Brule is Cruel: Lessons Learned in the B.W.C.A

The 2009 Boundary Waters trip to South Temperance from Brule lake was a trip filled with lessons. We learn something new on each adventure taken. It was not only lessons about camping learned, but also discovering my own preferences. This trip in particular has shaped much of my future Boundary Waters excursions.

Preparing the Party

As always, my dad was the trip planner and group leader. I was just 16 and hadn’t yet learned the art of trip planning myself. Little by little, my dad was preparing me for that task, whether I was aware of it or not. The most effective way he taught me, was to include me in the whole process for hands on experience. I assisted in organizing, packing, and loading gear prior to departure, just like every trip before.

Our groups have changed over the years, occasionally we’d bring a friend along or my uncle would join us. For this particular outing, my mom’s sister and my brothers girlfriend were joining our party. Our group included; my dad, mom, my boyfriend, me, my brother, his girlfriend, my Uncle Blake, and my Aunt Diana. The 8 of us gathered at my parents place to consolidate gear and carpool for the long drive north to canoe country.

Ranger Station

The ranger station for entry point 41 is the Tofte Ranger Station. It’s just off of Hwy 61 on the left, southwest of Tofte. This is where our group watched the classic pre-entry video and took our quiz. The process is different now with an updated video. Thinking back, I cannot recall how many times I have seen that old video. I actually miss that tradition on our trips now.

Tofte Ranger Station Info:
Address:7355 Hwy 61, Tofte, MN 55615
Hours:May 1st- Sept. 30th: Sun-Sat 8am-4:30pm
Oct. 1st-April 30th: Mon-Fri 8am-4:30pm
Phone: 218-663-8060

Entry Into Brule

Entry Point #41
Permits Issued Daily7
Permit TypeOvernight Paddle
Ranger StationTofte District

The morning of our entry on Brule Lake was not too bad, but even on a calm day, larger lakes can seem more breezy. Entry point 41 is one of the easiest, most accessible entries there is. With no portage to the lake and a large parking lot and landing area, you can drive right up to the lake and load everything directly into your canoe. Quite slick! But it is most appreciated on the way out, we’ll get to that later.

Once the canoes were loaded, restrooms were used (yes this entry point had a vault toilet, luxury), and the lifejackets were on; we were ready to hit the water. Our goal for the day was to get to South Temperance Lake. Just a huge lake and one portage away. Our party maneuvered around two points and a bay, then it’s a straight shot west to the portage. Right into the wind, lovely.

First and Only Portage

The portage into South Temperance Lake is a short 10 rod portage into a creek that leads into the lake. We were base camping on this trip, as per our family’s usual plan. Base camping gives campers more time to explore a single area and really get to know it. This can be helpful for future journeys to the same location; knowledge of fishing locations and good campsites (or poor ones), can make the next trip even better.

Campsite

We made base camp on the north side of the lake on a point. This site made for spectacular views and a vantage point to see much of lake and foul weather approaching. This site had a nice landing spot large enough for our four canoes. We hadn’t camped with such a large party before, the extra space was necessary and appreciated.

Fishing

My dad and brother are both avid bass fisherman. The goal for them this trip was to hit the fish hard, and they did just that. Actually, I don’t recall seeing them too much aside from meal times. The smallmouth fishing was spectacular. Dad often brings up that he’d like to return to this lake for the fishing when we are planning a trip or reminiscing about past trips.

We ate well on this trip, but not bass. We try not to eat bass, only if we are unable to land walleye or northern pike. Bass are a sport fish, not an eating fish for us.

Day Trips

Our party was content with learning what South Temperance had to offer, but there was some talk of a possible day trip to North Temperance Lake in the future. If you are feeling the need to branch out and see more, this day trip is just a quick 37 rod portage on the north side of the lake. Another possibility would be to take the southern portage, at 225 rods, a quick paddle and another 54 rod portage into Weird Lake. Lengthier portages don’t seem so daunting when your aren’t loaded down with all of your gear. Either option is sure to be a neat addition to your stay on South Temperance Lake.

Packing Up

The morning of our departure started just like any other exit date. Once everyone was up and out of their sleeping bags, we all grabbed a quick bite to eat and worked together to pack up camp. The wind was starting to pick up a bit, not too concerning at first, we just knew that Brule would be tough.

