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A bald eagle in a white pine along the Brule River in April 2014. (Sam Cook / scook@duluthnews.com)

Sam Cook column: Hope flows down the Brule valley

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outdoors Duluth, 55802
Duluth Minnesota 424 W. First St. 55802

ON WISCONSIN’S BRULE RIVER — We could have come back to the Brule just for the bald eagles. Or the deer. Or the Canada geese. Or the ducks. Or the steelhead. Or the two otters. Or the sleepy bear.

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Any of those would have been enough.

The two of us knew, when we slid the canoe off the snow into the river at Stone’s Bridge last Sunday, that we might have a chance to see some wildlife. We usually do on this first paddle of the spring. Eagles are moving north, along with the waterfowl. The deer would be looking for any spring greens along the river. The big mama steelhead would be up from Lake Superior, seeking spawning gravel.

We figured we’d surprise a few critters as the battered Old Town slid around one bend after another on this storied stream.

But that isn’t why we make this early trip. We come back to the Brule because we can, because the ice is several miles downstream now and because we want to dip our paddles in that clear water and move silently past the ancient rocks and familiar trees. We want to throw off the mantle of this difficult winter and let the warmth of the sun bore into the dark layers on our backs, warming us in a way we’ve all but forgotten.

We want to move through semi-wild country that someone long ago sensed was worth saving and know a silence deep enough to hear water dripping off a paddle blade.

That’s why we come back to the Brule in early spring. Most years, that’s March, but this year we had to settle for April. It was worth the wait.

Granted, it still looked a lot like winter. Snow was almost belly-deep on the whitetails. We had tossed a couple of pairs of snowshoes in with the daypacks, and eight miles downstream at the take-out, we would be glad we had them.

But everything about this 50-degree day said winter was going to have to knuckle under. The river hadn’t swollen with runoff yet, but it still scampered through all the riffles and cranked its hard left below The Falls and danced through Upper and Lower Twin rapids. Robins called from high in the spruces. And those clouds that tried to move in — they were summer clouds, high and bulbous and bruised blue, not the low, streaky vapors of winter.

The short flurry of raindrops that fell was peaceful and friendly. The rain plopped straight down through windless skies and lasted only long enough for us to slip into our rain jackets. Then it was gone, and the clouds rolled away, and the critters came out to play.

Bald eagles looked down on us from the lovely limbs of white pines. Immature, almost mature, fully mature eagles. How cool would it be to be one of them, surveying the Brule valley from such a lofty perch? Deer pranced down riffles ahead of us, spooked for perhaps the first time this spring by humans. At nearly every bend, the forest echoed with the hoarse calling of Canada geese. Mallards and mergansers burst into flight. And farther downriver, among the stately homes of the fortunate, dark shadows of steelhead shot past us at astonishing speeds.

Critters above. Critters below. Critters alongside. Only rivers concentrate wildlife like this, and only in spring in such numbers.

We heard the otters before we saw them. A hissing scold. There. At the river’s edge. Two of them, rolling and diving. Then gone.

The bear appeared only briefly. My partner saw a head and shoulders easing behind a bank of snow. I caught only a furry behind. Time to wake up, the daylight must have told him. Time to go back to bed, the snow countered.

We dallied and let the current carry us along. We looked around. We listened. We found a spot beneath some cedars and ate lunch. We sat for a long time, old friends talking about life. The sunlight reflected off the water and made diamonds on the undersides of the cedar boughs. Nobody could paint that.

We never saw another person. It was as if we owned the whole Brule River and its broad valley that day, as if we were the first people ever to feel the tug of current on a canoe.

Critters above. Critters below.

Life. Promise. Hope.

Sam Cook is a Duluth News Tribune outdoors writer and columnist. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or scook@duluthnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/samcookoutdoors or on Facebook at “Sam Cook Outdoors.”

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