The evolution of whitewater rafting on the St. Louis River in Carlton County will take another twist, if you will, near the end of July.

The annual Paddlemania, which started nearly 20 years ago, is scheduled for July 27-28 on the whitewater, with events planned for paddlers of every experience level.

“The original Paddlemania was started in Taylor’s Falls by Midwest Mountaineering, but we handle it now,” said event director Cliff Langley of Carlton-based Swiftwater Adventures. “We brought it to Carlton six or seven years ago, changed the theme and now we draw paddlers from around the region.”

The event kicks off with the best of the best. The “Blast to the Bridge” event will feature racers plunging down Class III, IV and V rapids from the Thomson locks to the Swinging Bridge in Jay Cooke State Park.

That event is a sort of spiritual successor to the old Champion Whitewater Series held over the same stretch of river in the late 1980s.

Namue Kata braces himself for a drop on the St. Louis River during the Blast to the Bridge event at Paddlemania on July 28, 2018.
Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com
Namue Kata braces himself for a drop on the St. Louis River during the Blast to the Bridge event at Paddlemania on July 28, 2018. Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com

“That series fell off in the Midwest,” Langley said. “We found that it was more fun and had less structure to do things a little differently, which some of our paddlers appreciated.”

Also on Saturday, spectators will get to see the “Slot Machine Showcase Showdown” challenge, where experts will attempt to navigate a narrow falls along the course.

“It’s a dropoff, all right, and the paddlers either do it right or they get wet,” Langley said. “Sometimes both. But it’s a fun thing for people to watch.”

It’s still very competitive and very tough racing, but it’s not the only thing to do that weekend. More casual paddlers will have their chance the next day.

“On Sunday we have a team freestyle rafting event,” Langley said. “We’ll supply the rafts and an experienced guide and will help steer while groups of four work for points along the course.” The event takes place downstream from the Thomson Reservoir and finishes at the Munger Bridge.

Joe Tykey, John Meredith, Jeff Brosi, Pat Alexander and Trent Hansen partially submerse their raft as they participate in the final Paddlemania race July 29, 2018. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal
Joe Tykey, John Meredith, Jeff Brosi, Pat Alexander and Trent Hansen partially submerse their raft as they participate in the final Paddlemania race July 29, 2018. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal

“The upstream whitewater stuff is tough,” Langley said. “It isn’t for Joe Schmoe, but we have other events to appeal to everyone.”

Langley said the decreased emphasis on competition has helped grow the event.

“We get people from all over the region and sometimes from the Pacific Northwest when they don’t have good water levels there,” he said. “They love the beauty and the challenge, but a lot of them are free-spirited people who enjoy the chance to do their own thing.”

Langley says the end goal is to highlight a fun activity in which anyone can participate.

“We want to showcase whitewater in the area and celebrate it with everyone who wants to be involved,” he said.

For more information on Paddlemania, visit paddle-mania.com.