Touring the Brule Glacial Spillway State Natural Area:
An easy there-and-back trip on the relatively obscure headwaters area of the vaunted Bois Brule River, paddlers will be delighted with innumerable backwater pools, springs and spongy bogs surrounded by conifers and an attractive ridge.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: September 7, 2016
Brule: ht/ft: 1.87 | cfs: 182
We recommend this level and there should always be enough water for this trip.
Put-In + Take-Out:
Stone’s Bridge Landing/County Road S, Brule, Wisconsin
Time: Put in at 11:10a. Out at 1:10p.
Total Time: 2h
Miles Paddled: 5
Turkey, trout, deer and a jet-black black squirrel.
The Bois Brule River begins right above Upper St. Croix Lake,* out of which it flows northward some 50 miles to its mouth at Lake Superior. Virtually every book, blog, pamphlet, newsletter and word of mouth has the varied trips on the river beginning at Stone’s Bridge Landing, approximately 12 miles downstream from its humble beginnings near Upper St. Croix Lake. This inspires the curious/romantic paddler to wonder about the never-mentioned stretch between its headwaters to the official “first” trip on the famous river. And that’s where we come in, explorers of the obscure.
* Fun facts before we get started: Upper St. Croix Lake is NOT the source of the Bois Brule River, as we had first foolishly inferred; but it is the source of the mighty St. Croix River. Rather, the Bois Brule begins in a very ambiguous bog and marshy wetlands complex immediately north of the lake – and by “immediately” we mean literally on the other side of the road that separates the lake and marsh area. So what, you ask? Whereas the Bois Brule flows north into Lake Superior (and thus eventually ends up in the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence Seaway), the St. Croix flows south into the Mississippi River, eventually ending up in the Gulf of Mexico. In other words, even though the sources of the two are pretty much right next to one another, they flow in opposite directions, whose final destinations are on different sides of the continent. Indeed, there’s a continental divide right at this spot, which is remarkably fascinating. A section of the North Country Trail follows a historic portage between these two rivers, right by Upper St. Croix Lake, back in the old days when travelers from Lake Superior paddled upstream the Bois Brule and portaged to Upper St. Croix Lake to get to the Mississippi River eventually. Cool stuff, no?
We owe humble thanks to a fan of the site who wrote us, informing us of our error.
Our intention was not to do a there-and-back trip, as we generally bristle at the notion of paddling upstream. Our original idea was to put in at County Road P, which actually is the West Fork of the Bois Brule (this was one of those “well, it looks like this is doable on Google Maps” ideas). We were delighted to see this confirmed on the Bois Brule State Forest Visitor newspaper map (available at the campgrounds), where there is a denoted canoe landing on County Road P. Take “confirmed” with a large grain of salt, as the reality of this, irrespective of the newspaper map or Google maps, is simply impossible to the point of masochistic.
While there is a parking pull-out off the road, there is A) no boat access to the water and B) you can’t even find the water – it’s that clogged and choked with alders and brush. We’re happy to bushwhack and get dirty, even get scraped up and bitten by we don’t want to know what, in the name of intrepid pioneer paddling – but when you can’t even find the water itself, then why even bother?
Now’s also as good a time as any to mention that we knew there was going to be stormy weather early in the afternoon. It had already rained the night before and the two nights before that one. In fact, potential flash flooding was predicted on the weather radio that morning. That, on top of pioneer paddling an 8-mile trip with virtually no current and a couple hundred meanders, not to mention the long drive back to Madison after this, started dampening our spirits before the first raindrop fell (which didn’t take long anyway).
So then we drove to Upper St. Croix Lake itself to see if one could begin there. In theory, yes. There’s an official boat launch off County Road A. It would be a short paddle on the lake before finding the outlet. Alternatively, one could put in at County Road A itself, where the Bois Brule crosses under via a teeny-tiny culvert that you’d have to portage around and over anyway, had you begun on the lake. This looks doable, but it would be a total crapshoot. Plus it would add another 2-3 miles to a trip that would have been 8-ish. Eleven miles on a narrow creek-like river with almost no current and a million meanders is a romantic expedition at best. At worst, it could be just miserable with impassable sections and portaging. Maybe there’s a reason why there’s no info on this upstream section…?
Our last hope was one more possible access point from the lake to Stone’s Bridge Landing, on or off of Chimney Road. Once again, here the Bois Brule State Forest Visitor newspaper map denotes a canoe landing at this road. The trouble is the road does not lead to the river. In fact, the road goes to nowhere. There is a pull-off area at the end of the unpaved road, but there is no discernible trail leading to the river. By this point we had wasted 90 minutes driving around looking for a hopeless landing for what all we knew was a hopeless trip to begin with.
And so we drove back to Stone’s Bridge Landing, resigned to paddle upstream as far as we felt, or we pelted by rain, or blocked by obstructions. In the end, it took about another 90 minutes for all of those to happen – remarkably at the very same moment; it started to just pour right after we decided that the poking, prickly alders had made the paddling less than fun – after which we turned around and paddled back to the landing.
