A spin on the Kinni
From friendly River Falls, it's a wild ride on water, then roads.
© Beth Gauper
A kayaker heads down the Kinnickinnic River from River Falls, Wis.
On Wisconsin's Kinnickinnic River, paddling is a lot like playing pinball — except your boat is the ball.
Quickened by springs and creeks as it flows toward the St. Croix, the Kinni is no lazy river. Cold and insistent, it scoops up a boat and gives it a ride, slapping it between boulders, bumping it over rubble and shooting it over rapids. All the person in the boat has to do is sit tight and steer.
On a warm summer day, it's the coolest possible place to play. So one August, my husband and I drove to River Falls, a college town that calls itself "The City on the Kinni."
First, we had to pick up some picnic fare, so we went downtown, which we immediately liked — who wouldn't, when 3 cents
buys 36 minutes of parking?
We crossed the street to Lighthouse Coffee, and within 10 minutes, we'd bought not only ready-to-go chicken-salad croissants but also a beautifully made fabric handbag by local artist Judy Rommel and handmade raspberry truffles by locals Bonnie Christensen and Rhonda Johnson.
We also had gotten a preview of our kayaking trip from barista Nell Henry. She had plenty of time to chat, though she was busy juggling orders; the cheerful shop is one of those small-town social hubs that draws caffeine lovers like hummingbirds to nectar.
"Just here for a little field trip?" Henry asked. "Oh, it's a pretty river. That reminds me, I really need to do that soon. I usually tube. That takes five hours as opposed to three in a kayak; it's the slow and lazy way. Maybe you'll see eagles and osprey. There's an osprey nest; of course, it's empty now, but maybe they'll be hanging around. We see beaver and muskrat, oh, and there are kingfishers galore."
As we left, she called, "Have fun and be safe."
Out on the sidewalk, we were amazed to see an officer ticketing parked cars. If an hour costs a nickel, how much could a ticket be?
Ralph Ducklow, who was going into the coffee shop and had stopped to smile at us and say hello, gave the answer: $5. He said he usually pays with change he finds sweeping the streets, a volunteer job he shares with several other retired men.
"I sweep the streets every Wednesday," he said. "I threw out my (cigarette) butts for 50 years, and now I'm paying."
Just then, a flustered young woman swept by us into the shop, having just seen her car ticketed.
"I hate those ladies!" she said. "They're like devils. They wait and pounce."
Actually, officer Eve Cole was very nice. We ran into her on the next block and asked why people wouldn't plug in a few measly pennies.
"That's the big question," she said with a smile. "I have no clue. If they see me here and they only have quarters, I let them go get change."
Two tricky places
We could have spent the whole day chatting with the locals in this Midwestern Mayberry, but we had an appointment to keep at Kinni Creek Outfitters, a few blocks back up Main Street.
© Beth Gauper
Rock cliffs line the Kinnickinnic River.
Tucked between houses, the small outfitter does a steady business on the river, and after we had agreed to a pick-up time at Kinnickinnic State Park, shuttle driver Greg Lackey loaded us and two Old Town Otter kayaks into a van and took us down to Glen Park.
"There are two tricky places," he said. "One is where the current pushes you into a tree, and one is where it goes straight into a rock wall, and you have to paddle out of the current."
Carrying the 12-foot kayaks down wooden steps, we put in below a dam, where three fishermen were casting flies; the Kinni is a Class I trout stream, full of native brown trout and, especially on its upper stretch, some brook trout.
Its pristine water and its banks, so far unmarred by development, are zealously guarded by the Kinnickinnic River Land Trust, Trout Unlimited and the many others who want to preserve it.
As we put in, we were joined by Eric Danielson of Stillwater, who had been dropped off by his friend Jon Michels, director of the land trust. Danielson called the river "a jewel."
"Winter is actually a really good time to come, too," he said. "It's really interesting, with the ice on the bluffs."
It's a good thing the river is so clear, because that makes it easier to spot the rocks. We really did feel like pinballs,
swerving this way and that after spotting telltale plumes of water but often getting banged anyway.
Sometimes, the bed was so close to the surface we were barely able to squeeze over it; I had more luck than Torsten, who weighs more and grounded his boat several times.
It doesn't seem like a good river for beer-drinking bubbas, though Kinni Creek Outfitters owner Paige Olson-Lackey says it gets its share. Bring a heavy cooler and you scrape; fail to pay attention, you get a snoot full of water.
When we weren't shooting over rapids — exhilarating when there wasn't a boulder in our way — we could look around and admire the river valley, known as the Canyon. Orange jewelweed and coneflower lined its grassy banks, and kingfishers and goldfinches flew overhead.
