For the past few weeks, kayakers from around the country have come to the Upper Midwest, to descend the dozens of rivers and streams that plummet over waterfalls on their way to Lake Superior. It’s world-class whitewater kayaking – at least while the snow is in full melt – in an out-of-the-way and unexpected place.

Along the North Shore of Lake Superior in far northeast Minnesota, streams like the Lester River in Duluth are roaring, full of chocolate-brown, frothy, churning spring runoff. It’s that time of year when hikers are warned to stay away from the creeks. And when kayakers like Chris Baer grab their paddles.

“It’s phenomenal. It really is great paddling for about a month a year,” Baer said.

Not For The Inexperienced

Baer is about as close as you can get to a professional kayaker. He’s a raft guide for about half the year in Colorado and West Virginia, but spends the other six months kayaking around the globe. And he says the whitewater here is as good as it gets.

“When it’s all melting, it comes down fast, and that thousand [feet] of gradient from the ambient land mass down into Lake Superior works in our favor, and we get some really cool rapids,” he explained.

I think you have to be of a different character to run the rivers of the North Shore … maybe a little bit crazy as well.
– John Kiffmeyer
Baer calls them rapids, but to most people, this is a waterfall, a 20-foot, nearly 90-degree Class V plunge into a deep, rocky gorge. Baer shoots the falls smoothly, but gets stuck in a powerful hydraulic at the bottom where the water recirculates like a giant washing machine, momentarily trapping his boat. He has to swim to shore.

But determined, he drags his boat up for a second run.

This time he angles his kayak perfectly, and slides just past the whirlpool.

“Yeah, it just takes a little practice. Whoooo!” he exclaimed with a laugh.

Short, But Steep

All the way up Minnesota’s North Shore, and in northern Wisconsin and Michigan, a select group of expert kayakers braves rivers with names like the Cascade and Devil’s Track. The streams are only a few miles long. Some are really just creeks, but they’re steep. They come tumbling down hundreds of feet from the ridges that rise up from Lake Superior and feature razor-sharp rocks, three-story vertical drops and frigid water.

“I think you have to be of a different character to run the rivers of the North Shore,” John Kiffmeyer said. “I’ll put it as diplomatically as I can. Maybe a little bit crazy as well.”

Kliffmeyer has paddled the Upper Midwest for nearly two decades and now works for a kayak company called Liquid Logic in Asheville, North Carolina.

“I remember one video where somebody had flipped coming down one of the slides and it had cut the top of his eye so that his eyelid wasn’t connected anymore,” Kiffmeyer recalled. “It’s not without danger, I myself have broken both of my ankles going over a waterfall. ”

But Kiffmeyer says the paddlers who tackle these rivers are comfortable in water that to the untrained eye looks, well, kind of nuts.

“There’s things that you’re doing with your paddle, with your body, with your boat angle, with your core,” he explained.  You can’t see all that happening, but there’s a lot of premeditated action that’s going in, that’s happening because of instinct, that’s happening because you’ve spent so much time on the water, you know what to do.”

A Whitewater Pioneer

Kiffmeyer and a host of other paddlers were introduced to these creeks by a kayaking legend named Jim Rada. He was an astronomy professor at the University of Wisconsin and the first person to run several local rivers. Kiffmeyer says Rada’s guidebook, Northwoods Whitewater was like kayaking gospel.

Early on, kayaking pioneer Jim Rada insisted on meeting people before selling them his whitewater guidebook. He felt responsible for their safety.
“His book was it. If you wanted to go kayaking, you would do everything to try to find one,” Kiffmeyer said.  “Originally that was very difficult. I’ve got what’s called the Kinko’s edition.”

Rada photocopied the pages and gave them to Kiffmeyer for 20 bucks. He says Rada insisted on meeting people first.

“Because he felt very personally responsible,” Kiffmeyer said.  “He had written these descriptions of the rivers, he guided you to them. So there was this sense of personal responsibility he had that he wanted you to be safe.”

Paul Everson, who was a longtime paddling companion of Rada’s, says he bought the first copy.

“It was very odd to be vetted by this long-haired, hippy-looking guy. Physically he sort of looked like the friendly Norwegian troll,” Everson described.  “He had long, dreadlocky hair and a big, long unkempt beard, and kind of had little eyes that twinkled like an elf.”

But Everson, now a scientist at a biotech company in St. Paul, says Rada was also straight-laced. He never touched soda, let alone alcohol.

Rada’s Last Run

But 10 years ago this month, on a trip down the Presque Isle River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Rada flipped over at the bottom of a waterfall.

“And he came floating out of the hole upside down, and he was unresponsive. He couldn’t roll up,” Everson recalled. “The boat wiggled a little. And that’s all that happened.”

His kayak floated downstream over a Class V waterfall. They didn’t find his body until the next day. A few days later they learned he had died from a heart attack, which Everson says was a feeling of relief.

“The whole way you think about it changed. He had a heart attack, and he had a heart attack doing something that he loved the most, probably on one of his favorite rivers,” he said.

Everson says it would have been different if Rada had died as the result of a whitewater accident.

“Then fingers start pointing, ‘See, you’ve got the old guy doing the river he shouldn’t be doing. You guys are not as good as you think you are,” Everson said.

Rada’s book was finally published in 2006. And this past weekend, Everson, Kiffmeyer, and more than a dozen other paddlers raced down the Presque Isle River in his honor, dropping some of his ashes in the water so he could float down the raging river alongside them one more time.