Most people aren’t aware that Sandstone is one of the three whitewater rafting venues in the state. For this reason, and the ice climbing at Robinson Park, Tony Vavricka, owner of Hard Water Sports, relocated his guide service and equipment rental business from St. Paul to Sandstone this winter.
The business “provides fun” in the way of whitewater rafting tours on the Kettle River, ice climbing classes in Robinson Park (on either rock or ice), canoe and kayak rental, ice climbing gear rental, and camping gear rental. Vavricka says the activities are perfect for corporate groups, school classes, sports teams and families. Private outings can also be customized for most groups.
Vavricka has been busy over the past weekend providing ice climbing gear and serving as a guide for many of those who took part in the the Sandstone Ice Festival, which Vavricka founded in 2004. His clients come from around the world, places like China, India, Columbia, Switzerland, Turkey, England and more.
Vavricka has been climbing for 25 years during which time he began coming up to Sandstone’s Robinson Park. He recalled the first year of the Ice Fest.
Vavricka proposed the idea to former city administrator Sam Griffith. Sam took to the idea knowing the park had a reputation for drug use and having greater potential for more recreational use.
“There was a small amount of (natural) ice,” said Vavricka. “We rented a pump and used the pond at the base of the cliff, cutting a hole in the ice to pump the water up and make more ice for climbs. That’s how things started with the Ice Festival.”
After the second year of the Ice Festival, Vavricka was approached by Griffith and the city council asking him to help start a festival for white water paddlers. That was the start of Kettle Fest which has now been held annually in May since 2006.
You may recognize Vavricka as the driver of the “Fun Bus” in Sandstone, the short, festively decorated school bus loaded with rubber rafts or kayaks. For those who come here to whitewater raft, it is an amazing experience, says Vavricka. “First, the fun bus shuttles everyone to the river. The majority of people don’t have experience, and we give them a lesson on how to paddle and put them in some rapids as they follow the guide down the river.”
Vavricka grew up in Olivia, Minnesota and attended college at the University of Minnesota, earning his bachelor’s degree in business and economics. Over the years, he has been a professional photographer, working on shoots for Target and Arctic Cat, and later working in sales, marketing and website design. Vavricka also has led backpack tours along the way. He has now traded in his nine to five job and opened his own business.
The business grew when people requested guided river rafting on the Kettle. Receiving requests for rafting gear as well, Vavricka decided to purchase a fleet of rafts and inflatable kayaks.
“I was running the business out of St. Paul for two years and drove to Sandstone, camping every weekend trying to build the business,” recalled Vavricka. “So then at the end of the 2017 season, the opportunity for that building came up, and I jumped on it.”
The business is in its third year, and his 14-year-old daughter Lily is active in the company, recently having been promoted to “Director of Fun” as she often leads people jumping in the river and swimming under falls. Vavricka’s dog “Scout”, a rescue dog, is also part of the activity and often spotted at the bow of a raft with his life jacket on.
“I have had some great adventures taking local people down the river as well, people who have always wanted to go but haven’t had the opportunity,” said Vavricka. “It’s a lot of fun, and I meet so many awesome people who are looking for a good adventure. You only have to paddle Hell’s Gate once and you will never stop talking about it.”
“I see that Sandstone is starting to transform,” added Vavricka. “There is tourism that draws people here, and I’m sure more will come.” The vast majority of his clients come from outside the community, and the business is starting to draw more attention, recently being featured in Explore Minnesota.
For more information on guide services or gear/equipment rental, call Tony at 651-302-1774 or email at HardWaterSports@gmail.com. He can sometimes be reached at the business located at 105 1st Street, Sandstone, MN 55072.