ALEXANDRIA, Minn. -- When my neighbor Amy showed up at our house recently and suggested tubing down a section of the Otter Tail River with our boys, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Several swimsuits and birthday candles had passed since I’d last gone tubing. Did we need an outfitter? Would we take those big inner tubes? Did we need to make reservations?
An outfitter can help with logistics, but it can also be an easy DIY afternoon as long as you have two vehicles.
Leave one vehicle where you enter the river and one downriver where you exit. Other than that, all you need is a life jacket and a blow-up float and maybe some rope if you want to tie together. Amy packed a bunch of floats in her van and we headed for the river.
We left my car in the parking lot at Deer Lake on Otter Tail County Road 83, which, surprisingly for a Saturday in July, boasted several empty spots. Then my son and I climbed into Amy’s van and rode to the public access near Zorbaz restaurant on Otter Tail Lake, which was just as accessible.
From there, we slathered up with sunscreen then chose floats, except for Amy’s 8-year-old son, who opted to use only his life jacket and swim along with us. (This I would not recommend, as he was less than thrilled with the weedier stretches.)
My son, 7, selected a pale blue lounger while I decided to be the extra topping on an inflatable slice of pizza.
Then, all we had to do was walk across the parking lot, set our floats in the water, climb aboard and let the water carry us downriver.
It was a beautiful afternoon. Warm, partly sunny, the water cool at first but easy to get used to. Most parts were shallow enough to walk, or at least touch bottom, even for the boys, although there were unexpected drop offs.
The river was less developed than I expected. There were houses here and there, but also long stretches of cattails and trees, including a dead one with an eagle’s nest up high. We passed a bachelorette party living it up in the shallows near a sandbar and traveled for a while near a guy who sang along to Cher’s “Believe.”
It took about two hours exactly to end up at the public access where my car waited. We squished all the air out of the floats, stuffed them into the trunk, climbed into the car and went back to Amy’s van.
If you want to try tubing, here are some things to keep in mind:
- If you’re shuttling your own vehicles, remember to bring a set of car keys as well as a way to safely transport them downriver, possibly in a watertight pouch around your waist or neck.
- Wear water shoes or sandals to protect your feet.
- Leave towels and anything else you might need when exiting the water in the vehicle parked downriver.
- Be aware that high water levels in the spring or after a heavy rain could pose safety concerns.
- If you’re not familiar with the river section you want to tube, ask locals, consult a good map or pull up Google Earth View to learn about hazards such as dams, rapids or current.
Not near Otter Tail County? No problem. The Minnesota DNR maintains a series of water trails throughout the state. They’re geared for canoers and kayakers, but they offer maps at www.dnr.state.mn.us/watertrails/index.html, so the judicious tuber can select a stretch of river that’s right for them.
Here are some options to consider:
Popular with the college crowd, the Mississippi River offers some fun tubing between Power Dam Road and Roosevelt Road. Parking is a challenge here, especially on the nicest days, and you might find yourself having to walk a ways to the river.
Once you get there, though, the river will carry you about 2 miles over two to three hours. It’s over your head in places, but also there are places you might scrape rocks and have to climb out of your float. The bottom is gravelly and quite a few places where you can see the bottom.
David Schotzko, area trails superintendent for the DNR, said the section has a fast current.
“You really don’t have to do any paddling,” he said. “You just float and it pushes you along nicely.”
Crow Wing River
The Crow Wing River water trail runs from just north of Akeley down to Motley in central Minnesota. This river is wider and slower than the Mississippi, and a good head wind can frustrate those who just want an easy float downstream, Schotzko said.
It’s best to avoid tubing along the stretch of the river where it floats through lakes as you’ll be working pretty hard to get across.
There are a number of other areas that might work well for floating. A section between the Huntersville State Forest and Nimrod offers some mild rapids.
Development along the Crow Wing is spotty, and the river itself is less traveled than the mythical Mississippi, which draws paddlers from around the world. Tundra swans are plentiful here, and the lucky tuber will witness their long, slow takeoff from the water. Also, watch for muskrats, beaver, turtles, osprey and, given the clear water, lots of fish.
Twisting through Fillmore and Houston counties southeast of Rochester, the Root River State Water Trail passes towering bluffs and outcrops, pastureland and woods until it reaches the Mississippi River.
Drop your float near most bridges where there is parking.
Along the way, the water trail crosses paths with historic towns such as Lanesboro, Hokah and Chatfield.
The Root River is a favorite for families in canoes, and the DNR says it has a “gentle to moderate flow with some riffles at various stretches.” It drops an average of 3.4 feet per mile.
Watch for deer, foxes, coyotes, weasels and badgers along the shore, as well as river otters and beaver in the water. Lizards and the timber rattlesnake also make their homes along the banks. Birds include blue herons, egrets and wood ducks.
Public rest areas and campsites are available along the way, including pit toilets.
Long Prairie River
Just north of Alexandria, the Long Prairie River flows out of Lake Carlos. There is an access point on South Park Drive on the east side of the lake. The parking area on the west side of the road is in Lake Carlos State Park, so a state park pass is required, though people do park on the shoulder on the east side of the road, which is not on park property.
A couple miles to the east is a takeout point on Miltona Carlos Road. In between is a pleasant float taking a couple of hours with clear water and a mostly sandy bottom. There are a couple of low and narrow culverts where bridges cross the river, including state Highway 29, so watch your head as you go through. This also prevents big groups of tubes from going through tied together.