Kettle River claims famed whitewater and a wide watershed

The wild and scenic St. Croix River tributary is loved for paddling and more, with new conservation efforts in the headwaters getting off the ground.




6 minute read

Kim Samuelson is Carlton Soil & Water Conservation District’s elected supervisor for District 4, which is part of the Kettle River Watershed.

Kettle River at Banning State Park. (Photo courtesy Minnesota Pollution Control Agency)

Eighty major watersheds cover every square inch of the whole state of Minnesota. Carlton County, like many others, has multiple watersheds within its boundaries and all four have their own unique characteristics. The Mississippi River – Grand Rapids Watershed drains the northwest portion of Carlton County, the St. Louis River Watershed drains the northeast part, and the Nemadji River Watershed drains the middle- and southeastern portions.

The fourth, the Kettle River Watershed, drains the middle and southwestern part of Carlton County.

The first three watersheds have had major water monitoring and some assessments done, along with a variety of environmental projects completed, in recent years. However, monitoring and assessment just started in the Kettle River Watershed. Through this  article (part one), Carlton County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) will introduce you to the Kettle River, its watershed, and its river designations. In part two, we’ll investigate two of the river’s unusual “residents.” 

Kettle River’s name came from the English translation of the Dakota word, Cega watpa, and the Anishinaabe word, Akikko-ziibi, which both mean “Kettle River” and come from the large number of “kettles,” or large rounded holes, that the swirling river waters carved out of sandstone in and around the lower portions of the river. 

A kettle (or pothole) along the Kettle River in Banning State Park. (Photo by Aaron Fulkerson/Wikipedia)

From its headwaters in Carton County, the Kettle River Watershed drains 672,235 acres along its 104 mile route until ten miles northeast of Pine City, where its waters become part of the St. Croix River system. 

The main branch of the Kettle River originates from the small, slow-flowing bog streams east of Cromwell, while the west branch of the Kettle River starts in the swampy areas southwest of Wright. The west branch joins the main Kettle River northeast of the intersection of Highway 73 and Carlton County Road 131. A little further downriver, where the Kettle River crosses County Road 131 in Kalevala Township, the river becomes large enough to support gamefish, the larger fish suitable for fishing. 

The width of the Kettle River ranges from 75 feet at the beginning of the navigable portion to over 250 feet in the lower sections of the river. There are also some very deep sections of the river with pools reaching over 100 feet deep. Because of this astounding depth, as well as the generally good water quality, the river has a good-sized population of gamefish, including the ancient-looking lake sturgeon.

The mouth of the Kettle River where it joins the St. Croix. (Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360)

Although the Kettle River and many of the lakes in the watershed do have some mercury and bacteria impairment, the river’s water quality is relatively good. The amber-colored water may look polluted, but don’t worry! The tint of the water comes from the tannins (leaf colorings) of the wetlands which drain into the river. The wetlands themselves are good and needed for filtering runoff and stabilizing base flow.

Last year, Carlton SWCD began monitoring work in the Kettle River Watershed to “identify the different water quality impairments and figure out where they originate,” according to SWCD Manager Brad Matlack. This monitoring work is “part of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s (MPCA) Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy (WRAPS) Program, a ten year assessment that will identify the problems, what needs to be protected, and how to engage landowners to help with restoration and protection.” 

Most of the Kettle River Watershed is private land (74%) with much of rest state-owned (22%). About 34.2% of the watershed is in Carlton County with the rest in Aitkin (10%), Pine (52.8%), and Kanabec (3.1%). Most of the watershed is forested (55%) with the remainder as wetlands (19%), grass pasture/hay (20%), and residential or commercial developed (3.4%). The Kettle River is also heavily bounded by forests of black spruce, fir, aspen, maple, ash, and elm with some red, white and jack pines scattered throughout.

Grindstone River (MPCA)

Working with the landowners is important to the Carlton SWCD as the healthier the forests, farmlands, wetlands and soils are, the healthier the river will be.

