The Otter Tail River is a designated “water trail” by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. It is one of three major trails that will go through Frazee, as neighboring Becker County begins to develop a master trails plan.

So what exactly is a water trail?

Basically, it’s a route suitable for paddling a canoe or kayak -- depending on conditions, which can change throughout the warm weather months.

The DNR says the 35 state water trails offer some of the best paddling in Minnesota. The trails include public accesses, campsites, rest areas and more than 4,500 miles to float away on.

Just make sure you don’t paddle over a cliff. Not all the state water trails are as friendly as the Otter Tail River. There are serious rapids out there.

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The DNR sorts water rapids into six levels: From Class 1 rapids that are “easy rapids with small waves and few obstructions,” to Class 6 rapids that essentially mean paddling off a large waterfall and “cannot be attempted without great risk to life.”

The DNR says only the first three levels should be attempted in an open canoe, while the three most difficult levels should be navigated only in kayaks or decked canoes and should only be attempted by experts.

Class 5 rapids, for instance, are defined by the DNR as “long, violent rapids with complex routes and steep drops or waterfalls. Hazard to life in the event of a mishap. Runnable only by experts in decked boats.”

This culvert replaced a bridge that used to cross the Otter Tail River on 335th Avenue. (Nathan Bowe / Tribune)
This culvert replaced a bridge that used to cross the Otter Tail River on 335th Avenue. (Nathan Bowe / Tribune)(Nathan Bowe / Tribune)

And even the Otter Tail River should be approached with care.

It’s a quiet, peaceful slow-moving river, but the DNR says “it’s also a river with rock rapids, dangerous dams, and fast-moving water through culverts with little or no headroom.”

That means careful reading of the route description before an outing. Flow rates change throughout the year, with faster flow rates usually occurring earlier in the year.

“During higher flow rates, adventurous paddlers can enjoy dodging rocks,” the DNR says,” but that same stretch during low flow rates may require walking alongside the canoe or kayak.”

For the most part, the Otter Tail is a good river for family canoeing, and it can also work for paddlers looking for a little more adventure. Stream flow and water levels are among the river information updated regularly by the DNR.

The DNR’s interactive water trail map is helpful: https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/watertrails/interactive_map/index.html

For example, you can click on the Lions Park Rock Dam on the Otter Tail River in Frazee, at River Mile 143.3, and know to expect a 15-foot drop with four rows of boulders. At the Lions Park you’ll find a “Bathroom, picnic shelter, playground, huge turkey statue. Be careful of poison ivy near portage trail,” the notes warn.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Otter Tail River trail actually starts below the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge, which is closed to boating on the river.

A Highway 34 sign where it crosses the Otter Tail River. (Nathan Bowe / Tribune)
A Highway 34 sign where it crosses the Otter Tail River. (Nathan Bowe / Tribune)(Nathan Bowe / Tribune)

“While the refuge does have a few lakes open to paddling, there is no boat access on the river,” said Kelly Blackledge, visitor services manager at Tamarac. The Otter Tail flows through the designated wildlife sanctuary in the refuge, and that area is closed to the public from March through August, she said. “This is primarily to protect and reduce disturbance to nesting and brooding areas for migratory birds and other wildlife.”

Yes, the Otter Tail is a state canoe trail, “but it has never been open through the refuge,” Blackledge said. “(No access) signs have been there for a long time.” The trail starts downstream of the refuge, at the culvert under Highway 29 by Cotton Lake in the old town of Rochert. That same spot is used as the starting point by Charlie’s Tubing for customers launching a river run to Highway 34 on the Otter Tail River.

“There are several commercial tubing vendors using (this stretch of) the river,” the DNR warns. “Paddling will be extremely difficult on popular weekends.”

Where does the Otter Tail River trail end? Well, the trail runs south and west for 157 miles until it merges with the Bois de Sioux River to start the Red River trail at Wahpeton-Breckenridge, which runs north to the Canadian border.

So if you ply your paddles right, and float quietly past the border patrol, you could end up hurrahing in Hudson Bay, eh?

Or you could just stop in Frazee.

Either way, you can find the Otter Tail River trail information and downloadable map here: