Friday, August 30, 2013

A solid finally to an amazing Minnesota spring season

A solid finally to an amazing Minnesota spring season

one of the fun off angle boofs, minnesota, chris baer, saint luis
one of the fun off angle boofs

Lower Saint Louis

The Saint Louis River is located just south of Duluth, Minnesota and is the local's playground. There is a large reservoir directly above the good whitewater section and allows almost year round paddling for Duluth kayakers.

The folks in Minnesota have a tendency to use the Louis as a test piece to see if they are ready for some of the steeper runs along the North Shore. Being so, it produces some swims and regular entertainment.

more entertainment on the Lower Saint Louis , Chris Baer, Minnesota, Duluth
more entertainment on the Lower Saint Louis

All that being said there are a large variety of features from powerful hydraulics, to tight slot moves, with a little exploration this run could be an absolute gem of a training facility.


The Lester is the first sign of true gradient heading north out of Duluth, this river is in the fringe of the city limits and is the first solid creek to thaw out in the spring.

The Gauge on the Lester has always been a little unpredictable, and after the massive floods during the fall of 2012 the river basin has changed, the original gauge rocks are now totally useless.

The first run of the season we were skeptical that the water might be a little low… WOW we were wrong; It might have been my highest lap to date. Quickly the Lester reminded me why it's a true high-end classic. The rapids come in relatively quick succession with just enough leaky eddies to watch your buddies get trashed in the big hydraulics.

The crux of the run is Almost Always; the original naming was for the fact that it was almost always portaged. As time has past and the boaters have improved it is now referred to as almost always paddled.

On our high water descent Almost Always was looking rather massive, the 20+ foot near vertical drop was starting to fill in, and looked more like a really steep slide converging into an enormous hole. A quick scout, and some safety set, I attempted the direct left line. As I came over the horizon line I was greeted with a couple of mean laterals, an immense impact into the hydraulic at the base all converged into a ferocious fist pump in the eddy at the bottom.

Flow Predictions 


Louis river during full spring melt, Chris Baer, Minnesota, Duluth
Louis river during full spring melt
Predicting the flows in the early days of spring on the North Shore of Superior is rather impossible. A small storm somewhere else could mean an 18 inch dump of snow, or a sunny 70ยบ day. Between huge ranges in actual temperature, there is the anchor ice… The rivers actually freeze solid in the winter, and there can be ice stuck to the rocks under the moving water. Not a big deal as long as it stays there and doesn't become partially lifted during the day causing an impromptu undercut.

home sweet home, dealing with some classic MN spring weather, Chris Baer, minneota, duluth
home sweet home, dealing with some classic MN spring weather


 Race day

The Lester was also the venue for a super fun race this year put on by Ryan Zimney. A cold wet spring meant our race date came almost a month later than originally planned. The morning of the race a strong handful of racers headed up for a practice lap, as they came back down to the pre-race meeting there were strong rumors.

Almost Always was living up to it's old reputation, a relatively low water flow was making the lead in tricky, and the hydraulic at the bottom almost impossible to escape from. Most of the racers shouldered their boats around the drop and the few that tempted the drop had a variety of misfortunes. There were two swims, a broken paddle, and a bloody nose. During the quick pre-race meeting an augmentation to the race course was decided upon. We would finish directly above Almost Always.

A few minutes later the race begun and we were ripping down the creek a minute apart. Two rapids above the finish line I came ripping around the corner trying to straighten out the rapid and crushed into a barely submerged rock and pitoned really hard. The air was knocked out of my lungs and my ankles hurt, I was sitting six inches forward in my boat. I gasped for air pushed on my tender ankles lodging myself back into the seat and took a few more powerful forward strokes to the finish.

about to piton HARD!, lester race, kayak waterfall, minnesota, duluth, chris baer
about to piton HARD!
The finish line quickly became a party as more and more of the racers came across. Everyone was panting and laughing about botched lines.

As the racers picked up their boats to portage around Almost Always I had the thought that I might be able to blast through the intimidating hydraulic at the base of the falls, or at least put on an epic show. After a quick inspection and some more than adequate safety I hopped back into my boat and gave her a try.

The lead in was rather tricky but felt good, on my way down the drop the boat started to drift towards the left and into the thickest portion of the hydraulic. As I resurfaced the thought of everyone walking the rapid made a little more sense. I was getting surfed hard, and my almost 12 foot long boat had no interest in living the hydraulic. Holding on for a solid beating and long enough to smile at all of the safety and crowd, I finally reached forward for some much deserved hand relief. Ejecting from the kayak a short but powerful blast of water hit me, and a second later I resurfaced again in the back wash of the hole, laughing and smiling. Emptying the water out of my boat I looked over at the feature, and had this odd thought… Can I keep my nose pointed just a little more to the right?

round two, time to clean it up, chris baer, almost always, lester, duluth, minnesota, MN
round two, time to clean it up

Putting the boat back onto my shoulder I proceeded back up passing the rest of the portagers to the top of the rapid for a second attempt. This time on the way down I was able to get a powerful stroke and kept the nose angled a little to the right. Upon impact with the backwash I leaned forward for a huge left stoke, pulling through the backwash I felt the grasp of the hydraulic wane, I had just punched through the meat of the rather intimidating Almost Always.

A huge thanks goes out to Ryan Zimney and all the MN paddlers you are tough as nails, and super fun to play with.