ON THE ST. LOUIS RIVER — You might get dumped into the river for a quick swim. You might get sore shoulders from paddling. You might even get pushed onto your back, legs and arms flailing in the air like an upside-down turtle, at that first big rapids when the raft takes on a wash of water over the bow.
But you definitely will get wet. And you definitely will be grinning.
That's the takeaway message after a morning spent on the St. Louis River between Cloquet and Carlton, a winding, 4.4-mile stretch. It takes a little more than two hours to traverse a series of whitewater rapids, small riffles and the flat-water Thomson Reservoir.
It's a scenic portion of the river, flowing through undeveloped hardwood forests at first, then into evergreens and into a narrow, white pine-studded canyon before the river slows in the reservoir at the end of the paddle in Carlton.
"It's awesome!'' said a wide-eyed Cami Loomans, of Rochester, after taking an unexpected swim in the lake at the first of about eight rapids. She fell out of the raft, as happens on some trips at the larger rapids, but remembered her guide's words of caution: Always get your legs up to stay floating, then swim to the nearest raft. There are guides in each raft, and others nearby in kayaks, just to make sure everyone gets back in their raft without a problem.
This portion of the St. Louis is one of the few true runs of whitewater in Minnesota that is safely raftable through much of the spring and summer, even into fall, and it's just 15 minutes outside Duluth. Yet surprisingly few Northlanders know it's in their backyard. You can't see most of this section of river from any road, but it's easily accessible.
Cliff Langley, now in his fifth season owning and operating Swiftwater Adventures in Carlton, had more than 4,000 people run down the river on his rafts last year. Only about one-third were locals.
"Most of our rafters are tourists from the Twin Cities area, some other places like Iowa and North Dakota,'' Langley said, noting he gets lots of groups — Boy Scouts, school and church groups, summer camps, etc.
"We go from about early May to October, depending on weather and water levels,'' Langley said, noting the best rafting is dependent on consistent summer rainfall. "Nobody wants to go rafting when it's 39 degrees, so that sort of dictates our season."
The 13-foot, self-bailing rafts run twice daily, rain or shine (unless severe weather threatens.) But this was the first year Langley had to cancel a run due to snow. "May 19 and it was 39 degrees and snowing and blowing hard. ... I guess there's a first for everything,'' he said.
On a sunny, warm, truly summerlike day last week, we joined the Heilman family from Watertown, Minn., on part of their Minnesota "stay-cation;" Cami Loomans and her partner, Milton Ortiz, of Rochester; and a group of kids from YMCA Camp Miller near Sturgeon Lake.
"This is great. We bring a different group of campers rafting here every Tuesday and everyone likes it,'' said Caleb Komarek, a Camp Miller counselor from Duluth. His group of 13- and 14-year-old "Adventure Team'' campers appeared to be having a blast, whether swimming in the river on practice rescue drills, skipping rocks or taking on the rapids inside the raft.
Langley, 42, who has been paddling on the river for 20 years and guiding since 2003, followed our group of three rafts in his solo river kayak, with another kayaking guide taking photos and helping keep track of the flock. There's also a guide in every raft doing most of the steering, though everyone in the raft — usually four to six people and a guide — paddles and helps maneuver. All of Swiftwater's guides have at least 11 years of experience on the river.
"When we say dig in and sprint, we need you to dig in,'' said Everett Silbernagel, of Carlton, the guide in our raft.
Occasionally, Silbernagel would belt out the repeated question: "What do you do if you go in the water?"
"Legs up!'' everyone yelled back.
The rapids are traversed carefully, but the guides try to hit the most exciting areas on each. On some, guides and rafters paddle back up and repeatedly "surf"' on the waves caused by the water rushing over rocks below. The rapids have names that conjure fun, like "Happy Hour," "Two Hole," "Electric Ledge," "Canyon Rapids," "Crazy Train," Little Kahuna" and "Boat Smear."
