The Kettle River in eastern Minnesota starts out easy, but once you reach Banning State Park, it can turn into one heck of a ride. It’s one of the best whitewater rivers in the Midwest, but when the water runs high, it’s definitely experts only.
Run the Banning State Park to Old Dam Site stretch for a day trip. Wear some comfy boardshorts , and bring a dry pack to keep stuff dry. Follow the park road off of MN 23 east, and put in at the lot. The first rapids you’ll hit is called Blueberry Slide, the fastest, skeeviest stretch of rapids the Kettle has. In low water, it’s a class II, but in high, it’s at least a IV. Scout from river right before you launch, or paddle to the island and scout river left. Run the Slide to the left, hitting the deepest water, then follow the flow right to take some drops down.
This 4.5 mile stretch is filled with rapids, holes, falls and rocks, so expect to portage*.* Get out river left before Dragon’s Tooth to scout. The run ends with a monster wave when the water’s high, so consider your skill level before you try it. You’ll recognize Hell’s Gate by the narrowing of the river and the bluffs on both sides. Get out left and scout. If you decide to run it, stick to the middle. It’s a IV in high water, but a III in low water. Next look for Wolf Creek falls to enter from river right — a great lunch stop.
The next portage arrives just before Robinson Park to avoid Quarry Rapids. Portage right to avoid the crosscurrent that has flipped more than one kayak in high water, or the rocks and spikes that appear in low water. Continue downstream to Big Spring Falls, an 8-footer that splits around an island. You can portage, or run it river right or left, both class III-IV and each with its own hazards. Continue through the Sandstone Rapids and take out river right just past the rapids at the Old Dam Site, and enjoy the quiet forest.
(Study Greg Breining’s book, Paddling Minnesota, Morris Book Publishing, 1999, for more information about Kettle River and the Banning State Park to Old Dam Site run.)