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Kayaks gaining in popularity on South Dakota rivers and lakes

A kayak on Firesteel Creek above Lake Mitchell. (Republic file photo)

PIERRE -- On any given day the Missouri River is filled with boats zipping across the water propelled by engines large and small. Increasingly those boats are being joined on the water by their ancient precursor -- the kayak.

Modern kayaks and canoes, while made with fiberglass and plastic instead of wood and hides, are not terribly different from their predecessors. They have a shallow draft, still rely on human muscle and a paddle to move and are still light enough to be carried by one or two people, for the most part.

Nationally canoeing, and kayaking especially, has seen a rise in popularity over the last few years. South Dakota is not immune to this trend, in 2010 the state's first endurance kayak race, the South Dakota Kayak Challenge was organized on a 72-mile stretch of the Missouri River between Yankton and Sioux City, Iowa. In 2012 there were more than 100 registered competitors. Pierre, according to area paddler Pat Wellner, has also experienced an increase in the number of kayakers.

"Every year I see more and more boats around," Wellner said.

Wellner, who runs the paddling blog Pirates of the Missouri, said that he tries to get on the river two to three times a week. For him, the Missouri is a paddling playground, offering a wide range of opportunities from riding waves on windy days to exploring bays and inlets only accessible by kayak.

"It's not just about being on the water, it's the different styles," Wellner said.

The Missouri River offers a unique variety of places and ways to kayak. Below the Oahe Dam and through Pierre the current is steady but not especially strong. Wind is also less of a factor on most days, which makes the area a good place for beginners.

Above the dam, Lake Oahe's vast expanse of open water offers a different experience.

"Oahe is more like the ocean," said Caleb Gilkerson a co-owner of Steamboat's Inc., a canoe and kayak outfitter in Pierre.

Oahe, Gilkerson explained, also has a lot of protected bays and coves, as well as a number of beaches that paddlers can explore.

More and more people are turning to the kayak as a way to enjoy being on the water without the expense of a larger boat. Andy Kopp, also an area paddler, bought his kayak last year because he wanted to be able to fish on the river. Since then, he said, he's found that kayaking has several perks aside from fishing.

"Another great thing about kayaking is how close you can get to wildlife," Kopp said.

The Missouri is not the only body of water in the area. Kopp said that he will often go out to the ponds on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands with his kayak to fish.