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Portaging from the Bois Brule to Upper Lake St. Croix

John Sullivan
Sullivan, John F. (2000). Lake Superior to La Crosse via the Bois Brule, St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers. La Crosse, WI. 31 pp.
Upper Bois Brule River and portage path to Upper Lake St Croix

In June 2000, I poled up the Bois Brule River then took historic portage path to Upper Lake St. Croix. From there, I traveled down the length of the St. Croix and descended the Mississippi to La Crosse where I live. Here is my journal entry of Day 4 when I portaged over the divide the separates the St. Lawrence River from the Mississippi.

More about the trip and other selected journal entries can be found here.

Day 4 – Thursday, June 22

Cool, misty weather hung over the upper end of Big Lake as I packed up at 4:45 a.m. I was eager to be on the move and did not want to overstay my welcome at the Noyes’ picnic haven. Loading the canoe at the Noyes’ pier facilitated my quick departure and I was soon heading upriver for my last day on the Bois Brule.

Little Twin Rapids was too shallow and rocky to pole so I waded up the right bank then paddled over the calm tannin colored waters of the tinny Sucker Lake. Big Twin Rapids followed and I returned to poling and ascended to the base of The Falls Rapids, where the river makes a sharp bend and rather abrupt drop in elevation. A short portage was required around The Falls on the right bank. Exposed roots of cedar trees were flattened and worn at the take out and the portage path was cut deeply into the soil in places as a result of trail’s heavy use over hundreds of years.

The huge rustic cottages, sheds, boathouses and bridges of Cedar Island Estates were quite impressive and offered a very secluded setting. The well-manicured lawns and landscaping provided a stark contrast to the wilderness shorelines of the upper Brule. It was here some 70 years ago that President Coolidge made his summer office and brought much acclaim to the trout waters of the Bois Brule. The cold waters of the Brule flow slowly by the Estates as a result of the slack water created by the wide pools and adjoining sloughs. A light mayfly hatch brought hungry trout to the surface to feed on the airborne prey. Two trout fishermen in a canoe were taking advantage of the feeding frenzy and were casting their mayfly-like imitations into the cold clear waters with some success. Above the Estates, the river was bordered by cedar swamps, tamarack, spruce, white pine and balsam fir with an understory of alder at the water’s edge. Several species of pondweed were present in the clear, still water.

Message from the past:

“I think this is going to be a coming region for those who are seeking recreation. The fishing around here, I can testify is fine. The climate is wonderful. It has been a great benefit to Mrs. Coolidge and myself, and we are returning to Washington refreshed and invigorated” (President Calvin Coolidge, September, 1928 from Burnham 1975).

The river narrowed noticeably above Rainbow Bend. Large rocks were scattered throughout the channel with many hidden a few inches below the surface. After banging into several, I reduced poling speed to avoid further gouges and scratches to my canoe’s Royalex skin. The early morning misty weather gave way to bright sunshine at 9:05 a.m. I had quickly reached Stones Bridge Landing, the most popular canoe put-in on the Brule. The parking lot is quite large to accommodate the heavy use, especially on weekends. Today only a few trucks were present and were likely owned by the trout fishermen that I had passed earlier this morning.

Above Stones Bridge, the river narrowed again and followed a very serpentine route through the quarter to half-mile wide wetland comprising the valley floor. Thick growths of tag alder bordered both sides of the Brule and I was constantly running into them during the numerous sharp bends and windings. Shallow cold spring ponds were present on both sides of the river as I generally headed in a southwesterly direction. Occasional narrow discharge channels from these ponds sometimes mislead me from the mainstem into these pools. The pond water was cold and very clear. Minerals and nutrients from the upwelling groundwater apparently provided favorable conditions for the growth of lime-green filamentous algae, which was quite common on the soft sediment surface in these shallow pools.

I felt reassured to find Stone Chimney walk-in access at 11:30 a.m. This was the only definite landmark I could make out on my topographic map. The reach between Stone Chimney and the East Fork of the Brule, my desired destination, was extremely narrow and overgrown with tag alder. The confining channel with tall overhanging vegetation offered no view of the horizon for considerable reaches. There were sections where it was too thick to paddle or pole and the bottom too soft to wade. I then resorted to grabbing onto the overhanging branches and pulled my way upstream until a clearing offered different tactics. Numerous small channels entered from both sides of the river. I couldn’t identify my position of my maps as no apparent landmarks were obvious from which to fix my position on my topographic maps.

As I ascended through the bottomland wetlands of the upper Brule I began to wonder if I had missed the East Fork or if I would ever find it. However, I just kept following the feeble current knowing I would eventually find the East Fork or end up at Highway P on the West Fork.

The river became noticeably shallower and sandier and in spots required wading. Fortunately, the tag alder became less dense and gave way to grassy openings and provided beautiful vistas of the surrounding upland forest. Occasional man-made wing dams constricted the stream in attempt to scour the channel deeper and expose gravel bars that provide favorable spawning habitat for trout. Finally, I came to a major fork in the upper Brule and took the left (east) fork, which appeared to be contributing most of the sand to the mainstem. I poled a few hundred feet then started wading due to the shallow water. My progress was slow due to the silty-sand bottom, which did not offer a firm substrate for walking. Within about 15 minutes I spied an abandoned eagle’s nest in a dead floodplain tree several hundred feet south of my position. I knew I would soon reach the portage trail to the St. Croix since I had observed this same nest while scouting the portage route in late May. I felt some relief and excitement that I had “discovered” the infamous land bridge to the Upper Lake St. Croix and ultimately the Mississippi. After four days of paddling, poling, pushing, pulling, portaging and praying (not necessarily in that order), I would soon end my trip up the Bois Brule.

