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Here's advice, warnings for those exploring Kinni

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outdoors Ellsworth,Wisconsin 54011
Pierce County Herald
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Here's advice, warnings for those exploring Kinni
Ellsworth Wisconsin 126 S. Chestnut St. 54011

Like his town of Clifton neighbor Rob Chambers, retired Dayton's cabinet maker Steve Cochrane has rescued stranded Kinnickinnic River travelers. Those rescued, he says, were either unprepared, ill equipped or both.


"In the last few years there have been multiple rescues by the Pierce County Sheriff's office, with other units and a helicopter," he said. "This has happened at night, with the choppers flying low using an atomic light and looking for lost souls.

"The noise scares the hell out of all living things -- horses, cattle, dogs, nesting eagles and humans -- the cost of which is born by Pierce County residents, not the fools who are lost...It doesn't seem fair."

Cochrane's house is located above the Kinni on sheer, rough terrain that plunges to the river. His address is at the two-thirds stage of the seven-mile journey that canoeists, kayakers and inner-tubers take from the lower dam by Glen Park to the County Road F bridge in Clifton.

Cochrane has assisted three boys, ages 10-12, who hiked more than six hours along the river.

The boys wore shorts, T-shirts and tennis shoes, were covered with burdocks and stung on their legs by nettles. Their first question to him: "Where are we?"

He also helped two girls last summer who capsized their heavy, square-bottom canoe and crawled away.

"People just don't seem to realize this is a deep canyon," Cochrane said. "It's full of cliffs and has a few deer trails. There are snakes -- yes, rattlesnakes -- it's overgrown with vegetation...It would take a strong-willed person to bushwhack out, especially at night.

"The people, the kids who cause these rescues put themselves and my neighbors in jeopardy, and especially the rescue people (who are out) at night."

Cochrane said "his other beef" with watercraft users is their litter.

"I go down from where I live about once a month to clean up," he says. "I find beer cans, broken inner tubes, clothing, shoes, parts of grills, paddles, even condoms."

Cochrane said kayaks are the best suited craft for riding the Kinni.

"Canoes are a little heavy and with tubing you're dragging your butt and feet," he said. "The river is narrow, shallow and rocky. The inner tubes get snagged and pop."

Mike Miller and Susan Goode, neighboring landowners on a 200-acree hobby farm, agree.

"It's the lack of knowledge of how to use this river," Miller says. "People have tubed the Apple and Cannon rivers, which are wide and easy flowing, and have maybe heard that doing the Kinni is a 3 1/2-hour trip."

But Miller says using swimming pool flotations for the Kinni trip ensures a much longer ride of 7-8 hours.

"It's not deep and you're walking part of the time," he said. "If you start at 4 p.m. or later, you won't get done until well after midnight. The canyon is wild country; very dark at night. You can't see a thing."

Goode worries about inexperienced, stranded tubers getting hurt. She adds that those needing rescue must try to find residents on hard-to-access private property.

Not only that, she says, but public agencies like the sheriff's department, fire and ambulance services, are sucked in. They, too, can only do their searches by going on private property.

Miller said Kinni riders may be ignorant of this fact: "There is no signal for your cell phone in the canyon. It won't work, so you have no way of phoning for help."

Miller and Goode say the popularity of kayaking may have spurred a corresponding increase of inner-tubers on the river.

Chambers said there's stunning beauty to see while traveling the Kinni, but people need to start early enough in the day -- preferably by noon -- so they finish the seven miles before dark.

He said it's smart to wear some sort of shoes, bring mosquito repellent and drinking water.

"And be prepared to sleep over if something goes wrong and you don't make it out before dark," he said. "You can get out next morning. Be careful and have fun."

Chambers said kayaks are superior to use than inner tubes.

Chambers also said that not all stranded watercraft users justify an emergency response.

