With Wisconsin offering over 43,000 miles of rivers, it can be difficult to decide on the perfect destination for paddling. While many may explore this state through a Wisconsin waterfalls road trip, kayaking in WI has long been a popular activity for both residents and visitors looking for a relaxing outdoor escape.
As one of the best spring-fed trout streams in the Midwest, the Brule River has always been a popular vacation destination for those traveling from the Twin Cities, Duluth, and Milwaukee, WI.
The Bois Brule River is a delightful choice for canoeing or kayaking with 16 miles along the North Country National Scenic Trail. As one of the best rivers east of the Mississippi, the Brule has a rich history, welcoming five US presidents over the years.
Kayaking the upper Brule between Stone’s Bridge to Winneboujou is the classic canoe and kayak route- a rather simple paddle taking you through historic lands, calm waters, and a few chutes of rapids. With excellent fishing conditions and clear, cool waters, the Brule River is the perfect spot for Kayaking in WI.
The History of the Brule River
This Wisconsin river’s real name is the Bois Brule, which literal translation is burnt wood. This early terminology dates back to an early Anishinaabe Native American language as they saw the Brule as “a river through half-burnt woods“.
That fact, paired with the Brule’s title of the “River of Presidents”, creates a fascinating back-story of this unique kayaking in WI spot.
Located in Douglas County, Wisconsin, the Bois Brule River (frequently referred to as the Brule River) is nestled near the county’s eastern border with neighboring Bayfield County.
With nearly 44 miles of winding waterways, the Brule’s stream starts in central Douglas County near the Upper St Croix Lake. It then continues to flow through the Brule River State Forest, eventually draining into Lake Superior.
The Brule River formed a long, long time ago as a small outlet for Lake Superior when the lake was in its glacial form.
Once the glaciers retreated, the river’s flow reversed, and springs found along the river’s course fed the Brule. This new, continuous water source eventually led to the Bois Brule River flowing north into Lake Superior.
Native American Ties
Quickly after the Brule River’s stream reversed to continually flowing north, the river became a notorious pathway for the local natives.
The Bois Brule functioned as a popular travel route during the historic fur trade era as one of the nation’s largest fur trading posts was located east in the Apostle Islands.
Ambitious voyageurs would start canoeing in WI up the Bois Brule, and then continue to portage about two miles to the nearby headwaters of the St Croix River. Once on the St Croix, they would then continue their journey towards the Mississippi River.
The Brule River is also well-known historically as the site of the 1842 Battle of the Brule. This battle was most notable for the conflict between the Chippewa and Sioux tribes in the area.
River of Presidents
Like I stated earlier, five US presidents have vacationed and fished on the Bois Brule. Kayaking in WI on the Bois Brule River has been popular throughout history as one of Wisconsin’s most famous trout rivers.
The Bois Brule was also home to President Coolidge’s summer White House during his Presidential term, as he enjoyed trout fishing around the scenic Wisconsin landscape. President Grant, Hoover, Eisenhower, Coolidge, and Cleveland have all stayed on this underrated Wisconsin river, many of which staying at the world-renowned Cedar Island Estate.
Another fascinating snippet of history includes the very person in charge of CIA counter-intelligence. During the Cold War, James Angleton enjoyed escaping political pressure to his cabin on the Brule. It was later revealed that he enjoyed fishing for Brown Trout during the night on this scenic river.
Since the Brule River’s rise to fame within the political realm, many wealthy families have purchased and maintained the property surrounding the Bois Brule for five generations.
The Cedar Island Estate has since been purchased by the Ordway Family— early investors in the Twin Cities fortune 500 company 3M.
This massive estate consists of many square miles of land and features a collection of ponds, fishery, with its very own airport landing strip. When President Coolidge stayed here, it was known as the Pierce Estate— named after a tycoon from St Louis, Missouri.
Another great example of a generational estate on the Upper Brule is owned by the heirs of Arthur Holbrook. This famed doctor’s book From the Log of a Trout Fisherman offers discussion on how he traveled the historic Brule River. Written in 1949, Holbrook illustrates how he and his father rode trains from Milwaukee to the Brule in order to catch the best trout in the Midwest.
Comparing the Upper and Lower Brule
The Brule is an incredible river to Kayak in Wisconsin, famous for its steelhead, brown trout, and salmon fishing activities. As one of the only true spring creeks in the entire region, this beautiful river is sectioned into two distinct regions, each featuring unique opportunities for kayaking in Wisconsin.
