Guide Series Part II: Accepting Defeat on the Vermilion River….Twice!

Labor Day for most people is a time spent relaxing with friends and family, usually centered around a barbecue. So it may seem an odd time for two brothers to set out on a river trip that would span almost 50 miles in 2 days. However, in my mind it seemed somehow appropriate to celebrate the hard work of the American laborer by setting off on a trip that would be sure to provide ample physical and mental pain. This would be no relaxed weekend eating baked beans.

The idea to paddle the Vermilion had been brewing between myself and my brother Donald for a few years. Really, ever since my ill-fated bachelor party, the thought of returning to complete the trip had been rattling around in the back of my head. You see, years earlier a small group of friends set off down the Vermilion river to celebrate my pending nuptials. Not having much experience in whitewater, we’d planned to portage all of the big rapids and spend a few days leisurely floating from Lake Vermilion to Crane Lake. Solid plan….until we came to the first rapid at Shivley Falls which was swollen from spring melt and rains. One member of the party who shall remain anonymous decided that he would just go for it. Long story short: this ended in 1 out of 3 kayaks broken, 1 of 3 paddles broken, all food lost (except for a soggy loaf of bread, which would later be consumed as toast over a campfire), and some serious bumps and bruises to both egoes and bodies. Instead of carrying on downstream, we decided to paddle 2 miles back upstream, and then 15 miles across Lake Vermilion, stopping every hour to empty water from the broken kayak. One member of the party paddled the entire way with a leaking kayak and half a paddle. This is what defeat looks like, and also served as the biggest motivator to really dive into paddling whitewater.

Now, I’ve returned to the Vermilion with friends in the years between, knocking off the big sections of whitewater. It’s a magical place. Table Rock falls and the gorge that follows is among my top 3 favorite places in the world. The view from an eddy while in the midst of the narrow canyon is second to none and the whitewater can hardly be beat. Mossy walls rising straight out of the rapids, cedars overhanging the canyon, and an occasional beaver riding the rapids provides an out of this world experience. The taste of defeat is bitter, and having had so much fun on the sections of whitewater we missed, I began to think that we should attempt the run again and link all three major sections together.

Fast-forward to 2017. My brother and I found our schedules aligning over the labor day weekend. 3 days to paddle 50 miles should be no problem after coming off a summer of paddling all day, 7 days a week. However, work obligations would turn our planned 3 days into 2. Still 25 miles per day seemed reasonable for 2 young men in good shape. So with excitement we packed our kayaks with food, hammocks, sleeping bags, and headed to the northwest corner of Lake Vermilion to get a second chance.

Right away we knew the boats were heavy. Much more than the standard safety and camera gear I was used to carrying. Still, we were able to roll our kayaks with ease and we set off. Running the dam rapids as the river leaves Lake Vermilion was a test of the handling of our kayaks that now handled more like tanks than the usually nimble whitewater machines. As we worked down towards Shively Falls–the rapids that had wrecked our dreams before–we were wondering what we’d find. Once there, we found beautiful, easy class II and III rapids unlike the swollen continuous big water we had experienced before. Running through this section had us feeling great and thinking that we were in for miles and miles of beautiful scenery and rapids.

As this section of whitewater comes to an end, the river widens and becomes mostly a lake and void of any current for the next 7 miles. Wild rice as far as the eye could see, would make navigation difficult at times, but nowhere near as much an obstacle as the wind that soon kicked up from the north. As we began the 7 mile paddle north across the now widened river, the wind began and soon developed whitecaps bearing down on us head on. For hours we struggled into the headwind, hardly making progress. Now, the other sections of whitewater I had paddled fooled me into thinking the whole river would have the same beautiful scenery. High rock cliffs and outcrops, tall pines, and solid ground–much like my day to day guiding whitewater rafting trips on the St. Louis River. Nothing could be further from the truth. Once the river passes Shively Falls, the surrounding landscape is swamp. Swamp for as far as the eye can see. Without the wind, this wouldn’t present any problems, however after battling gusts for hours we were ready to have a rest before continuing on. The swamp and wild rice would provide no cover for us and there would be no rest until we reached Table Rock Falls.

We reached the falls hours behind schedule, now with the realization that we wouldn’t be able to just pull over and camp wherever we wanted due to the surrounding swamp. This would prove to be a problem being that there are limited official campsites and we were paddling over labor day. Table Rock–normally my favorite rapid–loomed large in my mind with the exhaustion of our battle in the wind. Add to that our heavy boats and limited time, and the decision was made to portage the falls and run the canyon below. It did not disappoint! As soon as my boat slipped into the current and I braced through the first play hole, the pain of the earlier struggle disappeared and my mind was ecstatic. Table Rock Canyon is a place where the world outside ceases to exist while you’re in the midst of its rapids.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. At the end of the canyon is a single campsite. It would put us behind schedule, but we’d be able to rest on good ground for the night and pick up the next day. The people occupying the campsite we’d staked our fortunes on waved as we floated by. This left us with two options. Pull over in Buyck and sleep at the boat ramp, or carry on downstream and hope that we’d find some high ground to camp on before dark. After not seeing any high ground for more than 15 miles, we decided not to gamble and pulled over in Buyck.

