Weather Forecast


Sam Cook: Back on the Brule River, friendship and firelight

Sam Cook

ON WISCONSIN'S BRULE RIVER — We gathered on the banks of this hallowed river the other night to say a kind of goodbye to some friends. A dozen or so of us showed up, from around the corner and around the world, from 5 to 60-something in terms of time on the planet.

We paddled or poled upstream a couple of miles to the little shelter with its big firebox. Old friends and family, we had come, directly or indirectly, from Austria, Hungary, Alaska, Seattle, Duluth, Superior and Port Wing. Mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, old Brule River fly-fishing guides, childhood friends, whitewater paddling buddies. We have sat around a lot of good fires together.

Soon, the folks from Europe would be heading back across the ocean for another school year.

We could have gathered at someone's home, or on the shore of Lake Superior or on the banks of some other river. But the Brule, sliding peacefully down from Stone's Bridge, past the elegant Cedar Island estate, through Upper and Lower Twin Rapids and tumbling on down to the big lake — that is where we wanted to be.

We had come because, as Norman McLean wrote of Montana's Blackfoot, this river flows through us. Nearly all of us have paddled it in daylight and moonlight, on sultry July nights and on brisk December days. Many of us have thrown flies for its fine brown trout and brookies. All of us have gathered here countless times simply to slip a canoe into the river and let its current nudge us downstream. Nearly always, we have stopped to share food, tell stories and deepen the bonds that hold us together in some extended river family.

This kind of gathering is not so unusual in the North. Others gather at cabins, on lakeshores, on islands or on Lake Superior beaches for all the same reasons — because place matters in our lives. Especially places with water. We have become attached, through memory and story and history, to these significant locations in our lives. We know the smell of the cabin, the sweat of the sauna, the tranquility of the dock or the purr of the evening pontoon boat cruise.

The events that happen at these touchstone places are woven into our common history, and we wear them like an old shirt, frayed at the edges but still comfortable.

So, we had come again upriver. The canoes — some red, some green — were nosed up along the shore in a sort of fan formation. One of the river guides kindled the fire, just as he had done on so many nights when he brought paying customers out for a night of fishing.

The rest of us came bearing salmon or steak or pork, fresh greens, guacamole, chips, wild rice salads and rhubarb crisp. We broke off in pairs or small groups to catch up on life across town or across the continents. We looked at each other, and we looked at the river.

The sun dropped until the Brule valley was in shadow. Just offshore, the sandy river bottom churned quietly where springs bubbled up from the depths. Put a foot into one, and you'll find it's bottomless. Better have someone to hold onto.

Swallows carved crazy turns in the sky. Kingfishers patrolled the water. Somewhere trout were likely rising to the latest hatch, but we would not tempt them with artificial offerings. Tonight, we were here only for each other and the river.

This river has gotten inside all of us over the decades. We can breathe here. We know the forget-me-nots and the wild iris and the bats. We have, on moonless nights, heard deer splashing across the river ahead of us. We've counted dozens of eagles during their spring migration. We've heard the coyotes yip-yipping in the hills at night.

Sometimes, we still hear the voices of the river people who are no longer with us.

All of that is why we assembled one more time on the Brule this past week, before several among us left for their far-flung homes around the globe.

On our way back down the river, the whippoorwills began to call from darkened shores.

SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or Find his Facebook page at or his blog at