Author - Cliff Langley

Low Water, High Times

Everybody wants to go rafting during the dog days of summer because, at the risk of sounding like Dr. Obvious, being in the water on a hot summer day feels good. August produces a lot of hot days and at the peak of the summer tourist season a lot of people in Duluth, MN want to go whitewater rafting on the St. Louis River. The thing is with August sometimes the water levels can be low. So does that mean people can still go rafting? Is there fun to be had on the river still?

Typically mid to late August sports low water levels across the country as the snow run off has dwindled out west and in the Midwest August can be a dry month, meaning less rain to raise river levels. Those that come to Duluth, MN for whitewater rafting seeking high water and big waves on the St. Louis River should come in May or June. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have fun on the river or still find challenging rapids in August.

First off, if you are on vacation in Duluth, MN and you are looking for fun things to do then there is no time like river time. Sure the waves can be bigger in June, but if it’s a hot day you could be walking around in the sweltering heat of Canal Park or be on the river paddling, splashing and swimming. What sounds ‘cooler?’

Even in the drier months the St. Louis River holds water well as it has a big watershed (an area of land where all the water flows to the same location) that eventually drains into Lake Superior. At lower flows certain rapids hold water well and can provide fun that can’t be had at high water, such as surfing a wave in a raft. We also run trips on the Lower St. Louis River when the Upper section gets too low. Since the Lower flows through a narrow canyon it can only be rafted safely at lower flows. This trip is shorter in mileage but still is a 2 hour whitewater, adventure experience.

We cater our trips both to the customers and current water levels. When the St. Louis River gets lower we adjust our trips to add more excitement and interaction. Granted, all of our trips are focused on supplying our clients a whitewater, adventure experience. It’s just that lower flows just give us a chance to add in a few extras that aren’t possible to do in higher water.

So if it’s mid to late August and you are in Duluth, MN looking to go white rafting on the St. Louis River or just a day trip up from the Twin Cities or somewhere else, book your trip and let’s have some fun!


Carlton, MN: Small Town Charm, Big Time Recreation

Duluth, Minnesota has a reputation as an outdoor MECCA thanks to all the recreational opportunities created by the rugged landscape, numerous rivers and lakes, and the big attraction: Lake Superior. This well-deserved reputation is also due in no small part to the wonderful community and businesses that have promoted the Zenith City. At Swiftwater Adventures, a lot of our clientele are Duluth tourists looking to seize adventure opportunities like whitewater rafting on the St. Louis River, so we love Duluth—and all its craft beer options! We also love Carlton and its proximity to a wonderful landscape of adventure opportunities and the community that makes it a great place to live or visit (Don’t fret Esko and Cloquet, we love you too). Carlton has small town charm but is big on recreational opportunities.

Just 15 minutes south of Duluth, Carlton is the gateway to Jay Cooke St. Park. The town was founded in 1881 after starting out as a shanty town known as the ‘Pacific Junction’ for railroad workers completing the railway from Hinckley to Duluth. Today, this quaint little city is the county seat of Carlton County. Although sporting a population of only about 1,200 there is a lot of activity going on in and around Carlton.

Whitewater Paddling

Obviously, if you want to go whitewater rafting on the St. Louis River or try out kayaking we can recommend an outfit that will take you down (subtle wink). Swiftwater Adventures runs whitewater trips on the Upper and Lower sections of the river. Our trips take about 2 ½ hours and provide you a whitewater and wilderness experience. Besides its whitewater opportunities, the St. Louis River is the life blood of Jay Cooke St. Park.

Jay Cooke St. Park 

Jay Cooke St. Park is one of the most popular state parks in Minnesota, and for good reason: It is beautiful and hosts a multitude of recreational opportunities. Comprised of over 9,000 acres the park has outstanding trails, and numerous vistas that wow the beholder. There are over 50 miles of hiking trails, 32 miles of cross country skiing trails, and over 13 miles of mountain biking trails. Also, the park boasts the infamous Swinging Bridge: the suspension bridge that crosses over the St. Louis River originally created by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s.


