South Dakota Kayak Challenge

CANOE & KAYAK MAGAZINE: Surviving The South Dakota Challenge


2020 Schedule
Subject to change

2020 Race has been cancelled



The South Dakota Kayak Challenge: A History
By Jarett C. Bies, SDKC Co-Founder

South Dakota Kayak ChallengeOne die-hard racer.

That was the only registration that took place in the ill-fated first go-round for South Dakota’s premier kayak and canoe race, the South Dakota Kayak Challenge. In 2008, founders Steven Dahlmeier and Jarett Bies hoped to offer a race of true challenge.

They set the bar a bit high, picking one of South Dakota’s most challenging stretches of water before an audience that for the most part was a bit leery. Based solely on Lake Oahe, the initial plan was to have racers begin at the Highway 212 bridge and face the big, dark-blue waters of the state’s largest reservoir traveling to the Oahe Dam. In the remote area around what locals know as Little Bend, paddlers would face not only sea-like waves and amazing South Dakota winds, but the remote nature of the land known to be friendlier to rattlesnakes than to paddlers with nothing but fiberglass or plastic between them and the elements.

The race team recalibrated. They scouted other locations. They wanted moving water and infrastructure on either end of the race, so out-of-state racers might have the things they needed to make it more than a test of mettle. The allure of the wildest stretch of the Missouri River, between Yankton and Sioux City, made a tremendous amount of sense. In 2009, they announced a new South Dakota Kayak Challenge. And the response was tremendous.

In just a few weeks, more than 80 racers from 13 states and Canada sent in registrations for the 2010 inaugural run of the 72-mile event. The organizers made a key decision in adding Cory Diedrich to the team, and as a trio, they recruited a corps of stalwart volunteers that made the first year’s run of the race a fantastic success. The action on the water didn’t disappoint, with a blazing sub-10-hour completion of the course.

The race lived up to its name due to winds and high temperatures. Stretches of the river held standing waves, but more than 70 percent of those who started were able to reach the finish, some on Sunday morning. Regardless of finish times, racers applauded the event, volunteers celebrated the contact high of helping them, and plans were set to do it again in 2011.

Of course, Mother Nature has the final say on anything outdoors. A historic winter snowpack in Montana along with substantial spring rains led to flooding all along the Missouri River. Less than 30 hours before the start of the 2011 Challenge, the organizers had to pull the plug and contact all participants that it’d be impossible to hold the race. The response was bittersweet, but more than 80 percent of racers said “Hold my registration; I’ll be back in 2012.”

They did not lie. On May 26, 2012, nearly 160 racers claimed their spots along the starting line at Riverside Park in Yankton. While they faced overcast skies and South Dakota’s constant winds, they attacked the course. A new record – 8 hours, 50 minutes – was set, and again, a majority of participants were able to make the Challenge their own, finishing as they saw fit. A noteworthy figure among those returning participants was that same die-hard racer who signed up in 2008! She’s taken part in every one, and we're certain she'll be back in 2014.

As this year’s Challenge approaches, dozens of new racers, as well as those returning, look to the event as a great way to start the paddling season. Many come to the course to confront their own limits and last year’s results. No matter the motivation, the South Dakota Kayak Challenge is a “big-tent” event, open to anyone with the desire to try, regardless of experience on big or small waters.

The 100-percent success rate of its organizing team, along with the countless allies of the event, which include federal, state, county and local agencies, makes the anticipation for May 24-25 race palpable. Come see for yourself!


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