Rising early the next morning, we were faced with paddling almost ⅔ of the mileage in a day, instead of the ½ that we had planned. Still, the mileage seemed reasonable. Unfortunately, the river between Buyck and Crane Lake is slow and meandering, not providing much current to help our journey. We slogged on through more swamp and wild rice, pausing only to eat handfuls of trail mix and beef jerky. As the sun made a wide arc across the sky, we both began to do mental calculations. We would be reaching the only mandatory portage on the trip (a spectacular class VI waterfall) and the ensuing gorge which spills into Crane Lake right as the sun would be disappearing below the tall north country pines. Normally, running this gorge at dusk wouldn’t present such a challenge, however we would be coming off 45 miles of hard, constant paddling, and running in overloaded kayaks.

As we drew the the Gold Mine Resort, discussion ensued. We were within 6 or 7 miles of Crane Lake, but those last miles presented the greatest challenge. Deciding to stop for a break from paddling at the resort, we hopped onto the beach and it was immediately clear–the Vermilion would defeat us a second time. We humbly walked up the hill and found the resort owner tending to his daily routine. We asked if he’d be willing to give 2 tired, broken down paddlers a ride back into Crane Lake. Graciously, he agreed to return us to civilization and our waiting truck.

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. I’m not sure if that saying continues for a third time, but it doesn’t matter. Next time we’ll make it.


Swiftwater Adventures: Guide owned and operated

If you’re going on a high adventure trip, you want to know that you can trust and depend on your guides. That’s why at Swiftwater, we feel it’s so important that our owners are also guides. In fact, one of them is on every trip that we run. This allows us to provide the most fun, most informative, and safest experience possible.

You see, guiding whitewater isn’t a commodity that can be bought. It must be earned through years of paddling, training, and running different sections of river, often across the United States and beyond. Sure, it might be possible to bounce down the river not knowing what you’re doing, but it’s the skill gained through years of experience on all levels of whitewater that allows us to show our customers a great time while keeping them safe. You have to know how to get it right, but it takes years of experience to know how to handle things when it doesn’t go according to plan.  As you’ll see below, our owners have devoted their lives to paddling whitewater and learning lessons from mother nature.

Swiftwater Adventures is the brainchild of our founder, Cliff Langley. In 2014, he had a vision to continue providing wilderness/whitewater experiences to the people of Minnesota and beyond. I say ‘continue’ because Cliff Langley had previously guided on the St. Louis River for over a decade before the closure of Superior Whitewater. Not content to let the experience of whitewater rafting near Duluth, MN fade away, he decided to form a company that would provide both a wilderness AND whitewater experience. This point is one that sets us apart, and one that Cliff feels strongly about. People coming to see us will get an awesome ride, but also an immersive experience in nature, often learning about the flora, fauna, and geology of the area. Did I mention that Cliff holds an advanced degree in Natural Science and Environmental Education? We think he’s pretty smart! Aside from paddling the rivers of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, he’s spent the last 20 years guiding and paddling in the Rockies, Alaska, Canada, and Central America. In short, he’s the kind of guy that will make sure you have a good time, stay safe, and come away having learned something about the natural world, and maybe even yourself.

Lucas Aker was born on the shores of the St. Louis River just outside of Duluth and was baptized in the whitewater of the river at an early age. He started paddling at age 13, and guiding for Superior Whitewater at the age of 15, working over 20 years before starting Swiftwater. As a young paddler, he learned from the elders in the community by paddling the rivers of the north and south shores of Lake Superior. Luke grew up camping, fishing, hiking, paddling, and exploring the wilderness, and as an adult, he continues this lifestyle. In addition to guiding tens of thousands of people down the St. Louis River, he spends his fall working in the woods and swamps of Northern Minnesota. What I mean to say is that nature is his natural environment and where he’s most at home! Always a student of people and the planet, Luke spends his winters exploring the globe, concentrating on Southeast Asia over the last decade or so. His broad experience with paddling and people of all kinds makes him a great asset.

Brian Pfeifer was raised in Northern Minnesota’s iron mining region—the Iron Range. Surrounded by wilderness and growing up on a lake made for an inescapable love affair with the woods and water. He has been paddling the rivers of Minnesota and Washington for over 10 years, also guiding with Cliff and Luke before forming Swiftwater Adventures. In the off-season, Brian teaches music at the University of North Dakota. To deal with the long winters on the prairie, he builds furniture and other woodworking projects using only hand tools. Most important to him and his wife Carrie, is passing on the feeling of deep connection with the forces of nature gained through whitewater to his three sons, Michael, Collin, and Henry.

If these brief resumes weren’t enough, Cliff, Luke, and Brian are also certified Wilderness First Responders/First Aid, BLS certified, and swiftwater rescue trained. Being able to trust your guide is the most important part of a rafting trip. Choose Swiftwater for your next adventure and know that you’ve made the right choice! And come say hi to us on your next trip, we’re friendly people!



Teamswiftwater: Whitewater Paddling Adventures

Whitewater rafting on the St. Louis River near Duluth, Minnesota is our passion and our bread and butter. We love the St. Louis River and its whiskey colored water, its beautiful rocky shorelines, tall pines and amazing rapids. We also love to take our skills and our friends on adventures elsewhere too. This is what Teamswiftwater is about: skilled paddlers and those with a penchant for adventure chasing whitewater across the Lake Superior watershed and beyond!

There are two divisions to our Teamswiftwater program: expert whitewater kayakers AND our friends and frequent customers that have proven their paddling proficiency to take on more challenging adventures.

Expert whitewater paddlers from Minnesota and Wisconsin that are sponsored by us (some are also Swiftwater guides and instructors) share their paddling adventures with you. Their stories are all unique yet they all share a passion for paddling. For example, Ryan Zimny is a high school physics and chemistry teacher, an alpine ski coach, and a whitewater kayaker for over 20 years. Before he starts guiding on the St. Louis River in the summer, Zimny chases the spring melt of the nearly 20 streams that plunge into Lake Superior’s north shore.

