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'Be ready for a wilderness experience': five spots for paddling South Dakota's waters

From reservoirs in the Black Hills to Cottonwood-entangled rivers on the state's eastern side, more people-powered boats have been venturing out to explore South Dakota's waterways over the last year during the pandemic

Legion Lake (here on July 19, 2020) in Custer State Park is a popular spot for kayaking and canoeing in the Black Hills. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)

YANKTON, S.D. — South Dakota may be experiencing a drought right now, but paddling the state's lakes, reservoirs, rivers and even occasionally flush creeks (for the adept) has never been more appealing after a long pandemic.

"We've got folks more than ever coming in," said Ken Kopetsky, resident kayaking junkie at Kopetsky's Ace Hardware in Yankton. "We started really seeing an uptick beginning last summer."

Even South Dakota state officials told the public they've seen more interest in hunting, fishing permits -- as well as use of state waterways.

"Visitation has been on the rise," Kevin Robling, secretary of Game, Fish, and Parks told a commission in April. "COVID-19 actually got people outdoors. it was a great boom, a great opportunity."

From coming face-to-face with the granite wall on man-made Legion Lake in Custer State Park or navigating under a canopy of near-horizontal Cottonwoods along the Big Sioux, South Dakota's waterways afford out-of-the-mainstream views and experiences of the state's natural bounty.


So Forum News Service connected with avid paddlers, public officials, and even dunked a boat or two in the waters from the Wyoming to Iowa border to find four spots you can access to keep cool during these coming hot months.

Deerfield Lake

When GFP considered removing a "no-wake" restriction on the remote reservoir (there are no natural lakes in the Black Hills), which belt-buckles out of picturesque Castle Creek, the paddlers emerged , like salty anglers forced to disclose a longtime fishing hole.

"Us kayak fishermen would hate to lose the opportunity ty easily traverse the lake without fear of colliding with a boat," said one poster, Jason Himrich, of Rapid City.

Another Rapid City resident called the lake an "oasis of tranquility."

A resident of Hill City simply wrote, "oppose."

Ultimately, GFP maintained the status quo. And Deerfield -- about equidistance between Hill City and Four Corners, Wyoming -- remains quiet, pine-pinioned waters for recreational paddlers.


"Deerfield is one of the ideal kayaking spots in the Hills," said Bradley Bock, recreation program manager for the Black Hills National Forest.

A train bridge east of Wasta, South Dakota ferries traffic over the Cheyenne River. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)

The Cheyenne River

This storied river cutting through Oglala and western countryside, running from eastern Wyoming through Edgemont and the Badlands up to Lake Oahe above Pierre, the Cheyenne's route travels remote, stark and breathtaking land that opens up views of the state only reachable by water.

"I swear you'll never see pelicans in the Black Hills, but there are pelicans down there on the Cheyenne," said Mike Ray, a Rapid City resident and frequent paddler of the Cheyenne and other western waterways.

Ray reminds folks of the necessity of a personal flotation device, a shuttle ride for a point-to-point ride, and to put in on bridges with a plan on what he calls the "super isolated river" -- fully well knowing there aren't many access points along the river.
"Be ready for a wilderness experience."

And Ray recommends checking in with a U.S. Geological Survey page tracking water levels to ascertain how favorable (or not) the river is before heading out for the day.

"I've known folks out on the Cheyenne and it drives up on them," said Ray. "Suddenly they're walking through muck and dragging their boats across the sand bars and what would be a four-hour trip becomes a 12-hour trip."


Missouri National Recreational Area

Paddling enthusiasts in the state, such as Rapid City's James Preston, who hazards creek paddling during spring floods in the Black Hills, have gravitated eastward over the years toward the stretch of the Big Muddy between Yankton and Ponca State Park on the Nebraska side that is relatively untouched by dams, locks, or man-made accoutrement, and filled with sunken, 19th-century steamships, cottonwood forests, and what the NPS's website calls "vestiges of the untamed west."

But Preston cautions against novices on this challenge.

"It can be stupid dangerous," he said, noting, "There will be a cottonwood submerged under the middle of the water."

Instead, for beginners, Preston says the calmer, man-made lake on the west side of Gavins Point dam -- named Lewis & Clark Lake -- gives people an opportunity to explore chalk walls, bald eagle's nests and calmer waters.

Just wear water shoes to be safe from the sharp-edged Zebra mussels carpeting the river bottom, and stay closer to the shore, away from the speedboats recreating on the waters, especially on weekends and in the busy summer months.

The Big Sioux River (shot here on Sunday, May 16, 2021) affords sandbars -- but also snags -- for adventurous paddlers. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)

The Big Sioux

The river running through South Dakota's largest city is still not safe for swimming due to non-point-source pollution, but a group of river enthusiasts say trust the water for paddling, and a few years back, GFP dedicated a new trail -- coined the Jay Heath Canoe & Kayak Trail after a longtime paddling advocate and University of South Dakota professor -- from, roughly, Lien Park near Sioux Falls, down over 150 miles to the river's confluence with the Missouri northwest of Sioux City.


On a recent Sunday afternoon, FNS padded down some steep embankment north of the East Klondike Bridge northeast of Canton, South Dakota, and paddled up the river to a bend, spotting a hawk, steep riverbanks, and a view of the wild, riparian landscape often elusive in farm country.

But other reporters have warned , too, to keep one's wits about them when paddling -- watching for metal rebar and other hazards lurking in the waters.

Lake Kampeska -- photographed on Saturday, June 5, 2021 -- can be a wide-open waterway with plenty of boat traffic. But kayaking and canoeing is certainly possible, even for beginner's, closer to shore or away from peek-use hours. Be sure to wear a flotation device. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)

Lake Kampeska

Steer clear of the boaters -- and rumored lake monster -- in this gem of prairie pothole country and explore the lake famous for wildlife and nostalgia painter Terry Redlin's inspirations at the outset of the Big Sioux.

On a recent hot, wind-capped Saturday, FNS found the water too rough for much paddling, but a "no-wake" zone near Hidden Valley affords a portal to watery solitude on this otherwise busy spot.

Check out the South Dakota Canoe & Kayak Association for more information.

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Sunset on Lewis and Clark Lake (as pictured on August 10, 2017) is a captivating time on the reservoir, formed by the Gavins Point Dam on the Missouri River west of Yankton, South Dakota. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)

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