CLOQUET, Minn. (WCCO) — Not many people know that Minnesota is home to some pretty daring whitewater rafting.
In fact, a part of the St. Louis River near Duluth is home to the oldest and largest whitewater rafting company in the state.
In this week’s Finding Minnesota, John Lauritsen takes us to Carlton County where whitewater and wildlife make for a one-of-a-kind experience.
You’ve heard of taking the road less traveled, but here it’s all about taking the river less paddled.
“This is on my bucket list, and I’m finally here doing a whitewater rafting trip,” said rafter Skeeter Moore.
Minnesota Whitewater Rafting was established in 1979. Though they see up to 5,000 paddlers a year, the owners still consider it a hidden gem.
“It’s breathtaking and most people don’t realize it’s here. And that there are rapids on it. And you can ride them,” said owners Stephanie and Chris LaFleur.
For 4 1/2 miles along the “Big Louie,” paddlers are encouraged to keep calm and paddle on.
Rolling through the rapids is a rush. If you fall in, it’s like getting caught in the spin cycle of a washing machine, but life jackets and helmets are used as safety precautions.
“It’s pretty challenging, physically and mentally. It’s kind of what has driven met to keep doing this and enjoy it for all these years,” said guide Blu Bong.
Bong is one of the lead guides through six stages of roaring rapids.
“What makes it special is there aren’t too many rivers in the United States that gradually get bigger as you go down,” Bong said.
With names like “The Wave,” “Two Hole,” “Boat Smear,” “Hidden Hole” and “Little Kanuna,” the rapids offer new challenges almost daily.
“It’s fun because you can’t see the holes, and then all of the sudden it drops and customers reactions are like, ‘Whoa,’” Chris said.
Between the rapids is a bit of calm — northern Minnesota scenery that belongs on a postcard, and wildlife that’s up close and personal.
But you can only go with the flow for so long, since near the end is what locals refer to as the “Electric Ledge.”
“That’s usually the most heart-pounding one we got. It’s the shortest rapid but usually the most thrilling,” Bong said.
“At first when we stopped, I was thinking about it. When you hear five feet, it scares you a little bit,” said rafter Garrett LaPlante.
Though a drop of more than five feet with a wall of water waiting at the end can be intimidating, part of the thrill for the guides is watching people who were scared at first to battle through Class 4 and 5 rapids come out on the other end ready to do it all over again.
“It was a little nerve-racking I have to admit, but then, bam! You are in it and you can definitely go through it,” Moore said.
The thrill of the rapids keeps rafters coming back to battle them.
“Special place, right here in my hometown. I love it,” Bong said. “I grew up here doing this stuff and I can’t get away from it, as much as I try. I like my day job.”