Heather Herbeck's thoughts as she plunges down the Kadunce River might go something like this: Okay, oh-kaaay, oh my gosh, dip dip fall, keep straight, straight, almost to the end, just about there, splash and…wow. "The Kadunce River on Minnesota's North Shore is one of my favorite runs," says Heather, who has been running rapids, risking neck and limb, and walking the extreme edge of outdoor recreation for ten years plus. "It's not a long run, but it's a 150-foot plunge so narrow in places that a sideways kayak could get stuck."
The operational rule for running the Kadunce is to go straight. It's a roller-coaster downhill thrill from put in to take out, and the best part, says Heather, "if you end up in this big body of water so big it's like the ocean."
She's talking about Lake Superior. The Kadunce River, like many rivers and creeks that take a subterranean detour under Highway 61, channels into Minnesota's great big lake.
For many of us, Minnesota's North Shore with its cozy cabin rentals, hiking trails, scenic beauty and yummy Northwoods cuisine, represents the ultimate in leisure. Thursday and Friday afternoons in summer, we’re willing to suffer traffic logjams on I-35 and multiple hours in the family car to reach this paradise of tree and lake.
So, the idea of plummeting a rocky gully in a small craft with only a helmet and paddle between you and your common sense (which is shrieking, "Oh god, oh god, this was a REALLY bad idea") might seem like the opposite of a leisurely vacation. Isn't a day at the office already fraught with enough white water and hairpin turns?
Heather would challenge you to jump into a kayak on your next vacation Up North anyway. Why?
"You guys don't know how lucky you are," she says, "because you have some the most incredible kayak runs on Lake Superior. They're about 1 ½ to 2 miles long with a steep gradient."
And northern Minnesota is blessed with an abundance of outfitters, who rent whitewater (and seaworthy) kayaks, and provide instruction.
But here's the skinny. If you really want the best whitewater kayaking on the North Shore, you have to hit the rivers during spring melt. And, one more thing, many of the rapids that attract old hands like Heather and her husband, sports photographer and videographer Nate Herbeck, are class 3 to class 5.
To put this in perspective, the most difficult or dangerous class—class 6—denotes nearly impassable falls, i.e., you'd be crazy to tackle one of these. Even class 3 requires some expertise in maneuvering.
Still, if you're looking to add some pep to your leisure weekend, the North Shore offers an array of rivers with varying levels of difficulty. Some popular rivers for whitewater kayaking are the Baptism, Brule, Kettle, Poplar, Snake and St. Louis rivers. And you don't have to hit a lot of the rivers at peak spring melt, unless you're looking for a wild and bumpy ride. Also, many of the rivers are accessible from Highway 61 and hiking trails.
Heather learned to kayak about ten years ago. "My husband and his dad went out kayaking and I didn't go," she says, because she didn't know how. "But the seed was planted." Not long after, she went whitewater kayaking in Mankato, where she lived, and didn't even try the more relaxed version of kayaking, lake kayaking, until two years ago. The North Shore has both whitewater and lake kayaking, in case hurtling down fast-moving water is not your version of unwinding post-workweek.
Minnesota also has groups—the Rapids Riders and the Minnesota Rovers Outdoors Club, among them—that provide information on whitewater kayaking, instruction and group expeditions.