Brule River, she can trick you if you’re not careful

April 6, 2010

Back in 2007 I was traveling up north near Lake Superior and ran across the Brule River. When I got to what I thought was her source at Lake Superior, I discovered that I was actually at her mouth emptying into Lake Superior. My map reading had let me down. I thought the Brule flowed south, hooked into the St. Croix River, and then into the Mississippi. I turned out to be wrong and was in total disbelief when I saw that the Brule was flowing into Lake Superior.


So I returned to find the source of the Brule. More important, I needed to figure out how its source could be so close to the source of the St. Croix River, the latter flowing to the south to join the Mississippi River, the former flowing northward to empty into Lake Superior. Once I found her source, and its close proximity to the source of the St. Croix, I decided to track her as well as I could. As you'll see shortly, I've got much of the river covered.

Let me show you how I got confused regarding the St. Croix and the Brule.


This is a scan of the map I was using at the time. The middle black arrow points to the Brule. The bottom black arrow points to the St. Croix. Even with my glasses on, it sure looked like the Brule met up with the St. Croix somewhere inside that yellow circle. I knew the St. Croix headed to the southwest so I concluded the Brule did so as well. I did not find out I was wrong until I saw the Brule meet Lake Superior. I was in such disbelief at the time that I actually threw some grass into the river to see which way she was flowing! The grass flowed out into the Lake. I was astounded, and a bit embarrassed.


Frankly, I remained in a state of disbelief all the way back to Wausau, so I immediately searched for some better maps when I got home. I found this on from the Brule River State Forest map produced by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). I commend this map to you full size, especially for those of you wish to run some rapids and those who wish to stay in the calm as the two ladies above did.

Focus on the arrows. The longer black arrow points to the Brule River, situated in the Brule River State Forest's southwest extremity (green) in Douglas County. The arrow also shows the direction of flow, toward and ultimately into Lake Superior. The four smaller black arrows point to at least four streams that feed the Brule: Wilson Creek formed by two streams, the West Fork, and the East Fork, and a fourth stream not named in this map. The red arrow points to Upper St. Croix Lake. The source of the St. Croix River is very close to this lake. You can see several streams feeding it. So if you stare carefully, you can see a very small separation between the two rivers right at the end of the East Fork. of the Brule. Strain your eyes a little and you can see the initial stream feeding St Croix Lake starts right about at the “e” in the red colored word “Portage” of the label, “Historic Portage Trail on the map. The point, I guess, is that this map shows a clear separation


This is a topographic map of Wisconsin's northwest corner. It shows how closely the sources of the St. Croix and Brule rivers are to each other, with one flowing north and the other flowing to the southwest. It also depicts the Lake Superior Lowland topography in a nice way. It is this geographical phenomenon that causes the Brule to flow north, out of the Northern Highland Geographic Province into the Lake Superior Lowland Province. The St. Croix, on the other hand, is forced southwesterly by the move out of the Northern Highland Province into the Central Plain Province.

The DNR says this about how all this happened:

“The Bois Brule River Valley and the uppermost St. Croix River Valley were carved by meltwater flowing south from glacial Lake Superior and the surrounding uplands. When the glaciers receded, a divide formed out of which the Brule and St. Croix rivers flow today in opposite directions.”

Indeed, I would learn that the Brule plunges 420 feet from its source to Lake Superior.

I hate to beat you to death with maps and satellite views, but I find this all very interesting. Old hands on this web site know I go bonkers over Wisconsin’s rivers.


If you wish to explore this area, and there is a lot to explore here, travel to Solon Springs in Douglas County to get started.That large long lake is known as Upper St. Croix Lake and for my purposes, its northeastern tip is very close it is source. I would learn from the locals that both the Brule and St. Croix Rivers are fed by underground springs, in itself amazing when you think of the amount of water that flows in both rivers and out to sea at some point.

To start, though, I want to focus on the source of the Brule. So I have highlighted CH P out of Solon Springs. Now I am going to confess up front that I was so into all of this that I kept lousy notes. But I think I have this reconstructed my travels well.

When I first got to the area, I drove up CH P.


Sure enough, I passed over the West Fork of the Brule south of Mills Lake.


So here’s CH P crossing the West Fork. Now I had worked pretty darn hard to get up here and was disappointed that the West Fork of the Brule was not marked as going under that bridge! But I had DNR maps out on the hood of my car and am certain this is where I was.


That is the West Fork, flowing downstream.


This is as far as I could zoom downstream. Beautiful country, eh?


Unbelievably, this is a look upstream. She surely is very narrow just when viewed from the other side of the bridge.

I drove up CH P just a bit more and came, I think, to East Stone Chimney Road, and hooked a right. I failed to jot down the name of the road. Will never do that again. East Chimney goes east-west. As I drove down the road, I spotted a path going into the woods. I stopped, got out, and sure enough, I came across something I knew nothing about, the Brule Bog. For me, this turned out to be a wondrous and educational adventure.


