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'It's a lifestyle': Paddlemania draws crowd after two-year hiatus

Kayakers traveled from across the Midwest and Canada to compete in the event, which was postponed the past two years due to COVID-19 and drought-like conditions.

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CARLTON — Whitewater kayaking enthusiasts from across the Midwest and Canada gathered near Jay Cooke State Park in Carlton Saturday, July 30, for the 22nd annual Swiftwater Adventures’ Paddlemania event on the lower St. Louis River.

This year’s race, part of the Carlton Daze celebration, marked the event's return after a two-year hiatus, and featured approximately 30 kayakers from intermediate to expert skill levels.

Kayaker navigates rapids
Clint Massey paddles through the St. Louis River rapids during Paddlemania on Saturday, July 30, at Jay Cooke State Park in Carlton.
Jake Przytarski / Cloquet Pine Journal

Paddlers dropped their boats at the Thomson Dam before the rapids guided them under the Swinging Bridge in Jay Cooke State Park and down Fin Falls. There, racers encountered an 8-foot tall waterfall entrance with narrow canyon passages for ultra-challenging conditions.

While each competitor hoped to navigate the scenic river in the shortest amount of time, event organizer Cliff Langley said it’s more about competing against yourself than trying to defeat the other racers.

“I think the people like the physical and personal challenge,” Langley, chief of operations for Swiftwater Adventures, shared. “I mean, I think they like competing against each other, but for a lot of these paddlers it’s more about competing against themselves, because it’s definitely a tight-knit group.”

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The camaraderie was evident at the UMD Outpost which served as headquarters for the racers. Campers, RVs and tents were set up throughout the grounds where kayakers socialized and made a weekend getaway out of the event.

According to Langley, the whitewater kayaking community brings together individuals from all walks of life and backgrounds.

“They’re so diverse. I mean, there’s what they call the “river rats” that just chase the water and sleep in (their) van. There’s those guys here for sure,” Langley said. “But then a lot of them are school teachers, professors, lawyers, corporate types to outdoor adventure folks, so the whitewater paddler is pretty broad in who they are, but deep down they all love adventure and paddling.”

Jason Pientka traveled over four hours from his home in Iron Mountain, Michigan to take part in Paddlemania. Pientka has competed in the event numerous times and in many other races across the country.

For Pientka, whitewater kayaking is more than just a hobby; it has become a lifestyle.

Kayaker braces for drop
Matt Sturgeon braces for a drop near the Swinging Bridge at Jay Cooke State Park in Carlton during Paddlemania on Saturday, July 30.
Jake Przytarski / Cloquet Pine Journal

“It was a slow progression of years, but once I started doing true whitewater, it (was) addicting,” Pientka said. “It’s now a lifestyle for me. I’ll travel all over the country chasing races and venues like this. It’s a passion of mine. I can’t explain it.”

The Paddlemania race offers a unique set of challenges that make it a must-stop for enthusiasts like Pientka.

“It’s definitely an elite class. It’s class IV-V. It’s not for the faint of heart,” Pientka said. “You definitely need some good background, some good training to want to compete in this event.”

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Tegan Stoesz of Manitoba, Ontario, and Kyle Chernetz of Winnipeg, Ontario, are no strangers to whitewater kayaking events, but Saturday’s race marked the first time ever the two competed in Paddlemania.

After receiving a warm welcome from the local whitewater kayaking community upon arriving at the UMD Outpost on Friday, July 29, Stoesz said after the race that he’s been thoroughly pleased with his first Paddlemania experience.

Kayaker paddles through rapids
Hunter Ratcliffe navigates through the St. Louis River during Paddlemania on Saturday, July 30, at Jay Cooke State Park in Carlton.
Jake Przytarski / Cloquet Pine Journal

“Oh, this race was just fun for everyone,” Stoesz said. “No matter if you finished good, or even if you weren’t just trying to place, it was just a good race to be in and enjoyable. And everyone had smiles at the bottom, so it was a good time.”

Chernetz enjoyed the race so much he wanted to do it all over again.

“I feel like I wanted to do another lap because it was (so) fun,” Chernetz said. “Because the fastest lap we did earlier today we were just running a relaxed lap, so this was a fast lap and part of me when I was finished was like, ‘I kind of want to do another one,’ but it was tons of fun. Great water level, great section of river to do it in, too.”

Those interested in trying whitewater kayaking for the first time can take advantage of opportunities offered by the University of Minnesota Duluth Recreation Sports Outdoor Program (RSOP) during the school year, or they can visit the Rapids Riders and Swiftwater Adventures websites.

Fin Falls Race results:

1. Andy Stingle, 5:27; 2. Brian Robin, 5:30; 3. Casey Lloyd, 5:33; 4. Joerg Steinbach, 5:34; 5. Tegan Stoesz, 5:35; 6. Clint Massey, 5:35; 7. Erin Achatz, 5:35; 8. Steven Walker, 5:37; 9. Lucas Burgault, 5:46; 10. Chris Evans, 5:48; 11. Richard Taylor, 5:50; 12. Joe Sygulla, 5:51; 13. Jesse Credile, 5:57; 14. Cory Mooney, 6:02; 15. Ken Schauer, 6:07; 16. Matt Sturgeon, 6:12; 17. Kyle Chernetz, 6:23; 18. Hunter Ratcliffe, 6:24; 19. Kayla Sturgeon, 6:33; 20. John Meredith, 6:35; 21. Zach Schaffer, 6:43; DNF: Isaac Braun, Jason Pientka, Travis Patterson.

Kayaker prepares for drop
Travis Patterson braces for the drop while competing in Paddlemania on Saturday, July 30, on the St. Louis River at Jay Cooke State Park in Carlton.
Jake Przytarski / Cloquet Pine Journal

Jake Przytarski is a reporter for the Cloquet Pine Journal covering a mix of news and sports.
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