What we liked:
This trip lies along the Brule Glacial Spillway State Natural Area, which was recently highlighted in a paddling guide dedicated to natural areas produced by the Wisconsin DNR, a section that is the very essence of a spruce and cedar bog. That we did this on a gloomy day, with leaden overcast skies that felt like they could rain at any moment, enhanced the innumerable backwater pools, sloughs, soggy bogs and multitudinous springs. Both water and sky felt like twin panes of a window looking into a lugubrious world. Rain coming from above, groundwater bubbling up from below and simply seeping out of impossibly green sheens of lush plant life. Everything a quiet rustle, the landscape abandoned and undeveloped. Seriously, a cinematographer could have a field day shooting a film out here – maybe adapting Dante or a Japanese novel depicting the afterlife.
Much to our utter shock, we happened upon another paddler who was quietly fishing for trout from his boat. We all agreed that the landscape felt spooky. And then he said something that still impresses the hell out of Timothy. Reflecting on the weather at that moment and the landscape in general, he said, “it’s right where it needs to be.” We love that – and couldn’t agree more! Even though this outing didn’t feel like a true trip in our usual sense of going from Point A to Point B, it was a fantastic outing, nonetheless. The braided maze of channels and backwater dead ends, together with the droopy trees and the overall sense of being somewhere new, somewhere foreign – it all felt kind of spooky in just the right way.
The only sign of development we saw was of a handsome cedar boathouse and matching estate behind it. These are only a short paddle upstream of the landing, a foreshadowing of the many found further downstream in the Stone’s Bridge to Winneboujou Landings segment of the Bois Brule River.
However unadvertised this section of the Bois Brule is, there’s plenty of evidence (mostly old) that chainsaws have gone through (at least) this section leading to Stone’s Bridge. It was a much welcome sight, confirming that others (locals probably) also have been curious about this upstream segment. Whether the whole segment is open, from the headwaters to Stone’s, is anyone’s guess, however.
Despite paddling upstream and even though the river is at its most meandering in this section, it’s all pretty easygoing since the current is slack. The advantage to such a trip, of course, is that it requires no shuttling, whether by car or bike (and out here in rural Douglas County, this means no shuttling on unpaved roads – Timothy’s VW Golf got pretty beat up after a couple days on these back roads). Also, since you’re simply returning to where you started, you can paddle up as far as you wish or have the time for, which is a pleasant novelty when on a river.
What we didn’t like:
OK, leaving aside our disdain for paddling upstream in general, what we disliked in particular about this trip were the lack of accesses. There is something intrinsically exciting about venturing on a journey from one point to another, with who knows what in between (which is part of the adventure, after all). On a there-and-back trip the sense of new and unknown is mitigated by having seen everything the first time around coming up; the only difference going back down is it’s a little easier with the current, however gentle that current is. But lack of accesses is perhaps the price one pays for remoteness and near-wilderness…
The other thing we didn’t like – indeed, it’s what broke the deal for us and led to that moment of “um, yeah, I think I’m done with this” – is how overgrown the stream is at times with annoying alder branches jutting into the water. Ordinarily this is not a deal breaker but given that our spirits were already a bit crestfallen by then, these mild impediments did not bode well for what we’d find further upstream. Paddling a meandering, obstructed river upstream pretty much sounds like the opposite of fun. Especially in the rain (by this point there was a light drizzle) or knowing that we’d simply encounter them a second time, on our way back down.
To be fair, where the river was particularly choked with these errant branches, there was only a very narrow space to get through – too narrow for your paddle to fit through without turning it parallel to the direction of your boat. Given the meandering nature of the creek-like river and the fact that you have to paddle upstream through such narrow spaces, you’d almost always run into some of these branches. And this was in a kayak – in a canoe some of these claustrophobic passages would be all but asking for an argument between the stern and bow paddlers. We did clear out the uglier, ganglier culprits of obstruction but all in all, we only paddled 2.5 miles upstream before turning back down.
If we did this trip again:
In a perfect world where time travel and carbon footprints had no bearing, (and both life schedules and meteorological forecasts were laughably irrelevant) we’d do this trip again in a heartbeat – starting on the other side of Upper St. Croix Lake, finding that elusive bog/marsh headwaters, and committing ourselves to every gosh darn mile of the beautiful Bois Brule River like a bunch of renegade voyageurs. But in reality, this river is five hours away from where we live in Madison, so it may be a bit before we return.
Believe us: we really wanted to pioneer-paddle this section of the Bois Brule and present it on top of the four other popular trips we’ve posted a la lagniappe cherry on top. But it was not meant to be, unfortunately. Between the inaccessible landings and the inevitable storm hovering above us, and that pesky business of the long drive back to Madison, we had to fold, recognizing that this trip just wasn’t in the cards.
Bois Brule River Overview: Bois Brule River Paddle Guide
Bois Brule River I: Stone’s Bridge Landing to Bois Brule Landing
Bois Brule River II: Bois Brule Landing to Copper Range Landing
Bois Brule River III: Copper Range Landing to Highway 13
Bois Brule River IV: Highway 13 to Lake Superior
Camp: Brule River State Forest
General: Wisconsin DNR
Outfitter: Brule River Canoe
Overview: Paddling State Natural Areas
Wikipedia: Bois Brule River