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River of adventure: Whitewater paddlers from around the region flock to the St. Louis

Two whitewater rafts from Minnesota Whitewater negotiate the six-foot drop in the St. Louis River at Electric Ledge on the St. Louis River near Scanlon last Saturday afternoon. (Clint Austin / / 8
Minnesota Whitewater guide Blu Bong of Munger gives instructions to paddlers before departing on the St. Louis River near Scanlon last Saturday afternoon. (Clint Austin / / 8
Swiftwater Adventures founder Cliff Langley guides the raft as kids "surf" a wave while whitewater rafting on the St. Louis River. (Swiftwater Adventures photo)3 / 8
Chris LaFleur guides a whitewater raft from Minnesota Whitewater on the St. Louis River near Scanlon last Saturday afternoon. (Clint Austin / / 8
Minnesota Whitewater owner Stephanie LaFleur (right) adjusts a life vest for Mike McGannon of Brooklyn Park, Minn., prior to heading out on a whitewater rafting trip with Minnesota Whitewater on the St. Louis River near Scanlon last Saturday afternoon. (Clint Austin / / 8
A whitewater raft from Minnesota Whitewater negotiates the six-foot drop in the St. Louis River at Electric Ledge on the St. Louis River near Scanlon last Saturday afternoon. (Clint Austin / / 8
A whitewater raft from Minnesota Whitewater negotiates the six-foot drop in the St. Louis River at Electric Ledge on the St. Louis River near Scanlon last Saturday afternoon. (Clint Austin / / 8
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The St. Louis River’s rapids are always flowing, beckoning river runners.

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’s 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’s things you missed,” she said.

Randy Carlson is nearing his 2,000th time traveling 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 time, (is) you’re just re-acquainted with things you remember,” he said. “I’m never bored with the river and I think that’s inherent with the river-running experience.”

Whitewater, close to home

LeFleur said she was surprised when she learned whitewater rafting existed in Minnesota.

Although she was born and raised in Duluth, for more than two decades she didn’t know about the St. Louis River’s whitewater rafting potential and instead traveled with her husband to go rafting in Colorado. It wasn’t until a friend told her about a whitewater rafting business owner wanting to sell his operation on the St. Louis River that she checked it out and became hooked. She and her husband Chris LeFleur are now going into their second summer season operating Minnesota Whitewater.

The calls she gets are usually from people living elsewhere in Minnesota and the Midwest. She said she believes more people in the Northland should take advantage of the local whitewater rafting opportunities because they’re missing out on enjoying the landscape where they live.

“It’s there. It’s gorgeous. You need to come enjoy this, even if it’s just for an afternoon. It’s absolutely phenomenal,” she said.

People from outside the region typically think of prairies when they think of Minnesota, not realizing that northern Minnesota has “rugged territory,” Langley said. His family’s inaugural whitewater rafting experience on the St. Louis River was a memorable one for him.

“The first time I took my family down in my own raft ... that was one of my favorite experiences because they were like, ‘I didn’t know northern Minnesota was this beautiful.’ A lot of them were saying, ‘I didn’t know rapids were like that here,’ ” he said.

Like Minnesota Whitewater, this is Swiftwater Adventures’ second summer in operation, although the company’s guides each have one to two decades of experience on the St. Louis River. Langley said he likes to share his love of whitewater and the St. Louis River with people taking his rafting trips.

“You get on (the river) and it’s an adventure for people,” he said.

No experience is necessary to partake in whitewater rafting with either company that operates on the St. Louis River, both of whom offer trips seven days a week.

Whitewater rafting isn’t without risks. The bigger the waves, the more chance there is to fall out, Langley said. Safety briefings are given beforehand because, LeFleur explained, “it’s not an amusement park ride.” 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.

Close-knit community

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 armor 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.

That paddling group has a high level of stewardship for the St. Louis River and enthusiasm for sharing their river knowledge, he said. Additionally, knowing each other provides a comfort on the river in case a paddler needs help.

“On any given day, you could see eight rafts from Cliff’s group, eight rafts from Blu’s group and 10 tandem canoes from my group and then the Rapids Riders from the Twin Cities might be running the river in kayaks or canoes. Right now, every weekend for the past month, I’ve been paddling with the UMD students in kayaks and canoes,” Carlson 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.

“The paddlers that are out there are friendly folks. For the most part, you can stop and talk and ask questions. With so much exploration being done in boats, I think for a lot of people, trying a river experience is on their list. But they have to be a little careful how much challenge they choose to take on in the early stages of their river running,” Carlson said.

He added, “Going down a heavier whitewater section of a river in a raft is a good place to start to see what’s out there and then maybe choose a canoe or get a whitewater kayak and keep going. Exploring whitewater rivers is something that we definitely have access to around here.”

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