For a time, they were silent.
The sound of the river surrounded the two men as they stood knee-deep in the cool water. A mourning dove cooed unseen along a bank. Songbirds were singing in the trees, and a woodpecker was doing its work.
The clouds had dissipated as the sun rose above the horizon that morning, revealing blue sky and bright light caught by water droplets shed from fishing lines as the men cast their flies.
This was the Kinnickinnic River in River Falls, Wis., and you’d be hard pressed to find a more serene location this close to the Twin Cities.
Thanks to cold-water spring inputs throughout the river’s length, the Kinnickinnic — or “Kinni,” as it’s commonly called — boasts one of the best populations of stream trout in Wisconsin, drawing fly fishermen and fisherwomen from near and far.
It’s also a popular spot for kayakers. Although it cuts directly through River Falls, there is little development along much of its stretch, and one can travel for miles through what feels like wilderness.
On Tuesday morning, the river’s waters had called to David Keene, of Richmond, Texas, and his friend Paul Beckmann, of Mendota Heights, both there for the trout.
It was the first time Keene had fished the river in four years, and he was excited to again be on its waters, he said. After they got into their waders and checked their gear, the pair strolled down a trail, passing dragonflies and wildflowers.
“I don’t fish any other way,” Keene said once he and Beckmann were in the water and casting near a pool. “Once you get into fly-fishing, you start to lose interest in other kinds of fishing.”
He reached into the river and pulled up a rock, turning it to reveal tiny mayfly nymphs wriggling on the underside. It was one way to gauge the local insect life — a helpful tool for fly-fishing.
“Based on what I see here, I should have put on a small, brownish mayfly nymph,” he said, before returning his attention to casting.
Water droplets falling from fishing line reflect the morning sunlight as David Keene, of Richmond, Tex., fishes on the Kinnickinnic River on Tuesday, July 22, 2014. Keene, who was fly fishing with friend Paul Beckmann, of Mendota Heights, was on the river in River Falls, Wis., for the first time in four years. (Pioneer Press: Andy Rathbun)
The fish that morning didn’t seem interested in what Keene and Beckmann were putting out, and Beckmann exclaimed that the spot was “pretty much like the Dead Sea.”
As soon as he said it, something hit Keene’s fly and he pulled up a small brown trout.
‘TRAPPED IN TIME’
Robert Chambers started fishing on the Kinni in the early 1970s. He’d park with friends near the County Road F bridge, about two miles from the river’s mouth, and walk upstream, amazed.
“I couldn’t believe a stream like this was so close to the cities and so unspoiled,” said Chambers, now board president of the Kinnickinnic River Land Trust, which works to protect land in the watershed.
“No matter how far we walked … all we saw on the way up was cliffs and pines and birds and deer,” he said. “We never saw any sign of any humans.”
The river canyon where they would walk for hours, he said, appeared to be “trapped in time, somehow.”
These days, more people are fishing on the river, and kayaking has grown in popularity, too. Along with the rise of the two activities has come some contention.
“There are a lot of circumstances where people get upset about it,” Brian Smolinski, owner of Lund’s Fly Shop in River Falls, said of how kayakers, particularly beginners, can disturb the fishing.
“You can really tell who’s a beginner kayaker and who’s an experienced one by how they handle running into someone fishing the water,” he said.
Smolinski sees kayakers with less experience splashing more in the water — a disturbance that scares the trout from their feeding locations. The ruckus can keep fish from returning to the spots for 30 minutes or more, he said, adding that the best thing a kayaker can do during the encounter is pass the angler quietly.
But he added that the river belongs to everyone, boater and angler alike. And despite more people on the water, a little slice of seclusion can still be found.
Beginning north of Interstate 94 and emptying into the St. Croix River, the river snakes southwest for about 25 miles, cutting directly though River Falls — a city of about 15,000 named for the river’s waterfalls, now covered by dams.
Outside the city, there are stretches along the river that have escaped any development; that’s particularly true along the “Lower Kinni,” the section downstream from the dams.
Accessing the Lower Kinni can take a bit more effort, but it rewards visitors with canyon views and “spectacular scenery,” said Kent Johnson, a member of Kiap-TU-Wish, the local chapter of Trout Unlimited.
“The experience once you get there, particularly in the lower canyon area, is just incredible,” Johnson said. “It’s an amazing river down there.”
WATER AND ROCK
The distinction between the lower and upper portions of the river is a result of the water cutting through two different rock formations.
In the “Upper Kinni,” the water travels through softer sandstone bedrock called St. Peter Sandstone, which is seen all over St. Paul, including along the Mississippi River banks, said Holly Dolliver, associate professor of geology and soil science at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.
