Highway 55 to Highway 139:
A truly enchanting landscape surrounding a creek-like river, this trip down the borderline Brule is simply terrific and, in our opinion, worth whatever logistical hassles it may incur. Paddlers will be rewarded with clear, bubbly water accented by myriad intimate islands, small boulders, cedar-lined and spruce-spiked banks that extend without end, and the unique experience of floating through a national forest.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: May 28, 2023
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Riffles
≈8.4′ per mile according to the Wisconsin Trail Guide, which at first glance might sound steep until one accounts for the fact that this is a 14-mile trip that is almost always riffly and does have a handful of light Class I’s towards the takeout.
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Florence: ht/ft: 3.9 | cfs: 360
Florence: ht/ft: 3.60 | cfs: 241
This is the lowest recommended level. It was doable but not ideal, with moderate scraping – especially in the first six miles. That said, Wisconsin Trail Guide offers its minimal height at 3.5′ (which, I mention with all due deference while respectfully counter-offering 3.9′ for a “new minimum” that is more practical and practicable). The gauge is located twenty-six miles downstream of this trip’s takeout – a long distance for this small stream that is only 50ish miles to begin with – so correlating comfort levels might well be less precise than personal.
Time: Put in at 12:00p. Out at 5:30p.
Total Time: 5h 30m
Miles Paddled: 14
Blue-winged teal, great blue heron, ruffed grouse, walleye, woodpeckers, trout, turtles, and two separate deer encounters bolting across the river from one bank to the other.
16 miles via paved roads – truly ill-suited for bikes on account of the long distances and narrow-to-nonexistent shoulders along the roads.
The price for paddling through protected forests is the long slog of shuttling from one point of the trip to the other… and back again. Because the roads are literally few and far between, and many of them dirt-gravel, the mileage itself is often longer and the going itself slower than normal shuttling.
Nota bene: after dropping off boats and people at the Zelenskyy (put-in,) the drive to the take-out to leave a vehicle or more and then back to begin your trip, you’re looking at 40 minutes minimum – and that’s all on the paved state highways. (Ironically, the shuttling will take longer if using an alternate access to shorten the river miles, due to the slow-going necessity of forest roads and the spectacular impracticality of driving faster than 18 mph on these washboarded or washed-out wonders with craters befitting the moon or Mars and splattered with scattered shot and rock-flung pings to oil pans.) Caveat paddler.
We first paddled the Brule three years earlier, nearly to the day, but the next segment down from this trip. Now, as then, we relied on the guiding words of Paddling Northern Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Trail Guide, both of which tender intemperate praise upon the humble Brule River. To wit, “A lovely little river with steady current, it runs quietly through an environment that is, for the most part, wild.” And “The Brule has that fun, small-river character in a beautiful, often intimate northwoods setting.” It’s also the natural border between Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, with virtually all of the Wisconsin side along national forest (but almost zero development along the whole trip).
We’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: this river is not to be confused with the Bois Brule River (even though it always is, by natives and neophytes alike), which also is in the northern half of the state but is a distinctly different body of water. That river (Bois Brule) is in the northwest nook of the state and flows north into Lake Superior. This river (Brule, period) is part of the natural boundary from pur(e)loined Michigan,* flows east, and after some indecipherable border voodoo jambalaya meets up with the Paint and then Michigamme Rivers and renames itself the Menominee River. (In this day in age of gender fluidity, non-binary this and name-changing that, why the heck not?) Similarly, it’s worth noting that on the Wisconsin side of the put-in the highway is number 55, while on the Michigan side it’s number 73; at the takeout, it’s Highway 139 in Wisconsin, but 189 in Michigan.
And so tribal rivalries are born…
* I’m trying to be cute here. Not “pure + loined,” which means nothing (and sounds kinda gross), but pure/purloined – to poke fun of the “Pure Michigan” campaign and the fact that the Upper Peninsula was stolen from Wisconsin. (OK, “fact” may be considered a strong term by some). Tongues have wagged and wars waged for close to two centuries now about this huge tract of land – larger than Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island combined – whose only actual connection to Michigan is a literal bridge that’s five miles long (while naturally a part of Wisconsin for 200 miles) and why it’s Wolverine and not Badger.
It’s time for a Miles Paddled History Lesson! For those who don’t care and just want to get on the water, feel free to skip ahead to the Overview.
Before Wisconsin was even a wink in Uncle Sam’s eye, Ohio and Michigan quarreled over who should have jurisdiction over a strip of land that comprised the City of Toledo and access to Lake Erie. And by “quarreled” I mean actually fought over, militias and all. This was in the 1830s, when nubile Michigan was giddy for statehood while its elder sibling to the east, Ohio, already was a state – and one which Andrew Jackson needed to woo to win a presidential election and line his trail of tears with twenty dollar bills. So, being America, Ohio got Toledo (congrats!) and Michigan got the Upper Peninsula, aka a ginormous slab of the northern Wisconsin Territory.