John McConville is another longtime whitewater paddler who has traveled the country and the globe to chase amazing whitewater. A specialized farmer in southern Wisconsin, John takes time off from tilling and planting to chase the streams of the Lake Superior basin. John also won the 2018 Lester River kayak race on April 28th this year: a fast, steep and rocky stream that sports class IV and V rapids.

Look for these guys and gals, and other Teamswiftwater paddlers like Clint Massy, Brian Robin, Cory Mooney, Joerg Steinbach, and Joel Decker and more to share their paddling adventures with you on Facebook and Instagram using #Teamswiftwater.

A sweet video featuring some Teamswiftwater paddlers at the 2018 Lester River Race by Blue Forest films: https://www.facebook.com/BlueForestFilms/videos/2079884252294567/

Our Friends and Frequent Customers #Teamswiftwater program works a little bit different. Those that have whitewater rafted or paddled with us on the St. Louis River enough to have honed their paddling skills and merit basically you have proven to be a strong and proficient paddler and can mentally handle chaotic situations…we take on new adventures.

Teamswiftwater trips are generally in late April to early June or in September or early October when we have more rain falling in the region, so more rivers are on the whitewater menu. These trips are generally short notice, involve more effort and or time, and generally cost more than a traditional rafting trip because of all the logistics involved. They are never dull, to say the least!

In addition to special/customized St. Louis River whitewater rafting trips, we have guided trips on the Knife River several times, Kettle River, and the Temperance River on Lake Superior’s north shore. We are always planning and exploring new adventures to share with you!

If you haven’t experienced an adventure with us yet book a whitewater rafting trip with us on the St. Louis River, just 15 minutes south of Duluth, MN and let’s see where things go from there! See you on the river!


Kayak, Canoe, and Paddle Board Rental on Thomson Reservoir

Those of you that have whitewater rafted the upper St. Louis River with us probably remember paddling on the Thomson reservoir to end the rafting trip.  Rafters paddle across the narrower north-south expanse exploring only a fraction of the 470 acre manmade lake. There is much left to see and explore as the reservoir expands quite a ways to the east and west featuring half a dozen rocky, boreal forest covered islands and miles of shoreline. In addition to the St. Louis River flowing into the reservoir (created by the Thomson dam), the Midway River flows in as well.

With islands, scenic shoreline, and the mouth of the Midway River there is a lot to explore. Paddlers can spend hours or a whole day paddling and exploring. If paddling itself doesn’t float your boat the small mouth bass fishing is pretty good on the Thomson reservoir.

Swiftwater Adventures rents canoes, sit on top kayaks and stand up paddle boards for 2 hours, half day and all day. Rates are as follows:

                 2 hours      ½ Day       Full Day

Kayak      $30            $40            $55

Canoe      $30            $40           $60

SUP         $30            $40           $60

We strive to offer the best whitewater rafting and kayaking adventures in Minnesota. To show our appreciation to those that have whitewater rafted or taken a whitewater kayak lesson with us we give $5 off per craft for rentals.

Call us or stop by our Office and Kayak/SUP Center at 121 Vermilion St. Carlton, MN 55718 to get your rental gear.

Hope to see you on the St. Louis River this summer!



Lester River Race 2018

I don’t think I have ever been involved in or heard of an event that’s date is determined so last minute (maybe the Eddie Aiku Big wave surf competition) than the Lester River Race. What can I say: Mother Nature doesn’t cater to us. So every spring we watch the weather, looking at the extended forecast on a daily basis. Debates and theories run rampant on when the river is going to break open or what pattern of weather conditions will free the Lester of its cage of ice. Arguments like ‘Three days of 60 degrees boom! Open!,’ or ‘Nah, a week of 50s and sun, she’ll go.’ Truth is it’s never the same conditions or date.

What is true is that on some random, warm spring day it finally happens: the river busts open, logs and ice chunks rush down the river further widening the channel and chipping off the anchor ice. If the river is clear and can be safely paddled the Thursday night before, we call the race on for that Saturday! Then it’s on like cold water Donkey Kong!

Yeah, the water is cold since it was ice and snow just hours ago! Then that Saturday at 3pm the race is on with a racer launching every minute. Last year we had over 20 expert paddlers race.

The conditions are part of the challenge and adventure: cold water, high flows, complex and challenging class IV and IV + rapids. It’s for these reasons it’s an expert only kayak race. Don’t worry though there is a whitewater paddling event the end of July that has something for newbies and novices on the warm summer waters of the St. Louis River: www.Paddle-Mania.com

Why Do They Race?

For creek boaters (whitewater kayaker and canoeists that run steep, technical rivers) I am preaching to the choir here on all that makes north shore creeking great. For those not in the know, most paddlers that stay in the sport (life time whitewater enthusiasts) aren’t in it purely for an adrenaline rush. Those people burn out and fade away. Lifetime paddlers certainly enjoy the thrill, but it’s calculated risk earned through experience and training and the love of whitewater that puts them on the water. They paddle for the personal challenge and the beautiful places whitewater takes them.

Part of what makes the Lester River Race unique and fun is the same thing that ‘normal’ folks think is suffering: cold water and challenging rapids. Besides that, how many steep creeks run through a city where rapids can be easily accessed and viewed like in Duluth, MN!

One of the main goals of the Lester River Race is to showcase skilled paddlers as they challenge themselves running difficult whitewater, the unique natural wonders of Duluth, MN and creeks of Lake Superior’s north shore. Our other goal is to celebrate whitewater and the beautiful landscapes it flows through, sharing it with those not usually exposed to it, promoting outdoor and local businesses, and bringing fun people together.


