Lean into Your Fear: Whitewater Rafting on the St. Louis River
This story is taken from my personal blog, “Marie’s Meanderings”. When I write a travel post, because my blog name has the word “meander” in it, I usually open by saying I “tight” here and there.
Well, I can’t use that term this time. It is more accurate to say that I reluctantly agreed to go rafting on the Saint-Louis River and promised to scream until the end!
It all started when my friend Russ, who is an experienced kayaker, won a silent auction item at a fundraiser for the St. Louis River Alliance in 2018. He won two whitewater rafting tickets via Minnesota Whitewater Rafting, a local company that operates out of Scanlon.
At my insistence, we agreed to wait for the trip until the water was warm, to make it a more comfortable experience. It was now August, a hot and wet month, and I had no more excuses not to go. We’ve gathered everything the company’s fact sheet asks rafters to bring: a change of dry clothes, fitted shoes, a windbreaker, a towel, etc. And we left.
Once we arrived at the outfitter, I was surprised by the number of other people who also wanted to jump into an inflatable raft down the river — 28 of us, to be exact, of all ages and skill levels. fitness.
We started our three hour journey by choosing one of the seven blue and yellow rafts lined up on the shore. Russ and I found ourselves matched with a young couple from St. Paul. A guide was assigned to each raft. Ours was called Logan.
To us veterans, all the guides seemed to be around 12 years old, but we figured they wouldn’t have been hired if they didn’t know what they were doing. Fortunately, this turned out to be true.
The safety talk that followed by operations manager Blu included instructions to ignore your instincts and “lean” into any scary obstacles the raft encounters. He explained that if you move away from the rock or high wave, you are more likely to lose your seat and fall off the raft. It’s not that falling off the raft is the worst thing that can happen, but most people like to stay with their group.
The other helpful instruction was to keep your feet up if you fell overboard. This is useful for avoiding sharp rocks and logs etc that lie on the bottom as the current carries you downstream. Most people aren’t strong enough to stand up against the current anyway, so might as well follow the current until one of the kayak patrollers (who accompany each trip) picks you up.
Blu said that in a group our size, it’s common for at least one person to fall overboard. I was hoping it wouldn’t be me.
I thought the “leaning toward” rule was particularly profound. Psychologically speaking, sometimes facing your fears is the best way to overcome them. Besides, it reminded me of the book people of lies by Mr. Scott Peck, in which he says that most people’s psychological problems arise from trying to avoid emotional pain instead of dealing with it (leaning into it).
I then decided to change my attitude towards the trip – to stop seeing it as something scary, and to see it more as something to savor and an opportunity to get to know the river better. I mean, I’ve lived most of my life with it. I’ve been there canoeing, paddleboarding, boating, but I’ve never immersed myself in it.
As the company’s website and instruction sheet promise, you’ll “see the river, feel the river, ride the river” and you’ll get wet! On this hot sunny day, I was up for it.
Blu explained that we would encounter six sets of rapids ranging from class I to III, and two sets of rapids. Each set of rapids would become more difficult along the more than four mile stretch until we reached the reservoir of calm water formed by the Thompson Dam.
Let’s talk about safety, we went on the water. Our first task was to run a “slalom” course between the pylons of the highway bridge that crosses the river. This allowed us to practice paddling in different directions and experience what it feels like when the raft hits objects.
Then we paddled through a set of rapids called “Warm-Up Rapids”. Everyone made it out unscathed and after stopping for an orientation we continued on to a series of surf waves at “First Hole” rapids.
Have you ever seen standing waves form behind an underwater rock in a river? It’s what we surfed on – if your idea of surfing involves your raft filling up with water, which ours did. We surfed several times, bailing out between sessions with the handy containers provided in each raft.
After another group orientation session, we were on the “Two Hole” rapids. I think it was this one that had a big rock in the middle. Logan, our guide, thought it would be a good and fun idea to break our raft into the rock.
Why he thought it was a good idea, I’ll never know. I always thought the whole idea of rafting was to avoid the rocks. I guess I’ve been wrong this whole time.
Admittedly, he gave us a choice, so we were complicit in the decision. I blame the adrenaline rush.
Paddling as hard as we could, our raft came up and through the rock, then started to slide sideways. I was on the outer side – the steepest side – and remembered to lean against the rock to avoid falling off the raft. I almost floated but managed to stay inside by the skin of my teeth. A bit like dental surgery, it feels so good once it’s over!
Our next stop was a canyon which had a few small beaches in a slow section of the river. We beached our rafts and had a chance to swim for a while, clothes, life jackets and all.
Russ went all the way. I was fine from the waist down, not because I was worried about polluted water or anything, but because the water was pretty cold for me, even on a hot day.
At this point I realized that I had never been this far down the river before; me—who had even worked for the St. Louis River Alliance, an organization whose sole purpose is to protect the river. I marveled at the brown water, stained with tea from the many wetland plants that soak in it at its source and along the way. The white pines and bare rock faces along the shore looked pristine, as if we had walked miles into a desert. The beauty filled me and gave me a new sense of appreciation for the river.
Our rest stop over, it was time for the heavy artillery in terms of rapids. We made it through “Hidden Hole” fine and then ended up on “Electric Ledge” which is a Class III rapid consisting of a sudden drop of four to six feet, depending on the water level of the river.
I had heard the name of this rapid whispered in awe among my kayaking friends for years. Now we were about to go over it! As our ship approached it before all the others. Logan explained that our raft contained the first aid kit and that we should go there first in case the other rafts needed help once they got over the ledge.
Not only were we in the first raft, but Russ and I were sitting in the front of the first raft. Oh, we are lucky.
We didn’t have much time to wonder about our luck as the ledge was fast approaching. I repeated all the rules: duck in your fear, keep your feet up. Then we slid over it, sideways and steeply. Russ grabbed my arm for support.
Luckily that stabilized him and we both stayed in the boat. So did the rest of our crew, but I can’t say the same for one of the other rafts, which actually lost a person on the ledge. However, the person remembered the rules and was picked up without incident not far downstream.
The last set of rapids, “Little Kahuna”, is more technical than terrifying. After a few twists and turns, we got through it fine. From there a somewhat long paddle over peaceful water (known as Boundary Waters to the staff) took us to the end of our trip and a waiting bus to take us back to where we started.
So, in summary, I screamed as originally promised, but it was out of pleasure, not out of fear. I think this was due to the great job the staff did in letting us know what to expect from each set of rapids. I hadn’t had this on other rafting trips.
Would totally do it again on a hot day (although they provide wetsuits if it’s cold and you want one). And I would totally take family members on such an adventure.
Don’t let a little fear stop you if you’re in the mood for whitewater!
Marie Zhuikov is the author of “Meander North”, which will be released later this year by Nodin Press. This story was made possible in part by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council, with appropriations from the General Fund and the Minnesota State Legislature Arts and Cultural Heritage Funds .