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Tom Johnson of Alexandria made it his goal in 2005 to kayak all the named lakes in Douglas County. Currently, he has only one lake left. Photo by Caroline Roers

Alexandria, Minn., man kayaks 175 nearby lakes in 54 months

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From Evansville to Forada, Osakis and Millerville - more then 350 lakes stretch across Douglas County.

It is Tom Johnson's goal to kayak them all.

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"I didn't have any training for it, I just knew I wanted to do it," said the Alexandria resident. "I talked to a friend of mine who kayaks and he gave me a few pointers but that was all. Before I talked to him I tipped it a few times."

Johnson grew up in Illinois and moved to Minnesota after high school to go to college at the University of Minnesota.

He moved to Alexandria in 1970 where he worked as a dentist for 35 years. In 2005, he decided to retire. Soon, however, he found that he needed something else to do in the summer besides golfing, volunteering at Caring Hands Dental Clinic and walking.

"I went to the Cities and tried out a few kayaks until I found one that I liked," Johnson said. "At first I just kayaked on Lake Winona where I live, but soon I wanted something new, some different scenery - so I went to Lake Burgen and then Union Lake. Over time, I realized that I liked going to different lakes."

After thoroughly researching, Johnson made a goal - to kayak the 175 named lakes in Douglas County.

Once a week, Johnson goes out at about 5 a.m. and kayaks a few lakes, depending on their size, in a given area of Douglas County.

The lakes range anywhere from public lakes with beaches and houses, to completely uninhabited lakes.

Some of these uninhabited lakes are waterfowl production areas set up by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Though they are open for hunting in the fall, a waterfowl production area provides a safe place for a vast variety of waterfowl, shorebirds, grassland birds, plants, insects and wildlife to live and breed.

It was at one of these locations that Johnson had one of his more interesting experiences.

"This past April, I went to a waterfowl production lake that had extremely high water," he explained. "At first, the water was only up to my knees, but all of the sudden I sunk down and it was at my chest. So I got into my kayak and went around the lake. When I finished, I dragged my kayak back to my truck and looked for my keys - but found that they weren't there. Instead, my pockets were turned inside out - my keys were at the bottom of the lake. Thankfully my phone worked long enough for me to call my wife."

Most of the lakes Johnson kayaks are surrounded by houses and public accesses, but some lakes aren't even registered on maps. In these cases Johnson often just guesses where they are.

"One time, I found a road called Woodlake Road and drove up it a little ways until I found a lake, which I assumed was Woodlake, but I really didn't know," Johnson chuckled.

No matter the case, Johnson finds a way to get onto the lakes.

"I've been up to my knees in mud and sometimes have blood suckers stuck to my legs," he laughed. "On Kensington Lake I couldn't even find an access into the lake so I ended up kayaking over from another lake. The lake itself only took me 10 minutes to kayak around, but it took me two hours just to get there."

On average, it takes Johnson anywhere from 10 minutes to four hours to kayak a lake. Some of the biggest lakes he has gone around are Lake Miltona and Lake Christina.

Because many of the lakes are isolated in the country, Johnson brings a GPS with him to keep from getting lost.

"I've only been lost once," he said proudly. "I couldn't park my truck very close to this particular lake because of the six foot weeds surrounding it. I knew the general direction of the lake, so I just started walking in the ankle deep water. But after an hour and a half, I decided to turn around. Eventually I found the lake after talking to a farmer."

Johnson also has to be careful not to forget where he parked his truck.

"When I first started out, I would kayak around the lake, but then couldn't figure out where I parked because the edges of the lake were completely surrounded by high weeds and trees that I couldn't see over from my kayak," he said. "Now, I put a marker down where my truck is."

"I like to kayak at a leisurely pace, about 3.5 miles per hour," Johnson noted. "The smaller lakes I kayak by myself but the larger ones I usually kayak with someone to help pass the time."

While kayaking, Johnson looks at nature and, if alone, sings.

Though he doesn't have a favorite lake, he has his preferences.

"I like the lakes that don't have any houses. Yes, the chain of lakes is great, but there are houses after houses on them," Johnson said. "Something about the isolation and beauty of the wildlife make it more desirable."

Over the past six years, kayaking nine months out of the year, Johnson has kayaked around 174 lakes. Only a waterfowl production lake on the western boarder of the county remains. Once he has completed this, he hopes to kayak the 175 unnamed lakes in Douglas County.

"I don't know why I like to kayak, I just do. It keeps me active and always moving," he said.

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