch of guys with red caps and vests totting shotguns when I am silently cruising by below the banks and the shoreline growth.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Split Rock Creek: From Garretson City Park Through the Palisades: Late October 2007


Friday morning (yesterday), on the spur of the moment, I decided to load up the kayak and go on a late October cruise. With the boat on my rack atop my Honda Civic low-powered hybrid and with the “Forty Licks” CD from the Rolling Stones cranked up loud, I took off on back roads to Garretson, SD. The city maintains a very nice park at the dam across Split Rock Creek, alongside Devil’s Gulch where Jesse James supposedly hid out after his bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota.


As usual, the park and the waterway were deserted as I put my kayak in for a ride up through the spectacular quartzite palisades that line both sides of the creek at this point. The temperature was about 50 or so when I set out on the water and the skies were nearly cloudless. There was only the lightest of breezes, and for South Dakota such conditions would be like a flat calm anywhere else. As I paddled upstream from the dam, the weather only got finer. I was conscious that such days are dwindling here on the northern plains. The trees are bare of leaves, the last of the corn is being harvested, and winter is coming. I especially like to take a cruise at this time of year when most people are working while I am liberated from the job. The joy of living my own agenda while retired is a special treat not to be taken lightly.


Split Rock Creek at this point, as it moves past Garretson, is wide enough to be considered a river if it continued in that state. Going upstream, the land on the right bank seems to be public while most of the land on the left bank is private. High palisades rise up at scattered points on both sides of the creek. These quartzite cliffs house swallows during the nesting season, and the crumbling remains of this season remain affixed to the cliff walls. I find the vegetation growing out of cracks and on the edge of ledges to be interesting, especially twisted evergreen trees. The cliffs are high enough to cast interesting shadows and reflections, especially on calm waters. On the right bank, there is waterfall of about 20 feet down a quartzite cliff that can be heard for a hundred yards or so.


A railroad track runs up on a ridgeline along the right bank, and a freight train came by with a long line of cars. On the left bank, I saw cows lounging at one spot, and one came down to the water’s edge. There were some geese on the left bank that flew off on my approach and a couple of cormorants out on the water. I thought that these birds ought to be thinking of moving on to the south as colder weather approaches.


There is plenty of depth on this waterway, but occasionally my paddle would strike a rock below the surface close to the right shoreline.


Paddling this stretch of Split Rock Creek is always a tranquil ride, and each season has its special visual treats. I like to come here in the spring, during the summer, and then late in the fall. My cruises here tend to last about an hour and a-half, with plenty of time for poking into the palisades or up into Devil’s Gulch. Garretson is about 25 miles from my east side Sioux Falls home.


Check into the Split Rock directory listed on the menu over on the right side of the blog for more description and photos of this waterway.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Umbrella Sailing in Colorado

A few days ago I received the following message about using an umbrella sail with a kayak. Rod had read my posting on this blog about umbrella sailing on Lake Alvin near Sioux Falls and related his experiences in doing the same sort of thing on a lake in Colorado. As you can see in his photo, there is a marked contrast in landscape between the two locations. Also, it appears as though Rod was engaged in an early effort to sail without a rudder, and, as he says, that is a rather challenging task. Using a rudder provides some keel effect and allows the kayaker to hang onto the umbrella with both hands while steering with the foot-operated rudder.

I have been carrying my umbrella in the trunk of my car for months, and reading about Rod’s experiences gives me some motivation to get it out and do a little sailing before the winter sets in. I think that sailing on a small and sheltered body of water like Lake Alvin is best for me. There is a little sense of unease about sailing a kayak; a good gust of wind can be an unexpected challenge, and I like being in a position where I feel free to just let the umbrella fly and take up the paddle if necessary.

You can review my own adventures with umbrella sailing by clicking on that topic on the menu on the right hand side of this blog.

I appreciate Rod sharing this experience with us, and I also encourage any other kayakers to share some aspect of their slant on the hobby with the readers of this blog. Just contact me by e-mail, and we can work out a guest blog entry.


Hello Jay,

I was Googling "Umbrella Sailing" and came across your article. I live
out in the woods near Lake George, Colorado. I am relatively new to the
sport, having paddled for the first time last season. We live about 10
minutes from a large mountain reservoir, with several others within an 
hour's drive, so getting involved in some sort of water activity seemed 
almost mandatory, even though I've never been a "water person" in the 
past. I am also involved in Motorcycling (for 40 years) and SkiBiking.

I came across some mention of umbrella sailing on the web, and, suitably
impressed, I ordered in a "Gustbuster" to give it a try. I also have a
yakking buddy who did the same. What a kick! It adds a whole new 
dimension to the sport. On a typical day we can paddle around the coves 
in the AM and then hitch a downwind ride on the breeze for the trip back 
to shore as the wind picks up in the afternoon. It's amazing the power 
of that umbrella, I calculated that there is over 20 sq. ft. of sail area 
in a 62" canopy, pretty substantial. My friend lost his grip on the 
handle and it slipped into the water, it sunk like a stone, which I
found surprising. We now use leashes! I consider sailing fairly safe, if
the wind speed gets too strong, all you have to do is lift the canopy up
horizontal to spill it.

Rob Umbrella Sailing

I started out with a 12' rec boat, an Old Town Loon (my wife has a 10'
Loon). But, as I discovered, sailing without a rudder was quite a
challenge. In a mellow breeze, I would hold the umbrella with one hand
and rudder with the paddle with the other. As the velocity picked up, I
would have to hold the sail with both hands and the boat would just
gradually weathercock. Kind of a pain. So, I used that for an excuse to
buy a new boat, a 14' Dagger Specter w/ rudder. What a difference it 
makes to have a stick in the water! Now I have that little extra
something, otherwise known as directional control...

