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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: http://www.wpr.org/shows/wpr-presents- 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.

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Capturing Your Duluth Whitewater Experience

Swiftwater Adventures

Whitewater rafting isn’t the first thing to pop into your mind when you picture Duluth, Minnesota. Most people expect to see canal park, a few ore boats, and be on their way. They don’t realize that there’s world class whitewater waiting just 15 minutes south of town! At Swiftwater Adventures we provide a fully guided experience from start to finish. This also includes a photographer who specializes in capturing the thrill and excitement of your trip so that you’ll always picture whitewater when you think of us here in Duluth.

Safety is always our number one priority, with fun coming in a close second. Part of that fun is being able to share the awesome memories made rafting with your friends and family. Or if you just want to brag about all the big rapids you crashed through, that’s OK too (the guides know the truth about how you laid on the floor of the raft in fetal position most of the time but we know how to keep those secrets). Our photographer scouts out the best angles to shoot from depending on the water levels and time of day to ensure that the best action of the day is captured, and that you look good while doing it! There are also opportunities to have a group photo taken while we break halfway through the trip.

After the trip you can relax inside the River Inn (right next door to our building) with food and drinks while we show all the photos we took. If you’re up in the air about sticking around for it, I can say that no one ever regrets it. Usually there are some funny faces and great action. The guides may even jump in to help point out those awkward moments but it’s all in good fun. You’ll get to relive the big rapids, but often the most fun are the pictures from when we turn the rafts upstream and “surf” a river wave. This usually results in lots of big splashes coming over the front of the boat and some great facial expressions–especially when that first big one crashes over you.

Many people choose to simply enjoy the photo show, but others may be interested in purchasing pictures afterwards as well. Our pictures are taken by an experienced photographer with top notch equipment so that if you decide to take photos home with you, they’ll be the kind of high quality pictures you blow up and hang on the wall. Our pricing is also extremely competitive. In fact, we charge about half compared to most other companies around the country. We simply feel that it’s important for you to document something that’s out of the ordinary for most people, yet so much fun. We have pricing on a per pictures basis or a fixed price for all of the photos from the trip. Feel free to ask any of the guides or photographer for details.

Of course, you’re always welcome to bring your own camera along, and you’re NEVER under any obligation to buy photos. Heck, you can even ask the photographer to take a group shot with your camera and he’ll be more than happy to do it. We just know that after a great experience whitewater rafting with us, you’ll want to remember it for a lifetime.

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What to Wear Whitewater Rafting on the St. louis River

What to wear on a rafting trip with us is a question we get a lot. As we all know, weather in the great state of Minnesota can be somewhat unpredictable. Even with a forecast of a 90 degree day it’s still a good idea to have a backup plan in case things don’t turn out according to plan.

Typically during our early season–May and June–the weather is cool and the water cold. Even if the air temperature is in the high 60’s the water may not be much above 40 degrees. If you’re visiting us during this time we’ve got you covered with our complimentary splash gear to help keep you dry. You’ll still need to keep warm underneath though! For that we recommend layers of synthetic clothing such as Under Armour© or fleece. Avoid wearing any substantial amount of cotton as it easily draws heat away from your body if it becomes wet.

During the rest of the summer we often expect long stretches of warm weather, however that can always change quickly being so close to Lake Superior. Typically, a swimsuit is all people wear underneath their life jacket when the temps are high. However, a cold air mass or rain storm can blow in with little warning so it’s important to have some extra layers (again, synthetic) around just in case. A rain jacket is also a great thing to have around because sometimes it’s just the right amount of protection without being too warm, and you can always take it off (or start a water fight) if you get too hot.

Towards the end of our season (September/October) it’s often mild but it’s still a good idea to pack some extra layers just in case. The water is usually starting to cool down and even warm days are getting shorter and colder.

Footwear is also important at any time of the year. We’ll be getting in and out of the rafts and hiking around so you’ll want something that has laces or velcro straps and won’t fall off easily. The river is full of sharp rocks that are no fun to step on after you lose a shoe in the water.

To recap, it’s Minnesota. So wear a swimsuit, but pack some warm synthetic clothing just in case. Even in July.

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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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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!

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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!

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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!

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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!

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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!

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