Sunday, December 8, 2013

Canoeing the Brule River in Winter Through Ice and Snow

By John M. Grimsrud © 2013
A boat trip down the Brule is an experience never to be forgotten. One may start at Stone’s Landing, first going upstream a short distance to see the Blue Spring, then down through Rainbow Bend, Cedar Island, Wild Cat Rapids, Ashland Lake, Winneboujou, Bayfield Bridge, Club House Falls and dozens of other scenic spots. One gets a thrill out of shooting the rapids and dreams of the sturdy voyagers who traveled this route back in the seventeenth century.
Leigh P Jerrard, the Brule River of Wisconsin, 1956.[1]

The Brule River is an extraordinarily pristine spring-fed river in northwestern Wisconsin.[2]
The Brule River has been used as a transportation route over the millennium. First by the ancient mound builders and then by the countless indigenous tribes that followed.   The Brule River connects Lake Superior via a portage to Upper Lake St. Croix, the St. Croix River, and then south down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.
Daniel Greysolon Du Lhut was the first white man to ascend the Brule and leave a record of his passage. He was soon followed by others:  fur traders, missionaries in quest for Indian souls, pioneers, sportsmen, and adventurers.
I have canoed on the Brule every month of the year except December.
Years ago before the sound of screaming snowmobiles and roaring chain saws slaughtered the silent winter sanctity, I found one of the most enchantingly beautiful things to do was to slip a canoe off the untouched snow covered river bank into the pure unspoiled water of the Brule at a place called Stone’s Bridge Landing.
The river is fed by icy cold spring waters originating up in high sand country. These continually flowing springs are what make it possible to canoe in northern Wisconsin in the winter. It is part of the southern continental divide of Lake Superior, and it is the only open river water in the area in the winter season.
One clear bright sunny March day back in the mid 1950’s when the noontime temperature inched into the thirties and springtime felt tangible, an adventure was launched.
My five young and somewhat reckless companions on the escapade were Don Frye, his two cousins Bud and Jerry Bunt, Dave Smith, and Dave Olson.
On that day that felt like spring, we slipped three canoes into the icy river waters at Stone’s Bridge Landing for the 23 mile down river trip to the town of Brule. It was sunny and bright in this land of sky blue waters and the sun felt like a long lost friend that had come back to visit after a brutal northern Wisconsin winter.
In the shade along the banks the drooping cedar trees that stand tall and sprawling next to the sparkling clear river waters cast their shadows down on places where the water runs slow.  There a sheet of ice speckled with sparkling snowflakes could still be found.
We departed silently into a quiet world and glided along this enchanted waterway.
As we effortlessly drifted downstream, the thin ice crackled as it fractured and broke from the wake of the canoes. The winter silence was so enchantingly striking it made us all want to whisper.
In this polar deep-freeze, even with the friendly sun beating down upon us, we noticed our canoe paddles thickening with each stroke. They caked with layered ice similar to a candle being dipped in wax.
The first sixteen miles of river is relatively calm with easy going waters.
Lofty balsams, stately cedars and towering pines blanketed in deep drifted snow where whitetail deer alerted by our presence stood statue still made this wilderness magical.
The river pace picks up with a few rapids that shoot through rocky twisting narrows in the last seven miles of the sixteen mile long upper portion of the river between Stone’s Bridge Landing and the Winneboujou Bridge at Highway B. This part takes about five leisurely hours to traverse.
The last seven miles between the Winneboujou Bridge and the town of Brule at Highway 2, the pace picks up perceptibly. Navigation of the rapids requires undivided attention and decisive split-second canoe handling abilities. This portion of the river can easily be made in less than an hour due to the spirited speed of the current as it tumbles through a rock strewn twisted corridor picking up momentum on its way down to Lake Superior.
At this time of year in these northern latitudes the sun is on the horizon and headed down about four-thirty in the afternoon.
It was late in the day and we were racing to the end of our trip. I was in the lead canoe with Dave Olson when we entered a particularly treacherous stretch of river, the Long Nebagamon Rapids.[3]
These rapids cascade continuously for almost a mile and at one point in the torrents the river makes an abrupt ninety-degree turn to the left with a straight up and down wall on both sides. The canoe must be turned well in advance of the corner or a disastrous collision with the wall will be inevitable.
This time the situation was made even more treacherous by the fact that over the course of the winter the river had frozen. Then next the water level dropped and left a shelf of ice protruding out from the wall a foot and a half above the water level. A canoe could easily slip under.
The first two canoes just made it.  In the last canoe Don Frye and Bud Bunt rounded the corner. Bud, seated in the bow, reached out to fend off a collision with the ice shelf, but the powerful force of the water carried them under and they capsized.
There was no escape from this raging caldron of icy river water in those churning rapids until a half-mile downstream.  At the bottom of these rapids, a calm-water pond converged with Nebagamon Creek.
As soon as Don and Bud could escape the river, they did.  Scurrying up and over the huge snow drifted bank they began their life or death run through the twilight woods…if they stopped or had attempted the other river bank they surely would have frozen to death.
While they frantically ran with all the youthful strength that they could muster through the snow-covered heavily wooded forest, their clothing was rapidly freezing stiffer and stiffer with every labored step they took. Freezing to death was almost certain under these circumstances.
Their time was not meant to come this day.  Amazingly, the path they ran led them to a small cabin with lights in the windows. They were mercifully taken in to thaw and given warm dry clothing by strangers…two young girls that were home alone. 
Carl Pearson and his family lived in the cabin.  When Carl returned home, he found all six of us huddled by the fire and pondering what to do next.  With Carl’s help we rounded up our cars and canoes. 
Little did I know at that time, but one of those merciful girls turned out to be a cousin to the women that I married some years later.
My wife Jane’s uncle, Carl Pearson, was at the time the caretaker for Swiftwater Farm, Elizabeth Congdon’s place on the Brule River.

