Lester River Race

For the past three years I’ve wanted to be in Duluth, MN during the annual whitewater race on the Lester River. I’ve seen photos and videos of expert kayakers negotiating the class IV and V features of this challenging river, and it looked like there were good observation points for spectators. Our daughter and her husband moved to Duluth last summer so I had two great reasons to make the drive this year: family time and the Lester.

Because the rivers on Minnesota’s north shore are “flashy” you can never be sure more than a day or two in advance exactly when – or even if – the race will take place. It all depends on adequate snow melt runoff. I’m told the whitewater season on North shore rivers typically lasts from one day to maybe two weeks, depending on the amount of winter snow cover and the timing of spring rains.

Here's me scouting one of the nasty Lester River features before the race.

Here’s me scouting one of the challenging Lester River rapids before the race.

When the river is running, Lester River has some of the most challenging rapids that can be safely run by boaters based on the International Scale of River Difficulty. Local kayakers have given names to the rapids: Limbo, Naked Man, Oh God, Oh Shit and Mini Octopus. The most challenging is called Almost Always, so named because kayakers almost always decide not to run it.

So when the calendar turns to March, racers, volunteers and spectators start watching the Lester River Race Facebook page to stay apprised of any announcements about a race date. Early last week the race organizer, Ryan Zimny, posted that things were looking good for the fourth annual running of the Lester River Race. Heavy rains on Tuesday resulted in good flow through the steep river canyon located on Duluth’s eastern edge. On Friday the official announcement came: the race was on for the following day, Saturday, March 19.

Jeff and Matt scout the Lester River before the race.

Jeff and Matt scout the Lester River before the race.

A few of my kayaking friends including Jeff Barden and Nora Whitmore were there to volunteer as safety boaters. Even though my main goal was to spectate, I decided to keep my options open by taking a whitewater boat and gear too. Maybe, just maybe I would volunteer as a safety boater but I had no delusions that I would race it.

The Facebook page announced the race would start at 3 p.m., preceded by a volunteers’ meeting at 1 p.m. and a racers’ meeting at 2 p.m. As it turned out it looked like they could use additional safety help so I volunteered as a safety boater. Ryan assigned me to a position just below the Class III feature called Oh God.

I shot these GoPro video clips from my position in the eddy:

And for a fantastic aerial view of the race, here’s a quadcopter view by Dave Rich:

Twenty racers (18 men and 2 women) competed in the one-mile race. Kayaking friend and fellow Team River Runner volunteer John McConville was the defending champion, having taken first place each of the three previous years. I wanted to cheer him on for four in a row. Here’s a brief interview I shot with John before the start:

Unfortunately for John, he completed the race a scant two seconds slower than first-place finisher Marty Halvorson.

The 20 kayakers who raced the 2016 Lester River Race celebrated afterwards at Bent Paddle Brewing in Duluth.

The 20 kayakers who raced the 2016 Lester River Race celebrated afterwards at Bent Paddle Brewing in Duluth.

2016 Lester River Race winner Marty Halvorson, right, is congratulated by second-place finisher John McConville.

2016 Lester River Race winner Marty Halvorson, right, is congratulated by second-place finisher John McConville.

Women's winner Cassie Gonzales, left, with runner-up Rachel Fanney.

Women’s winner Cassie Gonzales, left, with runner-up Rachel Fanney.

 

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