DULUTH — Kristen LaVallee had an uneasy feeling in late February that just wouldn’t go away.
Normally, Kristen, the wife of snowmobile stuntman Levi LaVallee, is calm and peaceful before a jump, knowing her husband is meticulous in his preparation. But this time was different.
The plan called for Levi to jump March 1 from barge to barge to barge, essentially going from Minnesota to Wisconsin. It was the third of eight days of shooting for a video, produced by Red Bull, featuring LaVallee performing a series of never-before-seen stunts around Duluth. The film is scheduled to be released Wednesday, April 7, but it almost never happened.
“For some reason that barge jump was weighing heavy on my mind,” Kristen said. “I just couldn’t shake it. I was ready for that jump day to be done.”
The Wreck of the Levi LaVallee
So how did LaVallee end up in the water?
“I was waiting for that question,” LaVallee said, laughing, during an interview March 25 at one of his happy places, Spirit Mountain, where he first started cutting his teeth as a snocross racer in the late 1990s.
LaVallee’s barge jumps would provide a terrific visual, with the Blatnik Bridge serving as a backdrop as LaVallee planned to leapfrog his Polaris all the way from Rice’s Point, Minn., to Connors Point, Wis.
However, the gap was slightly off with the second barge, it was about 15 feet short from what LaVallee had been practicing. Regardless, he planned to forge ahead.
“The hard part is trying to keep the barges in place, when you have the current and everything else going on,” LaVallee said. “But I said, nope, I’ll make it work, but unfortunately, I overshot the landing.”
When LaVallee did that, his throttle cable came unhooked and fell off — an error he blames on himself for not having it secured properly — and no throttle means no speed. He had no option to go for the next jump and had to hit the brakes. But since he was already traveling too fast to stop on the barge. He tried to slide his sled sideways. When he bailed off, he hit the ramp and went tumbling into the water.
People drive over the High Bridge and see a barge below and might not realize just how big they are, how high they can sit out of the water. This wasn’t a Slip ’N Slide, but a serious tumble into the bay.
“Chunks of ice cushioned my fall,” LaVallee said, laughing. “Broke a few ribs, got a hip pointer and was pretty beat up after that, but we had a great doctor on staff and he worked on me the following day. He got me back working pretty well. I went from hardly able to walk, feeling like I got hit by a train, to doing lunges by the end of that night and saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to pull this off.’”
Always the showman
LaVallee, 38, of Longville, Minn., is a former snocross racer turned stunt rider and team owner. He has 13 Winter X Games medals in six snowmobile disciplines, making him one of the most successful athletes in X Games history.
When LaVallee raced the Duluth National Snocross each Thanksgiving weekend, he quickly endeared himself to fans for his fearless racing, entertaining style and creativity. He was always the type to do some kind of boot kick or fist pump whenever he crossed the line. Fun-loving and goofy, well-spoken with fans and media alike, he was one of the sport's most popular riders.
“Even when Levi was solely just a snocross racer, he always had that little bit of showmanship out on the race track,” Kristen LaVallee said. “He would do heel clickers and get the fans pumped up and do all these different things that really made him stand out as an athlete and as a snocross racer. It just made him a little bit different. He always had that little bit in him, and it’s incredible to see what that has done for his career.”
While LaVallee retired from snocross in 2014, he had already been performing snowmobile stunts, including a ridiculous double backflip at the Winter X Games in 2009 and a world record 412-foot distance jump across San Diego Bay on Dec. 31, 2011, broadcast live on ESPN as part of a "Red Bull New Year No Limits" special.
Continuing his careerlong partnership with Polaris, LaVallee has transitioned into riding trail sleds, relaying information to both the consumer and the Minnesota-based snowmobile manufacturer on how to make the riding experience even better.
Levi and Kristen LaVallee have known each other since meeting in the autograph line at a national indoor snocross event in December 2002 at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, N.D. Levi tossed her a paper airplane with his phone number on it. That didn’t work, of course, but they later got acquainted through a mutual snocross friend.
They have been married nearly nine years, with Kristen serving as kind of an office manager.
"Yeah, she’s a manager slash designer slash social media slash … there’s a lot of slashes,” Levi said as they both laughed.
The stunt riding he does now is project based. He did an urban riding special based in St. Paul in 2016, but Duluth was always his first choice.
Long before the Duluth project came to fruition, before it was so much as a seed, Levi LaVallee would be driving up and down Lake Avenue and everywhere else thinking, “Now how cool would this be?”
“If only you could jump down this or jump off that,” LaVallee recalled. “So it was a really easy visual for me to see how we could do this here. Really, as soon as I first started riding snocross here, I thought of doing this, so to be able to come here now, and shoot this video, was really a dream come true. Duluth definitely has a special place with me.”
One jump at a time
The elevation changes are what attracted LaVallee the most. For the Upper Midwest, Duluth is pretty unique in that regard, and that tapped into his artistry.
Among the filming locations picked for Duluth, Spirit Mountain was an easy choice. Hit a jump high atop the hill and take advantage of the elevation drop and it would appear as if LaVallee could fly.
But in typical daredevil fashion, LaVallee wanted to mix it up, too.