This photo is of the cabin at Swiftwater Farm where desperate frozen strangers found refuge on that cold snowy winter’s night back in the mid-1950s.  The woman in the photo, Louise Pearson Luthens, was one of the little girls that opened the door to life to the freezing youth.

Swiftwater Farm on the famous Brule River in September 2008, the place where the winter canoe adventure ended. 

Carl Pearson was a guide on the Brule River. He knew the river well.  He marveled that we had all survived our folly.

John LaRock and Carl Pearson, c. 1950s. John La Rock (1897-1960) was a Metis Brule River fishing guide.  He guided President Calvin Coolidge when President Coolidge summered at Cedar Island Lodge on the Brule River in 1928.  John La Rock was the son-in-law of Antoine Dennis (1852-1945), another well-know Metis river fishing guide.

John La Rock and President Calvin Coolidge on the Brule River, 1928.  Wisconsin Historical Society photo.

My wife Jane is pictured in 2008 with part of the famous somewhat reckless soul’s canoe team years later at the Sundown in Maple, Wisconsin.  Crew members and lifelong friends; John (Bing) Grimsrud, Dave Smith, and Dave Olson. 

My wife Jane Pearson Grimsrud, is a published author with three Brule area books to her credit. Her family roots are tied to the Brule River dating to her pioneering grandparents who relied on the river’s water when they first settled along the Brule in Cloverland.
The Brule River has been a large part of Jane’s life from childhood.
The following books are available in paperback and digital editions worldwide: Lookingfor a New Frontier, the Story of the Edwin Pearson Family, 2010, and Brule River Forest and Lake Superior: Cloverland Anecdotes, 2013.

[1] The Brule River of Wisconsin was revised in 2011 by Richard Jerrard. The first section contains the original work of Leigh P. Jerrard from 1956.  The second and third sections are new material and maps.

[2] The Brule River is also known as the Bois Brule River.

[3] The Long Nebagamon Rapids also known to us as Big Joe Rapids.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Cloverland, Wisconsin - History was all around me

I grew up in Cloverland, Wisconsin. I looked at it as the place settled by my grandparents and their friends in the 1920s, but it was more than that. History was all around me.

When we walked behind my father’s stone-boat clearing the fields of sticks and stones, we found arrowheads, logging saws, chains, railroad spikes, tree roots…all left by those who came before us.

The arrowheads and knives were found on our farm in Cloverland, Wisconsin.  Cloverland is located in the northeast corner of Douglas County. 
Cloverland, Wisconsin, is the site of many centuries of human history. Whenever we visit the Brule River, Lake Superior’s shore, hike in the Brule River State Forest, or drive down Highway 13 from Superior, Wisconsin, to Port Wing or Bayfield, we share the space once occupied by the ancient Indians, Sioux, and Ojibwe, fur traders, lumbermen, speculators, miners, homesteaders, and immigrant farmers of the cut-over land.

The Brule River[i] that flows north through Cloverland was once an important water route connecting Lake Superior via a portage to Upper Lake St. Croix,  the St. Croix River, and then south down the  Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.

[i] The Brule River is also known as the Bois Brule River.