The Mystery of Devil's Kettle Falls

Side-by-side waterfalls send half a river to Lake Superior. But the other half?

Devil’s Kettle swallows half of the Brule River. Amy Meredith [CC BY-ND 2.0]/Flickr

If you’ve ever worried that we’ve solved all the mysteries of nature, fear not. Minnesota’s Devil’s Kettle Falls has been puzzling hikers and geologists for generations. At the falls, along Lake Superior’s north shore, a river forks at a rock outcropping. While one side tumbles down a two-step stone embankment and continues on like a normal waterfall, the other side vanishes into a deep hole and disappears—apparently forever.

What's Going On?

A few miles south of the U.S.-Canadian border, the Brule River flows through Minnesota’s Judge C. R. Magney State Park, where it drops 800 feet in an 8-mile span, creating several waterfalls. A mile and a half north of the shore of Lake Superior, a thick knuckle of rhyolite rock (the igneous equivalent of granite) juts out, dividing the river dramatically at the crest of the falls. To the east, a traditional waterfall carves a downward path, but to the west, a geological conundrum awaits visitors. A giant pothole, the Devil’s Kettle, swallows half of the Brule and, until recently, no one had any idea where it goes.

The consensus is that there must be an exit point somewhere beneath Lake Superior, but over the years, researchers and the curious have poured dye, ping pong balls, road signs, even logs into the kettle, then watched the lake for any sign of them. So far, none has ever been found. One man even rappelled 26 feet down into the hole and reportedly could not see the bottom.

And this baffling situation only gets weirder when geologists start explaining Devil’s Kettle. Consider, for instance, the sheer quantity of water pouring into the kettle every minute of every day. While the notion of some kind of broad, underground river is an exciting device in movies, the reality is that those sorts of deep caves are rare, and only form in soft rock types like limestone. Northern Minnesota, as geologists will tell you, is built of stronger stuff—solid granite.

In harder rocks like the local rhyolite and basalts, tectonic action can sometimes crush underground rock layers, creating a much more permeable environment for water. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence of a fault line in the area, and even if there were, it’s unlikely that the kettle could continue draining the Brule indefinitely. Storms and erosion send debris, sometimes as large as boulders and trees, over the falls and into the kettle—if the drainage route was, in effect, an underground gravel bed, at some point, it would clog.

Another idea is that millions of years ago, a hollow lava tube may have formed beneath the falls, in the subsurface layer of basalt. Over time, the theory posits, the falling water eroded the rhyolite surface and punched straight down into the ancient lava tube, providing wide-open access to the floor of Lake Superior. Again, there are problems with this theory, primarily that the local basalt is a type known as flood basalt, which spreads out as a flat sheet when ancient lava bubbled up from fissures in the ground. Lava tubes form in basalt flowing down the slopes of volcanoes, and even if the geology in northern Minnesota had somehow created an exception to that rule, no lava tubes have ever been found in any of the hundreds of exposed basalt beds in the area.

“People thought maybe it went to Canada because you're not very far from Canada, or that it went out into Lake Superior and came up like a submarine spring,” Jeff Green, a DNR springshed mapping hydrologist, told Motherboard’s podcast "Science Solved It." “There were just various theories like that, that the water was going away from the river. That was the key—that half the river flow was leaving the river.”

So Where Does the Water Go?

In February 2017, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said that water that disappears into the rock at Devil's Kettle resurges in the stream below the waterfall. Hydrologists compared the amount of water flowing above the waterfall with the amount flowing below it to see if some water was lost somewhere between the two locations.

In fall 2016, the DNR reports, hydrologists measured water flow above Devil's Kettle at 123 cubic feet per second, while several hundred feet below the waterfall, the water was flowing at 121 cubic feet per second.

"In the world of stream gauging, those two numbers are essentially the same and are within the tolerances of the equipment," said Green in a statement. "The readings show no loss of water below the kettle, so it confirms the water is resurging in the stream below it."

To confirm their theory, researchers plan on conducting a dye trace in fall 2017 during a low-water flow period. They'll pour a vegetable-based dye into the pothole and watch where the water resurfaces. This is a fluorescent, biodegradable dye that's visible at 10 parts per billion, so the hydrologists will use only a few quarts.

"What we think is happening is the water is going in the kettle, and coming up pretty close to immediately downstream of the falls," Green told MPR News.

As far as the disappearing items that never reappear? Green says there's really no mystery to that. Chalk it up to water force and fluid dynamics. "The plunge pool below the kettle is an unbelievably powerful system of recirculating currents, capable of disintegrating material and holding it under water until it resurfaces at some point downstream." There's no way ping pong balls or other materials could withstand that kind of pressure.

Green admits that if the dye is found below the falls like the scientists suspect, then much of the Devil's Kettle Falls mystery will be gone. "There's a little bit of that," he said, "that folks aren't going to stand there and wonder. But it will still be a fascinating spot, and a beautiful spot."

Mystery or not, these falls are a must-see if you're anywhere near Grand Marais, Minnesota. From the parking lot, it's a 1.5-mile hike that includes 200 stairs, so be sure to dress appropriately.