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Racers finally take to the Lester River

As he set about organizing the first Lester River Race for whitewater kayakers, Ryan Zimny initially eyed March 30 as the race date. But as the Northland's seemingly endless winter kept the eastern Duluth river and its many rapids locked up in ic...

Whitewater kayaking
Kayaker Ryan Zimny of Thomson works his way around a bend of the Lester River on Saturday in Duluth as spectators line the rocks to watch during the first Lester River Race. (Andrew Krueger / akrueger@duluthnews.com)

As he set about organizing the first Lester River Race for whitewater kayakers, Ryan Zimny initially eyed March 30 as the race date.

But as the Northland's seemingly endless winter kept the eastern Duluth river and its many rapids locked up in ice and the water running low, the race date was pushed back to April 6, then April 13, then April 20, and then April 27. No go.

Finally, on Saturday -- May 4, weeks later than kayakers were on the river last year -- Zimny and 18 other racers found the conditions they needed to run the course.

"It was getting frustrating," Zimny, of Thomson, said of the wait, "but that's the nature of the game."

Zimny said there was a last-minute change in the course on Saturday, after some pre-race kayakers ran into difficulties on "Almost Always," a 20-foot drop near the Lester Park Golf Course entrance that's so-named because it's "almost always" portaged. A drop in the water level, and perhaps some changes to the river caused by last year's flooding, led organizers to shorten the course to avoid the falls.

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So instead of ending down near Superior Street, the competitors stopped just above the falls, making for a course of just more than a mile in length. Racers left the starting line one at a time, several minutes apart.

John McConville was the winner on Saturday, covering the course in 9 minutes, 56 seconds. Ross Herr was second in 10:21 and Joerg Steinbach third in 10:43.

Despite a steady drizzle and temperatures in the 30s, several dozen spectators lined the rocks along the river and the trails overlooking the gorge to cheer on the kayakers. All 19 racers safely reached the finish line.

Whitewater kayaking
Scott Ewen of Duluth navigates a drop on the Lester River. Nineteen whitewater kayakers took part in the Lester River Race on Saturday. (Andrew Krueger / akrueger@duluthnews.com)

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