The Munger Trail runs right through Carlton so if you are biking the trail stop in town for some refreshments. Or come to town to bike! Carlton Bike and Rental is just off the Munger Trail and rents an assortment of bikes from 10 speeds to mountain bikes to fat tire bikes . If you like single track, then just down the road are the Mission Creek Trails sporting miles of flowy single track through gorgeous northern hardwood and coniferous forests.

Food, Drink and Amenities

Come get lunch before you go mountain biking, or hiking, or rafting, or whatever floats your boat, or stop by downtown after for dinner or a cold adult beverage. The Third Base bar has a fun atmosphere, good food and great drink specials, bands, and even a Sunday Funday during the summer with live music from 4 to 8 pm. Across the way the Street Car offers great food and a large variety of brews. The wild rice salmon burger is my favorite.  Down the street the VFW has a nice deck, cold drinks, and friendly people.

Looking for last minute amenities? If you are camping in Jay Cooke St. Park and need some brats and burgers, or maybe fixings for S’mores then head to Carlton Meat and Grocery. There is also a laundry mat right in town in case you need to do some last minute laundry.

Whether you are looking to stay in or near Carlton or are in Duluth and come here for a day trip, Carlton’s small town charm offers big time benefits. Come visit us!


Late Spring on the St. Louis River: Life Returns

At Swiftwater, we do are best to provide an interactive adventure experience for all that go whitewater rafting on the St. Louis River. The river supplies fun and challenging rapids all summer long. Once exposed to the river, it seems that most people are keen on learning more about the river environment, or at the very least appreciate the beauty of their surroundings. So this piece is a sampler of some of the flora and fauna to be seen along the St. Louis River and in the woods during late May and early June.

Most species of predatory birds have already returned, especially raptors (hawks, eagles, osprey, and turkey vultures). It is common to see bald eagles perched along the tall pines of the river banks or ospreys hovering above the water ready to strike a surfacing bass. Vibrant colors return too in the form of warblers, colorful birds sporting their spring mating plumage. Some 26 species migrate through or nest in northeastern Minnesota.

Yellow Rumped Warbler

Warblers are small song birds that have narrow beaks perfectly designed for capturing insects, their primary food source. Some of my favorites are the brightly colored yellow rumped warbler (yes that’s a real name), magnolia, parula, and the common yellow throat. Through the spring forests you can hear the call of the ovenbird, another warbler, as it calls ‘teacher, teacher, teacher.’ Warblers aren’t the only ones calling for love.

Grey tree frog, and they can be green

Several species of frogs are calling for a mate. The first to appear and call are wood frogs, their call sounds like ducks quacking. About the same time chorus frogs and spring peepers are calling too. These species breed in wetlands and vernal ponds (spring time ponds that are typically dry by summer). Chorus frogs sound like running your finger along a comb, while peepers…well, they peep.

By late May and early June the American toad is looking for a date, its call sounds like the Jetons’ space car (Google that youngsters). And my favorite, the grey tree frog makes its way from the trees to the ponds, a call you just have to hear. Then there is the beauty that makes no sound.

Wood Anemone

Silent and beautiful, ephemerals are spring flowers that bloom before the forest canopy fills in drowning out the sun light. In northern hardwood forests flowers such as wood anemone, violets (wood, sweet, and yellow), trilliums, and Dutchman’s breeches are at peak bloom. Trilliums have seeds surrounded by a fat globule, called an elaiosome, which is like filet mignon for ants and bees: they love it. When ants and bees take the seed for a meal they help distribute the plant. Another interesting adaptation is the wood anemone. This flower closes it petals and wilts when the sun is down or the weather is cool saving its precious pollen for spring pollinators.

Late spring is a time of constant change. Water levels fluctuate a lot in late May and June as this is the wettest time of year and a great time for whitewater rafting. Regardless of the water level, the river banks and forests are teeming with life. Hope to see you on the river!


