Kayaking in Keith County
The Lake McConaughy and Lake Ogallala State Recreation Areas are year-round favorites with kayakers and canoeists for good reason!
Paddlesports offer an ideal way to slow down and experience the area’s incredible natural beauty from the water. Taking weather conditions and appropriate safety precautions into account, kayaking can be enjoyed in all four seasons in Keith County.
Few people are more enthusiastic about kayaking than Ogallala native Travis Byers. To date, Byers has kayaked every month of the year for 78 consecutive months. He even paddled to his own wedding on the shores of Lake McConaughy. He says, “Lake McConaughy and Lake Ogallala have got to be two of my favorite places to kayak.” His Facebook page, AlwaysKayak, documents his adventures. Keen to share his love of the sport with others, Byers is now an American Canoe Association (ACA) certified instructor. He says, “I really enjoy helping others and getting them out on the water in a safe environment. I love to see people smile.”
What are some tips for beginners? Byers says it’s important to keep safety top of mind. “Wear a lifejacket whenever you’re on or near the water. Paddling with partners is always a good idea.” If you can’t kayak with a friend, let someone know where you are going and how long you expect to be on the water. He adds, “It’s best to stay close to shore, especially for beginning kayakers. And be aware of the weather and water temperature. Water below 50 degrees is deadly.”
Connecting With Nature: Kayakers get a front-row seat to view a variety of wildlife, including various resident and migrating bird species. Over 360 species have been counted in the Lake McConaughy area, earning it the reputation as the best birdwatching locale in the state. Ornithologists attribute the high species number to the area’s location on central flyways as well as local habitat diversity. Spring and fall migration time are especially good opportunities to spot Sandhill cranes, white pelicans, ducks, geese, and shore birds. Check the Lake McConaughy Birding Trails Map and Bird Species Checklist to keep track of what you spot.
Access: Lake Ogallala ordinarily has a kayak launch at the north boat dock, providing an easy way to access the “little lake.” (Please note: both boat docks at Lake Ogallala State Recreation Area will be removed Sept. 29 as water levels are lowered for the Keystone Diversion Dam maintenance project. Smaller, non-trailered watercraft, such as kayaks and paddleboats, may still launch throughout the duration of the project at the boat ramps on the lake bottom or at primitive access points around the reservoir. Game and Parks urges boaters to be extremely cautious while doing so.) Byers says, “On the little lake, remember that there’s a little bit of a current around the hydroplant, and the levels fluctuate frequently.”
On the Lake Mac side, kayaks may be launched from the shore in a variety of places. Sheltered bays can offer a respite from wind and bigger waves. Byers says, “My favorite place to launch is Ogallala Beach, mainly due to convenience. If you don’t have four-wheel drive, it may be better to launch at a boat dock.” He adds, “Remember to be respectful of the others at the dock and limit your time to the absolute necessity.”
Martin Bay is a no-wake area for swimmers and non-motorized vessels. The Martin Bay entrance will be under construction starting in mid-October, 2021, but the Beach Area 1-2 area and Martin Bay lake side boat ramp will remain accessible.
What You’ll Need: If you don’t own your own equipment, several lake businesses rent kayaks and paddleboards.
You’ll need a vehicle permit to access the parks. They’re available at the Lake McConaughy Visitor Center, several local vendors, or online at www.outdoornebraska.gov.
In Nebraska, all vessels, except sailboards, must be equipped with a Type I, II, III, or V life jacket that is the correct size for each person on board. If you do forget your PFD (personal floatation device), adult and youth life jackets are available for check-out free of charge at the Lake McConaughy Visitors Center.
Qualified instruction can help keep you safe and enhance your experience as you learn proper paddling techniques, water safety and self-rescue tips. Contact Travis Byers of AlwaysKayak for more information on group classes and private lessons.
Group Events: Local events include Paddle The Kayaks during Kites & Castles, the annual sand sculpture contest held the last Saturday of July. Proclaiming “Summer Is For Sissies,” the local Rotary Club hosts an annual Kayak Big Mac event, slated for Saturday, November 6, 2021.
Watch the Weather: Winds and storms can come up quickly, presenting safety challenges for paddlers and boaters, especially on Lake McConaughy. One way to monitor changing weather conditions in Keith County is to sign up for local alerts with CodeRED, a FREE emergency notification service.
More experienced kayakers venturing out in colder conditions wear wet or dry suits to guard against hypothermia if they end up in the water.
Why is kayaking such a rewarding pastime? “Long story short, I find myself when I’m on the water,” says Byers. “It sounds cliché, but I really do. I feel at one with the water sitting down at its level, and I’ve been able to see things I wouldn’t see any other way.”
(photos courtesy of Travis Byers)