The 19th annual Two Harbors Kayak Festival will be back at Burlington Bay in Two Harbors this weekend.
The festival began in 1997 when Ellen Anderson, a resident of Two Harbors at the time, contacted Scott Neustel and decided that she thought that there should be a kayak festival on the North Shore of Lake Superior.
“It was her brainchild, and she was determined to get something done up there,” said Neustal, director of the kayak festival. “We got together, Ellen and I, with Randy Carlson from the kayak and canoe institute at (the University of Minnesota Duluth), who was experienced in that sort of thing, and we put that event together.”
There were very few kayak festivals and none on the North Shore. There were also no kayak races on Lake Superior at the time.
“People kind of deemed it too risky, too dangerous,” Neustal said.
The festival has a competitive kayak race, which attracts highly-experienced kayakers to the area. However, the festival also appeals to the people who are more casual in their interests in kayaking.
“We wanted to be more of a family-type celebration of the lake and of kayaking, so it would be all inclusive,” Neustal said. “We have tours, we have the demos, people can come and try a kayak for the first time, we have kids programming, and we’ve included stand-up paddle boarding in the last four or five years.”
Over the years, the festival has stayed fairly similar to the first one in 1997, but it has had slight changes each year that have shaped the event into what it is today.
“Over the last few years, we did expand the number of races,” Neustel said. “After Ellen passed away, we put in an intermediate race that kind of goes by her house out on Burlington Point, and we call it the Ellen Anderson 10-mile race, in her honor.”
The festival brings in many people to the area. Neustel said that there are on average 400 people that attend the festival each year, but that number fluctuates due to the weather conditions that occur each year.
“If we have a nice weekend, then we should have a pretty good crowd,” he said. “The racers and the avid paddlers will always come, but what gets the numbers up are the people who say ‘Kayaks, let’s check it out.'”
There are many local people who attend the event, but there are also people from other areas of the country that make an appearance to race or enjoy the other aspects of the festival.
“We’ve had people from California, Montana, and down south because it’s a unique challenge that they don’t find anywhere else,” Neustel said.
The festival brings people together, which Neustel says is the best part of the festival for him.
“It’s really cool because people who might be coming for the first time will hang out, and then they might rub elbows with someone who’s been paddling for years and years like a racer or somebody like that, and so it’s just this great interaction,” he said.
For more information on the kayak festival visit kayakfestival.upnorthmn.net. Registration and packet pick-up is tonight from 5-7:30 p.m.