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:

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Renwick Lake in Icelandic State Park, ND: July 23, 2013

Patricia, a reader of this blog from Omaha who also paddles lakes and streams in South Dakota, has sent me a new guest narrative describing her recent cruise on Renwick Lake, located in Icelandic State Park, North Dakota.  This is Patricia’s third guest narrative this season; her observations and experiences closely reflect my own solitary cruises.

Icelandic State Park, containing Renwick Lake, is located a few miles east of Cavalier, ND, near the Canadian border.  There is a dam at the east end, which is causing detours during work, and the Tongue River is somewhere at the other end.

I was in search of the river and started out about 10:45 from the boat ramp.
It was a clear and windless day, so paddling was easy.  I started to the left along the dam, and then came across a steep bluff filled with cliff swallow nests.  The bank was teeming with swallows darting in every direction and landing in the holes.  I paused to watch them speeding around.

In the reeds that fringed most of the lake shoreline, I discovered these two fugitives from the park beach over on the north shore.  This being a Tuesday, there was no one else on the water, and only one family on the beach when I finally pulled out.  Their mom told me the park was often deserted on weekdays, but very busy on the weekends.
Further along the south shore I came to the golf course.  It looked like a Grecian sylvan scene – with golf carts.  I stopped hugging the shore and paddled out to get a closer look at what appeared to be a large rock but turned out to be an equally large tree trunk.
I was enjoying this paddle with the cool temperatures, calm water, and solitude.  The only human activity I saw was an occasional crop duster overhead, including one biplane.  I continued toward the west end of the lake, keeping an eye out for the Tongue River.  There were several areas of dense vegetation in the water along the shores that hampered my exploration.  I picked my way very carefully through these and found a den of some sort on the shore, but no river yet.
There was lots of bird noise and activity around the lake.  I spied this pelican at the far north end and paddled toward him, hoping he might lead me to the river’s mouth, but found only more reeds and trees.  I was having a great day anyway.

As I turned back, the placid water made for some impressive reflections of the great clouds overhead, adding to the splendor of the lake’s solitude and peace  (But still, no river.)
I was beginning to feel like I would never find the river.  I paddled back along the west shore, getting stuck and freeing myself from the matted vegetation, when I caught a glimpse of the smallest break in the trees.
It was barely discernable, but there was the river, finally.  It was very narrow where it flowed into the lake, but as I entered it became a decent-sized stream.  The banks were mostly reeds with groups of trees.
I paddled up the twisting river about half an hour until I approached what appeared to be the beginnings of a beaver dam.  I didn’t want to disturb it, so I turned and headed back to the boat ramp.
There were several spots in the banks that appeared to be where animals would come down to the water, but I never saw any.
I pulled out of the water about 1:00 p.m.  Renwick Lake was a great kayak trip for me, with beautiful scenery and the potential for birds and wildlife sightings.  It didn’t hurt that the weather was so cooperative.  But brother, it’s a long drive north!

My apologies fore the date stamp on the pictures; I changed batteries and forget to reset the camera.  Argh!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Lake Alvin: A Mid-Summer Cruise

This morning I decided to head out to Lake Alvin for an early morning paddle.  We have been through a long string of sweltering days here in the Sioux Falls area, so an early start seemed essential.  I have not been on Lake Alvin since late April and looked forward to seeing the transformation from spring to full summer.
I arrived at the public access point on the southwestern shore about 9:00 a.m.  The sky was clear, the temperature about 80 degrees, and there was a brisk wind coming out of the south.
As usual, I paddled across the lake and began my trip south into Nine Mile Creek.  When approaching the southern end of the lake and the entrance into the creek, it is critical to keep to the left (east) side of the shoreline to pass over the silted bar of mud and sand that comes down the creek into the lake. 

