Excerpt from “Portage: A Family, a Canoe, and the Search for the Good Life” by Sue Leaf appears courtesy of the University of Minnesota Press.
Copyright 2015 Sue Leaf. All rights reserved.www. upress.umn.edu
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Let me admit up front that any river that has a stretch known as Hell’s Gate will not be my first choice of waterways to paddle. This would also be true for those boasting of Devil’s Cauldrons, Devil’s Kettles, Devil’s Tracks, or even a Dragon’s Tooth. In the same way that it does not matter to me whether a snake in the vicinity is poisonous or nonpoisonous, any river that has an inclination to white water is suspect. So someone must have been talking pretty fast when I agreed to paddle the Kettle River one Sunday in July, taking along our four precious children, ages eleven, nine, seven, and four.
We took two canoes on this jaunt. The youngest was finally old enough to paddle, somewhat, and able to swim, somewhat. We now planned canoe outings with all four kids. We had bought a new, lighter-weight, seventeen-foot Old Town Penobscot canoe earlier in the summer. Made out of green high-tech Royalex, a type of plastic, it weighed only sixty-five pounds, a full ten pounds lighter than our aluminum Grumman, which was built like an airplane and was nearly as indestructible.
In June, we had launched the Old Town in the clear waters of the Big Fork River in northern Minnesota. The trip on this summer’s afternoon would be our second time out with all six of us. I was still learning to handle the Old Town. It seemed to slip sleekly through the water, and I was still becoming accustomed to paddling in the stern, after a decade of being the bowman. I knew how to paddle in the stern. The paddler in the stern steers the canoe, and I knew all the strokes. I just wasn’t used to being the one in charge.
On the Big Fork River and now on the Kettle, Tom took the tanklike Grumman with Katie, age nine, in the bow, and the two little ones sitting side by side amidships. Andy and I paddled the new Old Town. He was eleven and strong, and the Old Town, so the reasoning went, was maneuverable and slipped easily over submerged rocks, of which the Kettle has many. So the deficit of my being at the stern was equalized.
Canoeists consider the Kettle to be one of the prettiest rivers in Minnesota, a state that has many gorgeous little rivers. The source for the eighty-four-mile river is in the bog streams of Carlton County. As the waters collect, the river flows south through Pine County into the St. Croix River. It tumbles over rock ledges and around big boulders, rapids and riffles creating a delightful river to paddle in a canoe or kayak. Water levels can change dramatically, because it is mostly dependent on water from its tributaries, not from underground springs, so the challenge to paddlers changes, too. Sometimes rocks are exposed, sometimes the same ones are hidden, and in high water, those very rocks pose no threat at all.
The Hell’s Gate section of the Kettle — a section that kayakers love for its thrills — was farther upstream from the stretch we intended to canoe. Our trip was on a fifteen-mile portion from Sandstone to Hinckley. We put the canoes in directly below an old dam erected across the river in 1908. A year after our trip, in 1995, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources would remove this dam, and the entire length of the Kettle River would once again be free-flowing. (Give a little cheer here for the removal of dams!) But when we dropped our two canoes in, the dam was in place. Tom assured me the rapids we would encounter were all fairly tame. Furthermore, he would go first and show me the safe path through them.
We had not been on the river more than ten minutes when we came upon our first set of rapids. They looked intimidating to me, though they were categorized as a Class I, the easiest ones. Class I’s do not have standing rocks, are simple to run, and as the guide book says, “The risk to swimmers is slight.” But, of course, the class categorization changes with water level.