*All photos by Clifford Langley


The Primal Scream of Gitchi-Gami Ziibii

Photo by Ryan Zimny

This story was written for the One River, Many Stories contest featuring fiction, nonfiction and poetry about the St. Louis River. The following non-fiction story by Cliff Langley was read and recorded for a University of Wisconsin-Superior Public radio broadcast: one-river- many-stories

The story is about expert kayakers and attempting to paddle a river at flood stage is for experts only and requires years of experience, know how and some luck. Nothing done was illegal as the participants hiked out before having to paddle the Thomson Reservoir and be anywhere near the Thomson Dam. Enjoy!

Unleashed: The Primal Call of Gitchi-gami Ziibi

The scene was familiar and foreign all at once. It felt like we were floating in a parallel universe. The river began to accelerate drawing us towards a massive wave, easily 25 feet tall. The immensity of it all seemed surreal as we drifted in our kayaks towards the mammoth wave. We were experiencing the power of nature in one of its rawest forms. At that moment the St. Louis River was unleashed, untethered, and beyond control.

48 hours before, on a late June night, over 9” of rain had fallen with in the St. Louis River watershed. A large basin of over 3,600 square miles was completely inundated in heavy rain. The vast spruce bogs and peatlands near the headwaters were saturated beyond their capacity and every tributary was flooding its banks. Landslides and washouts were common place throughout the watershed.

Below the Thomson Dam, the lower St. Louis River was a raging, seething, death torrent. Huge logs were tossed about against the canyon walls as exploding waves rose and fell tens of feet in a moment. Water was beginning to flow over a section of the highway 210 bridge, typically dozens of feet above the river. The Swinging Bridge was crumpled and twisted, then washed away. It was the peak of what would be deemed as a 500 year flood.

The flood had reached its peak and the extent of the damage had been done. We certainly did not know the cost or extent of the damages caused by the flood at that point but risk to human life had subsided and it seemed that the Thomson and Fond du Lac dams would hold. At this point, being experienced whitewater kayakers, and having paddled the St. Louis at flood stages in the past, we wanted to experience the river’s immensity.

Our past experiences wrestling big water on the St. Louis River was in the 25,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) range—cfs is a means to measure the volume of a river. Above 20,000 cfs the river is considered to be at flood stage. At these flows the Upper St. Louis River had exhibited massive waves and huge holes certainly retentive enough to deal out a beating. You would be lucky to survive if you swam on the Louis at such a flow.

The flow that June 2012 evening was over 55,000 cfs! Experienced big water boaters would advise it is best to stay in the middle of the river at such a high flow to avoid logs in the powerful and turbulent eddies. Additionally, large features, like holes are likely to flush you out in the middle…in theory. So this was our plan for 55,000 cfs run.

Our party of three (Deckhand, Proffessor Z, and myself) put on the river in Scanlon, MN 4.5 miles upstream of the Thomson Dam. The typical whiskey colored water, stained from the tannins released by decaying vegetation in the peatlands upstream, was more of a milky brown from all the sediment.

Once on the river, it was less than a minute before we were doing the limbo under the I-35 bridge. We looked back at the bridge knowing that we had literally passed the point of no return. Now it was full commitment to flowing down the middle of the river. Paddling through the trees at such flows would be death. Big waves were sure to be down the middle and big waves are fun if you are an experienced paddler.

A moment later the current had brought us to the canyon. The previous rapids had been washed out and the river was flooding the forests. A massive diagonal wave some 10 feet tall was breaking off the left canyon wall. We charged into the massive feature then paddled and braced our way through a series of turbulent waves, some over 10 feet tall, tossing us all directions. These would serve as our warm up for the challenge ahead: the Electric Ledge.

The Electric Ledge, at typical summer levels is a fun class III+ rapid featuring a tongue of water that drops quickly into a powerful wave. The rapid is sculpted from ages of water dropping over, into and across the tilted ridges of the Thomson Formation bedrock. The steeply slanted ridges were born from the compressed sediment of 2 billion year old seas, the ancient sediment then was forged into rock through millions of years of heat and pressure into the metamorphic rock known as slate. Tectonic movements from the north and south faulted the bedrock and pushed it up onto itself. At 55,000 cfs these ridges would create gigantic waves and holes. In the middle was the biggest of these waves, a gigantic wave some 25 feet tall and at least as wide.