Messages from the past:

“In June, 1680, not being satisfied with having made my discovery (of the Mississippi River overland from Lake Superior) by land, I took two canoes, with an Indian who was my interpreter, and four Frenchman (Lamaitre, Bellegrade, Masson, and Pepin), to seek means to make it by water. With this view, I entered a river which empties eight leagues from the extremity of Lake Superior on the south side, where having cut some trees and broken about a hundred beaver dams, I reached the upper waters of the said river, and then I made a portage of half a league to reach a lake (Upper Lake St. Croix), the outlet of which fell into a very fine river, which took me to the Mississippi” (Daniel Greysolon Du Lhut, June 1680, from Marshall 1954).

“The Brule is, comparatively, but a Creek, Sufficiently deep to admit of Batteauxs, except towards the Portage when the seasons are very dry, & water consequently low. The banks, the whole length covered with the alder & willow, particularly near the Portage where they are remarkably thick, & the river being here very narrow we always have great difficulty in forcing the Canoe through. There were some fine groves of Pine & other wood, but at a distance. The fire at some very remote period had destroyed all the wood near, hence its name (Bois Brule or Burntwood River)” (George Nelson, fur trader in the St. Croix Valley 1802-03, from Bardon and Nute 1948).

“The portage from the St. Croix to it (Brule or Misakoda River) begins on marsh, ascending in a hundred yards or so, to an elevated sandy plain, which has been covered, at former times, with a heavy forest of the pinus resinonsa; that having been consumed (by fire), there is left here and there a dry trunk, or auk, as the Indians call it. The length of the portage path is 3,350 yards, or about two miles. At this distance, we reach a small, sandy-bottom brook, of four feet wide and a foot deep, of most clear crystalline cold water, winding its way, in a most serpentine manner, through a boggy tract, and overhung with dense alder bushes. It is a good place to slake one’s thirst, but appears like anything else than a stream to embark on, with canoes and baggage. Nobody but an Indian would seem to have ever dreamed of it” (Henry R. Schoolcraft, August, 1832 from Schoolcraft 1855).

“Embarked near the head of the Brule, which rises near the foot of the pine ridge in a boiling spring, whose waters divide, a part entering the St. Croix lake, and the other forming this stream. The water is as fine as any well water I ever drank” (Then later downstream)…“Never was I in a much worse hole than here…the alders on each bank met interlocked in the middle of the stream, through which we were obliged to force our way. But what is a matter of no little surprise to me is that this is the highway to two or three posts, and yet you would hardly suppose a rat could even pass. It must have been much better than now when Carver passed, if not, I trust he has a faint recollection of it. Our canoe was filled with sticks, leaves, bugs, worms, and spiders of every kind…Of all the streams I have seen this is the most dismal for ten to fifteen miles from its head” (Reverend William Boutwell, with Schoolcraft in 1832, from Marshall 1954).

“For the two miles downstream the Bois Brule is no more than a brook six to ten feet wide. Its shores are so cluttered with willows, alders, and boulders of greenstone that the men must constantly take to the water to pull the canoe through or even lift it in some shallow spots” (Joseph N. Nicollet, August 9, 1837 from Bray 1970).

At 14:20 p.m., I arrived at the take out which was marked with a 3-foot high wooden post with a yellow-faded “Portage” engraved vertically into the pillar. I wondered what landmark the early explorers and fur traders used to end up in this same spot. Actually, the takeout seemed to be in the most logical place since the East Fork soon becomes even shallower and leads away from the nearby upland on the south side. I was soon unpacking the canoe and eager to begin the long portage to Upper Lake St. Croix. However, I quickly discovered a necessity to put on long pants and tick repellant since wood ticks were quite common in the grass and they had found my exposed legs.

Hauling the canoe, two large packs and miscellaneous smaller gear (paddles, water containers, map case and other items) required three trips for each leg (about 500 ft or 100 paces). I had to ascend and descend two large hills during the portage. I found stone landmarks with the names of early explorers engraved in large nameplates adjacent to the narrow well-marked trail. The order of these monuments from the Brule to the St. Croix was:

  1. Daniel Greysolon Du Lhut 1680
  2. Pierre Charles le Sueur 1693
  3. Jonathon Carver 1767
  4. Jean Baptiste Cadotte 1819
  5. Henry Schoolcraft 1832
  6. Nicholas, Jr & Joseph Lucias 1886

After five hours, I finally arrived with all my gear at the DNR’s access to Upper Lake St. Croix some 2 ¼ miles from the take-out on the Bois Brule. I was exhausted and was ready to pitch my tent in the grassy picnic area at the northern end of the landing. However, a patrolling county sheriff passed by in his squad car and I soon abandoned this thought and headed down the lake to Lucius Woods County Park as the sun was setting on the opposite shoreline. I arrived at the park’s sandy beach just east of a large amphitheater at 9 p.m.. A ten-minute hike, mostly uphill, with the first load of gear took me to the campground on high ground overlooking the lake and amphitheater. I had assistance from the park’s caretaker who graciously hauled the balance of my camping equipment that was stashed at the beach up to my campsite in his large pickup truck.

I was too tired to cook dinner so I ate trail mix instead then took a long hot shower before hitting bed at 10:30 p.m. Sleep did not come easily due to sore muscles and the sound of laughter from teenagers who had gathered at the base of the hill near the amphitheater. Train horns frequently shattered the calm evening air. Then at midnight, I was suddenly awaken by the sounds of a car crash on nearby highway 53. What a way to end a memorable day.

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