A big part of this celebration of whitewater is the spectators. It’s fun and inspiring to see and hear people cheering on the paddlers. Although as a racer you kind of have tunnel vision while focused on the rapids but you sense that people are there.

Anyways, for spectators, there are two main spots to spectate from the east side (roadside) of the river. The main viewing spots where you can view two class IV rapids are across the road from the Lester River Golf Course lot. Follow a well-worn hiking trail just a short distance to the river, then go either upstream or downstream to view one of these challenging rapids (take the high trail if you go downstream to view the finish line rapid).

If you hike up any of the west trails from Lester Park you have a few more options to view some of the rapids that don’t have easy roadside access or the last two from a different perspective. Some people gather around the biggest rapid on the river, ‘Almost Always,’ a steep, complicated class V falls. It gets its name from almost always being portaged. The falls isn’t part of the race course but some brave souls usually fire it up for fun!


This race couldn’t happen without volunteers! Our volunteers run the gamut from experienced on water safety kayakers, to on shore safety, to race timers to those that assist with check in. All are vital to pulling off a smooth race day. Those that volunteer we feed at the post race party and are entered in the raffle for some great prizes from our sponsors. Speaking of sponsors…


Sponsors help take this race to a higher level of awesomeness. Sponsors help us reward volunteers for their time and energy, offer up a little scratch for the top racers and get the word out there!

Huge thanks for RPM Online Solutions for creating this website. Cheers to Swiftwater Adventures for helping fund the build and maintenance of the website, and organizing the race.

Mega thanks to the American Canoe Association for their help in race insurance, Northland Paddlers Alliance helping as a Paddle America Club and aiding in volunteers. A shout out to the City of Duluth for the use of Lester Park.

And of course these awesome businesses:

Accent Paddles for the grand prize, an Accent Paddle! And Kokatat for the top raffle prize for racers or volunteers to win!!

Special thanks to Bent Paddle Beer for prizes and post-race party venue, Rapids Riders, Snap Dragon Designs, Earth Rider Brewery, OMC Smokehouse, Frost River, and Gear Junkie for awesome prizes!

We hope to see you all on the banks of the Lester River this spring and on the St. Louis River whitewater rafting this summer!



The Magnificent Joys of Being a Novice

It’s hard to imagine that “winter” is coming to an end. Since Christmas day we’ve been in a deep-freeze around here for more days than not. But today, the sun is shining and it’s starting to warm up! As we hearty Northeastern Minnesotan’s start to thaw out I challenge you all to one last hoorah before the Spring Equinox. Will it be a XC ski? Broomball, curling or ice skating? Maybe you’ll fat bike a frozen river…

Try Out a New Sport

Wait, don’t click the back arrow just yet! Hear me out.

As we get older and mature, with our thoughts getting heavier and the urgency of our responsibilities nagging at us, I can almost guarantee that if you approach this with the right mindset you’ll rekindle something inside your soul akin to those times when the world was a much more simple and brighter place!

You Don’t Always Have to Be the Best – Find an Enthusiast

In fact, asking a friend that’s already experienced and you trust to have patience is a good first step. I thoroughly enjoy taking out first timers (the ones with a positive attitude who leave their ego at home). Borrowing gear can be tricky sometimes depending on the sport, but we’ve got a ton of great rental programs in Duluth. When thinking about asking someone to show the ropes don’t be discouraged if you don’t have that person in your immediate circles. Duluth has a plethora of passionate and organized groups, formal and informal, that love to help out the newbies!

Approaching a new activity is a great way to freshen things up and factoring in your “natural” ability along with the learning curve is critical to make sure your expectations are grounded. If you want to learn to snowboard and haven’t been to a ski hill in 10 years, it’s not going to happen on your first day. Snowshoeing under a full-moon at Hartley is entirely within your reach though!

That being said, no matter what the subject, listen to instructions and break it down into bit-sized pieces. Every sport has a set of foundational aspects that will set you up for success if you practice them!

Looking Good or Having the High-end Gear is Not Yet Important

I have been snowboarding for 15 years and have an insane amount of gear that goes along with that longevity. I am a huge proponent of spending the money (within your budget) if it’s going to improve your experience and/or safety. A fat bike from a local bike shop is going to be a lot more fun out on the single track than a Mongoose from Walmart, it’s a fact.

The greatest part of being within the rookie ranks is the sheer bliss of oblivion! You don’t know any better or different. Sure, I am completely aware that my shell snow pants, vest, and a flannel are not the standard getup for a XC skier, but I am still in that sweet spot of just enjoying myself and not being conscious of if I look like a legitimate partaker of the sport.

My favorite example is bringing a friend on her first mountain bike ride. I gave her some tips, told her how sore she would be sitting down for the first few days after (it really goes away after you’ve been riding a few times, I promise). We met up at the bottom of Spirit Mountain to ride the fairly easy DWP trail to re-familiarize her with her bike she hadn’t ridden in years. She got out of the car with her chamois on the OUTSIDE of her leggings. As I let out a snort of laughter she was completely clueless to the gaffe. Looking back now, I’m sure she has a good chuckle about this J

The Sweet, Sweet Feeling of Conquer

Of a new skill that is! Give me some chemical free examples that compare to the feeling of linking your turns together down a slope for the first time or scoring your first goal. There is nothing like it and I think different strokes for different folks, you will find what you like and you will certainly find what you don’t like. The fun of having a massive outdoor playground here in Duluth is that you could literally take your pick of DOZENS of different things to do on any given day, regardless of what the weather is doing.

