The mystery of Minnesota’s disappearing river
The Judge C.R. Magney State Park is on Minnesota’s north shore of Lake Superior. It is just a few miles south of the border with Canada. Is has several waterfalls. One of them has mystified geologists for decades. It has also mystified hikers. Why? One of the water falls simply disappears. This is according to Caitlin Schneider. She was reporting for Mental Floss.
The Brule River flows through the park. It drops 800 feet in eight miles as it carves its way toward the lake. A “thick knuckle of rhyolite” (a volcanic rock) splits the river in two. This happens at Devil’s Kettle Falls. This is according to Stacie Boschma. She was reporting for MNN.com. One side streams over the rocks. It is like a normal waterfall. The second half of the river drops into a deep hole. But no one knows where it ends up.
Schneider writes that scientists think the river must drain somewhere beneath Lake Superior. But nobody knows for sure. Over the years, she writes, “researchers and the curious have poured dye, pingpong balls, even logs into the kettle. They then watched the lake for any sign of them. So far, none has ever been found.”
Travis Boser is an intrepid Youtuber. He took a video. It was from a perch between the diverging river that peeks into the Devil’s Kettle. A few logs can be seen at the bottom of the hole. In the comments, Boser notes that the river was low at the time of his recording. It was a flow that allowed him to scramble up to that viewpoint.
People have proposed a few possible explanations. But the trouble is that the geology of the area doesn’t support them. Caves and underground channels most commonly form in limestone rocks. Limestone dissolves easily in water. But the park rests on layers of basalt. It also rests of layers of rhyolite. It erupted when the North American continent started to rift apart. That was 1.1 billion years ago. The rift failed. It left behind a huge curving basin. It now holds Lake Superior.
Some think the hole is the opening of a lava tube. But rhyolites never form lava tubes. Basaltic lava does. But those rock layers are far below the river bed. They are also of the wrong type. They are sheets of flood basalt. It is not the kind that flows and typically form tubes. What if one did somehow form? It would be strange for it to extend all the way to the lake and never grow clogged with sediment, trees and other debris. An open fault line is another offered explanation. But it would face the same problem.
The disappearing river remains a mystery. Whether or not you think you can solve it, you can take a look for yourself. Viewing it in person requires a mile-long hike. It also requires a climb of 200 steps. But it should be worth the effort.