Sunday, February 2, 2014

Day hike one of Wisconsin’s oldest trails

Jonathan Carver's map of the Upper Midwest Region,
published in 1778. Carver is among the explorers with
a historic stone on the Bois Brule-St. Croix River Historic
Portage Trail. Photo courtesy of National Park Service.

French explorers used
route as early as 1680 

Day hikers can walk upon what ranks among Wisconsin’s oldest hiking trails – dating to 1680 but probably used as far back as prehistoric times – at the St. Croix River’s headwaters.

The Bois-Brule-St. Croix River Historic Portage Trail runs 4.4-miles round trip from Upper St. Croix Lake to the Brule River. It is part of Wisconsin’s Brule River State Forest.

The trail can be a difficult hike through swampy territory so is best done by only adults or families with older teens. May through October mark the best time to hit the trail, but you’ll need to bring bug spray for mosquitoes in spring and summer.

Quick link
To reach the trailhead, from downtown Solon Springs, Wis., take County Road A north for about three miles, rounding the northern side of Upper St. Croix Lake. Watch for signs saying the North Country Trail is “1000 Feet Ahead”, then turn into the boat landing where you can park. Across the road from the parking lot, take the trail heading right/northeast. The Brule Bog Boardwalk Trail heads left or directly north.

The historic portage trail is the same route crossed centuries ago by Daniel Greysolon Sieur duLhut (a French explorer who opened the way for fur traders in the 1680s), Pierre Lesueur (who established French stockades across this region in the 1690s), and Henry Schoolcraft (who found the source of the Mississippi River in the 1830s). Historical markers on moss-lined boulders along the trail tell their stories as well as other significant white explorers.

They selected this portage because it was a quick link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. Upper St. Croix Lake is the St. Croix River’s headwaters while the spring-generated Brule River flows north into Lake Superior. It was the easiest way to traverse the continent from the Atlantic Ocean through the Great Lakes down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico…though for the marshy 2.2 miles between the Brule and Upper St. Croix, they would have to portage – or carry on foot – their boats and supplies.

As with so many of the early white explorers, Native Americans showed them the route. Local tribes had used the portage for millennia. Today, the Portage Trail is on the National Register of Historic Landmarks.

Glacial river valley
The portage was possible only because at the end of the last ice age some 10,000 years ago, a river flowed here from Glacial Lake Duluth, carving out a gorge and then the steep-sided valley. As the heavy glaciers retreated, the land rose in elevation, causing the river to dry up between the Brule and Upper St. Croix. The section that became the Brule reversed its course and now drops 420 feet over 44 miles from the portage to Lake Superior.

The trail is fairly narrow and at spots only shoulder-wide. It's heavily forested with leaves covering much of the path. Wild blueberries grow alongside the trail.

There are some up and down climbs during the first mile as the trail parallels St. Croix Creek, which is on the left. Where the creek pools marks the St. Croix River’s northernmost reach.

The out-and-back trail remains fairly flat to the Brule. After passing the Lesueur Stone, look on your left for the spring-fed creek that flows into the Brule. Upon reaching the river, turn back. The route is part of the North Country National Scenic Trail and continues north along the river.

Read more about day hiking the scenic riverway in my guidebook Hittin’ the Trail: Day Hiking the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.