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Namby Pamby, the Kayaker and Minnehaha Falls

Minnesota is in flood. We’re getting lots of rain on top of lots of rain, which means that many of the streams and rivers are at some of their highest levels ever. If you’re a whitewater kayaker, your ears probably just perked up a little, because you know that the legendary whitewater rivers of Lake Superior’s north shore run the best during the spring runoff when the water is cold. It’s June and the water is somewhat warm, which means warm whitewater on the north shore. But that’s not all, 53-foot Minnehaha Falls on the Minnehaha Creek in Minneapolis hit an all time record high yesterday. Apparently, there was a huge boil at the base of the falls that added several feet to the depth of the pool in addition to the high water.

Hunt Jennings, one of the best whitewater paddlers in the world, and his safety team decided that it was safe enough to run. This is not only one of the top whitewater paddlers in the world, but he’s also sponsored by Kokatat, Jackson Kayaks and Werner. If you don’t know what that means, it means that he is seriously good and not only seriously good, but when you get sponsored by the big names in whitewater, you know that he’s good enough to understand the risks and safely manage them.

It was an awesome drop! And here are some sweet photos from Jennifer Simonson and Minnesota Public Radio that show the drop. Well done. Here’s a video from the drop. Jennings walked away with a broken paddle and a tiny cut above his lip. It might be a first descent.

Before you read the next part, keep in mind that this is completely legal right now. I suspect that some namby pamby city councilor will soon outlaw this activity, because, you know, outrage!

The StarTrib reported today this little piece of news:

Minneapolis park officials later called it “an irresponsible publicity stunt,” adding that “it is our experience that a trip over the falls almost always results in serious injury or death.”

“We are deeply concerned that this act and subsequent publicity will inspire others to attempt the same feat,” said Dawn Sommers, a spokeswoman for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. “The impact of the drop, the large boulders at the base of the Falls, the deep water and fast current could easily injure or kill a kayaker.”

According to Wikipedia, a publicity stunt is:

A publicity stunt is a planned event designed to attract the public’s attention to the event’s organizers or their cause. Publicity stunts can be professionally organized, or set up by amateurs. Such events are frequently utilized by advertisers, celebrities, athletes, and politicians.

So, we have the athlete and this will attract attention to the sponsors (maybe), so maybe it fits the definition. But I don’t think it is a publicity stunt. Instead, I think that Dawn Sommers, spokeswoman for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, is sorely misinformed about what whitewater kayaking is at the level that Jennings participates in it. I’m not going to say that dropping waterfalls this big is routine, but it’s what these guys get paid to do. It’s at the edge of the sport and their job is to push the sport further. It’s like a runner competing against and beating a course record, and even if the runner is famous with sponsors, beating a course record isn’t considered a publicity stunt. This isn’t a stunt for the same reason. It’s an athlete doing what athletes do.

I also think that it’s laughable that this will inspire others to do the same thing. The north shore rivers get run all the time. Waterfalls get dropped. A couple of years ago, the Devil’s Kettle got dropped — the river splits in two and half goes into a hole never to come out. We don’t see beginners in kayaks trying to run the north shore waterfalls because they were inspired by some picture they saw about the descent. Most people just aren’t that stupid and it’s surprising that a public official would have such a low view of the people that she serves.

There’s no doubt that this is dangerous and there’s no doubt that only expert-level kayaks with lots of experience should attempt this and there’s no doubt that they know they could die if the shit hits the fan, but that’s still not a reason to overreact like the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board may do and it’s no reason to pretend that it will inspire people to do the same.

Life isn’t safe and you can’t protect everyone by outlawing activities that you deem unsafe for the untrained (see While the rewards may be great, you might not like the consequences).

And then this got worse with people saying that MPR was irresponsible for publishing this newsworthy event, because the event was dangerous. Bob Collins explores that on his blog.

I just can’t understand that argument, because when an experienced, professional kayaker with many drops larger than this one to his credit runs Minnehaha Falls, and it makes the news because it is newsworthy both for the successful drop and because of the record flooding that made the drop safe for someone of his caliber. It’s news. If the news shouldn’t publish anything that was dangerous for the fear of it being copied by someone without skills, then we shouldn’t have news. Imagine the same argument applied to an event such as a fireman running into a home to save a baby. It’s just makes no sense.

Congrats to Hunt Jennings for running Minnehaha Falls, and to all the namby pambies out there: try to understand the reality of this event instead of your perception of reality.

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  • […] Of course, people die, too. It can end up being experienced kayakers or newbies. Then there’s an activity that looks risky, but we may not understand the paddler’s skill level or planning that went into […]

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