A Search for Whitewater
Desperately seeking rapids to run, a newcomer finds them in Minnesotas state parks.
By Hal Crimmel
If you happened to visit Interstate State Park one autumn day several years ago, perhaps you saw something odd: a person scrambling down the rocky banks of the St. Croix River, waving at a kayaker resting on shore beneath the bridge. You might have seen that person borrow the paddlers clammy life jacket, strip to his underwear, climb into the kayak, and shove off into the swirling St. Croix River.
I am a little embarrassed to say that the person was me; the kayaker, a complete stranger; and the riverbank, not exactly a secluded place. But after a long, hot month in Minnesota, searching without success for a whitewater river, I was desperate to paddle again.
On that September day, the rushing St. Croix sparkled in the pale sunlight, and the pungent scent of damp rocks rose from the shadows. Leaves burned with color along the cliffs. As I paddled out into the wave train, I breathed a sigh of relief at having found these rapids. And for the first time, I thought Minnesota might have what I sought.
Before moving to the state, I had lived near the 6-million-acre Adirondack Park in New York. There, glacier-scoured mountains plunged to headwater lakes, and dark rivers dropped quickly through wild forest. Kayaking down those whitewater streams was my passion. Then my wifes career brought us to Minnesota. My paddling friends snickered: "Its completely flat out there. Better sell your boat."
As we neared the Twin Cities in our moving truck, the countryside flattened slowly before my eyes. Someone seemed to be letting the air out of the hills, leaving a sea of grass and trees. I wondered if any steep, rocky rivers might flow nearby. Thus began my quest to find Minnesota whitewater.
The first month I looked in vain, though you would think the Whitewater River a logical starting place. Wrong. No real rapids grace its length.
On the Snake River, I dragged my boat across miles of rocky shallows in the late summer heat. Several Saturdays of this, and I conceded defeat.
But my visit to Interstate State Park yielded waves and kayakers. Perhaps there was hope after all. I began paddling again.
In November I tried the Vermillion River near Hastings. I found whitewater, but the river smelled like laundry soap, due to phosphorus from fertilizer runoff. And I could hear the clanking of rail cars on a spur line and the roar—like a giant furnace blower—coming from the mill above the falls. Pop bottles bobbed in clumps along the banks.
Blueberry Slide. I was unsure if the Gopher State had any hidden whitewater gems. But the hard winter of 1996-97 rekindled my hope. I knew that runoff from the near-record snowpack would make any river exciting. If ever there was a year to paddle Minnesota, this was it. And I hit the jackpot: the Kettle River in Banning State Park had levels above 9 feet—big water!
The first rapid, Blueberry Slide, was full of truck-sized holes and 8-foot waves, which were exploding at the top and then breaking like ocean surf. If I tried to plow through them and failed, I would be thrashed around pretty good and come out cold. I eyed these fluid mounds, paused, counted one-two-three, and went for it. The river snatched my kayak out of the eddy, and the current swatted my boat dangerously close to the exploding waves. Head down, I barreled up and over an icy wall of water as it collapsed on me like a rotten roof. Made it!
Fin Falls. More excitement was in store that spring. After the trees leafed out, I paddled the lower St. Louis River, a dangerous run filled with steep, quirky falls and weird, razor-sharp rock outcrops. Below the swinging bridge at Jay Cooke State Park, I scouted Fin Falls, a long, violent rapid. A mistake here would result in a bad swim and a severe beating along the rocky riverbed.
But the temptation was great. I knew that if I could skip off the first ledge, stroke through a series of sticky holes, then crash down the final tongue into a narrow cleft with the rapid roaring in my ears and my heart pounding, I would feel a special sort of ecstasy, as if I had absorbed the rivers force and made it my own.
One last look and I was off in a flurry of strokes, an imaginary line spooling out as envisioned. The river dropped out from under me, and a heavy fist of water rose up to deal a blow. I leaned hard on the paddle—as a prizefighter might lean back on the ropes before springing into center ring—then eddied out and caught my breath. In this small chasm, water thundering by at eye level, conifers high overhead, I felt a burst of sheer joy, as if the river gods were suddenly smiling on me.
Harsh Magic. The gods were not always charitable, and I crashed and burned more than once during my kayaking trips. But despite the harrowing swims in icy water, the vicious raps on my helmet, the scraped and torn flesh, the plum-sized bruises, the freezing temperatures and knee-deep snow, the swarms of insects—or perhaps because of all of these things—I started to like Minnesota.
I began to take pleasure in harsh conditions, which lent magic to kayaking here. Once, while lining up to run a small waterfall on Silver Creek near Two Harbors, I watched the sky darken and felt the temperature plunge 20 degrees. Balmy day gave way to raw northern spring. Hail poured down from the heavens, rattling on my boat, tap-tap-tapping on my helmet. Trees bent in the wind, their branches clattering over the rivers deep rumble. My companions and I let loose a collective shout into the air, an exuberant bay of emotion, like a pack of wolves howling at the moon.
