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All aboard for a river rafting adventure in Northeast Minnesota

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​​​​​​The wild and scenic Kettle River flows—rapidly—through Banning State Park.

All aboard for a river rafting adventure in Northeast Minnesota

By Eric N. Hart

Minnesota may be known as the land of 10,000 lakes, but have you heard about our rivers? A web of wet and wild water trails weaves across the northeast corner of Minnesota, up, down, in and out from Lake Superior. While none of them may rival the fast and furious nature of mountain-driven rivers like the Colorado, these screaming streams still evoke shrieks from thrill seekers and satisfy their quest for adventure.

Kayaking Jay Cooke State Park

The St. Louis River sports class I to V rapids / Sunny Augustine

Three high-profile outfitters assure easy access to Minnesota’s premier paddling expeditions. One of them, Minnesota Whitewater Rafting, works the St. Louis River, just 15 miles south of Duluth. The family-owned company offers whitewater, “lazy river” (floating) and guided fishing services. One of the owners, Chris, is also an executive producer with film-production talents that he uses to splice together highlight reels for his visitors from the photos their river rides yield.

Spring, summer and fall, Minnesota Whitewater Rafting operates on a dam-controlled portion of the St. Louis River where the upper 4.4-mile stretch has eight sections of class I to III rapids, surfing waves and a drop called The Electric Ledge. The “Lower” and shorter section of the river run is wilder, with class II to V rapids and drops that squeeze you breathless, like The Octopus.

Boaters disembarking in Cloquet commonly dry off at the AmericInn and swing by Gordy’s Hi-Hat for a high-calorie bite, just north of the towering Voyageur statue on Dunlap Island.

Another St. Louis River operator, Swiftwater Adventures guarantees “Adventure for Everyone. No Experience Necessary.” With in-raft guides and even a safety kayaker along, all you really need to be able to do is hold a paddle tight and smile bright for pictures, courtesy of the company photographer who also rides along. Having served thousands of boaters ages 8 and up over the years, from the novices to the experts, they know what accentuates the positives and eliminates the negatives.

Based in Sandstone, Minnesota—a historic quarry town and “First City of the North Woods”—Hard Water Sports operates all along the North Shore of Lake Superior and inland, offering lessons and excursions for climbers as well as rafters and kayakers. Its paddling adventures take place not only on the St. Louis River but also the Kettle, Stony, Baptism, French and Vermillion rivers.

Ya, sure, but can those rivers match the pulse-pounding pitches of the St. Louis River?

You betcha! Wedged an equal distance south of Duluth and north of the Twin Cities metro, the “Scenic and Wild” Kettle River flows through Banning State Park and is mostly loaded with class II and III rapids. Starting on the Blueberry Slide, this ride offers plenty of scenery, alternating paces and curiously-nicknamed holes, drops and ledges, from the Teacher’s Pet to the Ghost Town and the pinched grand finale at Hell’s Gate. Nature lovers are over the moon while under the stars at Banning RV Park & Campground. Pack a picnic. Pitch a tent. The perfect plan.

Fifteen minutes north of Duluth, the French River is somewhat miscategorized as an “easy creek” on Lake Superior’s North Shore. It is actually a pretty plummet, zipping downward for two quick miles through class III and IV slides before ending on the Machine Gun Rapids. Don’t forget to breathe! Then, as your adrenaline subsides, take a ride into town to the Portland Malt Shoppe for a treat, and perhaps stay the night at the neat canal-front resort, Pier B.

Tettegouche State Park Baptism River

Tettegouche State Park offers Superior views and camping near the Baptism River / Democratic Travelers

Another hour up the scenic North Shore’s Highway 61, past Gooseberry Falls State Park, the famed Split Rock Lighthouse, Palisade Head and Black Beach, you’ll find the “Confinement Canyon” of the Baptism River. It launches near the Eckbeck campground and runs to beautiful Illgen Falls, serving up high-octane class III and IV whitewater fun, where experts can even take the pulse-pounding plunge over Illgen Falls for the ultimate send-off.

While you’re there, you might as well check out the High and Two Step Falls of Tettegouche State Park. Frankly, there are few better places to cool off on a hot day than in the spray at the base of Tettegouche’s High Falls. If you’re not one to camp, tramp on down to Silver Bay for a hotel stay at an AmericInn with a pool and Superior views.

Rafting Carlton Swiftwater Family

Outfitters assure whitewater adventures with no experience necessary / Roy Son

Continuing north but now inland, there’s a “wilderness river” between Babbitt and Ely, south of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, called Stony River. It flows four miles into Birch Lake with class II and III whitewater runs plus a big, class IV drop called The Box. Babbitt offers the Junction Inn for overnighters, with a popular bar and grill owned by Gary, who knows how to take care of his guests.

Then there’s the Vermillion River. Minnesota actually has two Vermillion Rivers, both of them wild rides, but one is a half-hour south of St. Paul and more frequented by surfers, while this one is on the edge of Canada, exiting Buyck and flowing into Crane Lake. The northern class III-plus whitewater ride goes under bridges, over Table Rock Falls and through The Gorge for the summit of its spectacular splash dance.

That’s it, the furthest extent, where many a voyageur ends their getaway, on the bay across from Baylis Island, at a table in the Crane Lake Bar & Grill, in a bed at the Voyagaire Lodge.

So now you know why this stunning state has so many avid boaters. And you’ve got options now to pick from along with outfitters to assist, so follow your compass north or south to your choice of Minnesota rivers—whatever floats your boat.

Eric N. Hart

Eric N. Hart is a public relations manager in Minnesota, charged with promoting many of America’s greatest golf courses and resorts. His passions include writing, photography, marketing and exploring the world with his wife and four kids.