I am considering purchasing a Pacific Action ( kayak sailing rig for next season ($250). It has some advantages, although the umbrella works quite well. I love the strange looks you get
from other people!

By the way, how would you rate the tracking stability of your Dagger 13,
with the rudder up?

Rod Ratzlaff

Thursday, October 04, 2007

SDCA Cruise Down Split Rock Creek

Fresh Scratches - and Appreciation for Split Rock Creek

By Jarett C. Bies
Guest blogger

Last Saturday Eugene Preston led a group of nearly 20 paddlers on a four-hour trip down the Split Rock Creek and Big Sioux River under a partly cloudy sky with windy conditions.


Low water levels didn’t thwart the plans of the group, who assembled their boats at McHardy Park in Brandon. Preston offered a detailed scouting report from his early journey down the route, and provided maps for the group.


Putting in just below a snarl of rocks and rapid-moving water, the group slid into the creek and made good time along the shallow stream. Most of the paddlers were in single kayaks, but a few made the journey in canoes. A tandem open-hulled kayak was among the group, and one paddler made the journey in a white-water kayak.


Low water and rocks led to a few logjams of boats, but using their hands, most of the group avoided the “in-and-out” effect of the day. Split Rock Creek winds out of the Brandon area behind Huset’s Speedway, then cuts back to the west where it connects into the Big Sioux River.

Wildlife was present; one paddler saw a large white-tail doe crash from the scrabble brush and descend the bank in front of her. As the deer ran across the shallow riverbed and ascended, the paddler said she was amazed at the sight at midday.


Of course, no trip on a river or stream in South Dakota would be complete without a cattle encounter. These moms and calves seemed startled but did not trample any boats. They were willing to share their river now, and their delicious meat later, one hopes.


Not every paddler had an easy go. The two young men in the tandem kayak found plenty of shallow spots with their heavier boat. The young boy and his older companion who made good time down the route in their canoe seemed to find a few snags and trouble spots as well.

The wind was strong enough to create some waves on the river, but it did not bunch the group; and all the battles with shallow water and wind were not daunting but did remind paddlers that yes, this sport is called paddling for a reason. This was no carefree float.

This author regretted, at times, putting glass on the rocks with his fiberglass boat, but it is a boat after all, not a museum piece, and she did great. I never had to get out, save for one time to help another paddler in a shallow spot.

The take-out posed few problems and even led one paddler to rejoice the end of the trip with a dip in the murk of the Big Sioux. Muddy conditions at the take-out were not pleasant but they couldn’t stop the smiles and conversations at the conclusion of the day.


Preston’s scouting work paid off as everyone made the take-out around the same time and no one left without a better understanding of “hunting the channel” and shallow-water navigation.

One hopes this trip will be a part of the South Dakota Canoe and Kayak Association’s annual offerings. Split Rock is close to Sioux Falls and challenging, no matter what time of year one dips an oar or paddle blade.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Grass Lake: The Islands and Pelicans

Grass Lake, Fall 20007: A visit to the islands and gazing at the pelicans


One of the great benefits of being largely retired is the freedom to seize the day and make spontaneous plans. This morning was glorious in Sioux Falls: sunny skies, light winds, temps in the 60s and 70s, and an uncluttered personal agenda. So, I decided to take advantage of the day and revisit Grass Lake, a jewel of a waterway less than 30 miles from my eastside Sioux Falls home. I go out to Grass Lake several times a year and try to see it in the three seasons that we have for kayaking here in SD.


As always, I was absolutely alone on the lake. The lake access area and the lake itself have been deserted every time I have visited; and, of course, that is the way I like it. Here in SD, it seems, if there is another person in sight, the area is crowded. At least, that is how I see it.

I put in at the very rough launching area and headed west along the north shore. I decided to see if I could land and stroll around on the two islands within the lake. I had not ever set foot on either of them, and this seemed like a good time to do just that. These islands are covered with growth: small trees, willows, and tall grass. In the spring and summer I would expect to find ticks galore on the islands; they look like a tick haven to me. Now though, the ticks seem to have faded away, and I had to take advantage of the moment.


The island on the north side of the lake is at least twice the size of the other island, and that is where I went first. I was able to easily land the kayak, get out, and stroll around about half of the shoreline. Then, I went inland through some deep weeds. There were a couple of goose eggs left from the brooding season, eggs that never made it for some reason.

I also landed on the smaller island, but the willow growth creates a dense wall of vegetation that effectively bars easy access to the small interior of the island. So, I contented myself with moving around a little on the shoreline.


Still, I did get out of the kayak and explore to some extent both of the islands.

There was a flock of pelicans on the water, and I was able to get fairly close to them. As usual, they were hanging out along a rocky peninsular at the northwestern end of the lake. Hanging with the pelicans was a large flock of gulls, and these were a bit more flighty than the pelicans. I found it interesting to approach as closely as they would allow while trying to capture good photographs of them on the water and then as they took off. Pelicans are usually at home on Grass Lake, and I wonder how long they will stay into the approaching colder weather.




There is an old windmill along the southwestern shoreline of the lake, and I often stop for a view of it. It must have been used long ago to pump water.


Grass Lake is not well marked, and without an area detailed map it would be quite difficult to find. The only sign is an old and faded one that indicates a public access area. There is a very rough launching area, one I would not want to use to back a trailer into. Still, I did see tracks in the mud that indicated that someone had recently used this ramp. For kayaks and canoes, it is an easy carry down to the shoreline and an easy put-in.


I have never been disappointed in the lake. It has always been deserted, and I have always found a variety of wildlife, vegetation, and water conditions. It takes me about an hour to kayak around the lake, more if I stop along the way. You can check prior entries about Grass Lake by clicking on that link among the bodies of water listed on the right side of the blog page.