Sandstone, Minn. – Looking like dark roast, the river swelled and splashed and surged on by, charging the air with a wall of sound that contributed to its irrepressible power. Minnesota’s Kettle River was very much alive.
Rivers are impressive creatures of motion, and the Kettle was vividly so in the warm sunlight of a recent spring morning in the woodland of Banning State Park, where the water carves a path for several miles, pouring through sandstone walls and glacial potholes as it has done for time immemorial.
A section of rapids within Banning called Blueberry Slide is where a lot of the action is for paddlers this time of year, depending on conditions. The river’s height and speed combine with the contours of its bed to turn this area into a playground for kayakers and canoeists. Some pick their lines and run the white water down to the city of Sandstone. Others hang back in the boil of the upper rapids and “surf” the waves.
A person needn’t be a streamflow expert to see that conditions were ideal during a visit April 12. The Kettle’s level, highly dependent on rain, was at 2 ½-3 feet, which suited some kayakers looking to surf. A week later, and after heavy rain, a river gauge near Hwy. 23 upriver from the rapids read nearly 7 feet. A golf analogy is apt: The river, with its drops and swells, plays differently owing to conditions. The rapids in Banning range from Class II to Class IV.
“It always depends on the level,” said kayaker Huck Cammack, who was out with friend Ernie Brucellaria, both of the Twin Cities and both used to gripping paddles beyond Minnesota. “You put this at 8 or 9 feet and it gets dangerous. You put it at 11, it gets really dangerous.”
Both men might drive up here to Pine County a couple of times a week in the spring. They also paddle the Vermillion River near Hastings, and have been known to drive east to Wausau Whitewater Park in Wisconsin.
Jim Blake, a kayaker from Forest Lake, was in familiar terrain, too. He has run the Kettle since 1997. His first outing was as a novice in a 16-foot kayak. It didn’t go well, he quickly admitted. But paddling got better — markedly so. Blake kayaked 131 times last year, mostly on the Kettle. “This is my favorite park.”
Helmeted and neck to toe in a dry suit, Blake maneuvered in a Jackson 4 FUN kayak — at 6 ½ feet long, it was perfect for surfing and handling in the churn of the Kettle. Important, too, because gravity and the water’s power buried Blake and his stern in a hole at the base of a swell, a dynamic where the water flows over an obstacle and can fold back on itself. Then, like a bobber getting yanked, he’d pop up and get flushed out of his spot.
“It was weird today. It kept wanting to stuff me,” said Blake, 62, of the white water called Midtown. Pushed swiftly downriver a few hundred feet, he’d head back like a salmon fighting the flow, his Accent paddles working with the water, for another go.
“This is a great level,” Blake added. “When it gets higher, some of the waves wash out and it gets harder to ride ’em and get back to ’em. You can’t ride them when [the river is] too high, though. I’ve seen people ride at 18 feet. I go down and take pictures at 18 feet.”
Tony Vavricka’s affinity for the Kettle is manifest, too. The water trail is water park and livelihood. “I really fell in love with the river,” he said.
That was 12 years ago, and Vavricka has been able to capitalize on his white-water dreams. Vavricka formed the Sandstone Ice Festival around the region’s acclaimed ice climbing in 2004. Then, community leaders asked him to start a paddling festival, too, he said. (The Kettle River Festival is May 5-7.) Today, he runs Hard Water Sports, an adventure business built heavily on rafting trips and rock climbing. Rafting picks up this month and is a mainstay in the summer.
“The Kettle River is a real friendly river,” Vavricka said. “It’s got some beautiful sections to it; it’s also got some moderate white water. It’s a good variety of rafting.”
Once past Blueberry’s rapids, Vavricka will guide his paddlers through an array of challenges. He grins at the thought. There are spots that sound menacing, such as Hell’s Gate, a rock formation shaped by the river, and Dragon’s Tooth, before rafters finish at a park in Sandstone.
Relaxed and at ease on the Kettle, Vavricka and a visitor chatted while his terrier-mix Scout patrolled the rocky shoreline. He talked about his romance with the water trail, the approaching rafting season and, moreover, Sandstone, a small city embracing its outdoors identity. “It’s a great place,” he said.
Dave Friend of Shoreview has run big water for 15 years. He said the Kettle is a go-to river for many (“It’s close and always fun”). Friend likes to launch his nine-foot Esquif canoe, which stands equal to the smaller kayaks as a versatile, solid play boat. He is a board member for a group called Rapids Riders, which posts river level data for Minnesota and Wisconsin rivers on its website and also leads white-water classes. In fact, Friend was more of the flat-water type until he took a tandem white-water class through the group: He said he tired of portaging on trips every time swift water appeared.
Hell’s Gate, anyone?