Follow your feel-good and get out there!

If you’re interested in getting into a new outdoor sport contact us at [email protected] and hopefully we can set you on the right track.


Winter Adventures: Land of Plenty

It was the best kind of problem, the kind where any decision is a good one, but one outcome might be slightly better than the others. How is that a problem you ask? Sounds like a good thing, right? And what if I told you that this dilemma was in January here in the frozen northland, and the decision was what to do ‘OUTSIDE!’ That’s right: a dilemma of too many winter activities! What an embarrassment of riches! That may sound crazy to some of you, however, when there is good snow here in northeastern Minnesota there are so many options for snow loving adventurers.

I know that some of you reading this are already rippers on the slopes, whitewater kayaked the St. Louis River at massive flows, bad to the bone bikers, and you can sleep out at 10 degrees below zero. If I didn’t have some respect for the written word I would insert emojis in here of praise be to you, worshipping hands in the air, you adventure beast! And I mean that only half sarcastically. People have accomplished some amazing feats of adventure, like kayaking 100’ waterfalls or skiing off cliffs of equal size or greater. People can be awesome. This article is like preaching to the choir for you. For you diehard adventures, think of this a resource to help in your struggle to get that partner, spouse, friend or relative ‘out and about’ in the winter.

For you newbies this can be a useful resource to springboard you into some winter fun. Also, if you already do one of these activities and thumb your nose at one or many of the others, then I encourage you to look at things from a perspective of opportunity, I will explain. Just keep an open mind.


Dress for Success

First off: there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear. You need to be dressed correctly to fully enjoy winter and be safe out there. The name of the game is all about layering. Start out with base layers that wick away moisture and maintain heat even though they might get wet: poly, fleece, and wool are good choices. The saying ‘cotton kills’ refers to its inability to retain body heat once wet. Over your base layers wear insulating layers covered by an outer shell. Depending on the activity you may want an outer shell that can breathe a bit, like when cross country skiing, or one that is wind resistant for downhill skiing.

Here are a couple of good blogs on how to dress for cold weather activities. The first is good for overall cold weather and the second is specific to downhill skiing and snowboarding: https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/layering-basics.html



There seems to be a lot of hurdles for people to overcome to get into outdoor activities and adventures. Some are financial, like ‘dude, I can’t afford a fatbike or downhill ski set up.’ That is understandable. Beyond that it seems many hurdles are of the internal/mental variety. From it’s too cold for me, I have no coordination, or a fear of trying new things—my rebuttal: dress for it, you will get muscle memory from repetition, and moving out of your comfort zone helps you grow.

I personally believe one of the biggest hurdles to winter recreation is the feeling of intimidation. More so for skiing, boarding and biking than snowshoeing. Potential new comers can be intimidated by ski lifts, fancy and expensive looking gear, the adventure elite, and those kinds of things.

The outdoor rec industry itself hasn’t always done the best job of promoting things to new comers by focusing too much on the grandiose and elite. For example, many advertising campaigns only by feature hardcore paddlers or skiers hucking their meat off of the biggest and baddest drops. Don’t get me wrong, I think that stuff is awesome, and I love to see athletes push the envelope. I am just referring to the idea that this type of marketing can scare off new comers, same can be said about elitist attitudes.

Fortunately, certain outdoor rec companies are catching on to this and have begun featuring Average Joes and Janes enjoying their gear while also still sponsoring elite athletes and promoting their endeavors. Balance is key.

If you are an elite athlete in your sport then if you truly love that sport and that lifestyle, then please be an ambassador and welcome newbies and stop them from skiing in jeans!

For you Nervous Nelly’s, just give it a try. I suggest going into any new thing with an open heart and an open mind, put forth some effort and who knows what can happen?!

Ok, now that we are dressed for success and have the right attitude to take on new things let’s talk about fun things to do and how to get started. I will refer to the Duluth area as a reference point for locals and tourists visiting the area. I know there are good gear shops and places for recreation in the Twin Cities or north of Duluth, but for brevity we will focus here.

Downhill Skiing and Snowboarding

Gliding on snow is pretty much my favorite thing to do in the winter. I prefer to do so facing forward but for you sideways-snow-gliders I give you props for being out there: either way glide some snow. Gliding snow is exhilarating regardless if you are ripping turns at Mach speed, chasing freshies, or just learning how to ski from a wedge to parallel skiing. It’s got it all: fresh air, exercise, fun and personal challenge. It’s really not that hard to at least try it.

Once you have the fundamentals down, you can ski or board solo (maybe not solo back country) and enjoy some alone time, ski with a buddy, make it a social event, or a family outing. With runs of varying difficulty you don’t need to shred black diamonds to have a good time. You don’t have to become a racer or rad freestyler: you can progress at your pace. I am not saying you shouldn’t progress to any of those things, just different strokes for different folks. You can take it as far as YOU want or just enjoy casual skiing, making big arching turns on a bluebird day. And riding powder is heaven!

If you haven’t skied or boarded in ages or are brand new and have no gear, I say sign up for a rental/lesson package and feel things out. It isn’t the cheapest sport to get into gear wise so make sure it’s what you want to pursue. Spirit Mountain in Duluth has options for rental and lessons to give it a try: https://www.spiritmt.com/

These two shops in D-town often have good intro package deals for skis and snowboards as well as cross country ski gear:




Cross Country Skiing

Overall, this is my favorite winter activity because I love gliding on snow (for me skiing is on par with whitewater kayaking and rafting). I enjoy the exercise and challenge of it, as well as the beautiful places it can take you.

