Whitewater Fun: raft-riding some rocky runs

Whitewater fun

Whitewater rafting is a breath-taking adventure, and like the corkscrew ride at Valley Fair, it had me a bit apprehensive the first time I tried it. But I’m so glad I did, because I just want to go again and again. What a blast!

Starting out, we met on the banks of the St. Louis River just upstream from the place where it flows under the I-35 Highway. Our group of four (two couples) was assigned to one raft, and there were six rafts and a ducky altogether. We donned out life vests, grabbed a paddle and launched our raft in the calm part of the river. The lead guide instructed us on paddling techniques and had us practice basic strokes and raft movements. We gradually moved to the slow-moving water and got the feel of paddling in a stream.

Then the guide gave us small challenges, like paddling our raft to the right or left of various rocks. Each raft accomplished this with varying degrees of dexterity. First were the hockey players, strong and confident, who showed off and made it look easy. We called them the “Jerseys.” Then came the senior group—a priest and three parishioners. At first, we thought they would end up in the drink, but they soon figured it out and got it done. The priest had given a blessing at the beginning of the ride, so we called them the “holy boat.” A family was next— a mom, dad and two kids, who made the entire trip into a competition. They had little control and missed the mark several times, but finally accomplished the task. We were up next and I cringed at the thought of people watching me try out a new skill I was not sure I could do. I much prefer to practice in private and only go public when I am sure I’m good enough. This was one time I would not get my way.

When all six rafts and the ducky had passed the test, we graduated to the pylons underneath the highway bridge. The guide had us maneuver our craft back and forth around the pylons, going forward, moving backward and circling the structures. When the guides could see that we could control our raft and even keep it in one location while waiting for other rafts, we were ready to embark on our thrilling expedition.

The first set of small rapids increased the tension in the group and everyone handled it differently. The kids giggled, the jerseys hollered interjections of delight. The holy boat let out groans, and I heard short, shrill sounds of dread coming from my very own throat.

All six rafts and the ducky were side by side in a line-up on the side of the stream above the rapids. Our taskmaster asked for a volunteer to go first. Of course the hockey team jumped at it. In unison, they propelled their craft forward, pushing off rocks and sliding smoothly down the current’s path. We went next and had a bumpier ride, but managed to make it through with no mishaps. I was grinning with pride at the bottom of the rapids, when, within a few minutes, I realized everyone else had made it safely as well. We were getting good at this. Braver, too

There were long stretches of smooth-flowing water between the six rapids, giving much needed respite since each rapids grew increasingly steeper and rockier. In those calmer legs of the run, we soaked in the surroundings—tall white pines, rocky banks with cedar branches growing out of them, occasional deer, foxes, rabbits, and a few squirrels and crows to scold us for intruding. We saw fish jump, and turtles resting on a log. We passed fisherman with nets and hikers who sometimes waved. But for the most part, it was a feeling of solitude in a shared-experience kind of way. What I mean is that though we were only a few blocks from a highway and residential areas, out on that river, we were aware of only nature. We might have been in the Grand Canyon, for the lack of city bustle.

Every so often, though, I’d look up and see the same person, a female, running along the path on the banks, usually a little ahead of us. Then, she would stop at a point up ahead and point her video-camera out at the river. I paid little attention to this, thinking she was a tourist, though I knew she was there even when I couldn’t see her.

The fourth rapids were thunderous and proved the toughest of all. Several rafts dumped as they toppled over the edge, and the ducky got stuck on a rock at the very precipice, its occupants paddling air. People screamed as their raft slipped over the brink, while those of us watching laughed. Nobody got hurt, and it was exhilarating. With that challenge behind us, our guide led us to a sandy spot along the banks where we beached our rafts and got out to rest. The day was hot and some people went swimming. Others found shade and drank ice tea while lying prone.

We finished our excursion where the river made a large pond. A minibus awaited to take us back to our cars and a flatbed trailer took the load of rafts and gear. Back at the parking lot, some people left right away, but most of us were famished and stopped in the restaurant nearby. As we waited for lunch to be served, the woman I had seen sneaking through the woods along the river showed up. She slipped a video into the player and turned on the large screen TV. None of us realized that what she had been doing was filming our trip.

It was hilarious. Watching ourselves make our way through scary rapids, facial expressions beyond belief, and realizing how much we had missed while paying attention to our own raft … it was the absolute best and we were so glad someone thought to film it. It gave us a chance to see what happened to other rafts ahead of us around the bend. We loved it. The videos were available for sale, and I know I bought one to remember my glorious day out riding the rapids.

If you decide to go . . .

Start at:
Superior Whitewater Rafting
  • This trip is ideal for first-timers, whitewater veterans, individuals, families and groups of all sizes.
  • Minimum age is 12 years old, no exceptions. Wear non-cotton, synthetic clothing.
  • If its early May, they’ll insist that you wear a wet suit, which are available there for rent.
  • Wear tennis shoes or river sandals.
  • Your feet are going to get wet.
  • Water bottle or something to drink – no glass.
  • Towel and dry clothes to change into at the end.
  • No alcohol is allowed, and anyone inebriated will not be allowed to go.

What if not everyone in your group can go rafting? Not to worry. Superior Whitewater Rafting makes flat-water kayaking available on pristine Lake Carlton, right out their back door. Younger kids in your group or those who don’t want to raft can still spend the morning or afternoon paddling. 

Story by Nancy Hoene of Duluth.

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