Bois Brule River Paddle Guide
If you close your eyes and imagine two paddlers from a bygone time in a canoe that’s either lumberjack-red or pine tree-green floating down an intimate copper-colored clear stream trying their luck for trout at the base of a boulder or pulling up lines to concentrate on navigating a tricky stretch of whitewater, past soggy bogs or towering cedar and spruce, where the sky is striking blue, the hills are lush and verdant, and the air a crispy whisper – this would look like the Bois Brule River.
And this is still how the Bois Brule River looks today.
A short river, the Bois Brule features some of the prettiest, handsomest, and most rewarding paddling in its ~50 miles anywhere in all the Upper Midwest. Originating from springs in a conifer swamp, the river gradually picks up pluck as it sheds its soggy bogs for boreal forest, past historically preserved cedar estates and boathouses, through meandering meadows, tumbling down rocky ledges, and sweeping around raised clay hills before finally slowing down again through a marsh to its mouth at the sandy beach of Lake Superior, all the while dropping some 420′ from spongy source to inland sea.
Virtually the entire river is enclosed within the 52,000 acres of the Bois Brule State Forest, where a conservation ethic is vigilantly maintained. Like any river, no glass is allowed in your boat. Furthermore, all containers (food or beverages) must be enclosed in a cooler (or something like a cooler), and that cooler (or whatever) must be secured to your boat. It’s not uncommon for park rangers to inspect your boat. The reason for this is to ensure that, in the event of tipping, none of your garbage goes astray downstream. It’s a good rule to keep in mind for any stream or lake, when you think about it. And given the popularity and paddling footprint of the Bois Brule, this rule especially makes sense.
Crystal clear water, reliable water levels, excellent accesses, and two public campgrounds add to the Bois Brule’s beguiling charm.
Brule Glacial Spillway State Natural Area
Miles: 5-8+ | 2016 Trip Report
The soggy, boggy source of the Bois Brule lies ambiguously within a damn-near wilderness swamp environment that is challenging to explore and likely of interest only to purists, dreamers, and romantics. In theory, an intrepid paddler could begin her trip on the West Fork of the river, via County Road P, until it merges with the East Fork to become – abracadabra! – the Bois Brule River, but the going would be slow, twisty, obstructed, and generally torturous. For those who laughingly scoff at torture, they could endure worse hardship by hiking a historic portage trail and accessing the East Branch like a good old Voyageur from centuries ago – with or without the coon-skinned cap or beaver pelts.
Another option, also in theory, is finding the river a couple miles downstream from its two-forked fusion via the unpaved and eventually dead-end Stone Chimney Road. By “finding the river” we mean just that, because where the water actually is, relative the end of Stone Chimney Road, is anybody’s guess. We sure don’t know. Somewhere down a way’s (literally downhill), using no discernible trail but rather bushwhacking through the forest for at least half a mile, to what may not even be a paddleable width or depth yet, is supposedly some kind of access to the river. Sounds kind of cool, but also maybe a fool’s errand.
Curiously, the DNR thinks these options are entirely viable (with which we personally beg to differ). It not only lists County Road P and Stone Chimney Road as canoe “landings” on the official state forest map (which is just flat-out false), but even goes so far as to promote this portion of the river in an otherwise cool brochure for paddling in state natural areas.
Maybe we just missed something when we were here and scouted the terrain, but we believe that the most sensible trip for this upstream portion of the river is a there-and-back approach using the outstanding Stone’s Bridge Landing (aka County Road S) as your put-in and take-out, paddling as far up the river as you wish (or can) and then turning back around.
Just keep in mind that this obscure section of the river is absolutely not indicative of everything else downstream. The DNR notwithstanding, all guidebooks, websites, and reviews start the Bois Brule at Stone’s Bridge Landing. The whole Brule Glacial Spillway is enchanting due to its unchartered primitiveness – and to be sure, it is a beautiful natural environment – but it will have little appeal or application to most paddlers.
Generally speaking, the Bois Brule River is composed of four individual sections, detailed below.
Stone’s Bridge Landing to Bois Brule Landing
Miles: 11.5 | 2016 Trip Report
This is the single-most diverse segment of the entire Bois Brule River, and it’s also the most popular. Actually, it’s one of the most diverse day-trip paddles we’ve ever experienced. Continuing from the spring-fed section upstream, this trip begins with a quietwater stretch through conifer bogs and scrubby pines in a marsh environment where gorgeous cedar boathouses and estates dating back from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries are dispersed here and there, sometimes connected by rustic cedar footbridges. No fewer than five U.S. presidents have visited and fished the Bois Brule and lodged in the cedar estates in this section.
After a few miles the marsh and bogs give way to rising hills, steep banks, and scattered boulders. The current picks up its slack and rushes along fun, engaging Class I rapids. The sparkling river connects two narrow but long lakes like a couple pearls on a necklace; each entrance to the lake is preceded by an exhilarating set of rapids. No portaging is required; the river-lake-river-lake pattern is entirely natural, created by the glaciers in the last Ice Age (that also formed and filled the Great Lakes). The current will catch its breath in the third quarter of this trip, but the landscape itself is as aesthetically rich as ever. As with all four sections, you’ll almost certainly see folks fly-fishing, particularly in spring and fall. Finally, in the last few miles, the ride picks up speed once more and it’s all a series of meandering Class I-II rapids all the way to the take-out.