I continued south into the creek and easily passed under the bridge and into the narrow stream than flows south.  There are a number of curves in the stream, and the channel tends to move from one side to another.  A paddler has to keep examining the flow and be ready to scoot over to the appropriate side as dictated by the bottom.  In the channel, the water depth is generally two to three feet and is generally a few feet wide. 
The creek is where I most often come across wildlife, including beaver and waterfowl.  Today, a great blue heron kept ahead of me; it would rise out of the bush upon my approach and move upstream until I approached again.
After paddling upstream, I lowered my rudder and coasted down the current to the mouth of the creek.  I guess that the distance on the creek portion of the cruise was about 3 miles roundtrip.
Even though the lake itself was a bit choppy from the brisk south wind, the creek was tranquil.  The bank and towering plant life provides a windbreak of about 8 feet, so the creek is nicely protected.
After exiting Nine Mile Creek, I decided to explore the waters on the southeastern end of the lake.  Because of the shallow conditions and muddy bottom, I normally avoid that portion of the lake. I cruised over to the side and found myself fascinated by the many schools of small black fish.
Looking over the surface of the water, these schools looked like shadows on the water that moved about.  Some of the schools were several feet in length and seemingly contained hundreds of fish.  They would approach my kayak and surface for a moment in a sparkling display as they came to the surface for a moment. 
These schools would move about that section of the lake, forming into various shapes.  At any one time, I could see six or eight groupings.  My attention was riveted on these fish for a few moments.
After passing through the fish, I continued moving north and passed groups of carp swimming generally in the direction of the fish schools.  I wondered if the carp were headed for a meal of small fish!
Heading north on the main body of Lake Alvin, I was traveling with the wind, and little paddling effort was needed.  As often occurs on a windy lake surface, the waves were sometimes outpacing my kayak, creating a following sea condition.  I continued north until I was across from the recreation area launching site, about two-thirds of the way up the lake.  From there, I turned and headed into the wind for my return trip to the southeastern access area. 
The wind created a healthy chop in the water, and I moved over to the western shore to make my way back.  When waves develop on a lake, I feel safer paddling close to the shore.
In the wind, I resorted to my old paddling instruction in which I learned that it is the push of the arm that translates into power rather than pulling.  And, as normal in these conditions, I made my way from one landmark along the shore to another and counted my strokes.
Today, I spent about 90 minutes on the water and didn’t see anyone, either on the water or on the shore.  It was totally a solo experience. 
For the past three weeks, I have been serving as a paddling volunteer at the Outdoor Campus in Sioux Falls.  Last Tuesday, I performed this service at the pond behind the Outdoor Campus complex and worked with two people who had limited experience in paddling.  For further information of paddling opportunities available through the Outdoor Campus, check out the heading in the menu on the right side of the blog.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Vermillion River – Catch It While You Can: Guest blog by Jarett C. Bies

The following guest blog was submitted by Jarett Bies.  Jarett has offered two previous guest narratives on this blog, and I always enjoy both the substance of his adventures and his writing style. He is a very experienced paddler and is the past president of the South Dakota Canoe/Kayak Association.  The Vermillion River is one of the streams within our general area that I have not paddled, and reading Jarett's account whets my appetite for making this trip soon.
I live about a mile from the Vermillion River and invited a couple of friends out for a Sunday run between 309nd Street and the bridge just east of University Avenue (at 312th Street) about one week ago.
The river is declining in depth due to a lack of recent rains, but it still offers a nice trip and plenty of sights for canoe and kayak enthusiasts in the southeast part of South Dakota. This stretch is about two miles northeast of history-rich Spirit Mound, so if you've ever wanted to visit one of the few sites where Lewis and Clark actually stood, and fold a short paddle into the trip, this entry will help you.
The river flooded in June due to heavy rains this year, especially near Centerville. It runs from Lake Vermillion to the Missouri River, and parts of it, including the stretch we ran, are man-made. I am hoping to get the chance to run the curvy stretches closer to Centerville before the summer is over. Jim, Brian and I were just out to have a jaunt on the water. We all live pretty close to the Missouri River but alas, sometimes the logistics of a Big Water op are not as appealing as a run down a smaller stream.
Muddy would be an operative word for the Vermillion. I planned ahead and packed a pair of “mud shoes” for the put-in and such, then switched smoothly into my regular paddling boots so that I wouldn't have that muck in my fiberglass kayak. It worked well. We'd planned on starting in a back water channel just north of 309th Street, but upon arrival scouted the area and found a tiny patch of gravel near the water to use for a launch. This would require descending a short vertical face but it was less muddy.
There were still spots where my weight led to ankle-deep SPLOTS into the mud, so don't go into a Vermillion River outing without the knowledge that you'll end up dirty. You will.
This video shows the unique nature of the weather that day. I joked that it was obvious there would be no kayak racing in South Dakota that day because there was no wind (our annual Memorial Day weekend race on the Missouri is notorious for being a wind magnet) and the 90s temperatures with no breeze led to sweaty faces and plenty of gnats. But regardless it was still a great little operation. After battling with the heat and mud, we got everyone into the water and began our journey.

Wildlife came into play almost immediately, and not in a good way. We all saw silver carp, the new invasive species that is here to stay, unfortunately, jumping and splashing in the shallow water where we started. Reading Jay Heath's account of these Asian explosions on the Jim River, we all knew they could be dangerous or annoying, but thankfully the four or five we saw at the start were all we saw. Only five minutes into the trip we began to hit bottom with paddles, but we never bottomed out in our craft and the flow seemed strong enough. A bit of rain would truly benefit both the river and the farmers who raise grains in the area.
We saw a great blue heron in the first 10 minutes of the paddle and she remained with us, perching above us until we approached, our voices leading her to take wing and pop down the river a few hundred meters until we did it all over again. I wasn't able to get any great photos but she was a welcome addition to the trip. A bird of prey also did this leapfrogging motion down the river with us, and of course each time this owl or hawk left its perch and moved so too did a gang of smaller birds reminding it that it wasn't welcomed in their nesting area.

The fact I had vanilla back at the house made us all regret not using it on our skin before we left as it's rumored to be a deterrent to gnats, and they were thick in many of the spots along the river. Wet muddy tracks of raccoon and deer were plentiful along our paddle as well, and the bug spray-sunscreen product I got from my mom (it's an Avon product) worked well in keeping the gnats and mosquitoes away from my face.

