See the river, feel the river, ride the river

Whitewater rafting is an excellent team-building exercise. LaFleur’s nephew Noah Crawford is leading the pictured rafts.

Whitewater Rafting offers unique experience on St. Louis River

Guests are guaranteed to get wet when they participate in one of the newer outdoor attractions the Duluth area has to offer, rallying on to become the outdoor capital of the Midwest.

Under new ownership since 2015, Minnesota Whitewater Rafting offers rafting adventures on the St. Louis River to individuals, corporate or business groups, schools and youth groups and anyone willing to try.

“We want to teach as many people as possible about the river and to enjoy it,” said co-owner Stephanie LaFleur.

Launch point for the 4½-mile trip is River Gate Avenue in Scanlon, Minn. Depending on conditions, the adventure can take anywhere from 2 to 2½hours and costs $47 per person.

Due to safety restrictions paddlers need to be 11 years of age or older to participate and must be able to understand the commands given in English.

All whitewater rafts measure 13 feet and can hold six people.

Not all rapids are equal

Rapids, much like ski slopes, vary in their intensity and are categorized by an international rating system into six classes.

Class I rapids are considered to be easy, with smooth water and light riffles.

Classes II and III are characterized as moderate (quick water, regular waves, maneuvering required) and moderately difficult (irregular waves, narrow passages, experienced maneuvering required) respectively.

Class IV, V and VI range from difficult or extreme difficult to extraordinarily difficult. 

“Most people don’t realize we have class II and class III rapids right here in our back yard,” said LaFleur.

She points out that one doesn’t have to go out to, say Colorado, to seek the thrill of running a cascading river.

In fact, class III and class IV whitewater rafting can also be done in Sandstone on the Kettle River.

Other tours are offered to serve every population

An increase in family inquiries led LaFleur to add another offering: The Lazy River Tour, in which a guide takes groups for a 3 ½- to 4-hour leisurely ride down the St. Louis River on a bigger 16 foot raft. The meeting point for these trips is at the Whitewater outpost in Scanlon. Transportation to and from the river is provided in the company’s firetruck-red fleet of vehicles.

There is no minimum age for the Lazy River tours but all minors must be accompanied by an adult and must weigh over 50 pounds to safely and effectively use the life vests. An oarsman navigates the raft. Cost per guest is $47 as well.

“We love it when families want to unplug. This is un-motorized waterway. It’s absolutely gorgeous, with wildlife like nesting eagles,” said LaFleur.

Fly-fishing is another extension of the company’s tour offering. Two fisherman at a time get taken down the St. Louis by guides to catch northern pike, muskies, bass and sometimes catfish.

While all tours are popular, whitewater rafting is by far the most booked tour in the company’s repertoire.

Safety is top priority

LaFleur is adamant about the safety of her guests and personnel. Every paddler gets a helmet and class five life vest. All of her 43 guides are certified and trained annually in first aid, CPR and swift water rescue. They have years of experience on the river.

As a certified CPR and first aid instructor, La Fleur can facilitate the first two requirements herself. For the latter, the company contracts with Lake Superior College.

One of the head kayak guides at Minnesota Whitewater Rafting is Aaron Hornibrook. He’s been running the river for more than 20 years and said it takes at least a few years to get good at guiding it.

“You can’t go down and expect it to be the same every time,” states Hornibrook. “You need to see it at every level multiple times.”

Parameters for a safe ride include water temperature and water levels, which the company tracks. In fact, every single tour is chronicled on a check sheet, where the guides take note of the river flow rate, water temperature, air temperature and depth of the water.

Rebranding

LaFleur took over the whitewater rafting business together with her husband Christopher in 2015. Now in their third season, it becomes clear the acquisition was a match made in heaven.

Founded in 1979 and formerly operated under the name ‘Superior Whitewater,’ the company is more than 35 years old. The former owner, however, underestimated the local market, never advertised regionally but rather concentrated on the Twin Cities area and the bordering states.

That’s why the LaFleurs, passionate rafters themselves, who up until then traveled to Colorado to seek the thrill, where quite surprised to find out that the same activity was offered at their back door. They were even more intrigued when they were told by a mutual friend that the company was for sale.

The couple is deeply involved in their community. They both serve on the National Ski Patrol. Up until a few years ago, they were racecourse directors for Grandma’s Marathon. Stephanie, a 24-year Air Force veteran, is also operations director of the Duluth Airshow. So it felt natural to them to draw the local population’s awareness to what the St. Louis River has to offer. Not only did they change the name after the acquisition, they also revamped the website, making it more user friendly with online booking capabilities. Aside from social media, they advertise with a mobile billboard and use a recognizable red-colored fleet for all their transportation needs.

Now in their third season, LaFleur feels like they “are getting the word out to let people know that this is here.”

The company’s bookings have increased for the month of May from 90 in 2016 to 168 in 2017. Likewise in the month of June 2016, 308 people were taken down the river, which increased to 454 people in June 2017.

While the business operates during the spring, summer and fall, May and June tend to be the busiest months.

Team building experience

One of the first steps after taking over the business was to focus on marketing rafting as a team-building experience for regional corporate entities.

“When you experience something in a group, you bond,” said LaFleur. “While learning to paddle together, you’re also learning to relate and experience something that is intimidating and exhilarating. It is fun and excitement. You have to become in sync and communicate, because if you don’t, you’ll only go around in circles.”

She now facilitates 20 to 25 corporate and group tours annually and can accommodate parties of up to 80 people.

Minnesota Whitewater Rafting is not only a woman veteran co-owned family business, it is also one of nine commercial ventures for the LaFleurs.

Stephanie’s husband, Christopher, is a registered nurse anesthetist, with his own practice (Serendipity Anesthesia Consultants, LLC in Aitkin). Together, the couple operates the Sweet Spot Indoor Golf in Duluth and Serendipity Farms LLC in Aitkin (horses and rentals).

When not busy doing any of the above, Christopher LaFleur also produces movies on the Iron Range as the president of Crazy Iron Productions as well as Crazy Uncle Entertainment. Each of its five movies is operated as its own LLC.

However, of the many businesses, Minnesota Whitewater Rafting is by far the couple’s favorite. The LaFleurs spend every free minute on the river and they don’t get tired of it.

“No trip is ever the same,” she said, “because the water changes constantly.”