With spring comes world-class kayaking at North Shore

Joel Decker
Joel Decker of Duluth, Minn., races in the Lester River Race in Duluth on May 4, 2013.
MPR Photo/Dan Kraker

Along the North Shore of Lake Superior, streams like the Lester River in Duluth are roaring, full of chocolate-brown, frothy, churning spring runoff. It's that time of year when hikers are warned to stay away from the creeks -- and when kayakers like Chris Baer flock to them.

"It's phenomenal," said Baier, a raft guide in Colorado and West Virginia. "It really is great paddling for about a month a year."

For the next couple weeks, kayakers from around the country will arrive in northeast Minnesota to descend the dozens of rivers and streams that plummet over waterfalls on their way to Lake Superior.

It's world-class whitewater kayaking -- at least while the snow is in full melt -- in an out-of-the-way and unexpected place.

Baer is about as close as you can get to a professional kayaker. When not helping others navigate streams, he spends half the year kayaking around the globe. At least for a few weeks, he said, the whitewater in Minnesota is as good as it gets.

"When it's all melting, it comes down fast," he said. "That thousand-foot of gradient from the ambient land mass down into Lake Superior works in our favor, and we get some really cool rapids for a month a year."

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Baer calls them rapids, but to most people, the swift currents form a waterfall, a 20-foot nearly vertical class V plunge into a deep, rocky gorge. On Saturday, Baer shot the falls smoothly, but became stuck in a powerful hydraulic at the bottom, where the water circulated like a giant washing machine, trapping his boat. He had to swim to shore. But determined, he dragged his boat up for another run.

On his second attempt, he angled his kayak perfectly, and slid just past the whirlpool.

"Hah, hah, hah, hah!" he shouted. "Yeah, it just takes a little practice. Whoooo!"

All the way up the North Shore, a select group of expert kayakers braves rivers like the Baptism, Cascade and Devil's Track. The streams are only a few miles long, but they'resteep. They come tumbling down hundreds of feet from the ridge that parallels Lake Superior, and feature razor sharp rocks, three-story vertical drops and frigid water.

Volunteers
Volunteers stand alert on the shore of the Lester River rapids with ropes and buoys ready to rescue kayakers who need assistance during a kayak race on May 4, 2013.
MPR Photo/Dan Kraker

"I think you have to be of a different character to run the rivers of the North Shore," said John Kiffmeyer, who works for a kayak company called Liquid Logic in Asheville, N.C. "I'll put it as diplomatically as I can: Maybe a little bit crazy as well."

Kiffmeyer, who has paddled the North Shore for nearly two decades, can recall harrowing rides down the rapids.

"I remember one video where somebody had flipped coming down one of the slides and it had cut the top of his eye so that his eyelid wasn't connected anymore," he said. "It's not without danger. I myself have broken both of my ankles going over a waterfall."

To the untrained eye, a trip down the rapids can seem crazy. But Kiffmeyer said paddlers who tackle North Shore creeks reach a level of experience where they feel comfortable in water. "There's things that you're doing with your paddle, with your body, with your boat angle, with your core," he said. "You can't see all that happening, but there's a lot of premeditated action that's going in, that's happening because of instinct, that's happening because you've spent so much time on the water, you know what to do."

Kiffmeyer and a host of other paddlers were introduced to North Shore creeks by a kayaking legend named Jim Rada.

A University of Wisconsin astronomy professor, Rada was the first person to run several Minnesota creeks. His guidebook, "Northwoods Whitewater," was like kayaking gospel.

"His book was it," Kiffmeyer said. "If you wanted to go kayaking, you would do everything to try to find one. Originally that was very difficult. I've got what's called the 'Kinko's edition.'"

"Northwoods Whitewater"
Kayaking legend and University of Wisconsin astronomy professor, Jim Rada was the first person to run several Minnesota creeks. His guidebook, "Northwoods Whitewater," was like kayaking gospel.
MPR Photo/Dan Kraker

That means Rada, who insisted on meeting people before sharing his book, photocopied the pages and gave them to Kiffmeyer for 20 bucks.

"He felt very personally responsible," Kiffmeyer said. "He had written these descriptions of the rivers, he guided you to them. So, there was this sense of personal responsibility he had that he wanted you to be safe."

Anthony Balsiger, a kayaker from Bloomington, Minn., said that camaraderie continues today.

"Everybody's real supportive; it's a high-fivin' kind of group," Balsiger said. "There's no attitudes, and there's no egos. I mean, we're all kayakers, so everyone's got a little bit of an ego. You wouldn't be doing it otherwise. But everyone's real cool with each other." That's something Jim Rada would no doubt like to hear. Ten years ago this spring, he died of a heart attack while paddling a river in Northern Michigan. His book was finally published shortly after his death.

It's still essential reading for those with the skill and guts to paddle the raging creeks on the North Shore.

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