Deckhand was the first to ascend the steep face of the wave then disappear over the top. Professor Z was close behind, as he neared the crest of the wave the top third exploded violently, tossing him backwards into the air and out of sight. I climbed the wave charging as hard and fast as I could as the wave was about to break again. I fell off the backside of the wave into the air.

The moment of free fall lasted only an instant as a huge wave hit me from the side. The surge immediately sent me 20 feet to the left. The next several hundred yards consisted of huge 10 to 15 foot waves surging and breaking in all directions. Tossing us about like bobbers I could occasionally see Deckhand and Professor Z.

The river accelerated into one last giant, fluffy wave, created from the river flowing over an island that usually stood a couple of dozen feet above the water. Past the last wave we floated and looked at each other in astonishment. We had made an hour long run in less than 15 minutes!

Soaked and stoked, our risk had been rewarded, thanks to experience and some luck. I felt grateful for the opportunity to experience the river in its ancient form. Perhaps similar to its flow some 6,000 to 7,500 years ago as the ice dam that plugged the St. Mary’s broke draining Glacial Lake Duluth. Glacial floods scoured the 2 billion year old bedrock as the Githi-Gami Ziibi drained into Lake Superior, further sculpting the unique rapids and landscapes we see today.

As the first peoples came to these shores had they seen the river this powerful? They had certainly seen and lived with it untethered by dams and other modern technologies and knew intimately its power. On that June evening we road upon the rivers primal scream, a reminder of its old age and youth, and our insignificance in both power and time.

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!

fall colors

Fall Colors on the St. Louis River: Whitewater Rafting Duluth, MN

fall colorsSure, summer is over but that doesn’t mean enjoying time on the water has to end just yet. Mid to late September and early October are great times for whitewater rafting near Duluth, Minnesota on the St. Louis River to view the changing colors of the forest. Also, there are a lot of species of birds migrating along the St. Louis River as well. Some twenty-six species of warblers, colorful little songbirds, hop and flutter along in the day light hunting insects. Autumn along the Louis offers up plenty of beauty to be enjoyed

The other bonus is that September and October are usually wetter than late July and August. Fall rains supply more bang for the buck as the trees and plants are no longer soaking up as much water. Fall rains usually raise the St. Louis to some fun rafting levels.

Although the water can be chillier, as is the air, you just have to dress for it. If you wear poly long under wear with fleece or wool over that as an insulating layer you will be toasty. Cover those layers with a Gore-tex rain suit and some wool socks then you are all geared up for some fall rafting. We also supply wetsuits to those in need of more warmth. There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear. Dress for it and you will be loving life.

For those that like smaller groups, with the cooler weather, school having started and the tourism season winding down, trip sizes are typically smaller. This can afford you and your group a slightly more intimate adventure experience. Although, regardless of trip size our guides goal (besides safety and fun) is to create a fun and personable experience…and fall colors help that.

The backdrop of fall against the dark rock and rootbeer colored waters offers up incredible scenery—and great photo opportunities too! The river produces yellow and oranges in the silver and sugar maples along the river banks, radiant yellow and white of paper birches, fiery reds of forest understory plants such as red osier dogwood, and so many more varieties of plants and colors.

All of our trips employ a professional photographer whom kayaks along to take pictures of your group. Besides photos of your group paddling rapids, our trip photographer also throws in a few great autumn landscape shots. This allows for you to capture your autumn memories for a long time after—need proof for Facebook or Instagram, right?

So this fall if you want to go whitewater rafting in Duluth, Minnesota and see some fall colors too, give us a call!

Fun Fact: Why Leaves Change Color

As autumn settles in, cooler nights and shorter days prompts trees to shut down their production of plant materials. Trees stop producing chlorophyll, a green pigment in the chloroplasts of the leaf that absorbs incoming sunlight and gives leaves their color.

As Chlorophyll trapped in the leaves begins to breakdown, other pigments that are present in the leaf begin to show their true colors: From the carotenoids we get brilliant yellows and blazing oranges seen in poplars, birches and maples, from the anthocyanins we see fiery reds in certain maples and oaks. And from the tannins we see rich browns. The varying amounts of chlorophyll and other pigments mixing in the leaf determine the leaf’s autumnal display.

