A Pit Stop For Paddlers

By Steve Plaza

In 2009, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) completed a master plan for the Ottertail River, which flows 186 miles in the northwest part of Minnesota. Part of that study concluded that an 8-mile stretch of the river was not navigable into the city of Fergus Falls because no canoe/kayak access existed above Central Dam. In 2011, the city wanted to bring river enthusiasts into town while providing an area for a portaging around the dam. Many river travelers were bypassing the city and entering the river downstream.

1 + 1 = Project
The city already had a location along the Ottertail River in Veteran’s Park; however, funds were not available to build a dock system and an ADA approach to the shoreline. The local DNR office also saw a need for an access, but the agency could not provide the engineering for the project due to staffing limitations and other priorities. Both the city and the DNR realized they needed to work together because one entity couldn’t accomplish the project on its own.

Both groups entered into an agreement that the city would provide engineering services and the DNR would provide construction and material costs of the ADA access. The city’s initial design and configuration were rejected by the DNR because the docks did not meet state requirements, including weight allowances and placing a public dock as well as the gangplank connecting the dock. A residential dock system was not going to work for this location so the city needed a specialist to help with the design.

Ironing Out The Kinks
The DNR did have a traveling water-trail specialist who gave design suggestions for the area and provided the city with names of dock vendors that were state-approved. The specialist indicated that a beach area, a stable dock system, and proximity to a parking lot were keys to successful access. Paddlers would want to feel safe using the facility, and the less distance they needed to carry their canoe or kayak, the better. The local Corner Stone 99 Masonic Lodge donated a 10-foot x 20-foot picnic shelter to the park, not just for river users, but for all visitors to Veterans’ Park.  The city’s goal was to provide safe access to the river as well as an enjoyable experience while the paddlers were in Fergus Falls.

Getting It Done
After a few more design revisions and increased costs, the city and the DNR agreed upon the final design and dock system for the facility. The floating dock has a separate “chute” that can be used to pull canoes and kayaks from the river onto the dock. Once the vessel is level and stabilized, a person can pull out a seat from the permanent bench placed next to the chute to enter or exit the vessel. This approach benefits a person who may need assistance, but also paddlers who don’t want to get their feet wet in the early spring or fall because of cold temperatures. Once safely on the dock, they can make their way to the parking area (less than 50 feet away) on the ADA-approved sidewalk.

The Breakdown
The overall project took two years to design and construct because many other engineering projects took precedence. The city engineers worked on the design when they could, and the DNR asked for an extension for the funding through its grant process. The DNR provided $41,000 for the construction, including the dock, chute, gangplank, ADA sidewalk, and small retaining wall for the beach area. The city provided $5,000 in man hours, and the Corner Stone 99 Masonic Lodge donated $8,000 for the shelter.

Since Veterans’ Park is located in the middle of the city, many residents and visitors see the improvements and use the access and shelter. The dock not only provides an access/egress for paddlers, but it also has attracted local fishermen and others who just want to sit on the dock.

Worth The Effort
When working with any governmental agency, a group needs to have patience and to keep reminding the members that the outcome will be a benefit for residents. It is always good to build relationships with outside agencies because in working together more can be accomplished—especially with limited budgets. Not all access points need to be this elaborate; however, the city and the DNR wanted to make the system available to everyone. An organization could modify the dock to enhance any area due to its modular construction.

Little maintenance has been needed in the area, and paddlers tend to be a clean group. They pack out what they pack in and leave little or no garbage. Since the river does not freeze due to the presence of an upstream power plant, the dock remains in place over the winter months. The dock is made of interchangeable parts and if damaged can be easily replaced without removing the entire dock. The only drawback is that the stainless-steel rail along the chute that protrudes into the river catches debris and builds up over time, so it must be brushed away.

City officials are glad they took on this project—it helped build a relationship with the local DNR office and provided much-needed access for river users to come into the city.

Steve Plaza is the Parks & Recreation Manager in Fergus Falls, Minn. Reach him at (218) 332-5804, or steve.plaza@ci.fergus-falls.mn.us.