Here, as everywhere in the four conventional sections of the river, the accesses are excellent and provide water, bathrooms, and plenty of parking.
Bois Brule Landing to Copper Range Landing
Miles: 10 | 2016 Trip Report
The quietest stretch of the Bois Brule, this trip uniquely begins and ends at the two public campgrounds in the state forest, each with a light flurry of Class I rapids, in between which is mile after mile of a twisty, meandering river through a subtle valley called “the Meadows.” Of the four conventional sections of the Bois Brule River, this is arguably the most subdued and humble. If your time is limited to paddling only three trips, then skip this one. It’s certainly pretty – by southern Wisconsin rivers’ standards, it’s downright luxurious! But relative the rest of the Bois Brule, it’s a little pell-mell. That said, if the rapids in the next section are not your cup of tea or comfort level, and you’d just as soon skip the paddlers in the aforementioned section ogling at the cedar estates; if all you’re seeking is a contemplative stream offering solitude and birdsong past one gentle bend after another, then this underrated trip is perfect.
Copper Range Landing to Highway 13
Miles: 9 | 2016 Trip Report
While nobody really regards the Bois Brule as a whitewater river, many do know that it does offer one challenging stretch of Class II-III rapids in particular. This is that trip. In just 9 miles the river drops some 200 feet, creating a gradient of nearly 24 feet per mile! It is with no hyperbole whatsoever when we exclaim that this trip is one of our all-time favorite trips, hands down, in the tenure of our paddling. It combines incredible natural beauty, unique geology, and non-stop rapids. Nine miles, non-stop. It’s simply breathtaking. Not unlike how the first conventional trip features two lakes, this trip is framed by two notable whitewater sections: Lenroot and Mays ledges.
As with any reputable rapid, water level is everything; in shallow conditions (120 cfs or lower) there will be some scraping here and there, which has its own benefit and detractions, while at high levels (300+ cfs) only skilled or at least experienced whitewater paddlers should give these ledges a go – Mays especially. Both of these ledges can be scouted ahead of time via Lenroot Road and Koski Road, respectively. We scouted Mays via Koski, but skipped Lenroot. That may be why it felt like the Lenroot run came out of nowhere, surprising us when suddenly we were full-on engaged (but in the best possible way). For point of reference, when we paddled this trip everyone in our group handled the Lenroot ledge rapids with aplomb and without incident, a few of whom had really no whitewater experience beforehand (at least not Class II).
Mays is trickier and longer, with dramatic angular rock ledges creating a staircase-like series of cascading drops. The drops are only 1-2′ tall, nothing precipitous. Of the entire Mays run, everyone in our group ran all but one of the drops, the final one, which was complicated only on account of the shallow water and getting stuck. There are several places along both banks to portage anything here, if so desired. Otherwise, this section is a-Mays-ing. (Sorry.)
The river keeps chugging along after Mays, but with less vigor. Still, it’s all riffles and light Class I’s – too many to count. What makes this single trip also incredible is the rise of small hills and clay banks, foreshadowing what’s to come in the next section. All in all, consider this trip on the Bois Brule a destination paddle.
Highway 13 to Lake Superior
Miles: 8.25 | 2016 Trip Report
The final segment of the pristine Bois Brule River, this trip parallels the first in the sense of diversity. Rushing out of the gate with light rapids and frisky riffles (which will continue until the final couple miles), you’ll whisk past boulders and small rock ledges as the river meanders around dramatic tall clay banks – terra cotta colored with pops of green, yellow, and white by aspen, birch, and maple. After a couple miles the river will slacken just upstream from the one and only dam – a sea lamprey barrier that serves to protect the trophy trout that have attracted anglers for three centuries now. It’s an easy, obvious, and safe portage on the left. Below the dam the river offers several sections of boulder gardens, more so than anywhere else upstream. The Bois Brule just keeps giving and giving!
But… all things must pass and come to an end. Not unlike the first few miles of the first trip, the Bois Brule will slow down to a quietwater crawl at the end through a flat marsh environment. As it does so, you’ll pass a few cabins on the right, one of which is cool and eclectic as hell, an artist’s chic shack, so to speak. After a bend here, then there, suddenly you’ll see the mouth at mighty Lake Superior. The feeling of entering the lake after all the intimate river paddling is as captivating as is the visual. Some Lake Superior tributaries end in crazy-dramatic waterfalls – streams like the Montreal and Presque Isle Rivers on the south shore of Wisconsin and the U.P. By contrast, the Bois Brule slips in with elegance and simplicity. A beautiful beach with a tall dune overlooking the largest freshwater lake in the world provides an idyllic location to reflect upon the unique and unforgettable river and environs that is the Bois Brule.