Teens rescued after being swept down rushing river in Duluth

The Duluth Fire Department is urging people to recognize the dangerous currents in fast-running waterways.

rushing water in river with bare trees on banks
The Lester River rushes under London Road toward Lake Superior in Duluth on Wednesday, April 12, 2023.
Katie Rohman / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — Two boys, ages 13 and 14, who were swimming in the swollen Lester River Wednesday afternoon were swept away by the stream's powerful current and took a trip over a small waterfall before managing to scramble atop an island.

Passersby quickly reported that the boys were stranded midstream, with raging water making it impossible for them to reach shore. Members of the Duluth Fire Department were on the scene approximately 3 minutes after dispatch.

Assistant Fire Chief Dennis Edwards said the boys were a bit shaken up but otherwise in fine shape atop a 15-to 20-foot long island, located near the second parking lot up from Superior Street on the Lester River Road.

The raging Lester River is pictured under heavy runoff conditions on Wednesday.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

He estimates the island was about 12 to 14 feet from a steep riverbank on the east side of the river. Firefighters were able to toss lifejackets to the boys while they formulated a plan.

"There was some some self-awareness there to get themselves up on that island even as young as they are and as poor a decision they made today to go swimming. They certainly were the main factors in their own survival," Edwards said.


With the boys waiting on safe ground, Edwards said firefighters were fortunate to be able to communicate with the two and take their time — an unusual luxury on water-rescue calls that often mean rushing into dangerous conditions.

People stand on banks of rushing river
People watch the rushing water and cast lines into the mouth of the Lester River in Duluth on Wednesday evening, April 12, 2023.
Katie Rohman / Duluth News Tribune

"I thought the worst thing we can do is make this worse by getting boys or one of our members into trouble," Edwards said.

He positioned multiple firefighters downstream donned in rescue suits in case anything went awry, and a rapid-deployment inflatable rescue boat also was on the ready.

Then, firefighters were able to lower a ladder down over the river to essentially serve as a bridge. "Then, we sent ropes with the rescue sling across and instructed the boys how to put the rescue swing on," Edwards said, describing the boys as calm, collected and fully capable of performing what was in large part a self-rescue.

The raging Lester River is pictured on Wednesday in Duluth.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

With water temperatures likely just around freezing in a river fed by fast-melting snow, Edwards said hypothermia was a concern, but once the boys reached dry ground on the island, Wednesday's warm temperatures and sunshine reduced his fears of that becoming a factor in the rescue.

"It would have been a whole other story if the boys were clinging to a rock and in the water," he said.

Edwards encourages people to stay clear of running water at this time of year, when the power of the current may not be immediately evident.

"Everybody's got spring fever now. We've had a tough winter, and everyone wants to get out and enjoy the nice weather. But with the ice and the snow melt feeding the fast-flowing rivers all over town, it can be dangerous if you don't think through what you're doing," he said, noting that slippery riverside pathways can be treacherous this time of year, too.


Fortunately no one was injured during Wednesday's rescue, which took about an hour to execute.

The Lester River is pictured on Wednesday.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Edwards said the confluence of Amity Creek and the Lester River in eastern Duluth is a place local firefighers know all too well.

“This location is one that we are called to often, and it’s always a dangerous location for swimming, but especially so with all the flood risks that spring runoff brings,” he said “Thanks to the quick response of Duluth Fire and the DPD, and to the quick thinking and observation of these two kids, they are safe today. But the history of these rescues at Lester River haven’t always had good outcomes, and especially when the river is running fast, it can become extremely dangerous very quickly.”

The story was edited at 8:53 p.m. April 12 to remove an incorrect location description in a photo caption. It was originally posted at 8:40 p.m. April 12. The News Tribune regrets the error.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
What To Read Next
Get Local