My wife was with me so we got out of the car and immediately saw that the gravel path turned into a wooden boardwalk, so this looked fancy. Off we went. I’d love to bore you with all my photos of what it was like in there, but will just pick out a few of my favorites. The one thing I do want to say is that it was lush, densely vegetated, and the ground was very wet. That is what a bog is, a wetland. It is a magnificent walk. I would learn that this bog and probably many others are where the ground water comes to the surface and eventually forms the Brule River.



My wife, born and raised in Wausau, and a retired art teacher, always said she thought Wisconsin was among the most green places she had ever seen. While we walked along the path she was infatuated with the many shades of green she saw. You’ve got to do this on a sunny day. Our visit occurred in late August.


In the midst of all that green, a single reddish mushroom sticking out. I want to highlight that little pool of water in the upper right quadrant.


As we kept walking along the boardwalk, that little pool of water in the previous photo started to turn into a small stream. Only God and the explorers know how many of these streams pop out from the bog and precisely how they flow to fill the Brule.


We continued walking and all of sudden broke out into an open area. Here you see a stream movin’ and groovin’ bit it has struck some obstacle that causes it to make a sharp turn with even a little whitewater! It’s only 1-2 feet wide.


At this point, out in the open, we decided to stop. I have no idea how far the boardwalk takes you nor to where it takes you. Next time I’ll do the whole thing, better prepared with water bottles and slacks --- the bugs are everywhere, not overwhelming, but they can do a number on bare legs.

After returning to the car, I headed back on CH P to the southwest toward Solon Springs, now attempting to see if I can find the Brule in the context of the St. Croix. As life would have it, this turned into a real conundrum for me.


We got to this point on CH P very close to the northeast tip of Upper St. Croix Lake. Well “Whatsis?,” I asked. We had had several days of rain and the locals told me the water levels were very high. They said to the left is the source of the Brule, to the right the source of the St. Croix.

I saw sign in this general area erected by the Brule River State Forest. It read as follows:

“Approximately one mile northeast of this point, a continental divide separates the watersheds of the Brule and St. Croix Rivers. The Brule flows north to Lake Superior and the St. Croix flows southerly to the Mississippi. A time worn trail connects the navigable portions of these two rivers. Native Americans were the first to utilize this portage route ... Preservation of the portage was initiated about 1930 by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Today it is within the boundaries of the Brule River State Forest.”

I could not synchronize this sign and its location with what the locals were telling about what I saw on CH P. I have come to terms with this by factoring in those ideas conveyed by “watersheds”, “bogs,” and the rivers being spring fed.

Back to my photo of the water on CH P.


If you listen to the locals, which I did, then you look to the left of CH P and here’s the Brule, clearly in a watershed-bog state, but as the locals said, with the water high because of the rains.


If you look to the right, you see the St. Croix watershed-bog and far in the distance, if you look carefully, you can see a horizontal sliver of the northeastern tip of Upper St. Croix Lake. We drove over there, and here’s what we saw, Upper St. Croix Lake, as you’ll see, hardly a sliver!




I never knew this fabulous place existed. It was a very warm August day and the people were taking it all in.

Well, the original mission was to find the source of the Brule, compare that with the source of the St. Croix, and then track the Brule up to Lake Superior. We accomplished the first two missions and now was the time to head north. Since we were not hikers prepared to go into the wilds, and were not checked out on kayaks, we followed Hwy 27 by car.


Just south of the town of Brule, we came across the Winneboujou Canoe launch, another wonder spot on the Brule.


Just spectacular. The Brule River, more correctly called the Brois Brule, is a very popular canoeing stream. As you can see, it is unspoiled. The river meanders a bit, especially in the narrow sections, gives you some straight-aways in wider sections, and even offers some gentle rapids. It is navigable until she takes a mighty drop into the Lake Superior lowlands. If you were to take the 12 mile stretch from County S (Stone Bridge) to Hwy 2, you would come across this canoe launch at the 8.6 mile marker. Just downstream from here a bit, you will encounter some of those gentle rapids.


We happened across a family just finishing up its trek. They were a happy lot indeed.

We crossed Hwy 2, passed through Brule Town, and kept heading north, downstream. Hwy 27 ended at Brule, so we took CH H north.

The next place we stopped was at Co-op Park Rapids and the Copper Range Campgrounds. Somewhere in this mix we hooked a left off H onto FF which crossed directly over the river. She was moving along by this point.


These rapids were in the area of the Copper Range Campground, north of Hwy 2.


She had a little oompf to her!


CH FF is also called Mikkola Road. In my non-scientific opinion, the divide between the Northern Highlands Geographic Province and the Lake Superior Lowlands Province is somewhere in this vicinity. This next photo shows what I mean.


You can see the ridges where the Northern Highlands Geographic Province are giving way to the Lake Superior Lowlands Province. It is the drop along the way that creates falls and rapids.


The drop to the lowlands is not trivial. By the time we got here, we were within 5-6 miles of the mouth of the Bois Brule meeting Lake Superior.

We’re now traveling north on S. WI Hwy 13 and got some marvelous shots of the Brule. I had to slip and slide down some embankments to get these shots, sneaker et al soaking wet when finished but it was fun and worth it.







And there you are, the mouth of the Bois Brule flowing into Lake Superior.



And that’s the name of that tune!