Cross country (xc) skiing is a sport for just about everybody of varying physical abilities. The disciplines within it can suit people of varying interests. From traditional (classic style) to skate skiing to back country, you can find your jam. You can chase hills and speed, or just kick and glide along in gentle terrain.

Fortunately, the Duluth area is Nordic country! From state parks to city trails to private areas, like Snowflake open to the public, there are tons of options. I love gliding on a fast packed and tracked trail as much as I love gliding down a north shore stream. You don’t have to choose just one method, and you don’t have to be a racer head (racer heads I love you).

A lot of folks think that the end game for xc skiing is racing. People ask me all the time ‘Are you training for the Berkie?’ I answer, ’The Berkie is awesome, but no. I just really love skiing for fun and exercise.

Akin to downhill skiing, take it where it leads you personally. Maybe you become a racer, maybe you just like touring for exercise, or maybe you use it to explore the back country like the BWCA: the choice is yours.

I suggest contacting the Duluth Cross Country Ski Club about lessons and group outings:


Also, if you live in the northern Midwest then there are probably community education opportunities to learn xc skiing.



Some diehard skiers are like ‘why would you bike in the winter when you can ski?’ Hey, great question. At first I thought that too. Now, my answer is why do just one thing?

For starters, not every winter is a good snow year, so fatbiking can be a way to save your winter and be active. I look at it like this: if there is fresh snow then downhill ski, then cross country when trails are packed or enjoy fresh snow back country xc skiing. Once it has been a few days since fresh snow and you have skied your brains out by then all the bike trails are usually packed. Then go ride. Rinse and repeat.

If you love biking then why aren’t you fatbiking? It is a heck of a leg workout and single track through winter forests is a beautiful experience. It’s quiet, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, never dull.

Like its Nordic roots, Duluth has become a mountain bike MECCA thanks in huge part to COGGS and IMBA building a connected network of trails with over 89 miles to ride! With trails that range from steep and technical to flowy, you have options.

Checkout COGGS for trail conditions, details on group rides and events: https://www.coggs.com/

The Ski Hut, Continental Ski, Twin Ports Cyclery, Stewarts, Galleria Bicycles, Carlton Bike and Rental in Calrton, and Spoken Gear in Two Harbors are all area bike shops that sell fattys, have demos and group rides. For a guided intro to fatbiking, the Duluth Experience offers fatbike tours: http://www.theduluthexperience.com/


Snowshoeing and Hiking

I included these two activities together because snowshoeing is really hiking, except when there is deep snow snowshoes are required so you don’t posthole through the snow with each step. Akin to xc skiing, snowshoeing can take you away from the crowds and you can enjoy the deep silence of winter.

Most state parks in northern Minnesota have designated snowshoe trails and let you checkout a pair. I prefer a pair with a built in crampon that allows you to climb slippery slopes. Although a classic pair of wood snowshoes have a cool vibe to them.

From REI to L&M Fleet and Farm to online sources like Sierra Trading Posts, snowshoes are easy to find.

If it’s a lackluster snow year then a good hike can be just what the doctor ordered. If it’s icy bring some crampons. There are tons of options for light crampons that can fit over the soles of almost any winter boot.


Ice Climbing

This is one sport where you really can’t and shouldn’t go it alone. For starters, when climbing you need a climbing partner to belay for you…you know someone to hold the rope, pick up the slack, prevent you from falling, everything that is belaying. So if you get bit by the ice climbing bug find a partner.

Luckily, you can safely get a taste of ice climbing. You can go to events such as The Duluth Ice and Mixed Festival in February where you can try out some easy climbs at Casket Quarry in Duluth. The quarry is now a city park featuring climbing. This will give you a chance to swing an ice axe and stick some ice all while dangling like a human popsicle.

Ice climbing isn’t for everybody, but I will say that when you are all decked out in ice climbing gear (ice crampons, ice axes, climbing harness and a helmet) you look and feel pretty bad ass.

To try out ice climbing check out Duluth Climbers Coalition:  https://duluthclimbers.org/



What the heck are you talking about?! Hey, for real it happens. I have whitewater kayaked the St. Louis River in December, paddled Lake Superior during the winter months, and I have friends that surf Lake Superior all year round. If you are or get into paddling, just dress for it and extend your water time—a drysuit sure helps.

There you have it: a plethora of activities! A good snow year truly equates to the land of plenty when it comes to winter adventures in the northland. I will leave this hear for inspiration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ivFNO7qorvI

See you on the slopes this winter or on the St. Louis River this summer!




Thanks for a Fantastic 2017 Season!

Wow, what a season 2017 was! First off thanks to all of you: you being our customers, guides, employees and friends. We took a few thousand people whitewater rafting on the St. Louis River, gave dozens of kayak lessons, and rented out recreational kayaks and stand up paddle boards on the beautiful Thomson Reservoir (just down the block from our new office and kayak center). We were busy but we had tons of fun too!

Summer Fun!

The summer of 2017 did not disappoint as far as water levels. May and June were wet as usual and July started off with a bang. Then as water levels started to get low Mother Nature hammered the St. Louis River watershed with heavy rains in mid-August and never let up. That being said we had a superb fall rafting levels too.

In addition to all the fun loving tourists we took rafting we took down school and youth groups, summer camps, Boys and Girl Scouts of America, several different types of non-profit groups, bachelor and bachelorette parties, and corporate team building trips.