While one may think that the Upper Brule is north of the Lower Brule, you need to remember the Brule flows South to North. This means the Upper Brule is actually south of the Lower Brule, with a decisive division at the town of Brule, Wisconsin.
The Upper Brule
The Upper Brule is the best section of the Bois Brule for fly fishing. Brown and Brook Trout are more common on the Upper Brule than the Lower. The only lures allowed on this section of the Brule are artificial (check fishing regulations before your journey).
The Upper Brule tends to be clear, cool waters with a steady spring-fed flow from the valley’s springs. Because of the sandy shoreline, it is said to take 200 years for the water to seep back up into the springs.
The river widens at several “lakes”, with the largest being at Big Lake. This section of the Brule offers several rapids and chutes between these lakes.
Make sure to check the water gauge height before you leave on your adventure to the Upper and Lower Brule.
The most popular spot to put in kayaks is at Stone’s Bridge. This spot offers a parking lot to leave your car at, however, it is best to arrange for someone to park your car at the Winneboujou kayak take-out point.
The river is initially narrow and slow– perfect for capturing photos of the scenic landscape. You will traverse this narrow section of the river surrounded by wing-dams.
This area continues for several miles until you start to notice the cedar bogs and McDougal Springs flowing into the river. Here you will kayak through numerous chutes and gentle rapids, pushing you along towards Big Lake, which eventually leads to the generational estates.
You will be able to navigate the Brule passageways through the Cedar Island Estate— by far the most scenic area of the Upper Brule. With winding waterways and low-hanging branches, you will kayak under wooden bridges and view the historic estate up close.
Finish up your adventure in Winneboujou, where you will notice plenty of beautiful cabins and a small area to get out of the Brule.
The Lower Brule
The Lower Brule is a popular fishing area for Steelhead and lake-run salmon. The fishing runs tend to be in the spring and the fall, with not much fishing activity during the summer months.
The water on the Lower Brule moves at a faster rate as the height difference between Lake Superior and the Bois Brule River drops at a faster rate.
Make sure to check the weather before you’re planned kayaking in WI. The waters in the Lower Brule typically become mucky for a couple of days after rainfall. This is mostly because of the clay banks found along the shoreline, vastly different from the sandy ones found on the Upper Brule.
On the other hand, if you are looking for a better whitewater experience, planning to kayak on the Lower Brule after rain offers the best chance at bigger rapids and faster chutes.
The first area of the Lower Brule is the Meadows. This section is characteristically slow and deep– not a great spot to get off on the shore because of the marshy landscape.
Numerous rapids and long, straight runs follow the Meadows. The best rapids along this section are the Mays Ledges where you can experience over 2-foot-high standing waves with chutes.
As you get closer to Lake Superior, you will approach the Lamprey Barrier— a five-foot dam with a fish ladder on the side. This is a great rest point to get out and explore the Lower Brule scenery. You will have to follow a trail to portage around this blockage.
The rest of the Lower Brule becomes more and more shallow as you head towards Lake Superior, where you will eventually get out.
Tips for Kayaking the Brule
Make sure you know where you are going. Pack a map of the river to help you understand the river’s course and bring your cellphone in case of any emergencies while kayaking in WI.
Inflatables are not allowed on the Brule. This includes inner tubes and inflatable kayaks, so make sure to either rent or bring your own non-inflatable water craft.
Any coolers that you decide to bring with you must be fastened within your kayak or canoe. You also cannot bring any glass on the river under any circumstances. This includes glass bottles.
There is a spot to rent kayaks in the town of Brule, a perfect option that lets you park your car. They will provide transportation to and from the river, so you do not have to worry about how to get home.
If you are renting kayaks or canoes, make sure to book way in advance. Paddling on the Bois Brule is becoming increasingly popular, especially during the summer months.
The Brule River State Forest has plenty of camping facilities to stay at for a minimal fee.
For those looking for more amenities, check out the nearby rental cabins on the Brule or around the area.
Nearby towns for lodging and dining include Iron River, Port Wing, and Cornucopia, Wisconsin.
Depending on the Brule sections you complete, this trip can be an all-day adventure. Make sure to start early in the day to enjoy a relaxing journey along the Bois Brule River.
Once finishing you paddling adventures, check out the nearby hiking trails along the Brule! These paths will bring you right up to the Brule’s shoreline, offering spectacular views.