By midmorning we were getting concerned. From our vantage point campsite we could see the approaching darkness. The clouds were threatening, the wind had begun blowing hard. As group leader, my dad made mention to us all that it would be best to wait this one out and depart later in the day or even tomorrow. The other adults in the group wanted to leave as planned to return to work the following day. My dad insisted on waiting it out, but he was overruled.

Listen to your group leader. They are responsible for getting you in and out of the wilderness safely.

Paddling South Temperance

We launched our canoes from the convenient landing rock. We wore our raingear in preparation of a wet and blustery paddle, and that it was. Yikes.

The paddle across South Temperance was unpleasant but quite doable. We made decent time as the wind was with us and quickly made our way back over the 10 rod portage. What awaited us on the other side of that portage was a daunting mess.

The Paddle Across Brule

We should have waited. Four foot high waves greeted us at the other end of that short portage. Nervous looks were exchanged. The leading paddlers examined the map and loaded into the canoes. I remember the look of worry on my mom’s face as two of her children set off on those dangerous waters in two separate canoes. My brother and his paddling partner set off in the lead. Uncle Blake and Aunt Diana were next to follow, then Scott and myself. My parents were in the back of the group. This was strategic. They could keep eyes on all of us, and assist as soon as possible. My mom later told me that she was constantly scanning the water counting our canoes the entire nerve-wracking paddle back, “One, two, three. One, two, three.”

The power of the wind and water was overwhelming. In waves like this, there are times that it is only safe for the paddler in the stern to paddle in order to keep the canoe from being thrown off balance. Scott and I had not paddled in these conditions before, it was only a matter of time before we flipped. My dad motioned for us to follow them to shore. Dad gave Scott a crash course in rudder work and told me not to paddle until told to by Scott. Being that the wind was pushing us, it made ruddering the best option for us. These techniques would give him better control over the canoe and keep us afloat.

Once we had our new instructions, things went more smoothly in our canoe and there was some relief found. It was short lived and the worry sunk in again. As we neared the exit point, we approached two islands. We needed to stay to right of these islands, this was pointed out to the canoe leaders at the beginning of our paddle on Brule. We watched helplessly as my brother and his partner went to the left, in between the islands.

When paddling in strong winds and high waves the number one rule is to never turn your canoe. The best way to make a turn is to gradually guide your canoe nose to your destination without turning your canoe broadside to the waves. This being said, my brother is a beast on the water. As we all watch in horror as they went the wrong way, we felt powerless. And even more shocking was watching him turn that canoe 180 degrees and paddle against the wind and raging waves while his partner sat in the bow unable to assist. His canoeing strategies and general water knowhow has always astounded me, he is a natural on the water to say the least.

Safe at Last

If I have ever felt the need to kiss the earth, this would have been the time. Once we entered the bay where our exit point lay we were shielded from the wind. That graveled launch was the sweetest sight. We all celebrated with cheers and embraces. Bonus, this easy landing meant there wasn’t a gear loaded hike back to the truck.

Lessons Learned

Our battle against wind and wave was fought and won. But this could have been a very different story. We went against the advice of our most experienced group member. We pushed forward even though everyone could sense the danger that shrouded our situation. And we all learned from our mistake. We are so very grateful that every member of our party made it back to the truck. Not everyone in canoe country is so fortunate. Accidents do happen, rescue teams do have to be called, there are no guarantees.

This hasn’t deterred any one of us from venturing into the wilderness and shouldn’t discourage you either. All experiences, good or bad, are lessons to be learned. I learned two very valuable lessons on this trip. First, if you have chosen a leader that you trust, follow the guidance of that leader. Second, when threatening weather is afoot, hunker down and wait it out. Nothing is worth risking your safety, even getting back to work on time.

Not only did I learn about some tripping lessons about trust and judgement; I also found a new preference for canoeing. In comparison to previous canoe trips, I would rather paddle small lakes, rivers, and streams. They are my favorite, I avoid big water when I can. I do not take my kids on Brule and will not until I can trust in their ability to handle a canoe in rough weather.

Every adventure has something new to teach us about the world and about ourselves. There is so much nature has to teach us if we only slow down enough to listen. I hope you are ready to go adventuring and learn new lessons, too.

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