For whitewater rafting near Duluth, Minnesota the Louis and her colors are a must see!

whitewater rafting Duluth Minnesota

Whitewater Rafting and Kayaking Duluth, Minnesota: An Intro to the World of Whitewater Paddling

whitewater rafting Duluth MinnesotaSome people think that whitewater kayaking or whitewater rafting is this extreme sport suited only for adrenaline junkies but nothing could be farther from the truth. Sure, there are professional paddlers that push the limits of paddling whitewater each day all over the world, running huge rapids and massive waterfalls, but there is more to whitewater paddling than just the extreme. Whitewater paddling can be a lifetime sport for people of all ages and skill levels. This is something we strive to show people if they come whitewater rafting and kayaking in Duluth, Minnesota with Swiftwater Adventures.

Many whitewater paddlers, be it kayakers or rafters, are content with paddling class II and III rapids (which are rapids with standing waves and a few obstacles, such as boulders, that require maneuvering). Class IV and above rapids require more technical skills, a solid roll ( if in a kayak), and the ability to negotiate large holes and waves. Swimming in class IV and V whitewater can be very dangerous and hazardous to life. For these reasons class IV and V isn’t for everyone and also why we don’t commercially raft class V.

At Swiftwater Adventures we hope to get more people out on the water, whether they aspire to be the next ‘hair boater’ or just like to surf a wave in a kayak or a fun float in a raft. Everyone has to start somewhere and everyone is a newbie at some point. One of the main benefits of the St. Louis River is that there are two fantastic sections of river that can appease both the newbie and the experienced paddler looking to go whitewater rafting and kayaking in Duluth, Minnesota.whitewater kayaking

The ‘Upper’ St. Louis River is our typical run for whitewater rafting and whitewater kayak trips near Duluth, Minnesota. This section typically sports class II and III rapids, although in high water the ‘Electric Ledge’ rapid is considered by some to be a big water class IV rapid. This section is where many kayakers build their skills. With this section being pool drop, a rapid then a pool of water, kayakers can wipe out and pick up the pieces below as they learn.

The ‘Lower’ St. Louis River sports class III to V rapids. This section is where advanced kayakers test their skills, where some rapids are long and unforgiving class IV and V, such as the Octopus Rapid or Fin Falls. Although the Lower does boast class V the first couple fo miles is class II, III, and one class IV. We raft the first few miles of the Lower when the Upper section is too low for fun paddling. The Louis provides us with fun all summer long!

For our professionally guided raft and kayak trips on the St. Louis River no experience is necessary. We supply you with a professional in-raft guide and all the outfitting for raft trips. For whitewater kayaks or sit on-top whitewater kayaks, we outfit you, teach you the basic strokes, and employ a challenge by choice philosophy where you can decide if and what rapids you want to paddle. On these kayak trips you are also guided along by one of our experienced kayak guides.

Whitewater rafting and kayaking in Duluth, Minnesota can not only be a fun and safe experience with Swiftwater Adventures but a memorable one too! Give us a call and put some adventure in your life!

Whitewater rafting Duluth Minnesota

Whitewater Rafting Duluth, Minnesota: Cultural History of the St. Louis River

Whitewater rafting Duluth MinnesotaThe St. Louis River is the largest U.S. tributary to Lake Superior, coursing some 180 miles from its headwaters in the Superior National Forest before to its confluence with the big lake. The Louis is rich in cultural history, so much so that volumes of work exist on the topic from historians to logging outfits to the oral history of the Ojibwe that this blog only attempts to serve as a brief introduction. It is something that can be experienced when whitewater rafting in Duluth, Minnesota.

It is likely that the St. Louis River received its name from the vigorous French explorer Sir de La Verendrye, whom explored much of the region in the early 18th century. For his exploits the King of France awarded La Verendrye the Cross of St. Louis, from which the river received its name.

The river already had a name long before Europeans arrived. The Ojibwe called the river Gichigami-ziibi, which means Great Lake-River, likely because it is the largest river in the United States that flows into Lake Superior, which the Ojibwe call Gitchi-Gami. Sometimes it is easy to imagine what the river looked like centuries ago as the section we raft is not developed, so whitewater rafting while in Duluth, Minnesota you can have a wilderness adventure for the day.

