Located in a once known dairy farming area of Minnesota the (84 mile, 135km) Kettle River is a wild and scenic river that snakes it’s way through swamps and timber land until it finally dumps into the St Croix River close to Hinckley, Minnesota.
I grew up less than a mile from it’s banks. I happily played in pools created in the summer months by exposed rocks as the rain failed to dump enough water to maintain a continuous flow. In the winter we would make our way to the ice and snow covered river with shovels in hand. Clearing enough snow to expose the ice that would provide for a hockey rink for the day.
What was always interesting to me is the story that the river water would travel south until one day reached the Mississippi River then would finally travel it’s length to the Gulf of Mexico. It captured my imagination. What an adventure that would be to travel all that way by river.
As an adult each time I returned to my parents farm I would feel the pull of the river towards that dreamed adventure of my childhood.
When I purchased my Old Town Otter 8 foot kayak several years ago the river continued calling or pushing me towards that adventure. I always found a way to push it aside, I was to busy, I shouldn’t paddle alone, how would I get back to my car? Maybe I was just scared of what I would find and I made every excuse not to follow through.
One day the call of the river was too great to ignore any longer. It was Mother’s Day, my children were hundreds of miles away. I just wasn’t going to sit around and feel sorry for myself the whole day. I picked out an old river swimming hole that was only two miles (LaFlash’s swimming hole as it is known by the locals) from my house. I dumped my bike in the weeds. Then continued along the back dirt roads with my kayak collecting dust firmly tied to the top of my car. Carlton County Road 156 where I would launch into the Kettle River, just down the road from my parent’s farm.
I stopped at the farm to give my parents the news of what I had planned for the day.
My dad greeted me “What’s up with you today? I see you have been kayaking.”
“Well, not yet, but I am going to kayak the Kettle today.” I answered.
“Hummm…” he said in his deep thoughtful farmer way.
“You know I had a couple of kayakers come through here a few years ago and they had one heck of a time on that river. They started at Kettle Lake and it took them 9 hours to get just here to the 156 bridge. They had issues with wire across the river, low water, limbs across the river. They were pretty well done for when they finally made it here to the farm. I gave them a ride back to their vehicle.” he had continued as I listened.
“Ok, well…, I am not going on that part of the river. I am heading out from here and down to the LaFlash’s swimming hole. Just wanted to stop and let you know so if you saw my car next to the river you didn’t worry.” I knew he would worry anyway. My adventurous nature had always worried my parents.
Minutes later, I had my kayak unloaded and parked smartly on the grassy shore next to the river. I had all my gear, helmet, 50 foot of nylon rope, float, bilge hand pump, a backpack with food, a water bottle and my camera. My nerves started to bubble to the top as I realized I was really going to get in the kayak and see was behind the bend in the river.
I slowly placed the kayak in the fast running cold May river water. Quickly, I was pulled toward the first small rapids that I normally observed from the bridge that connected the gravel road. Then suddenly the bridge was gone, I was around the bend for the first time in my life! I smiled and focused on the island in the middle of the river. I had a choice to make, left or right?
The water was pulling me ever faster to make a decision. I took the left around the island. The river then opened into a wide open very slow moving area. Continuing its way South. Now, the river had almost stopped moving.
A bald eagle flew over the top of the river and perched in a tree in front of me off to the left watching as I now slowly paddled along in my personal bliss.
The sun was warm and the birds were singing along the banks well hidden in the brush and undergrowth. The eagle now flew a bit further but was intent on watching my progress.
The river lazily bent to the left and then back to the right. Then it was hard to see where exactly the river flowed in front of me. It seemed to stop. I was in the middle of a swamp and off to the right was a large beaver lodge. That explained everything, the river was dammed up somewhere making it now an ideal place for this beaver family to dwell. The eagle screeched, as if laughing at me and my predicament.
The pond created by the river and the beavers was shallow but still deep enough for my kayak to paddle through. I inched my way towards what seemed to be the correct direction and flow of the river.
The pond then suddenly stopped in front of me the river dropped about 4 feet to a shallow stream through a well constructed beaver river dam. I paddled to the edge of the pond and fumbled my way through the brush to see how I was going to portage around this beaver obstacle. Small poplar trees that had grown along the river bank had been neatly felled by the industrious rodents and made it challenging for me to walk and drag my kayak. When I found a good place to launch again into the river I stood and admired the work of the dam. It only had a bit of water rushing between the very top logs and spilling into the river bed below.
Now that I had safely negotiated the beaver dam I continued my trek downriver. The eagle was still being entertained by my paddling and would fly just to the next trees overlooking the river, I would catch up and he would fly onward. The river also changed after the beaver dam. Little streams started adding water to the downstream flow from the left and right. Draining the woods and swarms of excess water. The large oak and maple trees leaned over the river shading the sun.
Another bend in the river, two white tail deer stood frozen in the middle of the river looking at me. Soon realizing that maybe my blue kayak and I were the enemy they shot off at a run for the bank of the river and soon disappeared into the underbrush.
The river flattened out. Farmland lined the right river bank. Beef cattle pasturing stood and looked at me blankly as I floated past. I now started to see evidence of humans on each river bank. A deer hunting stand, a old outhouse, a cabin, an old RV. Several years ago farms had been broken off into 5 acre plots, sold as recreational acreage with river access. I knew I was getting close to my stopping point. I had been on the river over 4 hours!
The last 200 yards of my trip the banks narrowed and the river started to run fast and deep. I knew there were large rocks in this section and my heart pumped fast as I was ready to be dumped into the cold water. The spray hit my face as I balanced my body left then back to the right as I moved through the river. I watched the large rocks pass by as the water tossed my kayak down towards my stop point.
Then I was there! Calm river and the bridge right above me. I let out a small whooping yell. I had made it!
I sat in the river swimming pool, paddling around in my kayak and recalling swimming here as a kid with my family. I smiled as the memory flooded back from the past. I was proud and happy that I had finally paddled part of the Kettle River that I had fantasied about as a child. It had taken me on an adventure even though it was not the one I had first dreamed as a child.