Along the slower stretches, Langley, who has a master's in environmental education, also likes to talk with rafters about the natural history and environment along the river, as do his staff guides, from the geology, flora and fauna to the history of Ojibwe, fur traders and lumber barons. Turkey vultures soared overhead as families of geese with goslings puttered along the shoreline. Langley even pointed out a few giant fishing spiders.
Swiftwater Adventures is one of two rafting operations on the St. Louis — the other is Minnesota Whitewater Rafting, also in its fifth season after previously being called Superior Whitewater Rafting under a previous owner. Both operations start their daily raft trips at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. in Scanlon, just upstream of the I-35 bridge, and end their trips in the Thomson neighborhood of Carlton.
"We run income tax day (April 15) to property tax day'' on Oct. 15, said Stephanie LaFleur, who owns Minnesota Whitewater Rafting with her husband, Chris. Their operation is billed as Minnesota's oldest (Superior Whitewater started in 1979) and largest whitewater rafting business.
Both operations offer trips in the portions of the St. Louis River controlled by Minnesota Power's dam system. At normal water levels during the summer months, they raft the section above the Thomson Dam, the upper area, with about eight areas of rapids from Class 1 to Class 3. If the water is low, the steeper drop lower stretch, from the Thomson Dam to the swinging bridge in Jay Cooke State Park, offers exciting whitewater with even bigger rapids. (That's also where experienced whitewater kayakers chose to play.)
Even if you think you are an experienced whitewater rafter or kayaker, before you try the St. Louis it might be best to book a trip with one of the commercial operations just to scope out the river, low water or high.
No matter what season, leave the cell phones, car keys, cameras, wallets and anything else you value behind (at home or locked in your vehicle.)
"This was definitely worth it,'' a soaked-and-smiling Milton Ortiz said as he took off his helmet and life jacket back on land at the end of the trip. "I'll do it again sometime."
Who can go whitewater rafting?
Rafting the St. Louis River is suitable for just about everyone — no experience is needed — from teens to seniors. But both Swiftwater Adventures and Minnesota Whitewater Rafting have some basic rules for clients:
Whitewater rafting requires all participants to actively paddle and even steer the raft while the guides lead. The guides don’t take you down the river, they guide you and your group. (If you can paddle a canoe you can help paddle a raft.)
This is a natural river, not an amusement park ride. Because of changes in water flows, water levels and other conditions, no two trips down the river are the same. Guides do their best to keep all rafters safe but they have to play by Mother Nature’s rules. Different conditions require different approaches during each trip.
Pregnant women are not allowed.
All Minnesota Whitewater Rafting rafters must be at least age 11 or older; Swiftwater Adventures requires age 10 and up.
Rafters must be capable of understanding and following directions given in English.
Rafters must arrive sober and drug-free.
Trips are rain or shine. When it's warm, swimsuits and t-shirts are fine. Bring sandals, water shoes or old tennis shoes for feet. If it's cold bring warm, synthetic fiber clothes that can keep you dry when wet (no cotton.) Dry suits are available to rent. Bring a change of clothes for your trip home.
Two St. Louis River rafting outfitters
Minnesota Whitewater Rafting
Owners: Stephanie and Chris LaFleur
3214 Gates Ave., Cloquet
Cost: $47 per person, per trip; group and youth discounts available.
Owners: Cliff Langley and Brian Pfeifer
121 Vermilion St., Carlton
Cost: $50 per person, per trip; group and youth discounts available.
Whitewater kayaking, too
Thinking whitewater kayaking might be for you? Swiftwater offers a 2-3 hour sampler that gives participants a hands-on introduction into whitewater kayaking. You can learn basic strokes and paddling technique, and to wet exit. Participants can also attempt an Eskimo roll after instruction. Participants will have a chance to learn about the ratings of rapids, reading whitewater, and the option to paddle a couple of Class I-II rapids. Trips run July through September on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., or by appointment. They charge $100/person for a 2-3 hour experience. Prices include professional guide service, knowledge of the natural history of the region, use of equipment and shuttle if necessary.