★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Brule River

Highway 139 to National Forest Road 2150:
Arguably the best a northwoods paddle can offer in terms of beginner paddler-friendly and with reliable water levels, while still offering a bounty of rambunctious beauty, outstanding wildlife, sheer lack of development, and occasional riffles and light, easy rapids, the Brule River – part of the natural boundary between Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (aka “northern Wisconsin” or the “W.P.”) – is a true gem of a stream you can count on for a wonderful experience on the water.

Brule River

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: May 23-24, 2020

Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Class I-II

Gradient:
≈7.5′ per mile

Gauge:
Brule River (Florence): ht/ft: 9.07 | cfs: 47.5

Recommended Levels:
We recommend this level. Water levels are usually reliable.

Put-In:
Highway 139, Argonne, Wisconsin
Take-Out:
National Forest Road 2150

Day 1: 5.23.20
Highway 139 to National Forest Road 2152
Time: Put in at 3:30p. Out at 5:40p.
Miles Paddled: 7.25

Day 2: 5.24.20
National Forest Road 2152 to National Forest Road 2150
Time: Put in at 1:40p. Out at 5:00p.
Miles Paddled: 8.75

Total Time: 5h 30m
Total Miles Paddled: 16

Wildlife:
Osprey, great blue heron, ruffed grouse, trout, woodpeckers, beaver, a million mergansers, kingfishers, turtles, deer and songbirds atwitter.

Shuttle Information:
A lot of miles! Truly not suited for bikes, on account of the long distances and undeveloped roads.


Background:

Rutabaga is not the only entity to seize upon the shared commonality between gardening and paddling, if only in this sense: each year, around the time of Canoecopia (mid-March), here in the upper Midwest, with snow and sleet still on the ground and lakes still frozen, our collective hearts have nonetheless already thawed and are dreaming, even scheming, of warmer days ahead. For gardeners, it’s maybe ordering seeds from catalogues or at least drawing plans for gardens and beds. For paddlers, it’s a different kind of plan – of where and when, ideally, to go this year once it warms up; places perhaps we just couldn’t get to last year but are resolved to consummate this year or nuances and plot twists planted like seeds during the winter we hadn’t necessarily considered but now are adamant about and have on the map.

For me, the northeast of Wisconsin – the veritable northwoods – has been on the docket for a good decade now. Come April or so, each and every year I tell myself “This will be the year that I start making a footprint in the northwoods.” I fantasize, I draw maps, I read books, and my imagination just reels. But then, as will happen – as happens too damn often – real life gets in the way for whatever reason(s). And so do excuses. (It’s too far. Water levels are too low. How about I split the difference and just go back to Black River Falls instead? Etc, etc.) However it ends up happening, each year it happens.

Nonetheless, hell or high water – actually, preferably high water – 2020 was designated the year I actually got my sorry ass to the northeast northwoods. No excuses. No maybes or perhaps. This was the year – is the year.

There is a plethora of outstanding info on the Brule River. To keep things simple and make it easier for us in our paddling posse (five in kayaks, in our 40s and 50s, with varying degrees of desiring rapids), we followed the duel lead of Paddling Northern Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Trail Guide, both of which offer this section of river as one full day trip, Highway 139 to Forest Road 2150. However, that’s a heluva long time to sit in a kayak (three of which were crossover kayaks – and this trip has a veritable metric ton of quietwater). So, instead we split this section in two unequal “halves,” beginning on Day 2 where Day 1 concluded. But because this section of the Brule is essentially uniform, and to continue in the tradition of our predecessors, we’re offering it as a single post on Miles Paddled.

Overview:
Mike Svob, guidebook scribe extraordinaire, opens his trip report on this section of the Brule thusly: “winding and remote but [it] throws in a few Class I-II rapids for good measure. Novice paddlers should be prepared to scout (and perhaps portage) some of the rapids. The setting is quite varied and includes swift narrows, wide shallow areas, rock gardens, ledges and heavily wooded shoreline.” Except for the scouting stipulation, that’s all entirely spot-on. (Unless the river is really high – in which case “novice paddlers” ought not be there in the first place! – the rapids on this trip are entirely intuitive and straightforward, not at all dangerous or convoluted.)