“You can dig it with your hands,” she said of the softness of the sandstone.
As the water cuts through the rock, it hits what’s called the Prairie du Chien group — a much harder rock formation made up primarily of dolostone, which does not erode as easily as St. Peter Sandstone.
“Now the river has to work a lot harder at cutting, and instead of going laterally back and forth, it starts to carve canyons,” Dolliver said. “It’s just a completely different geology when the river transitions north and east of River Falls to south and west (of the city).”
There’s rich geological history in that river rock, which is at least 450 million years old.
“This area represented a much different environment (at that time),” Dolliver said. “The St. Peter Sandstone is the remnants of an ancient beach in this area. The Prairie du Chien group … represents near-surface reef-type deposits.”
The river’s age is hard to gauge. Silt and clay deposits indicate that at least part of the valley is older than 800,000 years, but it’s not clear how far beyond that the river’s age extends, said Kerry Keen, professor of geology and environmental science at UW-River Falls.
He added that the river also has undergone changes in more recent years.
“It’s like a more recent, young river, on top of some older features,” Keen said.
He noted that another important aspect of the river valley’s geology is the solubility of the rock — allowing the formation of fractures, through which water flows.
Because of those cracks, springs have formed throughout the river’s length, and the ground-cooled water lowers the temperature of the river, allowing trout to thrive.
A COLD-WATER-DRIVEN ECOSYSTEM
“For a spring stream, a groundwater stream, it’s probably one of the best in the Midwest,” Marty Engel, fisheries biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said of the river’s trout population.
“It has national appeal, and even outside of that,” he said. “It has that reputation.”
For the state of Wisconsin, the Kinni is consistently in the 95th percentile or higher for juvenile trout production, total trout density and “quality-sized fish,” like brown trout over 12 inches, Engel said.
He added that when looking at fish over 15 inches, the Kinni starts to lose out to other waters in the state, however.
The river, which hasn’t been stocked since the 1970s, is listed by the DNR as a Class 1 stream — the department’s highest classification of trout stream.
And it’s not just the cold water that makes the Kinni so trout friendly; the slope of the river also influences the population. The slope makes for continually moving waters, which in turn create riffle areas. Those areas produce a more coarse river floor — a better habitat for aquatic insects than silt, said Johnson, who manages the air and water monitoring programs at the Metropolitan Council.
Those aquatic insects are a trout’s primary food source. And the rocky areas they prefer are also where trout lay their eggs.
“Those riffle areas are also the productive areas the trout use for spawning in the fall,” said Johnson. “They’re really important from a couple different perspectives.”
Along with the trout population, other elements of the ecosystem are affected by the Kinni’s cold water; the temperature of the water creates something of a microclimate along the river’s edges, impacting everything from insect to plant life, Johnson said.
“There’s a preference for certain plants to grow along those edges,” he said. “So you’ll see things like watercress and jewelweed, things that you would not normally see in warm-water streams. It definitely sprouts its own, somewhat unique plant community.”
While cold water feeds the river throughout its length, the Kinni’s temperature is not entirely constant, particularly when comparing the upper and lower portions.
That’s partly because dams in River Falls, which the city uses for hydroelectric power, create two shallow lakes that can warm the water between the two sections of river.
During the summer months, there’s routinely a “pretty dramatic difference in downstream temperature versus upstream temperature based on the impacts of those two facilities,” Johnson said, adding that difference can be as much as 4 or 5 degrees.
Federal licensing for the city’s hydroelectric plant is up for renewal, which has sparked calls in the community for removal of the dams. But regardless of what happens with the dams, other sources of warming are concerning, said Johnson, who has been monitoring the river’s water temperature at various locations since 1991.
“Every time it rains, we see a warm-water spike in the river downstream from direct storm-water inputs,” Johnson said. Under a worst-case scenario, that spike can be as high as 10 degrees, he said.
The city of River Falls has implemented a storm-water management ordinance that sets infiltration requirements for new development. Along with preventing the water runoff — which can be warmed as it travels over asphalt or concrete — from escaping into the river, infiltration also recharges the aquifers, Johnson said.
“Climate change will be a big issue down the road, too,” he added. “These cold-water resources will be amongst the hardest hit.”
For those who help manage the river, both issues are important for the Kinni’s future, he said.
“It’s an amazing resource,” Johnson said. “And the importance for us is to figure out how to maintain those cold-water conditions into the future.”
Andy Rathbun can be reached at 651-228-2121. Follow him at twitter.com/andyrathbun.