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Front Row Seat: How I learned whitewater kayaking in Duluth ... in December

The University of Minnesota Duluth is the world's first institution to use Riverflow Pumps by Current Systems to simulate whitewater conditions in a multipurpose six-lane pool.

kayak in a 25-yard indoor swimming pool
Duluth News Tribune reporter Jay Gabler launches his whitewater kayak at the University of Minnesota Duluth Pool on Dec. 1 in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — As the swimming pool started to churn with a growing turbulence coming up from below, I started to wonder what I'd gotten myself into.

"It takes a couple minutes," said Randy Carlson, sitting in his own kayak beside mine. "We're generating a current."

The University of Minnesota Duluth pool has been enhanced with a unique feature. For the first time anywhere, Riverflow Pumps by Current Systems have been installed in a multipurpose six-lane pool to create whitewater conditions.

The pumps are more typically used to create a one-way flow along a simulated stream, or in conjunction with water slides. "Gone is the calm, no bumps Lazy River," brags the California manufacturer's website. "It's replaced by a raging flow of turbulent thrust that creates fun, smiles and the desire to keep riding for hours."

In the 25-yard UMD pool, the pumps are used to create a flow that doubles back on itself. The water current comes down the four center lanes and goes back up the two outside lanes, like a liquid cribbage board.

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kayak in a 25-yard indoor swimming pool
Kayak instructor Randy Carlson smiles as he watches Duluth News Tribune reporter Jay Gabler paddle a kayak at the University of Minnesota Duluth Pool on Dec. 1 in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

"It's been over 30 years that we've been teaching whitewater kayaking," said Carlson, an exuberantly athletic man who's been a water sports instructor at UMD since receiving his bachelor's degree there 39 years ago. The pool dates to the 1950s, and in 2020 its plumbing required repairs.

"The flow pump idea was something I had for many years," said Carlson, "and the renovation gave us the opportunity to install these pumps."

The souped-up pool opened in 2021. "It brings students a lot of energy and joy when they're down here in the pool training," said Carlson. "Ultimately, we hope to get them to the river, or out on Lake Superior."

My prior kayaking experience comprised a single placid day on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis: moving water, certainly, but nothing like the St. Louis River or Lake Superior.

kayak in a 25-yard indoor swimming pool
Duluth News Tribune reporter Jay Gabler paddles a whitewater kayak at the University of Minnesota Duluth Pool on Thursday, Dec. 1 in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Carlson introduced me to my first spray skirt, an oval piece of fabric designed to cover the gap between a paddler's waist and the kayak frame. If you capsize, you thump the canoe to alert your fellow paddlers and then pull a release loop to loose the skirt from the kayak.

I practiced flipping and freeing myself. I didn't make a particularly elegant upside-down exit, but underwater there was no one to see me flounder. "Now you're wet!" said Carlson with a grin. It was time to make my way through the gates.

The concept of a kayak gate was familiar to me from watching the Rio Olympics, where kayak competitions took place in a "whitewater stadium" using pumps not unlike UMD's to create a wild path for paddlers to negotiate. Pairs of narrow tubes hang from above the water, and the goal is to move cleanly through them in sequence.

Making it through the four gates was challenging enough even without the pumps churning. Once the pumps were activated, I had three distinct flow zones to move through while steering the kayak.

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kayak in a 25-yard indoor swimming pool
Kayak instructor Randy Carlson leans into the current while turning into a gate while whitewater kayaking at the University of Minnesota Duluth Pool on Thursday, Dec. 1 in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

"Forward motion is precious," said Carlson, and he wasn't being metaphorical. I forgot everything my instructor had just taught me about paddling strategy as I cut into the roaring current, clawing my way through each gate and usually clanking a blade or two against it. Oops.

No one was expecting me to make Team USA in a single afternoon, though. The point was to acclimate myself to the sensation of steering my little red boat amid moving water that was rarely moving in the same direction I was trying to.

Based on my extensive whitewater experience riding Valleyfair's Thunder Canyon, I was fully expecting to spend half my time underwater. In fact, it turned out that I was able to stay consistently upright as long as I paid attention to my balance and the direction of the current.

Would that be the case on a lake, or on a river, or if I was really straining to make top speed? Time may tell, but I emerged newly confident in my ability to stay upright while paddling through a surging current...and there's a sentence I never thought I'd write.

kayak in a 25-yard indoor swimming pool
Kayak instructor Randy Carlson performs a bow stall while playboating at the University of Minnesota Duluth Pool on Thursday, Dec. 1 in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

"It's primarily UMD students" who use the jet pool, said Carlson, "but the paddling community extends beyond the UMD students. We meet out on the St. Louis River, playing in the rapids. There's commercial rafting on the St. Louis River, and oftentimes, students will gain employment once they develop whitewater skills and raft guiding skills."

Not only is the pool available for use throughout the Northland's icy winters, in all seasons it's a controlled environment.

"We can shut this river off," said Carlson. "In real life, you can't shut the river off, or the surf off. So this is a great place to train, and people are much more prepared when they do go out in nature to explore in a kayak."

kayak in a 25-yard indoor swimming pool
Duluth News Tribune reporter Jay Gabler uses a paddle to propel his kayak through a gate at the University of Minnesota Duluth Pool on Thursday, Dec. 1 in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

I later found Carlson on LinkedIn, where there are pictures of him river surfing, snow kiting, and crusted in icicles after winter surfing. That level of adventure isn't for all of us, but UMD's jet pool provides a taste of safely contained thrills that you can enjoy without donning a VR headset.

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The jet pool's not just for kayaking; students and community members also use it for surfing and swimming. For information and registration, see umdrsop.d.umn.edu.

kayak in a 25-yard indoor swimming pool
Kayak instructor Randy Carlson, right, teaches Duluth News Tribune reporter Jay Gabler how to exit a whitewater kayak at the University of Minnesota Duluth Pool on Thursday, Dec. 1 in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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