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Kayakers head to Jay Cooke for Paddlemania

Kayaker Isaac Braun goes over the last set of rapids during the Paddlemania event at Jay Cooke State Park on Saturday. Dan Saletel/news@pinejournal.com1 / 10
Kayaker Cassie Gonzales paddles through the first set of rapids during the Paddlemania event at Jay Cooke State Park on Saturday. Dan Saletel/news@pinejournal.com2 / 10
Kayaker Clint Massey paddles through the first set of rapids during the Paddlemania event at Jay Cooke State Park on Saturday. Dan Saletel/news@pinejournal.com3 / 10
Kayakers Clint Massey (front) and Cassie Gonzalasmake their way through the last set of rapids while the safety team monitors their progress at the last set of rapids during the Paddlemania event at Jay Cooke State Park. Dan Saletel/news@pinejournal.com4 / 10
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Jon Sisley paddled his kayak over a waterfall and across the finish line under Jay Cooke State Park’s swinging bridge, a giant grin across his exhausted face as he moved towards shore.

He didn’t know it yet, but he had just finished with the top time in Saturday’s whitewater kayaking race.

Sisley, known as “The Sizzler” by his fellow kayakers, shouted encouraging words to the racer crossing the finish line behind him, before rolling into the water and bringing his kayak onto dry land.

“It felt really good,” Sisley said. “You know, people are cheering you on — it’s really exciting. It’s just a great experience.”

Sisley was one of 24 racers to take part in the second annual ‘Blast to the Bridge’ race on Saturday. The group started just below Thomson Dam on the St. Louis River, with the swinging bridge marking the finish line.

Racers also had to maneuver through the “Bone Yard” of the river, an area known as one of the most dangerous due to protruding rocks.

Sisley finished first with a time of 21 minutes and six seconds, followed by Ryan Zimnay, with Joerg Steinbach placing third.

“We’ve got a great crew out here, it’s great to see all of these paddlers,” Sisley said. “I’ve never seen so many kayakers out on this river, so the turnout was great.”

Minneapolis native Cassie Gonzalas, one of two women in the race, took first in the women’s division with a time of 23 minutes, 55 seconds.

“I was exhausted,” said Gonzalas, a long-time kayaker who recently started whitewater rafting. “I had my buddies in front of me and my buddies behind … It’s nice to see each other because we push each other. We’re always yelling on the rapids, cheering each other on. It’s fun. There’s a lot of community.”

Saturday also featured an amateur team race for beginners along the same stretch of river. The race, sponsored by Swiftwater Adventures in Esko, Minn., allowed kayakers to experience a level 3, 4 and 5 river course while having an expert guide them.

“The event promotes paddling and getting more people on the water,” said race coordinator Chris Langley. “Paddlemania began to happen on the St. Louis River four years ago to bring experienced and novice paddlers together to share in their love for paddling whitewater.”

Langley, who has been whitewater kayaking for nearly 17 years, said it’s a mix of things that keep him paddling every year.

“I love the personal challenge that whitewater paddling provides and beautiful places it takes you,” Langley said. “And the wonderful people you meet along the way.”

“The community around here is unreal,” said Clint Massey, from Minneapolis. “People are awesome.”

Massey, known to fellow kayakers as “The Kayotee,” is also a newcomer to whitewater kayaking. But he can’t get enough of it.

“I love it, I’m obsessed with it. I never get out of the water,” he said.

Massey also had some advice for spectators on shore watching the races:

“Get in a boat!” Massey yelled loudly, laughing. “Get in a boat and get in the water.”

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