Learn to Kayak

First flatwater, then whitewater

A lady kayaking.

Sheridan Ethen paddles Lake Calhoun/Bde Maka Ska

photo by

ryan taylor

Hunt Jennings had been in town for three days researching Minnehaha Falls, checking the conditions, and monitoring the creek’s water level. On the morning that things looked right, Jennings quickly assembled a local safety crew and, before the park department could stop him, set his boat in the water just above the falls. Within seconds, he paddled over its 53-foot drop to make the first official descent of the cascade. Jennings, who lives in Tennessee but frequents a family cabin in the Boundary Waters, is a professional kayaker—he went to a special high school for kayaking—and knows how to do these things. (Dropping over falls is extremely dangerous; don’t try this at home!) Most extreme kayakers head for the North Shore, where multiple whitewater rivers run down the Sawtooth Mountains into Lake Superior. But those of us who like our water flat can paddle anywhere with virtually no skills, which is why kayaking is one of the fastest-growing outdoor sports in America. According to Sheridan Ethen, an experienced kayaker who manages the boat department at Midwest Mountaineering in Minneapolis, flatwater kayakers need just three things: a kayak, a paddle, and a life jacket. (You don’t even need those if you reserve a kayak through the National Park Service’s new Nice Ride–style Paddle Share program along the Mississippi River—all the equipment is provided.) Once you get your sea (kayaking) legs under you, work your way up to touring rivers and lakes, then ocean kayaking on Lake Superior along the state water trails, which offer kayak-in campsites. To move up to rapids, says Ethen, you’ll need two more things: a fabric spray skirt used to keep water out of your boat, and a helmet. With those, plus proper training or guidance, you can tackle whitewater favorites such as the Kettle, St. Louis, or Vermillion rivers. But to take on waterfalls, you’ll need something else entirely—best leave that to the pros!

Get Started



Basic kayaking classes are offered through kayak retailers and tour groups such as Midwest Mountaineering and Above the Falls Sports, or through the DNR. Some groups offer advanced classes: River Ramblers, Minnesota Canoe Association, Minnesota Rovers, Inland Sea Kayakers, Rapids Riders, Superior Kayak and Outdoor Adventure Club.


Flat water: 1 out of 4 stars

Touring: 2 out of 4 stars

Whitewater: 4 out of 4 stars

Minnehaha Falls: 10 out of 10 stars


Flatwater: paddle, PFD, kayak; Touring: spray skirt, river shoes

Whitewater: helmet, nose plug


Flatwater: Mississippi (Paddle Share, Above the Falls guided tours), Minneapolis Chain of Lakes (rentals at most), or any lake;

Whitewater: the Vermillion River, Kettle River, St. Louis River; Open Water Touring: Lake Superior’s North Shore, Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands


(Annual) Hoigaard’s Paddle Derby (Thursday nights during summer at Lake Calhoun/Bde Maka Ska), Kettle River Paddle Festival (May), Two Harbors Kayak Festival (July), Root River Triathlon (September), the Minneapolis Tri-Loppet (July), Rochester Eco-Tri (July)


The number of kayaks registered in Minnesota rose from 29,632 in 2006 to 58,485 in 2016

Digital Extra: Watch a pro kayaker plummet down Minnehaha Falls

Minnehaha Falls: First Descent from OGP Productions on Vimeo.