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Ryan Johnson, Published August 20 2013

Johnson: Kayaking brings new appreciation for Red River (video)

Moorhead - ‘Don’t fall in.”

That’s all I could think as I slowly climbed into a little blue kayak on the Red River last week, an afternoon adventure I agreed to try all for the sake of a column.

I’m a decent enough swimmer, and my time in the Boy Scouts gave me a couple chances years ago to canoe. But I had never been in a kayak, and my initial fears made it hard to remain relaxed and steady – necessary things if I didn’t want to capsize.

A lifetime’s worth of irrational fears about the Red River flooded my mind. What if I fell in and the current was too much? Wasn’t the water sludgy and unsanitary? But one paddle stroke at a time, I left these fears behind and gained a new appreciation for a great river that I’ve often maligned since I moved to the Red River Valley in 1998.

Maybe it’s the frequent major floods that threaten communities and homes; maybe it’s the river’s brown, muddy water; maybe it’s all the stories we’ve heard about supposedly strong undercurrents.

It’s rare to hear someone around here speak about the Red without some animosity – or fear – in their voice.

But once I steadied myself in the kayak and started to get the hang of using the paddle, that apprehension that I used to feel floated away from me.

Christine Laney, of the local nonprofit River Keepers, paddled along in a separate kayak, at first providing me some sense of security in case I tipped over. Eventually, she became a knowledgeable voice for the river’s many positive attributes.

She broke down the myths of the Red – did you know there are actually more than 70 species of fish that live in it, even if catfish get most of the attention?

There are no dangerous undercurrents on the river anymore, Laney said, though there used to be before all the dams, except the one near Drayton, N.D., were retrofitted.

She gave me advice as I struggled to paddle upstream under the Main Avenue bridge, telling me to hold the paddle farther out and use shallower strokes so I could move against the current.

By the time we got to the Midtown Dam and turned around, I found my stride.

We headed north, traveling past the dock under the First Avenue North bridge where we had started to enjoy the more peaceful stretch of the river to the north.

Houses became an infrequent sight; for minutes at a time, there were no landmarks to confirm we were still in Fargo-Moorhead.

The river started to feel smaller, more manageable, more inviting. The fresh breeze, the splash of a nearby jumping fish, the sight of a bird flying high overhead – it was a part of the Red that I just couldn’t experience by only driving over it on my way to Moorhead or spying a look when it spills out of its banks in the spring.

Before I knew it, we were back at the dock, and Laney lent me a hand as I climbed back onto solid ground.

But I was tempted to stay in the kayak, not quite ready to end the adventure so soon. With a body of water this beautiful and welcoming, who would want to get out?

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587