"Sometimes there is an emergency that requires the risk and the expense of an immediate rescue," he said. "But sometimes it's not an emergency -- just an uncomfortable wait for daylight. The sheriff needs a process for helping the department to evaluate which 911 calls about inner-tubers are definitely emergencies and which calls probably aren't."

Sheriff Nancy Hove disagreed, saying, "We treat them all as emergencies. You can drown in your bathtub. Down there, you could slip on a rock, hit your head. Who's to know what happened?"

Hove said the sheriff's department often gets notified by a friend or family member of a missing watercraft rider. The calls mostly come after dark when the missing person is hours late.

"If it was your kid missing down there, would you want someone telling you, 'We'll wait and look in the morning?' If someone's hurt, time could be of the essence."

Hove said deputies weigh several factors before deciding on a response.

"Before we send in the troops, we consider the missing person's age, if they're used to traveling the river, if it's an avid canoeist or a kid on an inner-tube, are they by themselves or in a group. After that, our job is to find them."

Hove said the only extra expense for her department during a search is when deputies stay beyond their shifts and work overtime. She said that, fortunately, the Minnesota Highway Department furnishes its helicopter service for free.

"We try not to abuse that," she said.

Hove said she's developing a plan to better coordinate river rescues between her department and the River Falls Fire and Ambulance departments.

She said the input will include visits to Kinni landowners. She said that an automated phone system will be used soon to alert residents by voice message and texting when rescues are underway.

Hove welcomes comments and questions from the public. Call her at 715-273-5051.

Other factors

Paige Olson, owner of Kinni Creek Lodge & Outfitters in River Falls, rents kayaks as part of her business that includes a bed-and-breakfast, cabins and fly-fishing lessons.

Regarding watercraft on the Kinnickinnic, Olson said: "The kayak or canoe actually protect paddlers from constant submersion in cold water. It also protects paddlers from scraping their bodies and tailbones on the rocks.

"Conversely, an inner tube will keep a person submerged in cold temperatures where hypothermia is quite possible, even on hot summer days. An inner tube can pop, leaving the person to hike out and trespass on all private lands and disturbing land owners. Inner tubes also create a climate where contusions, scrapes, bruises and broken tail bones can occur."

Olson said not to confuse the Kinnickinnic with the Apple River in Somerset.

"The Kinni is a cold-water spring creek, shallow and rock filled," she said. "There is no reliable cell phone service in the canyon. There are no lifeguards on duty.

"The Apple River is, however, appropriate for tubing as they have lifeguards, there is cell phone service, the water is warmer, deeper, the bottom is sandy and there are several escape routes."

While most of the river route to the County Road F Bridge is outside the city's jurisdiction, some have called on the city to become more proactive.

Toward that end, the city's Recreation Program Director Cindi Danke said help's on the way. The River Falls Park Board OK'd the purchase and installation of new signage within the city limits.

Danke said these will be posted in August - one, a large sign, down from Glen Park by the lower dam, and a second smaller one off the public access point of River Ridge Road.

While Danke said signs aren't always read, their messages will be clear and simple: Inner-tubing isn't recommended and there's no cell-phone service on the river.

Who pays the tab?

Hove said the Pierce County Sheriff's Department doesn't bill people it rescues.

Assistant River Falls Fire Chief Mike Moody said if his department is asked by the sheriff's department to assist, it does so as part of a Mutual Aid agreement. Thus, any costs for the fire department's mutual aid response is borne by city and rural property taxpayers.

River Falls Ambulance Director Jeff Rixmann said his department will bill anyone rescued who requires medical treatment or transportation to the hospital.

The costs vary depending on if the person lives in the River Falls area. The range is $850 to $1,075.

In addition, if EMS workers stay beyond an hour for a rescue, Rixmann bills the sheriff's department to cover that "extended stay" at the rate of $85 an hour.

Phil Pfuehler
Phil Pfuehler has been editor of the River Falls Journal since 1991.
(715) 426-1050