John L's Old Maps / Supplementary Pages:

Photos of the Source of the
St. Croix and Brule Rivers
and Associated Areas, Part 1

Parts 1 and 2 cover the Brule Portage Trail and
associated off-trail areas visited in 2000-05. Part 3
concerns the Brule Bog Boardwalk visited in 2015.

Click on images for extended view in separate window.
References regarding the area under discussion are listed here.


Old Map Collection – web version 4.2 (5/24/07):
  Part 1: c.1710-1857
  Part 2: 1873-1920

Supplementary Pages:
•  Evolution of Northwest Territory
•  Photos:  Source of Brule & St. Croix Rivers –
      Parts 1 (this page), 2 and 3
•  Photos:  Sources of the Mississippi River
•  Photos:  Railroads and Trails
•  Views of the Apostle Islands
•  References

An interesting thing to contemplate is how the eastern third of the U. S. (with a small part of Canada) is completely surrounded by natural wetlands of various kinds – including where the "great divide" between the St. Lawrence and Mississippi watersheds breaks down in northern Wisconsin. In Douglas County is a large spring-fed swamp whose waters flow out to the northeast as the Brule River and to the southwest into Upper St. Croix Lake out of which emerges the St. Croix River. Following the divide to the east – and to the west into Minnesota – one finds a number of swampy areas which appear to "drain both ways" and would also make for interesting expeditions to see where the actual "divide" may lay.

As the last glacier retreated from the area approximately 11,000 years ago, what are now the Brule and St. Croix rivers served as an outlet of Glacial Lake Duluth, the precursor to Lake Superior. When one visits the source of the Brule and St. Croix these days, one can easily imagine this ancient river sweeping through the valley on its way to the Mississippi. Indeed, many of the valleys in Northern Wisconsin are oriented to suggest drainage channels from the retreating glacier.

A pond in the swampy headwaters of the Brule and St. Croix – within sight of the portage trail as shown in photo 6 below – has been thought over the years to be the ultimate source of one or both rivers. Lt. James Allen of the 1832 Schoolcraft- Allen Expedition sketched a map showing the pond draining out both ends. Indicating the pond as "Small Source L. from which the water runs both ways," the first published version of this map is shown here. Presently, the pond drains into "St. Croix Creek," a tributary of Upper St. Croix Lake, and the East Fork of the Brule River arises in the swamp a short distance to the northeast of the pond. On the other side of the valley which encloses the mile-wide swamp, the West Fork of the Brule and larger tributaries of Upper St. Croix Lake have their origins; these streams may be more substantial than their counterparts on the nearer side of the valley but are certainly not as historically important. A recent (2015) walk – roughly perpendicular to the portage trail discussed herein (Parts 1 and 2) – is briefly discussed in Part 3; in it we again visit St. Croix Creek and go on for over a mile to the "other side."

Based on a survey made in 1895, a proposed canal to link Lake Superior with the Mississippi River would have put locks several miles from each end of the pond (i.e., near the Wildcat Rapids on the Brule, and at the site of the present Gordon Dam on the St. Croix) such that a continuous, uninterrupted waterway would have been created over the divide. Further downstream on each river, additional locks were proposed at suitable sites which included the Coppermine Dam, located several miles downstream from the Gordon Dam.

The aerial photo of the present-day portage trail area shown here is a composite made from United States Geological Survey photos found on the Microsoft Research Maps site (formerly Terraserver-USA). Distance from "1" to "2" is approximately one mile; likewise the distance from "2" to "3" is approx. one mile. A closeup of the pond is shown here with the pond, outlet and part of the inlet shaded in blue; a portion of the trail is shaded in green.

Photos 1-18:  Up the St. Croix.



Bird life is abundant along the portage trail year-round. The ornithologist's method of calling insectivores – an unvoiced "psh-psh-psh" or "pss-pss-pss" – always works for me in bringing a flock of chickadees and a pair of black and white warblers, especially near the start of the portage trail. (That sound doesn't attract chickadees when their brains switch to the winter or courting modes, however.) Try it on an aviary of finches and watch the reaction!

1 – This is the Gordon Dam which backs up the St. Croix River near Gordon, Wisconsin, forming the St. Croix Flowage. One might think that it would make an interesting experiment to raise the height of the dam a few more feet and see what would happen upstream. It probably would make a lot of lakeshore dwellers wet and unhappy along the flowage and also the Upper St. Croix Lake farther up. And these days, such an idea would be rightly nipped in the bud, as mixing the flora and fauna between the two watersheds in this area would encourage an ecological disaster – considering the present threat of invasive species penetrating the Great Lakes through the connection with the Illinois River. But this is what proponents of the aforementioned canal were advocating decades ago: A high dam here and one on the Brule River (about 27 miles to the northeast as one follows along the wetlands) would make a continuous waterway above the intervening area, including the swamp that is the source of both rivers.