And here is how Wisconsin Trail Guide summarizes this section of the Brule: “The surrounding landscape varies from bottomlands of tall marsh grasses and dense northern lowland forest, to rocky ledges and steep sloping hills. When the forest closes in it is often made up of: pine, spruce, box-elder, poplar, aspen and maple. Several large spring-fed sloughs join the river including the Wisconsin Slough, which is located two miles downstream from the Highway 139/189 bridge. Wildlife is abundant.” Also spot on.

The put-in is on the downstream side of the bridge at Highway 139, river-right – aka the Wisconsin side of the river. (The opposite shore, the left bank, is the Upper Peninsula of Michigan – the Brule River here is the natural boundary between the two states.* And for point of reference the same road/bridge on the north side of the Brule, in Michigan, is Highway 189.) There’s plenty of parking and access to the river is like a good stiff drink: neat and simple.

* There remains to this day some heady controversy about the so-called “U.P.” and whether it is – or at least should be – part of Wisconsin, as it was originally, before the U.S. government settled a dispute between nubile Michigan and its elder sibling state to the east, Ohio, over which state should contain the city of Toledo. In the end, Ohio got Toledo (congrats!) and Michigan got the Upper Peninsula, aka northern Wisconsin (which, for the record, yielded more ore in lucrative precious mineral deposits than all of the California Gold Rush. Holy Toldeo indeed!) The whole thing is a damn shame – a travesty, if we’re gonna be real. Sylvania and Pictured Rocks, the Packers vs the Lions, Central Standard Time or Eastern, all the waterfalls and none of the moose… Or just that, if left intact, Wisconsin would have one of the most outrageously gorgeous state shapes in the nation – that is, if the U.P. (ahem, the W.P.) were included in the whole bounteous boundary, the state shape would resemble a beautiful flame! (Instead, there’s present day Michigan, which looks like a broken collar bone.) “Pure” Michigan or True Wisconsin? The answer is obvious. But I digress.

The river here (and elsewhere) is about 50′ wide. (The Mississippi River, which is like a mile wide, or Lake Michigan, which is ginormous… those make sense as natural boundaries between two states. A 50′-wide trout stream? Come on, gimme a break!) Other than wider swells, where the river will get shallow, the Brule is generally 1-2′ deep, with clear to tannin-hued water. The riffly current immediately leads you to flanks of beautiful tree-lined shores with a quintessential northwoods look and feel, the pine, spruce and poplar especially. The feeling is instant and infectious; this ain’t southern Wisconsin – no agriculture, no cul-de-sacs; no tractor trailers or lawn mowers; no traffic or power lines. It’s just the river and woods… for mile after mile. It’s marvelous.

Note: it would be remiss of us to fail to disclose that there is some development along this trip. For instance, right away on the Michigan side downstream from the put-in bridge there are some private residences (Svob incorrectly states these to be on the Wisconsin side, unless he too was cannily positing that it’s all Wisconsin). Then, five miles further downstream there is some kind of operation involving a silo and buildings, shortly followed by a railroad bridge. About one mile upstream of Pentoga and the only bridge that crosses this 16.5-mile trip are a couple houses on the Wisconsin side (sigh…). But that’s all. Four private residences and some small farm operation in sixteen-plus miles, otherwise surrounded by national forest… The sense of isolation and being in a unique, unspoiled place is truly palpable.

Near the two-mile mark you’ll pass a body of water on the right that’s called the Wisconsin Slough, a dedicated State Natural Area, “a hard water spring pond surrounded by diverse sedge meadow and conifer swamp” (according to the DNR). In all fairness, I’d read about this beforehand and had anticipated it… but still either missed it or saw it and found it entirely unremarkable to paddle upstream to explore. I will say the same thing about the mouth of the Iron River. Svob states that it is “often cloudy in color because of mining residue,” but we noticed nothing to write home about (or here on a paddling blog). What is impossible to miss, however, is an old abandoned railroad bridge. Given how few landmarks there are on this trip, let the railroad bridge serve as a head’s-up that the inconspicuous access point at Forest Road 2152 is only a mile away on river-right (or -left, as there is access on the so-called “Michigan” side). Whether you call it a quick day here, as we did, or simply get out to stretch and picnic, bear in mind it’s not a great access per se – it’s easy to miss and it consists of little more than a feint trail from river to road. Look for the remains of a bridge piling at the head of an island as a cue.

