White-water kayaking on the Baptism River--it's a rush!
On ground still covered with snow and under trees bending in 30 mph gusts, a dozen men and women eagerly unloaded kayaks, paddles and dry suits and braved the 44 degree temperatures Saturday morning. The Baptism River roared just a few feet away as they prepared to take on the rock-strewn white-water near Illgen Falls in craft barely 6 feet long.
Laura Fryer arrived a few minutes later than some of the group and hurriedly pulled on layers of gear, adjusting her headband to keep her hair out of her eyes. Still lashed to the top of her car was a paddle on which she had written: "Don't be that girl."
"Some people talk about 'that girl' who is timid and whatever, so I put that on my paddle to remind me not to be 'that girl,'" she said. Originally from Rochester, Minn., Fryer said her interest in the sport influenced her decision to move to Duluth where she now lives.
Other members of the group were similarly drawn to the area, some driving hours and others just a few miles.
Marty Halvorson and Caleb Owen recently graduated from college in Wyoming. Owen is from Maine, Halvorson from the Two Harbors area.
"This is my graduation party," Halvorson said. "I got my boat about two years ago and since I started paddling, it's been pretty much all I think about, so here I am."
Kirsten Frickle, from northeast Minneapolis, said that she was introduced to the sport by a friend. She later decided to take a class to meet other enthusiasts and has been kayaking for two years. She said she seeks out paddlers who are more skilled so she can learn from their experience and "so they can save my ass."
"This area would be as popular as the Pacific Northwest if the season were longer," said Joi Electa, photographer and long-time friend of some of the group's members. But in the spirit of making hay while the sun shines, the paddlers take advantage of the brief window of opportunity, converging on rivers up and down the North Shore when the snowmelt turns streams into thrill rides. Electa has also taken to the water a time or two, but said she now prefers to watch from the shoreline, taking photographs and anxiously monitoring the paddlers' progress.
"I know they're all professionals and very capable, but I can't help being a mom," she said with a quick laugh. Electa isn't the only one concerned for the safety of the paddlers, but the group's lighthearted banter belies the peril even as members recount the harrowing moments. Just the day before, one of the paddlers said he'd been pinned under a log in the Lester River.
"I got hung up on a rock and the water flipped me, so I was pressed between the log and the bottom of the river," he said folding his body forward to demonstrate his position. After unsnapping the spray skirt, he said he was able to free himself and resurface. "You try not to panic; you're just concentrating on what you need to do." Though he seemed no worse for the wear, he was concerned about causing his loved ones worry and asked that his name not be used by the Lake County News-Chronicle.
In spite of the occasional broken bone or unexpected dunking, the paddlers' love of the sport is evident.
"It's a unique way to see the northwoods. There are very few people who have seen what we've seen," said Anthony Balsiger, of Bloomington.
"We hear stories from other kayakers about what they've seen and we want to emulate that experience," added Todd Truen, also from the Twin Cities area.
When they're not participating in the sport or working their day jobs Electa says the paddlers get involved in giving back to the environment. They organizing clean-ups and remove trees toppled by foul weather or river-bank erosion.
"They do it because they want to take care of the river," she said. Truen added that it also gives them a chance to scout for new paddling venues.
Later, clad in suits, helmets, gloves, with clear plastic visors over their faces, two paddlers put their boats in the water looking for the "green line," where the rushing river has the deepest flow and head down-river. Technique, experience and a little bit of luck allow them to avoid the rocks and shallows along the way. Rounding a bend, the two finish their run just a hundred yards from a 35 foot drop into a water-carved cauldron below. No one takes the plunge.
"It's pretty beefy," said Balsiger referring to the water volume and speed. The group had already decided that a trip over the falls was not a good idea for any of the paddlers. Nevertheless, the men in the boats smile triumphantly as Electa snaps a picture.
"Don't let their calm fool you," said Electa with a smile, "they're all big adrenalin junkies."