Friday, December 11, 2015

OVER THE BOW: OTTER TAIL RIVER


The River is magical. It's full of wonder and mystery.  For thousands of year, The River has been carving its way through the Earth. As the water pours over the landscape, crashes against the banks, and cascades over the rocks, everything changes in its path. The terrain, the trees, even the wildlife is shaped by The River. Everything in the canyon is at the mercy of The River. --Michael Neale

White water is uncommon in western Minnesota. The gradient of the land just doesn't drop that fast. On the eastern edge of the state, the gradient for some whitewater sections is measured in feet per mile, while towards the northwest end of the state it's gauged in mere inches per mile. The Red River of the North meanders some 550 miles between Minnesota and North Dakota and into Manitoba only falling about 230 feet along the way before flowing into Lake Winnipeg. A second-hand pool table will have more of a slant to it than a northwestern Minnesota river.
"This exceedingly twisty river is the ‘Red Lake River’; it is forty miles to travel though the distance is only twelve from point to point." In her diary, Lady Dufferin, wrote her experience while traveling on board the steamboat Minnesota in 1877. She and her husband Lord Dufferin, on their way to visit Winnipeg. "When we reach the Red River itself, we found the stream wide enough for us to go straight down it, less sinuous. but quite as muddy and uninteresting. Trees come down to the water’s edge and one can see nothing beyond them; behind stretches out the prairie, and every now and then we were just able to see how thin the screen of trees really is between the river and the plains."

The Otter Tail River is a Minnesota's eighth longest river, running through the western part of the state before pouring into the Red River.  It starts as crystal clear water while moving down hill as narrow stream through several lakes and marshes. The oak woods through the hills offer opportunities for plenty of wildlife viewing along a tranquil river-way.  However,  just east of Fergus Falls,  the Otter Tail River picks up speed as it makes an abrupt turn towards the west, running through a valley filled with Class I and II rapids.
The earliest record of navigation was chronicled by United States geologist David Dale Owen, who traveled on what is now the Otter Tail River with his Metis companions in 1848. As stated in History of Otter Tail County, Minnesota, a two volume county history published in 1916, "He told us in his report that he was proceeding leisurely on river, all unconscious of any rapids or any falls, a sudden bend in the river (Where the dam and Upper Bridge is now in downtown Fergus Falls) brought them so near the falls that they could not gain the shore, but were drawn over the rapids by the swift current." Their boat capsized and their provisions and scientific equipment were water-soaked. They  dried out and camped in what would later become the town of Fergus Falls.

There is no chance to run those same falls today. In 1870, George B. Wright purchased the land for just over $100.00 with a vision of creating regional trade center. He built a dam on the river to power his sawmill. Having said that, another dam site east for Fergus Falls is still providing thrills of whitewater paddling along the river trail. Broken Down Dam has been crumbling into the Otter Tail River ever since it's collapse over a century ago.  The dam and hydroelectric station that provided electricity to the town was improperly constructed over a spring. About a year after it was built, on a September night in 1909, something went seriously wrong. Dam workers fled the powerhouse as the lights dimmed and water seeped in from under the floor. Moments later, the riverbed gave way at the foundation of the dam causing it to crumble and break apart. As the waters rushed down stream, officials warned the town of the breach as the lights went out. Four dams further downstream were washed out and farms and homes were flooded. Miraculously no one was killed.

The dam is mostly forgotten now, except  by area paddlers who challenge it's rapids. There is a boulder garden stretch of class II waves before reaching the dam remnants. The dam is broken right through its center and the river tumbles and drops between its two massive concrete walls. During the spring run off or after a good summer rain the stream rages to into a fast-moving Class III rapid. It's a perfect place for a whitewater kayak, in a place where rapids are hard to find.

Over the Bow is a feature from Outside Adventure to the Max, telling the story behind the image. If you have a great picture with a great story, submit it to us at nickayak@gmail.com