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Saturday race will highlight North Shore's world-class whitewater kayaking

Chris Baer shoots the 20-foot "Almost Always" drop on the Lester River in Duluth on Friday afternoon. Baer rates the whitewater on the North Shore at this time of year as among the best anywhere in the world. (Bob King / / 5
Tony Locken of Chaska and John Holtan of Minneapolis do practice runs in their kayaks on the Lester River in preparation for the Lester River Run which begins at 2 p.m. Saturday. (Bob King / / 5
Chris Baer slips on a cap and helmet before getting into his kayak to shoot the rapids on the Lester River on Friday afternoon. (Bob King / / 5

For a brief window each spring, as they run high with spring snowmelt, the rivers of Minnesota’s North Shore hold their own against whitewater kayaking hotspots around the world.

Kayakers from around the region will gather on Duluth’s Lester River on Saturday to celebrate — and test themselves against — that world-class whitewater. Several were out on the Lester on Friday, running the rapids and drops ahead of Saturday's second annual Lester River Race.

“This is high-end whitewater, international top-end whitewater, for a few weeks each year,” said Chris Baer, after he plunged down “Almost Always,” a 20-foot drop near the Lester Park Golf Course entrance that was given its name because it’s “almost always” portaged. Baer would know; he’s kayaked rivers around the world.

Almost Always won’t be part of Saturday's race; the course ends just above it. But the 30-or-so kayakers signed up to compete still will have plenty of whitewater to challenge themselves. A change this year is that there will be two heats, the first at 2 p.m. and the second at about 3 p.m. Kayakers in one heat will serve as spotters and safety boats for those competing in the other heat.

Spectators are welcome to watch the race from along the banks of the river; organizer Ryan Zimny said it isn’t often that Class V — the most difficult — whitewater kayaking is so easily accessible, so close to an urban area.

“It’s a unique opportunity,” he said. “(Usually) to see people paddling Class V you have to either have climbing skills or paddle.”

Spectators should be prepared for muddy, snowy, slippery conditions to get to the vantage points. Parking is available at the Lester River Golf Course, or along Superior Street. From there, spectators can hike along Lester River Road — watch for traffic — and look for orange tape that race organizers will place at good access points.

Those watching the race should avoid the west side of the river, where a newly built mountain bike trail is closed to the public during the wet spring conditions. For more tips on watching the race, go to the Lester River Race’s Facebook page, or ask around at the race venue.

Baer won’t be able to stick around for Saturday's event, but he did take part in last year’s inaugural Lester River Race. He said an event celebrating the whitewater of the North Shore was long overdue.

“I can’t believe it’s taken this long,” Baer said. “It needs to happen and needs to continue to happen up here.”


Lester River Race Facebook page

Chris Baer's kayaking website