Lester River Race 2014: Big rapids, big crowds for second whitewater kayak race

View more photos from Lester River Race 2014 here

About four years ago, Tony Locken, of Chaska, Minn., was camping with his girlfriend on the Kettle River when he saw kayakers running the rapids.

“I really didn’t know that there was whitewater in Minnesota,” he said.

He does now.

Locken said that kayaking has become a passion for him because it allows him to see places he would not be able to see any other way. Over the Christmas holidays, he kayaked part of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.

But in spring, when the creeks and rivers of the North Shore swell with the frigid water from the season’s snow melt, there is no place that Locken and his fellow kayakers would rather be.

Kayaker Anthony Collins of Oshkosh, Wisc., makes his way down the Naked Man rapid on the Lester River.

Kayaker Tony Locken of Chaska, Minn., makes his way down one of the rapids on the Lester River as spectators look on. Locken has been kayaking for four years and competed in the race both years.

Kayaker Jonathan Sisley makes his way down one of the larger rapids on the Lester River as spectators look on.

On Saturday, 17 diehard river runners converged on Duluth for the second running of the Lester River Race. The third-snowiest winter in the city’s history has left the river swollen with raging water, transforming what is a summer swimming hole for families and children into an experts-only whitewater river.

The cool, sunny day created ideal conditions for racers. Spectators perched along the cliffs and rocks of some of the river’s more dramatic rapids, erupting into cheers as each racer went past.

Tony Locken races to the finish line as onlockers perched along rocks and looking down from the cliffs above cheer him on.

Kayakers have given names to the rapids on this river: Limbo, Naked Man, Oh God, Oh Shit and Mini Octopus. Many of the rapids on this run are rated class IV (advanced) and V (expert). The most challenging on the Lester River is called Almost Always, named that because kayakers “almost always” decide not to run it.

Kayakers on Saturday were shuttled to the top of the river and raced to the end of the roughly one-mile run, competing for the fastest time. The winner, for the second year in a row, was John McConville, who made it down in 8 minutes and 39 seconds.

Kayaker Joel Decker of Carlton, Minn., makes his way down the rapid called Naked Man in the first heat of the Lester River Race.

The date of the race each year fluctuates, with race organizers monitoring the conditions and talking with the National Weather Service about when the optimum conditions will be.

Kayaker Aaron Bourdon said that the whitewater season on some rivers and creeks along the North Shore can as long as three weeks or as short as a weekend.

David Conrad, a member Rapids Rider canoe and kayaking club, estimates that there are about 100 whitewater kayakers in Minnesota, but there are only a handful who will run some of the rapids that are found on the Lester River.

Read more about the race.

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This story is part of our #Five3Duluth project, a collaborative social media event chronicling a day in the life of Duluth. If you want to read more stories like this or participate yourself, join us on Saturday, May 3, by sharing your pictures or stories that day on Twitter at #Five3Duluth.

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