The Boundary Waters are one of the premier destinations in Minnesota and across the Midwest, but, as far as water is concerned, the Boundary Waters are not the end of the journey, but the beginning. Most people enthusiastic about the Boundary Waters know that it is divided into two watersheds along an invisible line known as the Laurentian Divide. To the west of that line, water flows to the Rainy River on its way eventually down the watershed to Hudson Bay. No matter if that water is at the bottom of a nameless beaver pond, tumbling over Curtain Falls, being poured out as some camper’s dish water (200 ft back in the woods of course), or melting as snow, water to the west/north of the Laurentian Divide is heading for the Rainy River by a wide network of lakes, rivers, and streams. To the east of the divide, water flows to the lowest point in the state of Minnesota, Lake Superior, but to say that all water is flowing to Lake Superior, to me, is an oversimplification. The waters of the BWCA east of the divide take any of five different routes quickly to the big lake. And it’s these rivers, filled with deep channels, rapids, and waterfalls that this article is devoted to.
Although the BWCA for many of us is the pinnacle of outdoor experiences for the area, the Minnesota state parks have it beat in terms of visitation. The Minnesota state parks have over 9.8 million visitors every single year. Of those, some of the busiest destinations in the state are located along the north shore. With their premier scenery, accessibility, and endless opportunities for outdoor recreation along Lake Superior and inland, the state parks along the north shore are some of the busiest in the state with Goosberry Falls seeing the most visitors of any park (782,125 visitors last year), with Tettegouche (564,992 visitors last year), and Split Rock Lighthouse (544,327 visitors last year) also in the top five. The parks further up the shore see slightly less traffic, but are all popular destinations as well. It’s intriguing to know how interconnected these parks are to the BWCA for some of the rivers whose headwaters begin in the remote ponds and lakes of the BWCA complete their course at Gitchi-Gami.
Frequent drivers of Highway 61 know to slow way down as they approach Temperance River State Park. The large parking areas on either side of the road are often flooded with pedestrians looking to cross and seek out the superb scenery along the river. The Temperance, rumored to be named for its lack of a sand “bar” at the mouth of the river, exits into Lake Superior in a steep, rocky channel. But few of the daily visitors likely realize that some of the water they watch cascade into Lake Superior actually started its course in the BWCA along the west end of Brule Lake and include lakes familiar to many of us. Some of these include North and South Temperance (not surprisingly), Homer, Pipe, Kelly, Burnt, Sawbill, and Afton to name a few. The Temperance has one of the larger drainages of upper north shore rivers, so it’s not surprising the upper stretches are in the BWCA.
To the east of the Temperance drainage, just two Boundary Waters lakes, Hilly and Kinogami, feed into the Poplar River. The Poplar is the only of the Superior-bound rivers discussed in this article which doesn’t flow through a state park. It’s still a marvelous coursing river which passes by Lutsen Mountain and the Superior National Golf Course before exiting into Lake Superior.
Further east in the area surrounding Eagle Mountain (Minnesota’s highest point), water drains south via the Cascade River which drops incredibly quickly from the highest point in the state to the lowest. Lakes such as Eagle, Zoo, and Whale funnel down joining the southern channel of the Cascade River coming from Cascade Lake. The Cascade River (aptly named) can best be described as chaotic in a tumbling display of magnificent falls heading for the mouth. The final tumultuous stretch passes through Cascade River State Park, a popular hiking and camping destination, before flowing under 61 and meeting Lake Superior alongside the wayside rest.
The remainder of the Boundary Waters lakes which lie west of the Gunflint Trail and east of the Laurentian Divide feed a network of streams and rivers which ultimately join together into the Brule River. The eastern waters of Brule Lake tumble down Vernon Falls, dawdle through the marshy chain of lakes, and ultimately leave Bower Trout into the southern fork of the Brule River. The waters of Little Trout, Slough, Rum, Kroft, and Ram exit the BWCA into Fiddle Creek which joins the Brule fairly close to Bower Trout. The majority of the well-known lakes in the area such as Winchell, Gaskin, Henson, Omega, and the surrounding lakes drain through Vista and Horseshoe to form the main channel of the Brule River out Horseshoe’s extreme southeast corner. And the northern chain of lakes such as Banadad, Rush, and Skipper flow into Poplar Lake which feeds Poplar Creek on the way to the Brule. A single lake east of the Gunflint, Trap Lake, feeds into Swamper Creek which ultimately joins the Brule as well. The Brule River takes a longer course to Lake Superior than the Cascade or the Temperance, but eventually flows through Judge C. R. Magne State Park. Within the park, the Brule splits into one of the most famous waterfalls in the state known as the Devil’s Kettle, a deep hole in the river where water seemingly disappears which has been long steeped in lore and legend. The mystery was explained by state hydrologists in 2017, but it doesn’t stop the imagination from turning. It’s also fascinating to imagine that the same waters I watched a large bull moose tromp through on Skidway Lake, the crystal clear water dripping from my paddle on Winchell, the murky muck of Poplar Creek, and snow-covered ice on Trap all had the chance to flow down the Brule and into the open mouth in the rock known as the Devil’s Kettle.
And finally, the majority of the crystal clear lakes of the eastern Gunflint flow past towering cliffs and old forests on their way along the border down the famous Pigeon River. A few of the southern lakes in the area exit via the Stump River which joins the Pigeon not long after its headwaters at South Fowl. Many of the lakes from the western end flow to the border and follow that course to North and South Fowl. Lakes such as South, Rat, Rose, Duncan, Daniels, Rove, Watap, and Mountain (many of which are extraordinarily deep and clear lakes) ultimately settle out in the large marshland basin of the Fowls. The other lakes such as Clearwater, Caribou, E Bearskin, Alder, the Pikes, and Pine funnel into the striking Royal River which flows into North Fowl. The Pigeon River ultimately flows past one of the regions most historic and famous (infamous?) trails, the Grand Portage, which was used by the tribes and the voyageurs to circumvent the massive falls and rapids which make up the final stretch of the river. The tallest waterfall in the state, High Falls, straddles the international border at Grand Portage State Park.
For me, it’s fascinating to think of the inter-connectivity of water. So many lakes and streams I have cherished are directly connected to other places I have spent my time. As I stood looking down at High Falls from the overlook at Grand Portage a month ago, I smiled momentarily at the thought. Somewhere seemingly so far away I rested at the campsite on Rose Lake where I watched the rain drops prick the water’s surface as the radiant sunset struggled to tear through the storm clouds and ignite the Arrow Palisades with light. In that moment years ago, I was perhaps staring at the same droplets which today I enjoy plunging into the final tempestuous tumble towards a potentially multiple centuries rest in Superior. And yes, the science may dispute me by hours, days, or centuries, but the romantic idea remains intact that the waters of this marvelous landscape are intimately connected. The water I scoop into my water bottle off Isle of the Pines is perhaps interrupted from a destiny quenching a thirsty polar bear near Hudson Bay. The water dripping off a certain soaked golden doodle in our campsite on Fishook Lake is the same which I watch fighting to overcome the storm-driven surf at the Cascade River bridge. And the snow blanketing the rock I skied out to and perched atop on Nighthawk Lake one winter afternoon could perhaps one day reunite with me as I hike through Judge C R Magne and stare in dutiful awe at the Devil’s Kettle. Nature is wonderous in its connections and in the moments I am blessed to interact with them I gain new perspectives and appreciations of the fact. Think of these five rivers the next time you visit the eastern Boundary Waters and let your imagination run wild as to where those waters have been and where they soon will be.