Educational Trips

We expanded the number of educational trips we offer for schools and camps this past season working with teachers to incorporate their classroom curriculum into our trips. It’s fun to mix the sciences into an adventure experience. We did trips for physical education classes, biology, ecology, environmental science, sports teams and beyond.

In addition to local school trips, such as Esko, Carlton and Cloquet, we ran some fun trips for the Audubon Center of the North Woods Adventure camp, a special trip for Reach Mentoring kids, literally boatloads of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and several other youth and church camps. Kids, adventure and fun is one of our specialties!


Team Building Adventures

We are also experts in fun and engaging team building trips in which rafting is part of the experiences offered. We have even started a new division dedicated to team building adventures and experiences called Evolve Endeavors. Call us to set up your company’s team building adventure today: www.EvolveMN.com


Kayaking Merit Badges

Be prepared: for whitewater. This summer we worked with the Boy Scouts of America to help scouts obtain their kayaking and whitewater merit badges. Being an American Canoe Association certified kayak instructor, we were able to teach scouts the basics of kayaking, from wet exits to paddle strokes. Then we were able to test their skills as we learned to read and navigate whitewater. I was impressed by the energy and enthusiasm the kids had for paddling!


Specialized or Customized Group Trips

We led quite a few customized bachelor and bachelorette parties. We also guided several  specialized trips for organizations such as Team, Red, White and Blue, a fantastic organization that gets veterans and the community out together interacting and having fun and 23rd Veteran.

One group in particular I know we will never forget. We took a group from Blind Inc. rafting. As the name implies, most of the participants were blind but that didn’t stop them from being solid paddlers. One of our biggest challenges was communicating what to expect on the trip while making it fun and safe, and interactive. Blind Inc inpressed us with their enthusiasm and tenacity.


Paddlemania –St Louis River Rendezvous

For the last several years Swiftwater has organized this paddling event held on the St. Louis River in correlation with Carlton Daze in Carlton, MN.

The 2017 event had the most racers and spectators to date! The Blast to the Bridge expert kayak race featured 32 racers. Throughout the weekend there were hundreds of spectators. And a couple of dozen teams competed in the Team Rafting event on Sunday. Thanks to our great sponsors and volunteers: http://www.paddle-mania.com/


Swiftwater Office and Kayak/SUP Rental Center

One thing that was completely new for 2017 was our new office and kayak center in Carlton, MN near the Upper St. Louis River take out/Thomson Reservoir. This is our office location, obviously as the name implies, as well as where many of our whitewater kayak lessons meet at.

We also rent out sit on top kayaks and Stand Up Paddle boards (SUPs) to use on the Thomson Reservoir. This 475 acre reservoir is a man-made lake created by the Thomson dam. This body of water is where the St. Louis River spills into the reservoir ending the rafting trip but there is so much left to explore. With several rocky, pine covered islands and rugged shoreline and the Midway River also flowing into the reservoir there is paddling adventures to be had!

Look for our spring 2018 blogs for a preview of what to expect and what’s new for 2018!

Book your whitewater rafting adventure on the St. Louis River now online.

See you on the river!


Cliff’s Favorite Fall Color Adventures

September and October are my two favorite months to be in northeastern Minnesota. Good bye pesky skeeters and flies, hello warm days and cool nights, and the colors all make these two months the best! The following are a few of my favorite fall color adventures I would like to share with you. These adventures are not listed in detail, or as a guide, but more as a suggestion for which you can further investigate and make your own adventure.

Autumn Whitewater Rafting on the St. Louis River

For starters I love whitewater rafting and kayaking on the St. Louis River in the fall. Typically, as the leaves change color the trees and plants soak up less water and fall rains have more of an impact in the St. Louis watershed, so river levels usually rise from fall rains. I also really like that mosquitos taper off. They aren’t really an issue when rafting along the St. Louis River but if you go in the woods for any length of time they will find you in peak summer months. In the fall bugs bugger off!

Fall Mountain Biking

If you haven’t tried mountain biking or you did years ago and left it to the wayside: dude, you are missing out! Mountain biking is the bees knees! Mt. biking does’nt require mountains to ride, in fact some of the best flow or technical trails aren’t even ion mountain towns but are in our just on the outskirts of Duluth!

International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) has labeled Duluth as a Gold Rider location/destination for trails. With well over 100 miles, thanks to COGGS, of quality trails for beginners to the veteran shredder you won’t be disappointed. The new age of mountain biking is here and its fast, flowy, friendly, and fun.

Even with fall rains, there just seems to be a lot of dry days (equating to dry trails) to ride so fall is a superb time to get out and ride. Visit Cyclists of Gitchie Gumme Shores (COGGS) website to learn more about the trails, locations, conditions and maps: https://www.coggs.com/

If you don’t have a bike and want to rent or buy one contact one of these business in Duluth: The Ski Hut, Continental Ski and Bike, Twin Ports Cyclery, Stewarts Bike Shop, Galleria Bikes or Carlton Bike and Rental. If you are looking to hire a guide service contact the Duluth Experience or Day Tripper of Duluth.

Fall hiking

Really, anywhere with trees and a descent view work for me as far as a hiking adventure go. I love hiking around Oldenberg overlook and the Ogantz trail in Jay Cooke St. Park for breathtaking vistas of the Dalles of the St. Louis River. The Superior Hiking trail also heads north from the park.

The Supeior Hiking trail (SHT) is a Swiss Army Knife of hiking options: ancient forests, urban adventure day hikes in its Duluth sections, incredible vistas of Lake Superior, cascading rivers and canyons, rocky outcrops and rugged hiking, and long stretches of wilderness.  If you haven’t hiked any of this gem, then get some hikers together and go.

