Paddlers honor legendary Minnesota kayaker

“At last the Presque Isle is quiet, but it has left memories that will ripple for years.”

So writes Jim Rada in his Upper Midwest kayaking guidebook Northwoods Whitewater, and so reads the trophy awarded to the winner of the extreme whitewater kayaking race held in his honor on Upper Michigan’s Presque Isle River this past weekend.

kiffmeyer.JPGRace winner John Kiffmeyer paddles over Manabezho Falls on the Presque Isle River during a warm-up run before the 2013 Jim Rada Memorial Race on May 18, 2013. (All photos courtesy of Karen Jensen)

For a handful of weeks every spring when the snow melts, the creeks and rivers that plummet down steep hillsides into Lake Superior become powerful, cascading class V whitewater kayaking destinations that draw paddlers from around the country. Rada, an astronomy professor and expert kayaker, introduced many paddlers to the little-explored rivers. His guidebook, for many years unpublished, became like “kayaking gospel,” according to his friend and fellow paddler John Kiffmeyer.

Rada died 10 years ago of a heart attack while paddling the Presque Isle River, which drops in a series of waterfalls through Upper Michigan’s Porcupine Mountains State Park to Lake Superior. Ever since, his friends have held a race on the river in his honor.

racestart.JPGRacers jockey for position at the start of the 2013 Jim Rada Memorial Presque Isle River Race on May 18. At the start of the race, John Kiffmeyer sprinkled some of Rada’s ashes into the river, “so he would make the journey with them,” his widow Karen Jensen said.

Rada’s widow, Karen Jensen, who he met kayaking, says over 20 paddlers came to paddle the river in honor of her late husband. She says many of the kayakers were young, in their 20s — people she had never met.

They had all used my husband’s book to find rivers,” she said. “It was so joyful for me to see more people getting out to experience the rivers.”

racers.JPGThe participants in the Jim Rada Memorial Presque Isle River Race on May 18. They started en masse, paddling over a series of falls to Lake superior. John Kiffmeyer, of Asheville, NC, with the beard in the back row, organized the race, and won it.

Earlier that day she had looked back through Rada’s book, Northwoods Whitewater, and had found this quote. “Rivers really need friends.” The reason he wrote the book, she said, was “because he wanted to help people be friends with the rivers.”

And here, 10 years after his death, on a glorious spring day when the water ran high and warm — perfect kayaking conditions — was proof that he had.

Comments are closed.