We paddled past the remains of the Carp Street bridge on our journey. Word is Carp Street used to be the one of the main east-west connections for Wakonda and Vermillion folks before the rerouting of the Vermillion River back in the 1960s. Unless you have a stout off-road vehicle, do not approach Carp Street as a place to paddle. There's at least three-quarters of a mile of rutted “used to be road” between the pavement and the water. Putting in at 309th is much easier.

With our heron escort on one bank and the hawk or owl on the other, time passed quickly as we descended the river, and the trees eventually thickened and gave us some shade as we traveled. We surprised a large snapping turtle sunning on a bank and he scrambled towards the shelter of the stream with a large splash. So while the river is brown and muddy, it still appears filled with life. Regional fishing enthusiasts say catfish are abundant on the Vermillion, and the flooding earlier this season may have led some lunkers up from the Missouri, so if you have a license and the inclination, you might add angling to your jaunt on the Vermillion.
Shortly after the remains of the Carp Street bridge we came across a pair of rocky shelves that created minor ripples/rapids on the stream. With a clunk-clunk-bonk, both Jim and Brian bopped over them, but I was tender on my glass boat and found a skinny channel where I could avoid the bumps. It did add a little bit of energy to the lazy Sunday cruise. Our finish line came up quite quick, we probably paddled a total of 90 minutes, and we were able to get out on some rocks and avoid the shoe-swallowing muck of the bank. We made quick work of the shuttle and reload, swiping at gnats all the while, then relaxed with a cold beverage before the work week swept us into its maw.
The average depth was low, but the scenery and the approachable nature of this waterway would lead me to recommend it to anyone who is in the Vermillion-Centerville area who isn't afraid of a little mud. Hit it at the right time of day and you'll find much more wildlife. I want to thank Jay Heath for the chance to share our journey on his blog. Thanks for reading my account of the Vermillion River between 309th and 312th Streets, just north of Vermillion, S.D.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Big Sioux Recreation Area (North) to Madison St. Bridge

A couple of Big Sioux River cruises took place over this past weekend that I missed because of family scheduling concerns.  So, today I seized the opportunity to cruise with Dave Finck down the river from the north end of the Big Sioux Recreation area in Brandon to just past the Madison Street bridge, a distance of about 4.5 miles.
Originally, we had planned on the quick three-mile trip from the north end of the Recreation Area downstream to the southern end: the so-called Brandon-to-Brandon cruise.
Dave left his kayak at the northern put-in and joined me at the southern end of the Recreation Area.  The mud at the “take-out” was discouraging, so he suggested that we move the shuttle point and the cruise ending to an area just downstream of the Madison Street bridge over the Big Sioux, just upstream from the confluence of Split Rock Creek with the Big Sioux.
We left his van at the take-out and took my Honda Civic back to the put-in at the northern end of the Recreation Area.  The put-in there was muddy also and I nearly toppled over as I was approaching my kayak.  Dave was there, however, to provide a steady shoulder and a push-off through the mud.  It seems that the older I get, the more willing people are to assist the old gent on his way, and I take advantage of that sentiment.
We easily moved downstream on the Big Sioux.  My last trip down this segment of the river was in November, and the river was much narrower.  As the water flow decreases over the summer months, the river seems to mostly just get narrower; there always seems to be a channel in the river that permits passage downstream.
We had no problems cruising downstream.  The few strainers in the stream were easy to avoid, the water was deep enough so that we did not run aground, and the weather, while hot, was beautiful. 
The growth of trees and bushes along the shore offered the notion of cruising through a deeply forested landscape.  There were scattered high cut-banks that provided a vertical perspective to the river.  Little evidence of the massive ice storm of April remains along the shoreline, and much of the old strainers have been swept downstream with the spring flood.
We cruised under the pedestrian bridge linking the two shorelines of the Big Sioux Recreation Area, and I thought about how many times my wife, our little dog, and I have hiked over the bridge and up onto the long ridgeline that defines the Prairie Vista hiking trail.
About 45 minutes into the cruise, we passed by the muddy take-out at the southern end of the Recreation Area and continued downstream toward the Madison Street bridge.
Along the way, we passed a large turkey vulture sitting in a tree and giving us his full attention.  We also saw a deer moving through the undergrowth along the left bank, but it disappeared before I could grab my camera.
Downstream, we passed one of the crushed classic cars that are sometimes seen in use as a bank stabilizer. 
A large herd of cattle were cooling themselves in the river as we passed, and I wondered what it would be like in a kayak should a crazed stampede send them dashing further out into the stream.
By the time we passed under the Madison Street Bridge and approached the somewhat sandy unmarked take-out, we had been on the water about an hour and fifteen minutes and traveled about 4.5 miles.
This is a nice segment for most people to cruise.  Today, we did not experience any hazardous conditions, the water was deep, the wind welcome, the skies clear, and the joy of cruising down the river during working hours delightful for a couple of retired guys.