The next “half” of this trip is definitely more interesting and lively than everything up to this point, but not necessarily prettier. There’s more moving water and light rapids, is all. And for what it’s worth, that half can be dissected into two halves themselves – from FR 2152 to Pentoga or Pentoga to FR 2150.

About a mile downstream from FR 2152 is a Class I rapid named Fisherman’s Eddy followed a little later by more frisky riffles. Subtly yet unexpectedly, you’ll notice that the right side of the river is taller than the left. This discrepancy marks another state natural area, called Blue River Cliffs, at the eight-mile mark. Again to quote the DNR, the showcase here comprises “a series of shaded, north-facing cliffs and talus slopes… with mosses, liverworts, and ferns as prominent members of the cliff flora.” The “cliffs”, such as they are, are hardly as dramatic as, say, Devil’s Lake, but they certainly lend a sense of highlands and feel of uplift to the landscape. A quarter mile later comes Twin’s Rapids (Class I-II), an easy but fun series of two pitches punctuated by a short calm in between. Also in this stretch is the first of two primitive campsites, on river-right, essentially accessible only by paddlers and free to use.

Following a long straightaway the next set of really fun rapids appear, named Railroad (Class I-II), particularly pleasant since they are approximately 300 yards of non-stop boulder-dodging and ledge-dropping! They’re so much fun, in fact, that you’ll have already forgotten about passing a couple cabins/houses on river-right. (How those got grandfathered in the national forest, I have no idea.) In another 1.5 miles you’ll come to the next Put-In/Take-Out, at Pentoga Road, where the one and only vehicular bridge on this trip is located (after the put-in). Like before, it’s not the best access, but totally doable, and a fine place to stretch and picnic.

The next two miles are pretty but slow – plenty of time to take in the cedars along the banks, which are quite attractive. Suddenly you’ll hear rapids and then see a modest horizon line. This marks the next rapids, at Two Foot Falls (Class I-II), a 1-2′ ledge that spans the entire width of the river. For us at our levels, we ran the ledge on river-right, where there was plenty of pillowy water. (It’s slightly more precipitous on the left, but shallower.) Once again, there’s another primitive campsite on river-right just below the ledge, essentially accessible only by paddlers and free to use.

The next (and last) two miles of this trip are just delightful, featuring continuous Class I-II “lightwater” all the way to the take-out. Lots of boulder gardens, non-technical rapids, steep banks, zero development in quintessential northwoods – it’s a glorious finale to a hallmark river.

What we liked:
Leaving aside the individual attributes of this particular trip – the many merganser moments, the thumping Gene Krupa drumrolls of grouse; the huge logs improbably poised atop the dorsal fins of exposed boulders; the easy but still really fun rapids – it’s the overall sum of the Brule River here, the cumulative experience, that I liked best. Admittedly, that’s totally personal and subjective, harder to articulate in a general sense. But there’s a colloquial understanding of the beckoning nature of the northwoods, right? We all know what that means… on some level at least. One hears or reads “northwoods” and… what? Images of boreal forests come to mind, spruce and hemlock, rich cedar, conifer bogs, an oceanic highlands of rolling hills – the awesome cursive signature of big-scale glaciation. Not to mention the mergansers, loons, moose, black bear, ravens, wild rice and smoked fish.

It’s a whole different world up there, and at the risk of mythologizing it, the paddling in particular is truly extraordinary – for as many things that it has (the landscape, flora and fauna) as it doesn’t have (namely, development). It all just feels more natural, more simplified. Maybe that’s just in my head (but, to borrow a line from Fiona Apple, “so’s everything”). Whether you split this trip apart or take it all on in a single day, the fact remains that sixteen-and-a-half miles of river paddling where you pass at best half a dozen buildings and only one bridge, surrounded instead by trees we don’t have around down here and sounds of nature in a slightly different key than what’s heard down here – none of that can escape one’s attention. Whether you dwell on it or quietly recognize it and move on is purely personal.