2 – Following the St. Croix River upstream from the dam for about 17 miles, traversing the St. Croix Flowage (approx. 5 miles long) and ultimately the Upper St. Croix Lake (approx. 4 miles long), one comes to the "St. Croix Creek" which empties into the lake at its northeast end. Here one can pick up one's canoe and head off to the right to find the portage trail which takes one in a northeasterly direction roughly parallel to the valley of the creek, the associated swampy area, and the emerging Brule River.

2A – This plaque is at the head of the trail by the highway. A closeup is shown here.

3 and 4 – From the high points on the portage trail one can see the ridge along the other (northwest) side of the valley. This is what makes this "divide" so unique and interesting: Rather than having a dry, elevated continental divide effectively separating the two major watersheds, the actual divide is lost in a swampy valley between two parallel ridges. One can imagine the ridges as the banks of the immense ancient river flowing southwest out of Glacial Lake Duluth.

5Along the way are commemorative rocks for various explorers associated with the portage trail. Henry Schoolcraft did indeed utilize the trail, but he did so in 1832 – not in 1820 which is what a casual reader might infer when reading Schoolcraft's detailed description of the area's geography in the account of his 1820 expedition (note the books listed here). Lt. Allen does not have a commemorative rock, but the pond (coming up shortly) could be appropriately named after him! Allen's journal which includes his travels and travails through this area is freely downloadable here.

Safety Note: Going off-trail is not recommended by any association charged with the governance and upkeep of the portage trail. Sooner or later you will fall in or threaten some rare plant. At any rate, when visiting the general area, one should bring along a companion, a cell phone (one that actually works in this area) and a camera.

6 – After walking a mile on the trail, the historic pond can be spotted. It appears to be at least 180 yards long and oriented along its length in a roughly WSW-ENE direction. In exploring along the southern shore, I found that one must exercise a bit of caution in that one could fall into the muck up to one's waist (and possibly beyond) – especially between the trail and the east edge of the pond where the muck is alive with the innumerable small spring-fed streams that infest the swamp.

7 and 8 – Here are a couple photos taken at the western end of the pond where St. Croix Creek exits through a jumbled mass of fallen and drifted trees (flowing toward the left in photo 8).

9 – Here is a shot from the "southeast corner" of the pond against the sun in the late afternoon.

10 through 11 – Checking out this interesting swamp would make an ideal field trip any plant ecologist, microbiologist, hydrologist, and fluvial geomorphologist! As one plods along in an easterly or northeasterly direction away from the pond, one finds easier and safer walking and can still see considerable water movement toward the pond. The water is especially apparent through the gaps in the ground and between tree roots as shown in photos 10B and 11. Farther along, the direction of the water flow becomes more ambiguous as the apparent "divide" is being crossed. But wait! We haven't checked out the pond's inlet (and sometime outlet) yet. Gotta go back!

12 through 15 – Back at the pond and walking along the eastern shoreline in a roughly north to northeasterly direction, one comes upon a shallow, fast-flowing stream that widens considerably as it enters the pond. Where the bottom appears sandy is where one has solid footing – a relief from all that walking through the deep muck along the shore of the pond to get there. While I had a relatively easy stroll in the refreshingly cold water up the middle of the inlet, I shot photos upstream (12) and downstream (13) with the pond in view. Likewise I panned the area with my trusty minicam (note the movie below).

Quite a few submerged, hand-sized green and orange rocks were seen as shown in photo 14. The muck (decomposed organic matter) builds up to a greater or lesser degree along the course of the stream. In photo 15 we see some geomorphology in action: The organic debris is building up in the backwater on the left side of the fallen branch as the stream's current passes along the right side. Besides minnows, one can occasionally catch a glimpse of a small tadpole-shaped fish darting into the sand or muck – probably a sculpin, an interesting fish that one finds in cold streams in the general area.

16 and 17 – This stream is fed by innumerable springs (large and small) along its entire course. Eventually one encounters a sharp bend in the channel to the right. Following upstream in a somewhat southeasterly direction one comes upon an area which shows traces of having been developed some years past, perhaps as a site of geographical and/or historical interest – which would seem likely and appropriate. In photo 17 the edge of a moss-covered log bridge (one of at least three in this area) can be seen.

18 – The stream which has appeared (superficially, at least) to be the pond's inlet springs out of the ground at the foot of a fallen tree. So much for following a channel. Beyond this spot, one can peer through gaps in the ground and around tree roots and see flowing water as noted above with photos 10B and 11, and one can infer that the water is emerging ultimately from the bank of the swamp beyond which runs the course of the portage trail.




















Go to
Part 2.

  E-mail me at jlindquist001 @ .
  Visit the Coppermine Dam here.
  Explore the North Country Trail Assn. website.

Page last modified on 1/10/15 at 5:45 PM, CST.
John Lindquist:  homepage, complete site outline.
University of Wisconsin-Madison