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Freestyle kayakers hit Lower Cato Falls rapids
Freestyle kayakers hit Lower Cato Falls rapids: Thse athletes try to stay on a standing wave as long as they can. (June 2014)

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MANITOWOC COUNTY — Although known for its disc golf, Lower Cato Falls County Park is gaining popularity in the kayak community for another feature: its waves.

A combination of recent rain and fast-moving water provided the perfect conditions Wednesday for outdoor enthusiasts to take to the falls with a unique style of kayaking. Called playboating, the paddlers use custom-designed, highly-maneuverable boats smaller than traditional kayaks that ride on top of the waves.

Similar to whitewater kayaking, playboaters stick to the rapids, but rather than float downstream, the goal of playboating is to try and stay in one place. In Lower Cato Falls, paddlers choose a particular “wave hole” where water flows back on itself, creating a constant, bulging wave.

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“It’s like riding a bull,” Phil Lutey of De Pere said. “You just see how long you can stay on it.”

On Wednesday, a group of four took turns riding the wave and practicing their techniques. Eventually paddlers can learn to perform tricks, such as rolls and loops, in the turbulent water.

“We’re not professionals,” Troy Juntunen of Two Rivers said. “If they were here, they would be doing tricks. You can do somersaults and flips if you get good. It’s great to be out here and get exercise.”

The paddlers can stay in the hole for anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, but eventually the fast moving water ejects them from the rapids, sending them and their kayak surging downriver — sometimes upside down.

“You get thrown around, but it’s a lot of fun,” Juntunen said.

“There is such a great challenge to it,” Lutey added. “You have a plan when you get started, but it’s going to change and you have to figure it out as you’re doing it. You have to adapt and take over.”

Ensuring safety

It is not uncommon for the paddlers to be tossed upside down in the water as they maneuver the rapids. Each participant wears safety gear including a helmet, wet suit, life jacket, and nose and ear plugs to keep the water from disorienting them when a kayak flips.

With the right safety procedures, Juntunen said playboating can actually be safer than traditional whitewater kayaking.

“I used to have a whitewater kayak and used to go down rivers, but it is a little more dangerous because you don’t know what’s downriver,” he said. “In this sport, you work in one area and can understand it really well.”

Before attempting to playboat, the paddlers recommend first becoming an expert at flipping yourself back upright after capsizing. The maneuver is paramount in learning to kayak rapids.

“If you can roll out of bed, you can roll a kayak,” Juntunen said. “It’s the same motion, you’re just getting yourself up.”

The perfect site

Lower Cato Falls is developing a reputation in the Midwest playboating community as the perfect spot to practice in early spring. Typically, peak season for playboating at the falls is in early spring as the snow melts, but the season this year has been extended by rains that have maintained a high water level and fast flow through the county park.

The particular hole paddlers use at Lower Cato Falls is caused by churning, rolling water, not by jagged rock formations, so paddlers find it a safe alternative to other sites. The bottom of the river bed is also granite, which means the hole is consistent year after year, while adequate wave formations at other sites change from season to season due to sandy river bottoms.

“This is one of the best facilities around. You have access for public land, so you don’t have to trespass, and this thing sets up consistently,” Lutey said.

There is also a wide pool at the base of the falls, which the paddlers say is ideal for righting yourself if you flip over.

Learning to play

The experience on the water Wednesday varied. Juntunen has been playboating for about a year and said he took up the sport as a safer alternative to whitewater rafting, while Lutey has been at it for five years and took it up as an activity to do with his son.

“My son and I wanted something to do together, so about five or six years ago we took a roll class at a local YMCA,” Lutey said. “It’s a great father-son activity. You have to work together and rely on each other.”

Both paddlers recommend always paddling with a partner and taking classes from a certified teacher prior to tackling the rapids. The Whitewater Park in Wausau is a good place to start, Juntunen said, and other trainers are available in the Fox River valley.

“I would highly recommend taking some sort of training course with a certified instructor,” he said. “They’ll give you all the information you need to be safe.”

Phillip Bock: (920) 686-2966 or pbock@htrnews.com

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