The Ojibwe, whom call themselves Anishinaabeg, live in a rich and bountiful land. Within the St. Louis River watershed are all the resources needed for survival. In the past and in the present, paper birch, ash, and basswood supplied materials for wigwams and lodges, baskets, and canoes. From the sugar maple comes precious sap to flavor foods. From the forests and waters fish and game, and from the river and lakes wild rice, a staple of the Ojibwe people.

The Ojibwe would migrate to seasonal camps with in the St. Louis River watershed. March, the Crusted Snowmoon, was time to head to the sugar bush camps to tap maple trees for their sweet sap. Summer camps were often along bodies of water, such as the St. Louis River and neighboring lakes, where the fishing was good.

When the French came to the north woods seeking furs to meet the demand of high fashion in Europe they entered a business agreement with the Ojibwe. The fur trade thrived in this area for almost two centuries. The Ojibwe trapped beavers and other fur bearing animals and traded their pelts for goods. The Voyageurs, typically French Canadians, transported the pelts through a system of trading posts throughout the North Woods. The St. Louis River played a crucial role in linking Lake Superior to trading posts on the Mississippi River and Lake Vermilion.

As always, fashion is fickle and the days of the beaver hat were over as silk took its place, ending the fur trade.

In the Late 1880s to early 1900s logging was at its apex in northeastern Minnesota. In 1898 a paper mill was built on the banks of the St. Louis River, it would eventually become Potlach then SAPPI, the current paper mill upstream of where we raft. Today, SAPPI works with Western Lake Sanitary District to meet and exceed water quality standards for the St. Louis River.

Today, the Minnesota-Department of Natural Resources, Fond du Lac Reservation, and other organizations, such as the St. Louis River-River Watch, are actively involved in the conservation and management of natural resources within the St. Louis River watershed.

So if you feel like whitewater rafting while in Duluth, Minnesota and want to experience history and adventure give us a call. Let’s go rafting!

Whitewater Rafting Duluth, Minnesota: Ecology of the St. Louis River

Whitewater Rafting Duluth, Minnesota: Geology of the St. Louis River

Whitewater Rafting Duluth, Minnesota: Ecology of the St. Louis RiverChances are if you decided to click on the link for this blog you might laugh at bad geology puns like the simple but proven oldie “geology rocks”. Really? You want geology puns? Let me dig some up! Insert laugh. You are not a nerd if you like puns or want to learn about geology. At Swiftwater Adventures we love to share our knowledge of natural history with those that are curious. Whitewater rafting in Duluth, Minnesota can be a great way to learn and experience the geology of the St. Louis River. Let’s drift (pun intended) back into time.

While whitewater rafting or kayaking along the St. Louis River you will notice huge exposed rock outcrops, some that are long vertical slabs that run east to west for miles. This jagged rock is like nothing else in northeastern Minnesota and besides the Ely Greenstone (aged 3.2 billion years) is some of the oldest rock in the state.

The geology of the St. Louis River dates back about 1.8 billion years, just as primitive life was beginning on Earth, referred to by geologists as the Precambrian Era. During this time ancient seas deposited silt, sand, and gravel that built up into layers over millions of years. The immense weight of these layers compacted the silt to form shale and the sand and gravel into sandstone, sedimentary rocks. Then, millions of years later, heat and pressure from tectonic movements converted the sandstone into graywacke and the shale into slate, both metamorphic rocks.

Today, geologists have coined the bedrock of the St. Louis River as the Thomson Formation. The same tectonic actions that created the Thomson Formation are also responsible for folding, tilting, and exposing these rocks. These formations are angled towards the north and south and can be easily observed while whitewater rafting near Duluth, Minnesota on the Louis. Some of these folds run for miles.

During the last glacial period, Glacial Lake Duluth deposited thick layers of red clay, silt, and sand over this landscape. Once the Superior Lobe, a huge ice dam, broke the St. Louis River, now swollen with glacial melt waters, ripped away the glacially deposited sediments and once again exposed the Thomson Formation. Skyline parkway in Duluth runs along the shoreline of Glacial Lake Duluth which was about 500 feet higher than present lake levels. Lake Superior has only been in its present form for less than 7,500 years.

