A spin on the Kinni
From friendly River Falls in western Wisconsin, take a wild ride on water.
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."
Two tricky places
Tucked between houses on Main Street, Kinni Creek Outfitters does a steady business on the river. After we had agreed to a pick-up time at Kinnickinnic State Park, our shuttle driver 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.
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 riverbed was so close to the surface we were barely able to squeeze over it.
It doesn't seem like a good river for beer-drinking bubbas. 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.
Midway, we saw 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.
Biking 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.
It was quite a climb from the park to County Road FF, a pastoral stretch with a wide shoulder. But then we rode along peacefully, watching our shadows on the cornfields, cast by the sinking sun.
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, part of the weekend Music in the Park series.
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 and listen to music, all in one day. In summer, you can't do any better than that.
Trip Tips: River Falls, Wisconsin
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.
When requesting a pick-up time, allow three hours for paddling and plenty of time for picnicking and swimming.
On weekends, all kayaks and canoes often are rented, so reserve in advance. 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 ($8 residents, $11 non-residents), 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.
From June through October, there's a farmers market Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon and Tuesdays 3-6 p.m.
In Veterans Park, there's Music in the Park 7-9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays from mid-June through August.
Kinnickinnic River Land Trust: The nonprofit group holds several field trips in summer and fall.
Camping: On the east side of River Falls, Hoffman Park has electric hook-ups, bathrooms and showers. Sites are first-come, first-served.
Information: River Falls chamber, 715-425-2533.