We fell in love with the trillions of trillium and fiddlehead ferns all along the banks (and blanketing the forests during the shuttle). I’m fairly sure their presence had everything to do with the time of the year when we were paddling, but that’s part of the fun. The fiddleheads especially, since you can pick them, clean them off, and then fry them up something tasty in oil with onion and garlic. The looming hills (“cliffs” if you want to call them that, but to my mind a cliff connotes something steep and precipitous, whereas these were soft, sloping bluffs) add a particular aesthetic and lift to the landscape that might otherwise feel a little flat. Here and there – but especially closer to the take-out – the mini-forest of cedar groves with their warm tones of afternoon light filtering through redolent and ruddy trunks left an impression somewhere between spiritual and hypnotizing.

It is truly remarkable how different the river looks and feels depending on whether it’s narrow with swift current or broad and slow, not to mention how frequently it will go from one to the other, narrow and broad, swift and slow. If anything, it’s the surrounding landscape that anchors the river to a kind of constant, a baseline. In the broad and slow it’s nice to quit paddling for a bit and just loaf, soaking up the natural cathedral of the northwoods. And in the narrow-swift the rapids are nothing but good, clean fun, enough to require reading the river and dodging boulders but certainly not so much as to feel intimidating or scary. Even the least experienced paddler in our group of five concluded afterwards, “they could have been more” – meaning the rapids, meaning bigger or more technical. Like adding hot sauce to a meal for a palate you’re not quite sure about, you can always add more but you can’t take it out once it’s in. And now you know for next time it can be hotter.

There are scrubby areas where the banks are lined by alders, not to mention low grassy islands braiding the river into side channels. When traveling through near-wilderness, it’s pretty easy for the landscape to just blend in, given the scarcity of standout landmarks. But the gradients (ombre? balayage?) are simply stunning: shades in the key of green, from vibrant light olive, hazel-sage, and blazing evergreen conifers the sheen of old canoes. Whether the sky is leaden gray or cerulean blue, the greens steal the show. Speaking of canoes, the Brule would be a great stream for the classic boat. It’s generally wide and free of “sudden” obstructions; but where it does narrow, speed up, and offer boulder gardens and ledges, it would be relatively easy and excellent practice for canoe paddling, solo or tandem. Conversely, the Brule doesn’t really lend itself to smaller kayaks – although, full disclosure: we five all were in kayaks, three of which were crossovers; like dancing, you paddle with the one that brung you, and have a good damn time!

What we didn’t like:
There’s hardly anything, frankly; we loved this trip. But to offer something, I’ll say that I was surprised/disappointed not to find both campsites along the way. I saw one tent symbol marker on the banks, but I didn’t bother scoping it out. It didn’t look terribly inviting, which I guess is why. I didn’t see the other, but apparently it’s in the Two Foot Falls neighborhood and I was distracted by those rapids.

The one “drag” about paddling the Brule – indeed so many northwoods rivers – is how long the shuttling takes. Because the roads are literally few and far between, and most of them dirt-gravel, the mileage itself is longer and the going itself slower than normal shuttling. The windshield time is awfully pretty and powerfully exotic, but do factor in those logistics. For example, our second-day paddle was only a 9-mile trip, but the driving between Forest Roads 2152 and 2150 is 13.5 miles. So, when you drop off boats and gear at the put-in, drive to the take-out to leave a vehicle or more, and then drive back to the put-in to begin your trip, you’re looking at 50 minutes minimum. If that’s the price of admission, then it’s totally worth it – it just needs to be kept in mind.

If we did this trip again:
We’d definitely do this trip again, but next time probably nix the first “half” and invest instead on the FR 2152 to FR 2150 section, where the river environment is as beautiful but the river is swifter. However, there are more sections of the Brule River both up- and downstream of this trip that we’d likely do before returning to redo this one.

***************
Related Information:
Camp: Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest Campgrounds
Guide:
Wisconsin Trail Guide
Wikipedia:
Brule River

Miles Paddled Video:


Photo Gallery:

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