Meanwhile, here’s what future Wisconsin got: jacked. Nada. Denuded. No Pictured Rocks or Porcupine Mountains, no Marquette or Keweenaw Peninsula, no Yooperlites or legalized pot. Instead, we have inane divisions the likes of Central Standard Time or Eastern, who’s got better pasties, saunas, and snowmobiles; highest DUIs by capita; and the Packers vs the Lions. We have Lombardi and Lambeau; they have Motown and moose; they have Isle Royale,* and everyone else got royally screwed.
* Isle Royale is a giant island/national park in Lake Superior located 20 miles from either the Minnesota or Canada shore, but triple that from the tip of Michigan’s top – and over 400 miles from the state’s capital in Lansing, as the loon flies.
(I realize that all of this is asinine and reeks of white obliviousness in light of indigenous people who have every right to say “All y’alls outsiders! So git your sisu and uff da asses outta here and back to your ‘ope,’ eh?” I get that. It’s just that, if left intact, Wisconsin would have one of the most outrageously gorgeous state shapes in the nation. If the U.P. (re: the W.P.) were included in present-day Wisconsin – cartographically speaking – the state shape would resemble a roaring flame leaning cool and clean in an eastern wind. Instead, there’s present day Michigan, which, sideways, looks like a cute mitten with a sinister grappling hook crudely attached to it, while northeastern Wisconsin looks like a scarred forehead following a lobotomy.)
The access promoted in both guidebook and website is, at the time of this writing, defunct and no longer applicable. As much as I like traipsing around a closed campground and wondering if I’m about to be yelled at for trespassing, I settled for launching instead at the Highway 55 bridge – downstream, river-right (aka the Wisconsin side) – where there’s a mown, flat, and unmuddied path leading to the water from a small area to leave a vehicle or two. The setting here is quaint and pretty, the creek-like river narrow and marshy. How narrow? About 50′ wide. (By contrast, the Mississippi River is a mile wide – a respectable boundary between two states. But a 50′-wide trout stream? Gimme a friggin’ break! Badfish Creek is that big and doesn’t even border county lines within Wisconsin. But I’ll get off my high horse already.)
Other than wider swells where the river will get shallow, the Brule is generally 1-2′ deep, with clear to tannin-hued water. In the first mile you will pass a handful of houses and will be forgiven for wondering “Why in the world did I drive five hours to paddle through an alder marsh with homes along the banks?” Patience, dear reader. For soon enough the sights and sounds of civilization recede, overtaken in a dozen paddle strokes by songbirds, rustling riffles, and a landscape ever becoming wild and undeveloped. After two tiny creeks enter stage-left the river takes an abrupt bend to the south for a mile and then bends again to the east. The riffly current will lead to forested flanks of beautiful tree-lined banks with that quintessential northwoods look and feel – the pine, cedars, and spruce especially. There is no official sign saying “welcome to the national forest, friends!”, but you will be able to sense when you are – river-right (aka Wisconsin) especially.
At the 4-mile mark you might see a dedicated though rustic landing on the right at the end of the dead-end that is Gaspardo Road, a 7-mile long commitment (one way!) through the national forest along loose gravel and washboard ruts. While it might seem like a time-saving option on paper by starting your trip here, you might as well launch at Highway 55: the time “saved” by skipping the first 4 miles will be lost to the slow-going nature of the so-called shortcut. The other troublesome matter of Gaspardo Road is, at the time of our paddle, there was a sign from the Wisconsin DNR warning people about “multiple domestic dog and other wildlife poisoning deaths occurring in this area.” What?!? Granted, the date of the memo is May 5, 2020, but still. In the grips of a global pandemic someone was poisoning dogs in a national forest in northern Wisconsin? We really have lost our ever-loving minds, haven’t we?
But I digress. Back to the river…
While the Brule is narrow, it features innumerable islands with even narrower side channels. Combined with the occasional jumble of small boulders, you will have to read the water sometimes to discern the best path and steer clear of shoals or impenetrable brush. But generally speaking, the paddling is very peaceful, the landscape serene and unspoiled. Emphasis on generally speaking, as a few households on the “pure” side of the river appear a mile or so down from the Gaspardo access. But after you pass them the feeling of being enveloped by the forest resumes. Just down the “rowed” comes curiously named Camp Lake Creek, stage left, roughly the halfway marker. A logging camp from a bygone era?
The Brule takes a dive to the south and east after this. The riffles are as blissful as ever, and even the banks rise in steepness some, at least on the Wisconsin side. While not truly hilly – at least insofar as the next segment of the river goes – it’s a subtle but noticeable effect. The maps show a location on the Michigan side called “Ski Brule,” which in theory would portend some welcome topography, but such a mound or whatever is indiscernible via the river.