Sediment loads deposited where the river meets Lake Superior, in cooperation with wave action and deposition, formed Park Point, the largest freshwater spit on Earth.

Along the river you can see different colored and sized boulders that are obviously different than the slate and graywacke known as Thomson Formation. Many of these are boulders were deposited into the St. Louis River from glacial action. As glaciers moved across the landscape they would freeze and thaw. Through this process glaciers would rip chunks of rock from the bedrock in Canada and the north shore of Lake Superior. Then through glacial movements (advance and retreat) were deposited in the St. Louis River.

Today, this section of river flows through the lowest points of the angled bedrock— water follows the path of least resistance. Drops in elevation create the rapids you will run if you go whitewater rafting while in Duluth, Minnesota on the beautiful and ancient St. Louis River. Call to book your trip!

St. Louis River

Whitewater Rafting Duluth, Minnesota: Ecology of the St. Louis River

St. Louis RiverWhitewater rafting near Duluth, Minnesota on the St. Louis River will take you through northern hardwood and coniferous forests, typical of the Northern Lakes and Forests Ecoregion. Majestic red and white pines tower over the river like sentinels of the past. Giving us an idea of what northeastern Minnesota forests looked like before the axe befell most of the old growth pines across the state. Along the riverbanks northern white cedars stretch towards the sun and the occasional stand of paper birch and sugar maple interrupt the backdrop of evergreens and pines.

This boreal ecosystem is home to a diverse array of life. Within this section of river there are several species of predatory fish including northern pike, small mouth bass, and walleye. There are also channel catfish and sturgeon, an ancient fish millions of years old. Fish aren’t the only critters in the river. Macroinvertebrates, such as dragonfly and mayfly larvae, live in and around the river’s bottom—don’t worry, they are too small to attack you! These seldom seen creatures begin their lives underwater feeding on dead and decaying matter, actually helping to improve water quality.

Macroinvertebrates are extremely useful bioindicators for scientists that research aquatic ecosystems and monitor water quality. The presence or lack thereof specific species are indicators to scientists on the health of the river ecosystem. For example, stonefly larva are very sensitive to even the lowest levels of pollutants in the water and need high levels of dissolved oxygen to survive. Their presence is the St. Louis in relatively abundant numbers indicates a healthy river ecosystem.

Although there are not many mammals that live in the river, there are a few that do or spend a great deal of time in it or near it. Beavers and river otters are common to the St. Louis River. Beavers more so in back water bays, ponds, and where small tributaries pour into the Louis—beavers are driven by the sound of moving water to damn it up. River otters are highly aquatic and move as family groups (mother and pups) up and down the river, traveling more than 25 miles a day! They feed on fish, cray fish, frogs and other various critters. It is always a pleasure to see a family of otters while whitewater rafting near Duluth, Minnesota.

Within the watershed of the St. Louis River, which ranges from the Superior National Forest to Lake Superior, are all the mammals typical of the boreal forests. The gray wolf, coyote, bobcat, black bear, red fox, whitetail deer, occasional moose and red squirrel are among the 45 species of animals that call these woods and Jay Cooke State Park home. There are also several species of reptiles and amphibians such as the painted turtle, the eastern red belly snake, and the wood frog, to name a few.

There are over 180 species of birds that either reside here or migrate through. On this section of river you have a good chance of seeing: bald eagles and osprey soaring above the river, belted kingfishers and blue herons leap frogging their way downriver, and common mergansers swimming and diving for fish.

While you are whitewater rafting near Duluth, Minnesota on the St. Louis River you may wonder why does the river look like ‘Rootbeer?’ The St. Louis River gets its ‘rootbeer’ color from tannins released from decaying leaf and plant matter from the wetlands with in its watershed. This is typical of north woods lakes and rivers.

So if you like wildlife, forests, and adventure then our whitewater rafting trips on the St. Louis River are for you! Give us a call to book your trip today!