Monthly Archives - February 2016

whitewater adventures

20 Years of Adventures: From the St. Louis River to across the Sea

sunset at rimba ecolodgeI’m writing this because after 20 years of being a professional white water rafting guide on the St. Louis River I’ve heard a multitude of questions regarding the river, professional experiences, and life style of a guide. Questions ranging from “how deep is the water,” what is your favorite water level” to “what do you do during the winter”. ?

To begin, I am writing this from West Sumatra in the beginning on February. Sumatra is a large island in western Indonesia covered with dense tropical jungle, and wild life such as, tigers, rhinoceros, and monkeys. My current location is only accessible by boat. I don’t think I will be shoveling snow anytime soon.

Many people ask me if I guide or whitewater raft while I am aboard. In one of my early trips 17 years ago I learned that it is a royal pain to carry around gear (kayak , paddle,life jacket etc. ) and I swore I would never put myself through that again.

Although, I do not guide abroad professionally, I am constantly finding myself in the position of a guide. Of course it usually comes with some perks:free beer, cheap housing, access to a spear gun etc. The bungalows I am staying at now, Rimba Ecolodge, I’ve taught people how to paddle successfully in traditional sea canoes after literally watching them paddle in circles. Also I’ve helped tourists follow a game trail to the top of a nearby mountain through the jungle.I do find that these experiences have made me a better and more well-rounded guide to service people on the St. Louis river.

One of the most common questions I am asked  is: What is the best water level to go rafting? That is a very difficult question to answer but it mostly depends on your personal preference. Any water level could prove to be a personal favorite depending on your own experience on the trip. I use to say that all levels are good with the exception of low water but this is no longer the case. Due to Swiftwater Adventures pioneering and developing a rafting trip on the lower section of the St. Louis River that is only runnable in low water.

The upper and lower trips are very different but the one thing in common is that you don’t need any experience to have a great time. The lower section makes its way through scenic Jay Cooke State Park. This trip is shorter than the upper section but the rapids are more continuous, some are mini waterfalls!!! The scenery is beautiful as the river has carved out tight canyon, cliff faces, and rock walls. At one point in the trip you are able to hike to the top of the canyon to over look a stunning view of the river and forest for miles.

Our naturalist Cliff Langley, and other knowledgeable guides, can point out many different native wildlife species specific to northern Minnesota. For a few months out of the year you can even sample a variety of native berries and natural wintergreen.

For some people their favorite part of that trip is relaxing on the pebble beach and taking a swim. Where you are given an opportunity to hike up stream and float through the bottom part of the previous rapid. Hopping back on the river with more Rapids to come, including the most challenging rapid the “Twisted Sister”(a name I came up with 19 years ago that seems to have stuck). At the end of the trip you can choose to walk to view a class 5 rapid where it becomes very clear why we don’t continue to go any farther down stream. I usually lead this short walk where my favorite part is, on occasion, entertaining rafters by wearing crayfish as earrings.

A few of the people who have rafted the upper and the lower now say that the lower is now their favorite. So now I can no longer say that low water is not a good time to go rafting. On the other hand the upper section in higher flows has the ability to produce much larger waves and is a completely different experience. But we will have to get to that next time because right now the warm waters of the Indian Ocean are calling my name.

White water rafting on the St. Louis River in roughly 75 days and counting!!

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water level

Whitewater Rafting Duluth, Minnesota: High Water versus Low Water on the St. Louis River

water levelThe St. Louis River is runnable all summer long—runnable, meaning you can raft or kayak it. It can be low or we can get heavy rains and it can be high. One thing the St. Louis River does, as all rivers do, is fluctuate depending on precipitation. Peak run off for the St. Louis River from snow melt is typically late April, and May and June rains keep it at high flows until summer. And yes, there is whitewater rafting near Duluth, Minnesota!

I have seen 12 to 15 foot waves at peak flows in May or June. The highest water I have ever seen was on June 24th, 2012 a couple days after the flood event that inundated the Duluth region. At 60,000 cfs (cubic feet per second which is a measure of volume) the ‘Electric Ledge’ rapid was a 25 foot wave with more monster waves behind it! It was like the Congo! Of course that level is three times higher than the level we stop running trips because the water is too high to run a safe trip. My point: the Louis can and does get big.

July and August are great times to go whitewater rafting when in Duluth, Minnesota–even if it isn’t high water. Typical summer flows still supply waves and challenging rapids and the weather is much more amiable. The first couple of rapids are easy class II+, the first wave we turn into a surf session. Then the last few get more challenging, class III to III+ range, with larger waves and more maneuvering is required. The “Electric Ledge’ gets people excited at all water levels.

Expectations and attitudes have a lot to do with having a good time rafting, on the Louis or anywhere. If you expect high water in August, you will probably be disappointed. I remember a conversation I had with a rafter a couple of years ago:

“I was rafting on the Arkansas River in Colorado in June and the waves were bigger,” she said to me.

“Well, yeah, no kidding” I responded with a smile. “It’s late August now (on the St. Louis River) and early June is the peak run off in the Rockies. The water is high here too in early June. If you were to raft in Colorado late August you might be disappointed by the low water. Most places the later in summer it is the lower the water.”

Every rapid has its magic water level and rivers are ever changing from one day to the next.

My two cents to those that only want high water but its late summer: regardless of the water level, on a hot summer day wouldn’t you rather be paddling on a river where you can swim, get splashed, enjoy fantastic scenery, and run some rapids then be walking around Canal Park or some other tourist hot spot sweating away the day?

If you scare easy, have never been rafting, or just want a fun whitewater and wilderness paddle then August rafting is for you! If you are a hardcore paddler that lives for high water then you want to ride with us in May or June.

Regardless of what time of the season it is, high or low water, our goal is to deliver a safe and fun whitewater trip! If you want to go whitewater rafting in Duluth, Minnesota give us a call!

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