Such intense, sudden storms seemed an extension of the creeks themselves. Those rivers falling into Lake Superior lead a short, ferocious life, like north woods insects, coming on fast and then dying off. In summer most rivers are just trickles, safely waded by fishermen. In winter they lay dormant under a thick blanket of ice and snow. In spring the streams can explode, sometimes with trees and boulder-sized cakes of ice large enough to smash a boat. To dodge this boreal shrapnel while running a rapid is to feel the mystery and violence of northern rivers, and the wildness of the forests they spring from.
Superior Waters. Kayaking connected me to Minnesotas rivers, forests, and skies. But there was one puzzling piece: How to make sense of the big lake—Superior?
Like many paddlers, it drew me, perhaps because the best kayaking rivers flow into it. It is also hauntingly beautiful. Along its shores on foggy spring days, conifers stand like dark spirits against ghostly stands of paper birch. Land, sky, and water seem to dissolve into one another.
You might think that kayaking into a large body of water would provide a decisive end to a river trip, a rewarding sense of completion. Many times I boated into Superior on a stream of tannin-stained, sediment-laden water. But then the rivers energy and color would fade to nothing. The river never seemed to leave a trace in the lake, which remained clear as gin, as if neither the river nor my descent of it mattered.
One North Shore river intrigued me most of all: the Devil Track. Its peculiar name conjured up images of a place of dark magic and hard labor. When I finally paddled it, I was astonished to find a canyon of its magnitude in the state that first depressed me with its flatness.
The sound of the water in the deep, red canyon told me most of what I needed to know. At the put-in, a slender chuckle hinted at gently falling water, moving slowly in dark threads between rocks. Then came a gargling rumble of bigger water, a choking bass rumble you feel in your solar plexus, one that makes your mouth go dry and your stomach cramp; its a place where you just might want to go ashore, put the boat on your shoulder, and keep on walking. But no. You paddle it instead.
I slipped over the first falls, sinking in as smoothly and cleanly as if diving into a cool lake in summer; entering a sweet marriage of flesh with water. The next horizon line waited, and a thread of current was all I had to go on as I took two big strokes and launched into the air. This sensation was profound: the feeling of skating on a frozen northern lake, whirling across a sheet of ice under a clear star-filled January sky, blades biting into the ice, wind at my back pushing me along into the night, feeling weightless, as if with just a little more speed I might lift off and rise to the stars, mind skipping between heaven and earth. At such a moment, I knew I had found, briefly, the right relationship between self and place.
Arid Home. Last July was the last time I ran a Minnesota river. Today I stand on the sun-baked shores of Great Salt Lake, not far from my new home on the edge of the arid Great Basin. The cool Minnesota forests and streams are but a memory in the shimmering desert heat. Yet I feel their power as surely as if I stood at the mouth of the Baptism on a foggy April morning, watching the river vanish into the big, cold lake, and listening to the muffled slap of waves on polished stone. It is easy to summon up the spirits of these rivers, and when I do so, my heart quickens and my stomach tightens. I feel their pull here in the desert air, their memory a bracing tonic in the blazing western sun.
If you ask, I will tell you that good rivers are everywhere. All we have to do is find them.
The best way to start whitewater paddling is to find like-minded paddlers through a club or class.
- Cascaders Canoe and Kayak Club
- Kayak and Canoe Institute
University of Minnesota Duluth Outdoor Program
121 Sports and Health Center
1216 Ordean Court
Duluth, MN 55812-2496
- Rapids Riders
Minnesota Canoe Association
P.O. Box 13567 Dinkytown Station
Minneapolis, MN 55414
For route descriptions of whitewater and quiet-water streams, check out Paddling Minnesota, published by Minnesota Conservation Volunteer. Look for it in libraries, in bookstores, or online.
The rapids featured in this article are among the most challenging in Minnesota and should be attempted only by experts. Even on tamer waters, safety precautions are a must:
- Wear a life vest.
- Wear a helmet to protect your noggin if you flip.
- Make sure your kayak or canoe has enough flotation to keep it riding high if you dump and bail out. A low-riding boat wraps around rocks.
- When the water is cold, wear a wet suit or dry suit to stay warm.
- Check water levels by calling the DNR Information Center or logging on to the DNR web site, see page 63. High water usually makes rapids more difficult and dangerous.
- Bring a throw rope. Not only is it handy for rescues, but it is also useful for hauling wrapped canoes off rocks and for raising and lowering boats on steep bluffs.
- Watch out for "strainers," such as downed trees in current. They trap boats and paddlers while water flows through.
- Avoid low-head dams, which can form a recirculating "hole" (hydraulic) that can hold on fast to boats and paddlers. They can be so deadly, theyre sometimes called "drowning machines."
- Dont paddle alone on difficult water. Go with a group of paddlers who are up to the task.
Hal Crimmel teaches at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.