Trip Reports

Skiing the Cascade River

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Adam backed off the rock ledge looked over his shoulder, pushed off, gathered speed, and jumped off. I watched him soar through the air, land the leap, fall forward, and I shouted, “Are you okay?” He was fine, but his binding wasn’t. It seemed like we were on the precipice of an unfolding adventure.

Adam Harju repairs his skis binding with a twig.
Adam Harju repairs his skis binding with a twig.

One and a half kilometers downhill from our topside car and three point eight kilometers from our downside car wasn’t the best place to break a binding and to make matters slightly more dire, we weren’t on a groomed cross country ski trail — we were on the Cascade River (opens in a new window) skiing down the snow covered ice. On the ice, having a ski spread the pressure of body weight across a larger surface than just a foot makes the travel safer and not to mention faster. We started the ski mid-afternoon. Somehow, we’d have to fix the binding before continuing downriver, and somehow we’d have to get off the river before dark when navigating the pressure ridges, open water, and crevasses would become very difficult.

The Cascade River in northern Minnesota flows a little over 20 miles and eventually exits into Lake Superior. The most dramatic section of the river is the last three miles in which the river drops over 900 feet. This is also the easiest section to access with access starting from a parking lot near the bridge on County Road 45. When Adam’s binding burst, we had dropped down only about 180 of those 900 feet.

Skiing down the Cascade River, MN.
Skiing down the Cascade River, MN.

Skiing down the Cascade River allows the skier to enter a realm not often seen. Because although trails follow the river on both sides, the trails run along the ridges high above on the canyon walls, and about the only other sport that gives the type of access to the river as skiing does is whitewater kayaking. To kayak this section of the river requires an expert-level whitewater kayaking skills and lots of guts. So not many people actually see the steep cliff waves, caves carved out of the granite rock by 1000s of years of erosion, or the twisted white cedar trees just hanging on inside of the steep canyon. The walls of the river’s canyon seem to close in on you; they seem to lock out the outside world and cradle you in another existence where your only concerns are enjoying the quick drops and flat sections between. When skiing down the river, even the blue sky above seems far away. And even further away is the notion of actually getting help.

Adam Harju just does the triple set of waterfalls on the Cascade River, MN.
Adam Harju just does the triple set of waterfalls on the Cascade River, MN.

Without outside help, we’d have to figure out a solution on our own for Adam’s broken binding. I quickly tallied the emergency gear in my backpack. I had several foot long zip ties, duct tape, thread, and a med kit. The zip ties might have worked in a pinch, but Adam had a different idea. He asked me to grab a small stick. I found one among some downed and dead trees swept into the canyon wall by the spring and fall flood waters. He inserted the stick between the wires of his broken tele binding and twisted the wire like a tourniquet, then he used a bit of string to tie the stick into place. He tried a few kicks. It held, and we continued on down the river.

That little stick held for the rest of the 900 feet and three point eight kilometers of the ski. Not only was the ski fun, but we had an adventure solved with a little Midwestern ingenuity. Not bad for an afternoon ski on a steep Midwestern river.

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