On Thursday night March 30th, 2017 fellow kayakers Andrew Strasser, Marty Halverson, and I hiked along the Lester River as it was breaking free of ice from a few days of warm weather. It had been a lackluster winter. We lost most of the snowpack in a late February thaw before falling back into sub-freezing temperatures. With little snow we wondered if the Lester River would even be a run from snow melt. Hiking along the river it was evident that it was not at a high flow but there was plenty of water to kayak it and the next two days would be even warmer. That night we made the call: the 2017 Lester River Race would take place on Saturday, April 1st 2017, no fooling!
The Lester River is unique in comparison to other whitewater runs on the north shore of Lake Superior as it runs through a park in Duluth allowing for road side access. This also makes for quick access to the river for paddling and for easy spectating for a race. Sure, the St. Louis River 15 minutes to the south of Duluth has great access and runs all summer long for whitewater rafting and kayaking but the Lester doesn’t. The Lester River typically only runs in the spring from snow runoff and rains. Its short window for paddling creates a sense of urgency to paddle it and kicks off the paddling season as it’s usually the first north shore creek to open up.
2017 was the 5th annual Lester River Race, an expert kayak race on the class IV to V creek. In years past there have been all sorts of flows, one year we even did the race on the Lower St. Louis River because of a lackluster snow pack. We were stoked that we could get a race in 2017 under similar, poor snowpack conditions.
20 racers, including one women with spicy tenacity and equal skill, Cassie Gonzalez, raced down the river. Being a timed racer, rather than a free for all boater-cross style, a racer would launch every minute. This is where things get interesting as racers sprint through 8 rapids. The class IV to V drops sport names like ‘Naked Man,’ a challenging sequence of ledges named after nude people that hang out there in the summer.
The last two rapids (located directly across from the Lester Park Golf Course parking lot) are arguably the most difficult for kayakers to navigate and are also the easiest to spectate. Dozens of people were along the river banks or the cliffs above cheering on the racers as they sprinted through the last rapids to the finish line.
Any year that such a race takes place on a difficult whitewater run there are usually a few swims or minor injuries (the rhyolite bedrock of the Lester River is unforgiving to human flesh). Fortunately in 2017 there were neither. However, it was a close race, just look at the times for the top 5 racers (including a tie for second):
1.John McConville 10:37 2. Marty Halvorson 11:11 2. Ryan Zimny 11:11
- Brian Robin 11:12 5. Joel Decker 11:29
If you are hoping to be a spectator for next year visit: www.lesterriverrace.com
Also, thanks to all our sponsors: Swiftwater Adventures, RPM Online Solutions, Accent Paddles, City of Duluth, American Canoe Association, Bent Paddle Brewing, Northland Paddlers Alliance, Third Base Bar, River Inn Bar and Grill, and Duluth Coffee.
If you would like to check out some expert whitewater kayaking this summer visit www.paddle-mania.com. This event takes place on the St. Louis River during the last weekend of July. There is even a team rafting event where teams of 4 can sign up to compete. No paddling experience: don’t worry a professional guide from Swiftwater Adventures steers your crew through the course. Get your friends or work colleagues together to team raft the St. Louis River.
Hope to see you on the water!