Another landing appears (for the scrupulous eye) on the right after Allen Creek (also on the right), but the casual paddler is to be forewarned against considering this as a viable starting or ending point; it’s just too long and rough an unpaved road (FR 2454/Hufff Creek Road), not to mention a hardship schlep from the parking area to the river to bother considering.
From here to the takeout at Highway 139 the river flows east > south > east through many meanders, some straightaways, small islands, boulder gardens, and veritable Class I rapids. The gradient does temporarily peter out towards the takeout, though the visual optics and lovely river corridor does persevere. One more house on the “pure” side of the river, and then the bridge comes into view. The takeout is on the downstream side, river-right. It’s an easy access that’s flat and tidy.
What we liked:
If I may be so bold, I would like to christen the Brule River as “the champagne of northern Wisconsin rivers” – or Prosecco, if you prefer – on account of its clear and sparkling water. (This is not an original phrase; rather, it is one – like countless others – that I have fondly stolen from our beloved buddy and much missed member of Miles Paddled, our friend Jeff – aka The Guru). The Brule truly is a splendid little stream. It’s a rare river that is consistently paddleable and constantly bubbly.
While the forest roads are awful and not worth the effort, the accesses at the state highways are excellent. The water is wonderful. And the general environment is damn near a Wes Anderson-movie set scene with picturesque pines, shadow-inducing cedars, and stately spruce.
What we didn’t like:
Can we just be honest and frankly admit that some rivers are a pain in the ass to access? Now, some are royal and require enduring obstacle courses (looking at you, Montreal River), while others are simply prickly nuisances by way of mud, nettles, poison fill-in-the-blank, steep banks, snakes, spiders, riprap, No Trespassing signs, or just located by no fault of its own but squarely in Illinois all the same, etc. The Brule, to be fair, is none of these things. What it is, is far away. The nearest town is Eagle River, itself 27 miles away. (No offense Iron River, MI, but you wouldn’t visit you either, if you weren’t already there.) And Eagle River is…well, a drive from any direction – especially the south, where, for better or worse, the majority of the state lives, not to mention readers of this website.
Now, distance can be a good thing. It’s the fodder that makes the heart grow fonder, as they say. And as a psychological metaphor alone it provides the illusion of closure, a benign fallacy many of us could use from time to time. But in terms of paddling, the reality of distance – even during a pandemic-inspired work-from-home kind of woke revivalism of all things outdoors – tends to go a notable long way in separating the hoi polloi from the experienced and exploratory. For example, Wisconsin Dells (population 3,200) has four exits along the interstate within a 6-mile spread. (Madison, the capital of the state and home of the flagship Big 10 university, has a population 84 times that of the Dells, but has exactly the same amount of interstate exits.) As such, the Dells very intentionally is very accessible – and thereby suffers from every Honda Odyssey and Tesla alike from the Ikea exit near O’Hare to the Brookfield Mall to get stuck in traffic miles before the first mirage of water parks and then wait in line for an hour at Noah’s Ark.
Want solitude? Seek the inaccessible.
One of the (several) reasons why it’s taken so long to write about this trip is I feel a lot of ambivalence about it. On the one hand, it truly is a jewel in the northwoods and national forests. On the other hand, it’s a really long way to go for a landscape and paddling environment that is lovely but never really changes. Can a landscape be called “monotonously pretty”? (I don’t know, but I do know that’s better than being “pretty monotonous.”) Does this make me a paddling snob, much as I have about craft beer, grilling, high-concept art, and the progressive caucus? Maybe. After all, I don’t listen to much prog rock or read poetry these days… And don’t get me started on reverse-seared steaks, double IPA milkshake fruit purees, or blue-ribbon committees.
But I think I do know the answer to Mike Svob’s conjecture that “Once you have paddled the Brule, you’ll wonder why there aren’t more canoeists on it.” And that’s because the river is near no notable town despite being the border between Michigan and Wisconsin – and is splendidly inaccessible between bridges.
Ardent paddlers will not blink at a 14-mile trip; but newbies would probably balk at such a time commitment. Plus, honestly, what you see in the first mile is pretty much what you’ll keep seeing for the next 13 – or 30. For the paddler seeking Zen, this is it. For those of us preferring some character development, cool special effects, or high-speed thrillers, a documentary of watching grass grow could be lacking in some luster. After all, this was a Memorial Day weekend trip, gateway to summer blockbusters.
If we did this trip again:
I wouldn’t do anything different, except have a trailer to avoid double-shuttling. It is a drive to get there and a dog to do the shuttling all for a very pretty trip but not necessarily an unforgettable one. If that makes me a snob, so be it. For me, I’d absolutely do this again if I happened to be up in that part of the state already. But only a paddler can decide for him- or herself if 14+ miles of nearly no development through public land on effervescent water is worth five hours of driving and what logistical headaches the shuttling incurs.