On a camping and kayak trip to the bucolic, trout-filled Brule River last summer, my group and I discovered that the river is always the same, yet always different. Rocky rapids in low water become riffles in high water. The same stretch of stream can feel closed in under brooding skies yet expansive under a blue vault.
The outfitter who hauled our kayaks and us to the Stones Bridge landing from the Bois Brule Campground regaled us with river stories.
"The Brule is the River of Presidents. Grant, Cleveland, Coolidge, Hoover and Eisenhower all fished here. Coolidge spent the whole summer of 1928 at Cedar Island Lodge. Families like the Carlsons and Ordways still have homes along the river."
The Bois Brule River has a well-traveled history, including Native Americans, explorers, trappers, voyageurs and missionaries wending their way between Lake Superior and the Mississippi River. Black bear, deer, eagles and gray wolves thrived along the river.
They still do. We spotted a black bear ambling across County Hwy. H on the way to our put-in at the Hwy. 13 landing on the second day of our adventure. The outfitter told us that you can sometimes hear wolves howl at night in July and August while camping at the Copper Range Campground on the river.
From gentle flow to rapids
Adventure, spills, stories, wildlife, peace and adrenaline all get packed into a 44-mile forest river. Along the way, the Brule transforms itself from a meandering stream in a conifer bog to a fast-flowing river punctuated with rapids and ledges. As it twists and tumbles north to Lake Superior, the Brule drops 418 feet in elevation, plunging 328 feet in the last 19 miles.
The Brule's dual nature makes it fun for both novice and experienced paddlers. The most popular canoe or kayak trip begins at Stones Bridge canoe landing. The river takes its time here, winding through cedar, spruce and balsam bog forests. A few playful Class I rapids interrupt the mostly flat water. Even the youngest kayaker in our group, an 11-year old, handled these with ease.
Rounding a bend near mile 8, we passed Cedar Island, still a handsome summer hideaway. Not spotting anyone presidential, we let the river carry us under some rustic bridges and paddled on.
Taking our time, we paddled back to the Bois Brule Campground. Our tents were close enough to the river that we sat mesmerized by the campfire, listening to the music of the Brule in the background. No wolf howls, but plenty of laughter.
For the experienced, and not
The next day, our group split up. Some were ferried to the Hwy. 13 landing for a relaxing paddle down to Lake Superior. The more experienced kayakers put in at Copper Range Campground to run the Lenroot Ledges, Mays Ledges and Hwy. 13 rapids. This is a stretch of almost continuous ledges and rapids that are rated Class II-III, depending on water flow and depth. A couple of spills in the swift water added to the fun.
At day's end, we gathered on the wide sand beach where the Brule rushes into Lake Superior. Lingering by the forest river and the inland sea, we waded in Superior's cold waters and marveled at the skill of two windsurfers playing on the lake.
Heading home, I wallowed in the hold that the Brule had on my imagination. Of all its lessons, the simplest one was the most profound. Nestled in our kayaks the first day, we pushed off from Stones Bridge landing as the sky threatened. Soon a persistent rain soaked us through. Complaining to myself at this "misfortune," I heard my friend Scott call out to me.
"Isn't this just beautiful, Jim? Look at how the raindrops explode off the water when we're this close to it!"
That snapped me back into the moment. The raindrops did indeed bounce off the water with a pop and a sizzle.
The Brule, according to its nature, allows each of us the choice of perspective regarding the events along its course.
Jim Umhoefer is a travel and outdoor writer and photographer from Sauk Centre, Minn.