MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — In the past, Minnesotans wanting to whitewater raft have always had to travel out west.
That is no longer the case. Thrill seekers only need to head to northern Minnesota.
Hard Water Sports expanded its kayaking services last year to include whitewater rafting down the Kettle River near Sandstone.
The calm current of the Kettle River flows into a series of swift rapids in Banning State Park. Many prefer to take in the water’s beauty from shore, but Hard Water Sports owner Tony Vavricka wanted to show a different view.
“It’s an awesome thing and not many people know about it,” Vavricka said.
Vavricka has offered kayaking trips through the Kettle River rapids for the last 10 years, but the rushing current requires experience. Vavricka wanted even those without a background in paddling to enjoy the river. He recently started guided whitewater rafting trips down the river.
“It’s kind of inaccessible to a lot of people if you don’t have the right gear or training,” Vavricka said. “Just getting people out on the river and sharing this river is exciting for me.”
First-timer rafters often fill his rafts.
“I’ve lived here 10 years and spent a lot of time along the river but never actually in it,” said first-time rafter Alana Tyson.
There is no need for expertise, only the ability to paddle.
“Little nervous, excited, but little nervous,” said Tesla Apple, another first-time rafter.
Rafters experience the unpredictability of rushing water almost immediately. The first rapids, called the Blueberry Slide, is just a few hundred yards from the launch area.
The thrilling ride flows through a collection of five rapids for nearly three miles, with names like “Dragon’s Tooth” and “Hell’s Gate.”
“I wouldn’t compare it to the big rivers out in Colorado, but for what we have here, and so close to Minneapolis, it’s a beautiful river,” Vavricka said. “It has four class-three rapids on it and a couple of long class twos on it, so you definitely get some whitewater fun out of it.”
Lee Dybvig took his first whitewater rafting trip with Vavricka. The 76-year-old has lived near the Kettle River for the last 50 years and canoed the rapids years ago. But age kept him out of the challenging waters for the last 30 years. Guided rafting gave him a chance to paddle the waters once again.
“Wow, water breaking over the front, it was great,” Dybvig said. “I never thought a near-80-year-old would be doing this sort of thing.”
Beyond the adventure is a view of untouched wilderness. History is carved into steep cliffs, where the power of swirling water and rock have cut small- and large-shaped bowl formations called kettles.
“I never get tired because I always see something different,” Vavricka said.
Riding out the rapids brings a certain satisfaction, but rafters say the real reward is the access to a view seen only on the water.
“It’s better than I expected,” Tyson said. “It’s amazing.”
Next weekend is the Kettle River Paddle Festival, for anyone who wants to float down the river in a canoe or kayak. There are also calm waters for paddling, for those who want a less-intense experience.