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A night on the town, and on the water: Kayakers ply the waters of Duluth-Superior harbor

Elizabeth Vaughn (center) leads a sunset kayak tour past the Aerial Lift Bridge on July 8 in Duluth. Vaughn works for the Duluth Experience, which offers a variety of kayak tours. Mike Krebs / mkrebs@duluthnews.com

It was a warm July evening, and the Duluth-Superior harbor was a happening place. Pleasure boats buzzed about. Cars hummed across the Aerial Lift Bridge. Anglers returned to port from an afternoon on Lake Superior.

And just south of the lift bridge, at a small gravel beach, Elizabeth Vaughn was lining up several yellow and orange kayaks near the water. Vaughn, a guide with the Duluth Experience, a local tour company, was leading six Twin Cities residents on a two-hour sunset kayak tour of the harbor. Vaughn is a guide for the tour company, founded by Duluth's Dave Grandmaison and a few friends in 2012.

The paddlers that evening were three couples representing a wide span of ages. After a short but thorough safety briefing and some basic paddling instruction on the beach, the paddlers slid into their crafts — one per kayak. With a hefty shove, Vaughn launched each of the kayakers into the water.

They floated in a pod, trying out their paddling strokes, getting the feel of their crafts. Vaughn readied her own boat and scooted into the water. She's a witty, high-energy guide and a certified kayaking instructor.

"We'll head toward the Aerial Lift Bridge," Vaughn told the group, and off they stroked on their kayaks like so many water striders. They looked tiny against the steel superstructure of the Aerial Lift Bridge — because they were.

This two-hour evening kayak tour was one of several tours that the Duluth Experience offers. Others include mountain biking tours, craft brewery tours and Duluth history and arts tours.

"Our mission is to connect people to Duluth," Grandmaison said.

This crew was feeling pretty connected at the moment. Following Vaughn, they crossed by the end of the ship canal, pausing to take selfies and group photos. The bridge was bathed in evening light. The paddlers chatted as they moved along, gazing up at the green Duluth hillside and at pedestrians passing over the Minnesota Slip pedestrian bridge. Strains of music from a concert at Bayfront Park floated over the harbor. Gulls hovered and dived. A huge pontoon boat came chugging in under the bridge and made for its marina.

This was Duluth at its very Duluthest, an evening made for showing off to visitors. The paddlers dodged the incoming Vista Star tour ship and nosed up alongside the towering William A. Irvin retired ore boat.

One of the paddlers, Allen Beach of Golden Valley, Minn., reached up from his kayak and touched one blade of the Irvin's massive propeller.

"Can I take this home as a lawn ornament?" Beach quipped.

"What kind of lawn do you have?" Vaughn asked.

The pace of the outing was relaxed. Vaughn offered up a few facts about river otters, the shipping industry, the Irvin and the U.S. Coast Guard fleet. She described the Coast Guard's ice-breaking efforts.

"It's like mowing the lawn," Vaughn said. "They actually plow the ice and make a lane for the ships to come in."

But she allowed the paddlers plenty of time to dawdle and paddle at their own pace, gawking and talking.

Megan Todd, one of the paddlers from Bloomington, Minn., had expressed concern to Vaughn before the evening's paddle.

"I'm nervous. I don't want to die," Todd had told Vaughn back on the beach.

She had had a harrowing experience previously in a kayak, she said. But not on this night. At the end of the evening, she was all smiles.

"They made me feel comfortable," Todd said. "It was such a good time. I'd do this again in a heartbeat."

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