Almost all of the state parks from Jay Cooke heading north along Lake Superior’s north shore to the Canadian border will have trail maps of that park and the SHT. I also suggest purchasing Guide to the Superior Hiking Trail put out by the SHT Trail Association. This guide book has maps, a synopsis of each section, points of interest and their mile markers and good stories. Visit SHTs website for more resources: https://shta.org/

Fall BWCA Trip

After having spent two decades of exploring the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness I have found that I love autumn there the most. And while I have not been to every single lake, nook or cranny, I have explored a fare bit and I have a few choice spots of which I try to hit each fall.

Obviously wilderness traveling by canoe requires some experience and careful planning at the very least. I don’t suggest you just pack up with reckless abandon and little to no experience and go, but you don’t have to be a hardened wilderness warrior to go either. I suggest either hiring a guide or guiding service if it’s your first time. This way an experienced wilderness traveler to set you up for success. If you have some canoeing experience this could be a helpful article on preparing for a BWCA trip: https://www.mprnews.org/story/2016/08/11/newbie-guide-to-boundary-waters-camping

This is of course a quick summary of some of my fall favorites, but if you are headed up to Duluth or beyond this coming fall then I highly suggest you come rafting on the St. Louis River to kick off your northern Minnesota adventure.

See you on the river…or trails!


Falling into Autumn: Waterfalling That Is!

One of the nice things about September for Swiftwater guides is after Labor Day weekend, when the rafting season on the St. Louis River begins winding down, although we run trips into October, we have more time for personal adventure. The fall of 2017 didn’t disappoint as far as whitewater adventure was concerned.

Recent rains had brought one of my favorite north shore (Minnesota’s shoreline of Lake Superior) streams to runnable levels. The Beaver River has branches that join just upstream of Highway 61. Shortly after their confluence there is over a mile of what many kayakers consider ‘hyper gnar,’ which is usually class V+ rapids where the margin of error is death. So it doesn’t get run a whole lot.

The East Beaver, a few miles upstream, has a slightly friendlier vibe of the class III to V- variety. The best part of the East Beaver is a sequence of three waterfalls in a continuous sequence. Between each drop is a moving pool of water about 20’ in length. The first falls, a steeply sloped drop of about 15’ with a complex lead in. The second falls: a 16’ vertical drop into a highly aerated pool. Finally, the third falls drops about 12’ vertical feet. For a skilled boater this is the stuff of paddling dreams.

With a weekday free from responsibilities and water in our favorite north shore creek fellow guide Cory ‘The Moonman’ Mooney and I packed up our gear and headed north. There is something about heading north on 61 along Lake Superior that creates a sense of wonder. Sure it’s the beautiful scenery, cascading streams, and rugged topography but also excitement.

We set shuttle via bike and put on the East Beaver. The river starts out as a swift flowing and narrow creek with alder brush and willows growing along the banks. Right before we entered the continuous class III and IV section of rapids leading to the falls we spotted a dark colored, rotund creature slide into the water. With an angry slap of its tail we instantly knew it was a beaver. How suiting to meet the critter in which the stream was named after.

The angry beaver swam off as we dropped into continuous rapids, eddy hopping as we navigated through slides and boulder garden rapids. After about a mile or so we came to a distinct horizon line and one of my favorite places anywhere.

We got out of our kayaks and scouted on river right above the first falls to make sure there wasn’t wood or other obstructions. On river left a tall white pine towered above and the late afternoon sun hit the mist of the falls just right to create a rainbow: north shore perfection!

“That’s a good sign,” I said. Moonman nodded in agreement then said “Ladies, first,” insinuating that I take the honors of taking the plunge first.

In my best southern bell voice I said “Why thank you, sir,” and headed back to my boat.

I took a few slow and controlled breaths as I snapped my spray skirt into place envisioning my line, then slid into the river. I charged far right to make my line, towards a small flake of rock. I took a left paddle stoke sending me out far from the base of the falls and sailing into the landing pool below. I waited in that frothy pool watching Moonman nail his line too.

We hung out in that foamy eddy for a few moments to take in the sights then I peeled out into the current. As the bow of my kayak floated over the lip of the drop I took a left stroke simultaneously bringing my knees up towards my chest (called a boof stroke to keep one’s bow from penciling into the water) sending me off the falls landing almost flat into the pool below. I put my paddle up in the air vertically signaling all was good to go. Moonman sent it off the drop in perfect form.

Now that both of us were below the second drop the true session was about to take place. On river left the river forms a small cave with a shelf allowing a kayaker to paddle up and into the cave, step out, carefully and skillfully, onto the small shelf then scramble up a small natural staircase like a Sherpa to the pool above the second drop. Long story short: you can carry up and run the second drop over and over!

We sessioned that drop until our legs got sore from hiking up. The sheer fun of that drop and the beauty of that spot make it hard to leave but we had other waterfalls calling our names so it was time to move on. We peeled out (when a kayaker leaves an eddy and enters the current) and slid off the last drop excited to finish the run. We had one last bid waterfall to run as an evening nightcap: Ilgen Falls. That 30’ beast on the Baptism River only 15 minutes to the north, but alas fellow whitewater enthusiasts that is a story for another day.

We drove home that night tired and stoked from a day of whitewater adventures on Lake Superior’s north shore. When those north shore rivers run you must answer the call and head north: get it when it’s good!

Luckily we have the St. Louis River for our steady dose of whitewater rafting and  kayaking and to keep our skills up for when the rains come we are ready!