WISCONSIN’S BRULE RIVER — The river slides by silently as we load the canoes for the upstream trip. Food. Cooking gear in the smoke-smudged canvas bag. A couple small coolers full of food. One dog.
Up we go in the waning daylight of an October afternoon on this placid river rich in tradition — river families, trout anglers, the fabled Hexagenia mayfly hatch, the spawning grounds of Lake Superior rainbow trout.
Something happens to you when you slip a canoe into the Brule. You become attuned to every subtle change in the movement of your craft. You ease it past the weed beds of late summer and fall. You paddle a bit harder on the swift current of outside bends, slide beneath an overhanging willow.
We will see nobody else on the water. Fishing season is closed now on this part of the river. Gone are the long skeins of summer kayakers bobbing downstream.
It is just our little group — and the immature bald eagle that swoops overhead at Lucius Lake. And the two mature eagles — perhaps mom and dad — sitting in spruce snags along shore, looking as if they’re posing for an engraving on a coin.
We are fortunate to know a river family, from whose cabin we have departed. Our friends are, in a real sense, grandfathered into this river and its traditions. One of those traditions is going upriver to share food with family and friends.
We push upriver and find a hidden shelter beneath a grove of cedars. We tie up the canoes, unload coolers and packs. The two river guides among us kindle a fire in the fire pit and pull blackened pans from the duffel. Now everything is getting right.
We have been coming upriver for these October getaways for a long time. With the change of season come occasional surprises.
One evening, my river friend and I were cooking at this same spot when suddenly the forest floor came alive with movement. Hundreds of chipping sparrows moved through, feeding on the ground as they went. For five minutes, at least, the wave of sparrows kept coming. We watched, spellbound, as they fluttered and rustled in the leaves. Then they were gone, and we could hear the crackling of the fire again. We just looked at each other in amazement.
The river guides wield their tongs now, turning chunks of chicken and steak, moving a big pan of potatoes aside, sauteeing the garden veggies. In their full-time guiding days, they did this on literally hundreds of evenings for fly-fishers who had come to catch a Brule River trout.
As we cook, the stories flow. Between the stories, we steal glances at the river. When the food is ready, we gather at the table. One of the rivermen offers a toast to our loved ones across the country and across the ocean.
We do not dawdle too long after dinner. Nightfall comes on fast in October. We load the canoes again and begin paddling downstream in the gathering dusk.
No sooner are we under way than a few dozen Canada geese on final approach bank low over our flotilla. Their wild clamoring fills the charcoal sky and echoes off the riverbanks. We lose sight of them for a moment against the darkness of the far shore, then see the silver flashes as they alight on the river.
We push on downstream, into the night.