Grand Forks residents want to see more use of Red River

For generations, Grand Forks residents have been suspicious of the Red River, fixating on the unknown that lurks in its murky waters.

“You’re bred to fear the river,” said Grand Forks native Caleb Kobilansky.

“And if you’re in it, you’re drowning,” added resident Scott Jensen.

This fear can be traced to the river’s mucky nature and infamous currents, which create conditions perceived as dangerous enough to warrant a law against swimming within the city limits.

A group of Grand Forks residents hopes to see that attitude and law change.

“The public perception is that it’s a death trap,” said Andy Magness, a founding member of Extreme North Dakota Racing. “Instead, the river just needs to be approached with the appropriate level of caution.”

Kobilansky, Magness and Jensen say they don’t fear the Red River. The three men will be taking it head-on in END’s 27-mile swimming and paddling race from Grand Forks to Oslo, Minn., on July 13.

In the meantime, they’ve been training in pools, in the gym and in the river itself.

The race is part of a push by Magness and others to redefine the river as a recreational opportunity instead of a menacing waterway, and has breathed new life into the debate over Grand Forks’ swimming ban.

In a separate effort, Magness is working with the city to put a boathouse on the river where canoes and kayaks can be rented. That got approval Monday.

The law

Grand Forks city law prohibits swimming in the Red River and coulees within city limits.

END received a variance from the City Council to conduct its race, which it calls the Water Endurance Test, and allow swimmers to train in the river for it.

Normally, if law enforcement encounters people in the river, they are asked to come to shore if they are able, according to Grand Forks police Lt. Michael Ferguson. If they are unable, a rescue boat may be deployed to save them.

Oftentimes, people pulled from the river are under the influence of alcohol or intend to harm themselves, he said.

“If they go in there purposefully, they are putting their life and the life of the first responders at risk,” he said.

One of the biggest risks to those in the river is submerged and floating debris, according to Ferguson.

“We’ve got several bridges in the city and there are likely construction materials in the water around them,” he said.

Reports of vehicles being found in the river add to the list of potential debris. Trees and branches are often spotted floating downstream as well.

“You never know what is in that water,” Ferguson said.

Not risk-free

Magness says he and other swimmers acknowledge the risks of getting in the Red.

“It’s not a great swimming river,” he said, noting a lack of beaches and the muddy water.

Jensen agreed.

“Not everybody should be swimming in this river,” he said.

As part of a strict safety procedure, training swimmers call Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, Minn., police and the Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Office before they enter the water. Once in the river, they are accompanied by a safety support who rides along with them in a boat or on a paddle board. Supports are also required to have a flotation device.

The same procedure will be followed during the END-WET race. Each of the event’s 28 swimmers will have a support person on the course --- including race participant Martin Strel, who has swam the entire length of the Mississippi and Amazon rivers solo.

Magness, Jensen and Kobilansky say they would like to see the swim ban repealed to allow similar recreation opportunities open up outside of the racing circuit. To them, it should be a matter of personal choice.

“You have to find an appropriate way to deal with the assumed risk,” Magness said.

To Ferguson, it’s a matter of public safety, but it’s up to the city’s lawmakers to decide what is prohibited.
“We don’t make the law, but we will enforce the prohibition until it changes,” he said.