Bois Brule & St. Croix

June 18, 2000 - June 30, 2000

Some ten thousand years ago during the retreat of the last ice age, melt waters from Glacial Lake Duluth, the predecessor to Lake Superior, rushed out of the southwestern corner of the lake in a torrent carving out the St. Croix River valley. A couple hundred miles to the south near the present city of Red Wing, Minnesota, Lake Duluth's outflow met with the similar drainage carried by the River Warren from the enormous Glacial Lake Agassiz that spanned from central Minnesota to Manitoba. These millennial floodwaters carved out the upper Mississippi and Minnesota River valleys. Eventually Glacial Lake Duluth's elevation dropped to a point where it no longer contributed flow to the Mississippi. Then a small segment of this glacial river outlet reversed its coarse near the high point in the copper range in northwestern Wisconsin and began flowing north to "Lake Superior" - the birth of the Bois Brule River.

This geologic upheaval provided the hydrologic connection between Lake Superior and the Mississippi and created the logical corridor through which humans have passed for hundreds of years. It also helps explain why one must travel upstream in the Bois Brule to reach the St. Croix River from Lake Superior, a fact that many friends, family and interested parties point out when I announced my plans for this past summer's solo canoe trip - to canoe from Lake Superior to La Crosse, Wisconsin.

To accomplish the feat, I reviewed the early journals of earlier French voyageurs to get some "feel" such a journey would entail. To my dismay most of the accounts of passage were in the opposite direction - ascending the St. Croix then descending the "Burnt Wood" River (also called "Misakoda", "Wisacoda" or "Broule"; Schoolcraft, 1855) to the big lake. Those that did describe an ascent up the Bois Brule did so with little detail, especially noteworthy in a sparse literary discourse were the writings of Daniel Gresolon, Sieur de Du Lhut, who "discovered" this route for New France in the summer 1680. However, considering these voyageurs/explorers typically set out from Montreal and spent several weeks or months travelling in open canoes before reaching the west end of Lake Superior, the thought of traveling up a relatively short river like the Bois Brule for a few days to attain passage to the Mississippi was likely of little consequence.

The next important preparation was learning how to "pole a canoe" upstream through swift waters and moderate rapids. I had done considerable "push polling" in flat and round-bottomed duck skiffs on the calm waters of the Horicon Marsh in my youth. However, the thought of trying to go upstream in a fast moving river with rapids seemed a bit more challenging and I decided to seek additional counsel. Garrett Conover's book, "Beyond the Paddle" was very instructive and helpful but I felt needed something more.

In early March I met Gilles Brideau at Canoecopia, the world's largest sport show for paddlers sponsored by Rutabaga, Inc. in Madison, Wisconsin. Gilles (pronounced "Jill") is a canoe guide, outfitter and expert poler from eastern Quebec. He demonstrated the finer points of poling and equipment while standing in the stern of a Mad River canoe that rested on a gray-carpeted floor inside the Dane County's Exposition Center. His enthusiasm and encouragement were electrifying and well received by a small group of poling neophytes.

In April and early May I began testing my poling ability with various canoes on the Chippewa, Mississippi, La Crosse and Root Rivers to gain some experience and to help select a more appropriate canoe than my narrow, fiberglass solo canoe (Wenonah Prism). I finally selected a combination tandem/solo canoe (Wenonah Solo-Plus) with a Royalex hull. This canoe provided greater stability when standing and had a more durable hull. Finally, the idea of having the ability to use the craft as a tandem canoe was an additional benefit that someday my wife Beth will attest to (once I put the tandem seats back in).

In late May I decided to take a quick exploratory tour of the Bois Brule, to test my ability to pole upstream in its swift current, inspect its infamous rapids and scout the portage route between the Brule and upper Lake St. Croix. This exercise was enlightening and did not discourage my planned adventure initially set for early August. However, I hastily moved the trip forward to late June due to long-term climatic forecasts of mid-summer drought and low water in the upper St. Croix River.

I expected this trip to be more difficult than previous solo outings and allotted myself three weeks to complete the journey. However, I felt well prepared and eager to begin my excursion. I would not be "alone" on my trip for I carried the writings of earlier explorers and fur traders who planted pre-cultural visions of what to expect. Further, the waterway is used frequently by recreational paddlers, boaters and fishermen and women who provide an opportunity to relay frustrations on weather, fishing and equipment or extol the virtues of wild river country that too many take for granted or don't appreciate.

"Were there no hardships, this would be no pilgrimage worthy of the name. We are out, philosophically to take the world as it is, he who is not content to do so, had best not stir far from home." 
Ruben Gold Thwaites, 1903