Whitewater class in session on the St. Louis River
JAY COOKE STATE PARK — As his stubby, plastic kayak dipped under the wave of a rapids, between two boulders and then out of sight, Jon Schmidt let out a primal scream audible even over the roar of the river.
There was nothing wrong, mind you, just a sign from Schmidt that he was shredding it.
Schmidt, of Proctor, Minn., is a self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie. In winter, he gets his kicks snowboarding. But when the snow melts and fills Northland rivers with water, Schmidt grabs his kayak and hits the rapids.
"It's a perfect match. I can usually be in the river as soon as we stop snowboarding," Schmidt said after a recent run on the St. Louis River near Carlton, Minn. "We start out here in April and we've gone into December. As long as its water and not ice ... Actually, the first runs this year, we were going down the river with some pretty big ice chunks."
Schmidt and friends Rob Meseroll of Esko, Minn., and Darrin Lafontaine of Cloquet, Minn., have been doing the "river thing'' together for about five years now. Lafontaine is self-taught and he's passed on is knowledge to the others. All of them got into whitewater kayaking as adults.
"I saw an ad on Craigslist or somewhere for a kayak and said, sweet, I'll try that,'' Lafontaine said. "I got schooled a few times out here. But you learn from that."
Meseroll says he wishes he had started whitewater kayaking sooner.
"I grew up with this river in my backyard and I never realized what we had here,'' Meseroll said of the St. Louis. "The scenery when you are down in the river, at that level, is unbelievable ... And then you get the adrenaline rush when you hit the whitewater."
Starting last summer, the three river buddies began passing their love of whitewater on to a new generation of younger paddlers. Several of the teens are snowboard students who Schmidt teaches in the winter.
Considering kayaks — called "boats" by their owners — paddles and gear, including drysuits, can cost upward of $2,000, it's not a cheap sport to get into. That's why it's nice to have mentors.
"We have a few extra boats now and we've put together some extra gear and we wanted to get some kids out on the water,'' Schmidt said. "It's pretty laid-back. There's not a lot of structure to it."
What they lack in structure they make up for in enthusiasm. When the weather warms this summer, they'll have a half-dozen teens out with them on some days, boys and girls.
"We aren't the best kayakers in the area, but we might have the most fun,'' Schmidt said with a grin.
The group doesn't have a name, but meets one weeknight and every Saturday morning from spring through fall. When the water is high enough — after snowmelt or right after a heavy rain — they'll sample different North Shore streams. But usually, they can be found on the St. Louis River, running either the stretch between Scanlon and the dam in Carlton or from the dam to the swinging bridge at Jay Cooke State Park.
On a recent Saturday morning, the group scurried down the embankment and slid their plastic boats into the river below the dam, making quick work of the first sets of rapids. The have a rhythm as they move from rapids to slow-water eddys, then regroup to hit the next rapids.
Rapids. Eddy. Regroup. On to the next rapids. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Schmidt's non-stop chatter can often be heard from far away.
"I kind of talk a lot out there,'' he admitted.
Meseroll said he made 90 runs last year with the group. Schmidt, who keeps a written log of his river trips and the conditions, hit 103 runs in 2017.
Safety is a prime concern. In addition to helmets and life jackets, the group has ropes to make a water rescues if necessary. Each member knows what level rapids they can handle.
"We usually lead the ducklings, one of us in front and one of us behind, just to keep track of them,'' Schmidt said of the students.
On this trip, Hunter Rackliffe, 19, and Karsten Fetter, 15, were the ducklings — second-year whitewater kayakers who were looking much more experienced.
"The hardest part is learning how to pick your line (going into a rapids) and then staying on that line,'' Rackliffe said.
Rackliffe, also a snowboarder by winter, started kayaking last year. He learned to "roll'' his kayak — righting himself after overturning — last winter in a continuing education class in the pool at Cloquet Middle School.
"Last summer, I mostly swam out of those situations,'' he said.
Fetter sad snowboarding and whitewater kayaking are both high-energy sports, but he said "whitewater is different every time you do it. The river is always changing. Snowboarding (the hill) is pretty much the same every time,'' he said. "The way the river conditions change, that makes it really interesting."
Schmidt said whitewater kayaking isn't an easily teachable sport as much as a learnable sport.
"You can teach strokes. You can teach people how to roll. But, for the most part, everyone approaches how they hit whitewater in their own way. You learn by watching and doing."
But it helps to watch someone who is good, and Fetter and Rackliffe clearly learn from paddling with Schmidt, Meseroll and Lafontaine.
"If he tells me I can do something, I'll do it,'' Rackliffe said of Schmidt after the morning run.
"Most of it is overcoming fears,'' Schmidt chimed in. "We basically tell them, look, you have the ability. Now, let's go do it."
The river had been mostly low this year, with an early snowmelt and then little rain. On this day, the kayakers were running water moving at 700 cubic feet per second. Sometimes, it's as high as 12,000 CFS. The flow is dependent on rainfall and how much water Minnesota Power is running through its hydroelectric system.
On this trip, Karsten's dad, Joe Fetter, was driving the "river limo" — a gnarly Chevy crew-cab pickup truck with 152,000 miles that Meseroll uses to shuttle bunches of boats and kayakers back to their starting point.
Back at the start, the group fired up a charcoal grill, broke out a hammock and made brats — grillin' and chillin' after the morning run.
"It's a great chance to relive the morning and talk about what went well and what didn't. It's the trips where stuff goes a little wrong that turn out to be the most memorable,'' Schmidt said.
Then it was time to plan the afternoon run.
"You can probably tell,'' Schmidt said. "I'm kind if an adrenaline junkie."