“It’s a rugged hike, but not that bad,” the young park ranger at Judge Magney State Park assured me. “I’ve seen a three-year-old and a little dog and a 70-year-old do it.”
Not much doubt which category I belonged in.
“How far is it?” I asked.
“About a mile to the stairs. That’s the hardest part – a lot of stairs. You go down the stairs to the upper falls and then climb back up a little and go farther to the Devil’s Kettle. And of course you can continue on with the Superior Hiking Trail, if you want to go further.”
“So … maybe an hour for two miles there and back?”
Mendaciously, she agreed.
The trail began at a bridge over the Brule River, framed by trees and a bright, blue sky above. Then into the woods, and uphill. Totally uphill, with rocks and roots to keep me looking down. I could hear the river on my left, thought the trees were too thick to see it. Occasionally, packed dirt and logs defined wide steps.
I met a few people coming down the path, mostly dripping sweat and looking a little the worse for wear. One older couple (older than me? who knows?) sat on one of the strategically placed benches, walking sticks in their hands. I wished I had a stick.
Eventually, I came to the stairs. 175 stair steps, the map said. Wooden. Zig-zagging down the hill. I thought about climbing the Dom Tower in Utrecht with Macy six years ago. Yes, I told myself. I can do this.
I started down, promising myself that on the way back up I would rest at one of the landings with benches.
Before I reached the river, a sign pointed upward to the Devil’s Kettle—700 feet. That doesn’t sound far, I thought.
Turned out to be 700 feet of those broad log-and-dirt stairs, up and up and up. And then the Devil’s Kettle, spuming down in twin waterfalls.
One of the waterfalls empties into the Brule, down 800 feet and then flowing on into Lake Superior. The other? It disappears. That’s the Devil’s Kettle. No one knows where it goes. Nature has thrown boulders and trees over the falls. Researchers have dropped ping pong balls and logs into it and watched for them to surface … somewhere. Nothing.
Legends say someone dropped a car over the falls, which is likely impossible, given the terrain and lack of roads. In 2017, scientists from the Minnesota DNR measured water flow above and below the falls and decided that the Devil’s Kettle just surfaced, invisibly, somewhere close to the point where the water falls into it. Maybe.
Impressive as the Devil’s Kettle is, I like the Upper Falls better. The Upper Falls are below the point where the path turns toward the Devil’s Kettle, down another few flights of stairs.
These falls froth and foam over rocks and into the river, so close that the spray reached me as I stood on the rocks. Well worth the climb!
Then: back up 201 steps (I counted them.) By the end of the day, my phone reported that I had climbed 33 floors.
By the time I reached the top, even with brief rests on a few of the landings, my heart was pounding through my head. I sat for a few minutes, resting and dripping sweat. Then I set out on the blessedly downhill trail back to the park entrance.
Chatting with the park ranger, I asked about the Upper Falls and why it was called that, when it’s actually below the Devil’s Kettle. She explained that there is another falls between the Upper Falls and the mouth of the river. That one is the Lower Falls, but its trail has eroded badly, that it is no longer marked and no longer safe.
Maybe some day …