Kayak camping is exactly what it sounds like – a unique adventure that combines the best of two worlds. In high school I was lucky enough to spend a week with the Girl Scouts in Alaska and like a dream come true we paddled around the Kenai Peninsula and camped on different beaches every night. From the tranquility of a kayak, I experienced sea creatures from a perspective that would have been different if I had been in a noisy motorboat. And every day for miles I admired and contemplated the beautiful shapes and contours of the land as I looked in from the water. It was an experience I will never forget and unfortunately I have waited a long time to go kayaking again.
Even more so than camping or even backcountry backpacking, the planning that goes into kayak camping can get complicated, especially without the help of an outfitter or tour guide. But it’s not impossible when you know a group of trustworthy people willing to put in the effort. Luckily, I met the right group while working at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission office in Norfolk and although I’ve joined many day trips with this group of friends over the years, the summer of 2020 plans finally became a reality for one long kayak camping weekend on the Niobrara River.
Kayak camping can suit a variety of experience levels. The more important consideration is to choose a route that suits your ability, as exceeding your ability can become disastrous. While paddling in a remote area may seem tempting, remember that most of Nebraska’s 79,000+ miles of rivers and creeks are several hours away from medical assistance and off cellular service.
“Unlike backcountry backpacking, you can’t turn around and kayak up a river if something goes wrong,” said Bassett’s Kelly Corman, an experienced kayaker. “Kayaking ranks with rock and ice climbing in terms of annual deaths up there – I’m not joking.”
Corman advises beginners to stick to better traveled routes, like the national wild and scenic stretches of the Niobrara and Missouri Rivers and other designated waterways in Nebraska.
If you want to explore more advanced or more remote rivers and streams, make sure you go with someone who is experienced and knows that area of the stream well. First, it’s difficult to estimate travel time on a river without prior experience, and second, fast-moving water and other dangerous features can sneak up on you quickly.
Bloomfield’s Bekah Poppe said, “Be prepared to abandon your boat at short notice on dangerous sections and be prepared to tow your boat if you lose the current on the lazy, wide sections.” Dangerous chutes, rocky rapids , sunken trees, logs, wire fences, and low-drop dams are also common obstacles on remote Nebraska creeks, many of which we encountered while swimming an uncharted stretch of the Niobrara River between Nenzel and Valentine.
Also, make a game plan of where you will be boarding and disembarking each day and have a plan B in case these areas are not accessible. Don’t wing it. If possible, explore the access points in advance. Some areas require four-wheel drive. And always respect private property.
Tilden’s Sabrina Negus emphasizes the importance of the buddy system: “A group of four should be the minimum when trying a more advanced stretch for the first time. And it’s always better when at least one person has done that route.”
In an emergency, have a buddy stay with the injured person and have a buddy stay with the person swimming out to get help.
River kayaking can be practiced all year round, although each season brings its own set of conditions. In spring, fall, and winter, the water can be cold, posing a risk of hypothermia, and in spring, runoff and snowmelt contribute to high and fast water. When kayaking, capsizing is not a question of if, but of when. Even the most experienced kayakers can spill.
Conversely, during the warmer months of July through September, prairie river water levels can get quite low, and droughts can even affect groundwater-fed streams like the Niobrara — pulling a boat down a river isn’t nearly as fun as floating. Therefore, check the USGS water gauge to determine if the water level and water temperature are appropriate. Corman and his wife Jen use this data to determine when to kayak a particular route.
Once you figure out where and when you’re going to be kayaking, arranging transportation is the next big piece of the puzzle. A minimum of two vehicles are required – one to park downstream at your disembarkation point and another to drop people and equipment at the mooring. Decide in advance who will be driving, as it could be a long day for those who volunteer.
Although my group of friends have taken people and kayaks to a Science, many of them used an outfitter before venturing out on their own. If you’re a newbie, save yourself the headache and use a guide service. An outfitter will handle all the logistics to drop you and your kayak upriver and pick you up again at the end.
Valentine’s Graham Outfitters caters to the Niobrara River, offering guided rafts, shuttles and full-service trips where they also take care of camping and cooking. Rachel Simpson from Lincoln swam with them several times.