High and rapidly flowing water temporarily turned the River Rats water ski team into a lake crew.
A normal Tuesday evening in June would find members of the Twin Cities River Rats water ski team on the Mississippi River, performing beautiful, impossible feats of balance, grace and strength with the Minneapolis skyline as their backdrop.
All of those artistic components were there last week, but there was no Mississippi and no Minneapolis.
The 33-year-old team had to move its regular practice to Coon Lake in East Bethel, displaced by near-record water levels on the river and a stiff current that made the sport difficult and potentially dangerous.
The group had to cancel its first two shows of the season, scheduled for May 31 and last Thursday. Most of the waterskiers have braved pouring rain, lingering cold and even snow so the show can go on; cancellations are not something the team considers lightly.
"I don't know of any," said Dave Tombers, president of the River Rats board of directors.
The group's expenses -- to operate four speedboats and two safety boats, maintain equipment and buy insurance -- are supported by dues from its 70-plus members and by donations gathered at about 20 shows between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The loss of donations from a single show could be a hit of as much as a couple of thousand dollars, Tombers said. Plus, the team's sponsors are counting on every minute of exposure.
"To miss even one show, that hurts," Tombers said.
The group is used to water skiing in quick currents and spring thaws, but at a certain point, skiing in a strong current becomes problematic and even dangerous.
At a practice late last month, participants waiting to take off from a dock in the Mississippi could feel their laced-on skis being pulled off their feet, said team captain Meghan Anderson, of Minneapolis.
A swift current makes it more difficult for boat drivers to keep a steady speed, which in turns affects skiers' ability to balance themselves and, in pyramid stunts, each other.
"It's like a pilot trying to land in a crosswind," said member Cole Christenson, of Minneapolis. "If we fall, we move down the river at a much quicker pace."
Performers also find themselves having to maneuver around the detritus the river carries toward St. Anthony Falls. That includes trash, branches and entire trees, Tombers said. Think of that, and think of the group's human pyramids, which can involve as many as five levels and as many as 40 performers.
On the day of the first canceled show, instead of performing, participants worked to moor the group's three docks to the shore.
Last week, during a noontime visit to the site near Broadway and West River Road, a branch and a chunk of styrofoam floated past the docks, still moored; the strong current had knocked one of them about 90 degrees askew.
Usually, by the end of May, river levels are dropping after the spring runoff, and they have dropped steadily over the past week since forcing the River Rats to move. Before that, the river saw near-record levels at Anoka, the closest measuring station to the group's performance site. But the river's flow posed a bigger problem. It was 41,600 cubic feet per second on June 2, compared with an average for the day of about 17,500, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The cause was a storm that dropped 5 to 6 inches of rain over the river's headwaters in northern Minnesota over Memorial Day weekend, said Elizabeth Nelsen, a hydraulic engineer with the Army Corps.
"We're still feeling that," she said. "We got some rain here, too, but the bigger rain was up there."
A big rain will raise water levels and the current quickly; they'll drop quickly, too, especially in comparison to snow melts, which happen much more slowly, she said.
On Coon Lake last week, water skiers tried out new moves and practiced in singles, duos and groups for a performance at the Buffalo Days festival on Thursday. Some of the human pyramids dropped into the water before the speedboat was at full throttle, but at least one 20-person stack made a circuit of the lakeshore route. A few people spoke gratefully about the warm water and the lack of a current. But several wistfully noted that the river lends them the group its name.
Christenson said he grew up waterskiing on a lake.
"But I've grown to love the river now," he said. "I've heard lots of people tonight saying, 'I love this, but you can't replace the river.'"
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409