By Jim Umhoefer
Mention the Kettle River to white-water canoeists and their eyes light up at the thought of the Banning Rapids, a collection of challenging, frothy drops with picturesque names like Blueberry Slide, Mother's Delight, Dragon's Tooth, and Hell's Gate. This river is known for its wild scenery, hundred-foot bluffs, rugged sandstone cliffs and dense woods.
The Kettle River has a wilderness character only 100 miles of the Twin Cities. Deer are commonly spotted from the river, although black bear, bobcat and other forest mammals share the tree cover. Beaver, muskrat and otter are occasionally sighted along the Kettle's course. Several species of duck and some Canada geese nest near the river.
The Kettle River reacts swiftly to heavy rain. The fluctuating water level means that rapids that are runnable today might be dangerous following a storm. If the Highway 48 bridge gauge reads above 4.5 feet and the Highway 23 gauge read above 1 foot, then most of the Kettle rapids are canoeable. Except for a few quiet stretches, most of the river is usually too shallow to canoe by late summer.
The Highway 23 gauge is the one to read before running the Banning Rapids. Don't overestimate your white-water ability-these rapids are forceful and perilous, with waves that can rear up as high as the gauge reading. If you'd like to bypass the rapids or scout them before running, take the 1.5-mile portage trail on the left bank.
Most of the pitches in the Banning Rapids vary in difficulty from Class II to Class IV, depending on low, moderate or high water. Experienced white-water lovers prefer the maneuverability of kayaks on these rapids, although some use open canoes stuffed with flotation devices when the water level is lower. April is usually the peak month for high water flow in the Banning Rapids. Consult the DNR's canoe route map or A Gathering of Waters, a guide to Minnesota's rivers, for tips about the specific rapids.
Just after Hell's Gate rapids, Wolf Creek joins the Kettle River on the right bank. Follow the creek into the woods about 100 yards to see a pretty 10-foot waterfall. A mile below Wolf Creek is the town of Sandstone and an access in Robinson Park. This city campground and picnic area also features remnants of some sandstone quarries.
The last 6.5 miles of the route is known as the Lower Kettle River Rapids, a series of long boulder-bed pitches. They are impassable in low water (below 4.5 feet on the Highway 48 bridge gauge) and are rated Class I or II in high water. As the water level rises, some boulders are covered, making navigation a bit easier. This holds true for up to about 10 feet on the gauge. Above that level, water plunging over rocks forms 3-foot backrollers that can swamp a canoe. When the river is this high, the lower rapids are rated Class III.
The Kettle River flows through or near many public land units. Moose Lake State Recreation Area and General C.C. Andrews State Forest are both near the upper Kettle. Banning State Park (straddling the famous rapids), Sandstone National Wildlife Refuge and the Kettle River Scientific and Natural Area border the middle stretch of the river.