Among the jumps Twin Ports residents will get a good laugh from — but was no joke — was LaVallee’s backflip over the North Shore Scenic Railroad train and into the Fitger’s parking lot.
To pull off a stunt like that takes some science, some engineering, some physics.
Kids, don’t try this at home. Or at Fitger’s. Levi is a pro’s pro.
“The big element we want to push is that this was a controlled and safely orchestrated stunt, and it should not be encouraged in any way,” station manager Josh Miller said.
Sure looked cool, though.
“That was pretty nerve-wracking,” LaVallee said. “It was so wild. There’s a huge, huge wall right on the backside of where the train is, so essentially I started from Lake Superior and went across the little boardwalk, hit a ramp and jumped over the train and landed in kind of a parking lot area. As you’re doing it, you’re going, ‘Oh, man, I hope I don’t hit that wall (never mind the train).
“It’s a big 'hat’s off' to the crew. We had that setup at my shop, so we could replicate it and I could practice it a bunch.”
But it’s hard to replicate a moving 130-ton locomotive. Most folks don’t keep one in their backyard. LaVallee said that bad boy was impossible to block from his peripheral.
“There’s a big difference between a controlled environment, practicing at home, to coming here and going, ‘Yep, that’s definitely a cement wall, and that’s definitely a moving train underneath it,’” LaVallee said, laughing. “So it was very nice to have the crew there. They reassured me that everything was to the exact same specs, so it’s about sticking to what you remember, hit your marks and do what you’ve got to do.”
LaVallee soared through the train’s smoke and landed it perfectly on the other side.
‘I went in the lake’
Of course, it doesn’t always go perfectly.
LaVallee goes through the litany of injuries he’s suffered like a butcher describing the latest cuts, ribs, legs, pelvis and other broken bones.
“Sometimes it doesn’t go right, but that’s how we learn,” LaVallee said.
While Kristen used to be with Levi for all his jumps, times have changed.
The couple have two children, Liv, 6, and Lavin, 4. The children think soaring a hundred feet through the air on a snowmobile is normal.
“We need to keep Levi mentally focused on the task at hand, but it’s harder for kids that age to understand,” Kristen LaVallee said. “You tell them, ‘OK, that’s daddy working.’ And they’re like, ‘He’s just jumping a sled (she laughed).’”
The biggest thing for the LaVallee team is preparing for the worst-case scenario.
After Levi went off the barge and into the water — an unintended Polar Plunge he said he definitely wouldn’t recommend — he got atop an “iceberg” as he called it and was picked up in less than a minute by the Duluth Fire Department’s Marine 3 unit, which was waiting nearby for just such an emergency.
LaVallee, wearing Flotation Assistance Safety Technology for the first time during a stunt, had this unusual calm about him as he hit the water, knowing he was buoyant as a bobber.
That night he called his wife and what ensued was indicative of what it means to be a snowmobile stuntman, former racer and lifelong competitor.
Kristen could tell right away by the tone of Levi’s voice that something went terribly wrong. But not terribly wrong in the sense that most people would imagine. It was more about a bruised ego than bruised ribs, or that Levi could have gotten himself seriously injured. Terribly wrong in the sense that the accident could throw off the project.
“Sometimes you just run out of time or the weather has an impact and you don’t get to the jump that was scheduled for that day, and then Levi just said it, ‘I went in the lake,’” Kristen LaVallee said. “And I was just crushed because I could just feel the disappointment in his voice and I said, ‘Are you OK … now what?’ And he’s like, ‘I’m all right.’
“It’s a whole team and a whole crew that puts this on; it’s not just Levi, it’s not just one person. It affects 30 people, so yeah, it was a big disappointment.”
Remarkably, Levi and Co. bounced back to get the filming done on time. He said the city of Duluth and the support personnel were incredibly welcoming and professional, helping the project go as smoothly as possible. LaVallee said Red Bull plans to eventually release a behind-the-scenes making of the video that will be sure to examine the accident in detail.
While the city will not have the actual costs associated with LaVallee’s stay calculated and invoiced until 30-60 days after the shoot, the preliminary estimated costs, per a Forum News Service data request, are more than $50,000, with Red Bull covering the tab. This included more than $25,000 in police support, $21,000 in plow truck services and $5,000 in traffic control. In addition, LaVallee was also required to carry at least $5 million of liability insurance, and any damage done to streets or walkways would be their responsibility to cover the repair costs.
LaVallee exorcised the demons of the barge jumps only five days later on the final day of shooting. It was a slightly toned down version of the original, but keep in mind he could barely walk after his accident and was still nursing broken ribs.
“That was the last thing we shot,” LaVallee said. “It was nice to get to the other side and high-five all the guys and celebrate that we were able to complete it. It was definitely redemption.
“Fear is always there and it’s scary, especially after getting banged up and having time to think about it. That just brews more fear, but I have a lot of faith in our core group, faith in my abilities, faith in our preparation and a lot of faith that we can do it. I always try to go back to that faith instead of allowing fear to mentally stop me from doing something I know we’re capable of.”
Forum News Service reporter Peter Passi contributed to this report.