The Choo Choo Paddle shuttle service makes kayak adventures easy in Duluth

Steve Kuchera /

When Mike Casey talks about the nostalgic passenger train for which he volunteers, it’s almost as if the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad has a mind of its own.

“The train has a lot of ideas,” Casey said on Tuesday.

One of those ideas came to fruition on Saturday when a woman boarded the train at Spirit Lake Marina, got out upstream at Boy Scout Landing, and then paddled a kayak back down the St. Louis River to the marina.

Quietly launched over the weekend, the Choo Choo Paddle shuttle service, as it is known, is a collaboration between the railroad and the marina, Casey said.

The railroad, with roots going back to 1870, has been operated as a scenic railroad since 1980, according to its website. It uses a portion of the original track along the St. Louis River and continues along Spirit Lake and Mud Lake.

The railroad faces a lengthy interruption of service when a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency cleanup project begins at the former U.S. Steel Duluth Works in Morgan Park. It was learned late last year that the cleanup — which originally was to have begun in 2015 — wasn’t expected to get underway until at least the fall of this year. The cleanup is expected to disrupt the train tracks for two to three years.

Volunteers at the LS&M — everyone is a volunteer — had been thinking about a collaboration for a long time, Casey said.

Charlie Stauduhar, who owns the marina, had similar thoughts.

“We had been working on an idea of possibly shuttling people up in a van or something,” Stauduhar said. “We already had our trailers with canoes and kayaks.”

LS&M volunteer Kim Culp approached Stauduhar with the idea, Casey said.

The synergy seemed obvious to both parties.

“It’s really a gem,” said Robert Cavanaugh, Spirit Lake Marina’s harbormaster. “This type of experience is not offered elsewhere.”

Shuttle users ride the LS&M’s regular routes — 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. departures each Saturday and Sunday during the summer and into autumn. But while the train departs from behind the Minit Mart across from the Lake Superior Zoo, it picks up paddlers at the Spirit Lake Marina in the Riverside neighborhood. Paddlers learn the history of the area they’ll be coming back through in the narration provided during each train ride, Casey said.

At Boy Scout Landing in Gary-New Duluth, they leave the train and are given instruction before getting into the canoes or kayaks delivered by the marina.

“The beauty of this is you don’t have to have any experience,” Cavanaugh said. “We’ll give you a brief overview of how to paddle yourself through.”

Shawna Anderson, a middle school special education teacher in Superior, was the first to use the shuttle, taking the 1:30 train on Saturday to Boy Scout Landing.

“It was amazing,” said Anderson, 43, who used her own kayak. “It was my first time on the river. For me the train was perfect because I could see where I was going to paddle before I paddled it.”

The cost is $45 for the single-person kayaks or $35 per person for the two-person canoes, Stauduhar said. That includes the train ride; life preservers and paddles also are provided.

For those who have their own kayaks or canoes, the marina can haul them to Boy Scout Landing for $15 per person.

Although it was essentially unadvertised, nine paddlers used the shuttle in its first weekend, Stauduhar said.

“They came back and said they had the time of their lives,” Cavanaugh said.

Though a safe, beginner-friendly route, it’s filled with natural beauty, he said.

“There’s lots of estuaries one can get into and tour around,” Cavanaugh said. “Greenery, eagles flying overhead, fish jumping — northerns, jumping out of the water.”

Casey, who lives in the lower Smithville neighborhood, said it’s not just about the train and it’s not just about paddling. It’s about an often overlooked and underappreciated part of Duluth.

“I live out west,” he said. “For us, it’s about bringing people to our community and seeing the river, how it’s cleaned up. It’s had a stigma for a long time.”


By John Lundy as published in the Duluth News Tribune