The Kettle River Watershed includes 23 lakes (greater than 100 acres in size), including the Hanging Horn, Sand, Grindstone, Sturgeon, and Island Lakes. Some of the tributaries that feed into the Kettle River include the Dead Moose and Split Rock Rivers, which join the river in Carlton County, and the Moose Horn, Willow, Pine and Grindstone Rivers, which join in Pine County. Wolf Creek joins the Kettle River in Banning State Park after passing over a beautiful, 12-foot waterfall. 

Since much of the river’s water comes from runoff, the Kettle River is subject to low flow waters, especially in the upper portions of the river and particularly later in the summer. The river can be reduced to a trickle during dry, hot summer days and then rise to whitewater torrents after a few days of heavy rain. 

These whitewater torrents and rapids are one of the Kettle’s best features. The MN DNR classified the Kettle River State Water Trail as “one of the best whitewater rivers in the Midwest.” Most of the rapids are Class I (easy rapids with small waves and few obstructions) during low water. However, some parts of the river reach Class II (rapids with waves up to three feet high) or Class III (difficult rapids with high, irregular waves capable of swamping an open canoe) during high water. Class III is usually considered the limit for experienced paddlers in open canoes. 

The upper section of the Kettle River, above Banning State Park, has generally quick moving waters with riffles and a few Class I rapids. As the river flows through Banning State Park, however, its character changes quickly due to river drops through a series of Class I to Class IV (long and turbulent) whitewater rapids known as “Hells Gate.”

Some of the rapids are easily run by canoeists when water levels are low to moderate. However, during very high water, they can become extremely dangerous, even to experienced whitewater kayakers and rafters, especially because of the steep rocky sides of the river, the undercut banks and the kettles. 

Kayakers shooting Blueberry Slide on the Kettle River (Photo by Aaron Fulkerson/Wikipedia)

After the river leaves Banning State Park, it quiets down significantly before it reaches Big Spring Falls, which were re-created in 1995 when the Sandstone Dam was removed to restore the natural river system. Between the falls and the river’s merger with the St. Croix River, the Kettle River continues to drop at a moderate rate with frequent riffles and occasional Class I rapids.   

Because of these rapids, and other physical attributes of the Kettle River, part of the river was also designated a Minnesota Wild and Scenic River in 1975. According to the MN DNR waters website, “Wild rivers are those that exist in a free-flowing state with excellent water quality and with adjacent lands that are essentially primitive….” The “wild” portion of the river is from the old Sandstone dam site and downstream to the river’s mouth at the St. Croix River. This final section of the Kettle River has some of the best canoeing available in the state, with its manageable rapids, good fishing, frequent wildlife sightings, and absence of people. The Kettle River is one of only two rivers with Minnesota Wild River designation.

The “scenic” portion of the river is from the Carlton-Pine county line downstream to the old Sandstone dam site. This section includes the rapids in Banning State Park, as well as the impressive steep and rocky sides, the “kettles,” and the sandstone formations.

The MN DNR waters website states that, “Scenic rivers…exist in a free-flowing state and with adjacent lands that are largely undeveloped” (i.e., they still present an overall natural character but may have been developed for agricultural, residential, or other land uses). The Kettle River is one of six Minnesota rivers, including the St. Croix River, with this designation.

Finally, according to the National Park Service, once the Kettle River joins the St. Croix River, it becomes part of another designation, the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway…250 miles of clean water that glides and rushes through wild and beautiful forested landscapes.

Now you have met the beautiful Kettle River and its watershed. In part two, we’ll introduce two of the Kettle River’s unusual “residents” – lake sturgeon and wild rice. 

For more information about the Carlton County SWCD or any of the watersheds, please call the office at 218-384-3891, check them out on Facebook, or go to their website at


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Kettle River claims famed whitewater and a wide watershed