When we ran into Danielson eating his lunch on a grassy point, he said a green heron and a great blue had been leading him downstream. Passing him, we saw the two herons; a little farther, we saw two deer drinking from the river.
About halfway down, we spotted a sandy point that was perfect for lunch, and there was a picnic table around the next bend. But we spent most of our time a little farther down, where there was a sandy bank and a deep stretch where we could swim in the cool water, dog-paddling against the current or floating on top of it, letting it twirl us like oak seeds.
The last third is the most scenic, with sandstone cliffs and wooded bluffs that shade the water and perfume the air with the scent of pine. From one cliff face, the "weeping cliffs," streams of water fell steadily, seemingly straight out of clumps of moss.
Rolling back to River Falls
The takeout was easy to spot; there's only one bridge, and that was it. Soon, our driver was there, but not to pick us up.
He'd brought our bikes, so we could ride them seven miles back to River Falls.
After the road met Wisconsin 29/35, a paved bicycle trail took us to the edge of town. As we rode through downtown, we heard music and followed it to Veterans Park, where families were sitting on limestone risers or wrought-iron benches, listening to a blues concert by Jonathan Earl.
Next to it, a pretty bowstring bridge crossed the Kinni to the site of two 1858 mills, now parkland laced with trails.
By then, we liked River Falls quite a lot, and I made a mental note to come every summer. We had been able to kayak, swim, bike, shop and listen to music, all in one day. In summer, you can't do any better than that.
Trip Tips: River Falls
Getting there: In light traffic, it's only half an hour east of the Twin Cities.
When to go: As always, paddling is best on weekdays or early on weekends.
Kayaking: The eight-mile stretch of the Lower Kinni is shallow and full of rocks, so single kayaks negotiate it better than canoes. Everyone will scrape over rocks, but paddlers who don't weigh much and can avoid most of the rocks will have the most fun.
People who weigh more than 200 pounds will have to get out and pull their kayaks over shallow spots. Inexperienced paddlers may tip if they allow the current to steer them into trees or rock walls.
In River Falls, Kinni Creek Outfitters at 545 N. Main St. rents kayaks and canoes, drops clients off at Glen Park and provides a ride back from Kinnickinnic State Park. Single kayaks are $35, tandem kayaks and canoes $55.
When requesting a pick-up time, allow three hours for paddling and plenty of time for picnicking and swimming; if renters are
late for pick-up, the outfitter may impose a $100 fee.
On weekends, all kayaks and canoes often are rented; to reserve, call 877-504-9705 or 715-425-7378. The outfitter also shuttles paddlers to the Upper Kinni, though it's not as scenic.
The river is rough on boats, but if you want to use your own, put in at Glen Park in River Falls. To get there, go through downtown and past the UW campus; turn right at Park Street. From the street, there's a steep climb down to the river.
To shuttle yourself, leave a car at the Angler's Lot in Kinnickinnic State Park, off County Road F just north of its junction with County Road FF. The car must have a state-park vehicle permit ($7 residents, $10 nonresidents), and rangers do check.
Or, leave bicycles in the lot and ride the seven miles back to River Falls on County Road FF, a lovely and lightly traveled road with wide shoulders; the hill out of the park is the only steep part. At the junction with Wisconsin 35/29, there's a paved bike trail that takes riders to Cemetery Road; from there, use sidewalks or the street.
Kinnickinnic River Land Trust: The nonprofit group holds several field trips in summer and fall, $5. For information, call 1-715-425-5738.
Dining: In River Falls, Lighthouse Coffee on Main Street is a good place to pick up a sandwich. The town also has many pizza places, pubs and cafes.
Events: Saturday mornings from May through October, farmers' market at Second and Locust streets. Second weekend of
July, River Falls Days, with a Friday night parade, demolition derby and fireworks.
Accommodations: In River Falls, Kinni Creek Lodge is just north of downtown, off 29/35, which also is Main Street. It has three rooms in a house across the parking lot from the outfitting office, from which guests can walk down limestone slabs to play in the narrow, shallow river.
The Rocky Branch room is roomy and has a view of the water; the other two rooms, are quite small. The whole house can be rented and can sleep up to nine. There's a rec room and a hot tub on the back deck for guests, and a make-your-own breakfast of cereal, yogurt and English muffins is included. For reservations, call 877-504-9705 or 715-425-7378.
Two blocks away, America's Best Value Inn has motel rooms, including a continental breakfast, 715-425-6707.
Camping: On the east side of River Falls, Hoffman Park has electric hook-ups, bathrooms and showers. Sites are $12, first-come, first-served. For details, call 715-425-0924.
Information: River Falls chamber, 715-425-2533.
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