No matter how much we explore this planet of ours, no matter how deep into the oceans or forests of the world we penetrate, nature always seems to present us with more questions than answers. The natural world is a complex, twisted maze of mysteries that it sometimes seems we have only begun to unravel. In some cases, we don’t even have to go particularly far to find something that can confound us. Far from being confined to ocean abysses or the stars, there are enigmas and puzzles all around us, and sometimes it seems like the world is liberally sprinkled with locales that continue to defy our best efforts to comprehend them. One such place is a spectacular waterfall in the United States that cascades through scenic wilderness, only to be cut in half and have one portion disappear down a vast, dark tunnel into the stygian depths of the unknown, the surging barrage of endless water seeming to vanish from the face of the earth altogether. This is the mysterious Devil’s Kettle Falls of Judge C.R. Magney State Park, an intriguing riddle located in the middle of a well travelled natural preserve which has never been solved.
Judge C.R. Magney State Park lies along the North Shore of Lake Superior, in the U.S. state of Minnesota. Named after Clarence R. Magney, the former mayor of Deluth and a member of the Minnesota Supreme Court who was responsible for establishing 11 state parks established along Lake Superior’s North Shore, Judge C.R. Magney State Park sprawls over 4,600 acres of the Grand Portage State Forest and is known for its rugged wilderness and the scenic Brule River, which drops 800 feet in an 8 mile span, creating numerous picturesque waterfalls along the way. It is along the very last stretch of this picturesque river, as it makes its roaring last approach towards Lake Superior, that we find a geological mystery that has perplexed both visitors and scientists alike for hundreds of years.
Around 1.5 miles (2.4 km) before the Brule River ends its tumultuous run through majestic wilderness and down breathtaking falls there appears a massive outcropping of a volcanic rock called rhyolite, which juts up to slice the mighty river in two at a point ominously referred to as Devil’s Kettle Falls. The eastern portion of the violently divided river tumbles and rolls over an edge and then 50 feet down a two-step procession of smaller waterfalls before continuing on into a pond and further south until it reaches the lake. However, the western portion swirls around 10 feet down a pothole in the rock before disappearing to, well, no one really knows. Potholes, also known as kettles, are quite common around waterfalls, where the constant barrage of water as well as the sand and pebbles it carries can wear a depression in the rock over time. However, whereas in most cases water merely swirls around the pothole and exists again laterally, in the case of the Devil’s Kettle Falls, the water just seems to flow straight down into blackness to vanish without a trace, confounding all attempts to ascertain just where it ends up, and it has become a perplexing geological conundrum.
It was originally assumed that the water must follow some subterranean route and end up emptying into Lake Superior at some point, but this theory has proven hard to provide evidence for. Researchers studying the phenomenon have tried various methods for trying to locate the point at which the mysteriously vanishing water of the Devil’s Kettle Falls rejoins the lake. They have tried pouring large numbers of ping pong balls down the maw of the falls, food dye, various marked objects, and even large logs and then watched the lake to see where they would emerge, but frustratingly there has been nothing, not a single clue as to where the water ends up. And we are talking about an immense amount of water. All day, every day, the river tirelessly roars into the gaping, hungry jaws of the blackness of the pothole only to disappear forever. Where does it all go? There have been many theories proposed over the years, but in the face of the area’s geology most of these only serve to deepen the mystery.
One idea is that the water drops down to join some undiscovered underground river system that perhaps meanders through a series of subterranean caves, which while sounding undeniably cool is nevertheless not supported by the geology here. The sort of deep caves and channels that would need to exist for this hypothetical lost world river system to happen are not only extremely rare, but only form in soft limestone, which can be carved away by water over millions of years. The area where the state park is located is comprised exclusively of layers of rhyolite on the surface with a deeper underlying layer of basalt, very hard materials which are much more resistant to this eroding action and not known to produce underground caverns, caves, or rivers.
An underground river might be formed in such rock to some degree by seismic activity along a fault line, but no known fault line exists here and even if it did it seems unlikely that it could form a large enough cave to devour all of the incredibly amounts of water gushing underground nonstop indefinitely. Additionally, such a cave would have to be precisely oriented towards the lake, and would have to have remained unclogged by various detritus and debris such as boulders, rocks, trees, or sand, tossed into the hole for countless eons over a fairly long distance. Adding all of these things together seems to make the idea of some enormous underground cave and river system under the falls rather unlikely.
So what are some of the other options for where the water goes? Another theory that has been put forward is that perhaps a large lava tube has opened up here. Lave tubes are caves formed by molten volcanic rock when the top layer of flowing lava cools and hardens before the lava below, ultimately forming a long, hollow tube when the source of the lava stops. Such lava tubes can indeed be enormous, with the largest known example being the Kazamura Cave in Hawaii, which is 40.7 miles long and 3,614 feet deep. According to this idea, the upper layer of rhyolite and basalt was worn away by the pummeling waterfall and exposed a large lave tube down which the water disappears and ends up exiting deep down on the floor of Lake Superior. However, there are problems with this theory as well, as although the rock of the area is indeed volcanic in origin, it is the wrong type to be conducive to lava tubes. The first problem is that the upper layer of rhyolite is not known to form lava tubes. Basalt does, but only when it is flowing down from a volcano. The local basalt of the Devil’s Kettle Falls is of a type known as “flood basalt,” which essentially seeped out of numerous volcanic fissures in the ground to form a wide, flat sheet which does not typically lend itself to lava tubes, and additionally it is located far, far underground. Even if such a tube somehow did form under such conditions, it would likely get clogged with debris over time carried by the mercilessly flowing water, would likely not be long enough to reach the lake, and on top of it all no evidence of any sort of structure has ever been found in the area.
In the end, no one has a clue as to where the water of the Devil’s Kettle Falls goes. It rushes down past the outcropping, down into a hole in the earth, and apparently into a void. Scientists continue to throw all manner of things into the Devil’s Kettle Falls hoping to glean some inkling as to what is going on and they continue to be baffled. Indeed, there is no place reported for the sudden spontaneous appearance of debris on the entire expanse of Lake Superior. The water could be going to some unobserved place in the lake through some as yet understood process, it could be vanishing down into the depths of the earth itself, or could be redirected in ways no one thought possible. It could be transported to another dimension for all anyone knows. What in the world is going on here? Where did all of those logs and ping pong balls end up? No one knows. One quote from the Mother Nature network summed up the mystery nicely with the following:
So where does the water go? So far, nobody knows — but not for lack of trying. Scientists and hikers will keep tossing things into the Devil’s Kettle and watching Lake Superior for any sign of their trinkets, but maybe there are other explanations. If you happen to be traveling, say, somewhere in Eurasia and stumble across a geyser that’s surrounded by pingpong balls, logs, and even a car that locals are reported to have pushed in one night years ago, you might want to call a geologist in Minnesota. You may just have solved the mystery of Devil’s Kettle Falls.
Nature seems to almost enjoy tempting us with her mysteries, always teasing us and rarely giving us a straight, easy answer. Even as we explore the depths of the sea and the farthest reaches of space, there is so much we have yet to only barely comprehend. We don’t have to even go to such extreme environments to find things to keep us enthralled with wonder, as our world is full of them; Mother Nature’s endless taunt to those who would try to understand her. Will we ever come to any understanding of the mystery of the Devil’s Kettle Falls? Anyone who wants to go see the phenomenon for themselves can access the falls, but be prepared for a challenging hike through 1.5 miles of relatively undeveloped trails and a strenuous climb up 200 wooden steps to reach it. Once you do get there, just be sure to remember to not to expect to see anything you decide to try and throw down there ever again.