Minnesota’s St. Louis River thrills
THE St. Louis River’s rapids are always flowing, beckoning those who would run rivers. It’s the region’s “good, old reliable” river for whitewater kayaking, canoeing and rafting — it provides high water in spring, warm water in summer and views of changing leaves in fall, whitewater kayaker Cliff Langley said. “It holds water really well, so even at low flows, we can still do rafting and there are always a few rapids that still hold water and provide a nice challenge. Even when water’s low, it’s still a beautiful run,” said Langley, founder of Swiftwater Adventures, a whitewater rafting company that runs trips on the St. Louis River. No trip down the river is ever the same, and the scenery keeps people coming back for more, said Stephanie LeFleur, owner of another St. Louis River rafting business, Minnesota Whitewater. “Once you’re actually on there, once you pass I-35 and cross the first set of rapids, it’s breathtaking and it’s like, ‘Wait, can we go back?’ That’s when you get the fever. You feel the fever because you want to go do it again because there are things you missed,” she said. Randy Carlson is nearing his 2,000th time travelling down the St. Louis River, although he’s evolved from whitewater kayaking to whitewater canoeing. He first went down the river in 1983 as a University of Minnesota Duluth student and now oversees the whitewater canoe and kayak activities in UMD’s recreational sports outdoor program. The river always provides a new twist, keeping him coming back to the river, Carlson said. “I’ve become very familiar with every rock on that river and every wave at different flow rates. What’s interesting, because the flow changes and it’s different every Langley noted that in addition to safety information, guides giving directions in the rafts help minimize the risks and frustrations during the trip. Trips are also kept to a maximum of about 50 people to ensure quality and safety. Both Minnesota Whitewater and Swiftwater Adventures use the same section of the river from Scanlon to the Thomson Dam. Some adventurers continue from below the dam and head into Jay Cooke State Park; the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources cautions that the stretch of river is for experts only UMD’s St. Louis River Outpost, located adjacent to the Thomson Dam and Reservoir, has become a draw for outdoor recreation enthusiasts since it opened in the 1990s. “You could see a flatwater canoeist, a rafter, you could see a whitewater canoeist and you could see a kayaker dressed with full-body armour and a full-faced helmet, and they’re going in different directions, but they’re all in that same parking lot at Thomson Dam. It really is a hub for paddle sports and then the hiking and biking, as well,” Carlson said. The St. Louis River’s water quality kept a paddling community from forming on the river until the 1980s, Carlson said. Langley began whitewater kayaking when he moved to Duluth in 1998 and saw the rivers flowing into Lake Superior. He then began meeting other kayakers seeking the North Shore’s whitewater rivers swollen with spring snowmelt. Carlson has known and paddled for years with both Langley and Minnesota Whitewater’s vice president, Blu Bong. The whitewater kayaking community is a tight-knit group and many of them head up the Lake Superior shore in spring to “chase the water,” Carlson said, adding that he ran into Langley last weekend kayaking down the Baptism River near Finland. “It gets to be a small world with the river runners,” he said.
Whitewater rafting is a good way for people to get a taste of the St. Louis River and then attempt whitewater kayaking, Carlson said. He suggests people practice their whitewater kayaking skills on calmer rivers before trying their hand at the St. Louis River.
A whitewater raft negotiates the St. Louis River at Electric Ledge, near Scanlon, Minn.